You are invited! This is an initiative to share onramps to doing environmental justice work with our community, and a space to build connections with global health. RSVP for upcoming sessions here. Thanks!
Celebrating student leadership & vision for environmental justice — possibilities for repair?
Earth Week: this is an important moment to learn more about the vision of student colleagues who are asking how can we create new academic institutions that do not repeat mistakes made in the past — where our behaviors as academic elites and institutional structures that underpin our university are contributing to social hierarchies that create, maintain, and advance racialized dispossession (and larger societal structures that do the same). If we are going to move forward with creating a more inclusive academic environmental and advances beyond our roots of extractive research we need to think differently, and act differently.
What I am learning from students who are deeply engaged in social change initiatives, from EJ collaborators, and from Indigenous scholars that are my research collaborators (as it turns out, these categories overlap) is that this is a time for repair (thank you, Keoni, Mehana, Corrinne, Ron, and others for this language). It is a time for rethinking our responsibilities and relationships. This is especially the case as we now build a new institution for sustainability that desires to position itself as a catalyst and leader for “just societies”.
In this context, one of the questions that has come up in our environmental justice conversations about new school on sustainability being developed at Stanford is the following: how do we respectfully engage with communities, our neighbors, and groups made marginalized to repair these relationships, as we more forward? How do we move forward together, as opposed to moving forward as a singular, elite institution — that continues to hold “Stanford” separate from our neighbors?
These are communities who make the research, education, and social impact that we desire in our work possible. Yet, how do we do a better job of seeing and engaging with neighboring communities as part of our constituency — the groups that we answer to and think with as part of our research agendas and social impact initiatives — when making key decisions with the new school and otherwise? How do we build positive relationships to align behind neighboring communities — their priorities and vision? How do we share benefits and resources in a more equitable manner to rebalance past harms and build mutual trust for visioning a way forward?
This includes communities such as East Palo Alto, that have been deeply affected by structural racism shaping our respective communities through complex sociopolitical processes that include redlining, highway siting, disproportionate exposure to toxic industries, inequitable access to educational resources, etc. As well as Native communities such as the Muwekma Ohlone, whose traditional territory we live on, work on, and benefit from, and whose communities, culture, and tribal government continue to persist through ongoing resilience and restoration.
Students of environmental justice are rightly raising the point that the idea of “just societies” is not where we have been — so how do we pivot in a better direction at this moment in time? How do we do this at a time when we are reconstituting our institutional frameworks in building a new school? How do we create new spaces for engaging with sustainability and equity as interconnected ideals and initiatives — even as we continue to function and reflect on our position as a highly elite institution? What is at stake is our future success: if we do not achieve sustainability and equity together, if we create sacrifice zones in disadvantages communities or particular parts of the world, while those of us residing in developed countries receive the majority of environmental and social benefits, we will fail in our sustainability efforts.
In the last two weeks, I have been hearing students in our EJ community articulate central questions about how we can do things differently — these are authentic questions about how to operationalize change for a “just society” as we create a new academic institution for sustainability with the new school. I am writing this blog as an opportunity to reflect on and respond to these conversations.
I am hearing these questions from students at our School of Medicine that are working to build environmental and climate concerns into health research and education. From Students for a Sustainable Stanford who are asking deep questions about funding for the new school and how to advance greater distributive justice as we begin building a new institution for sustainability and equity. From Students for Environmental and Racial Justice who are directly with frontline communities to advance their needs and help fundraise to support Indigenous environmental justice initiatives in our neighborhood and region, and advocating for efforts to share resources with Indigenous-led initiatives that are restoring community connections to traditional territories and cultures. From students who are organizing through our student union (ASSU) and through the Native community at Stanford to build solidarity among students for repair and mutual aid at a time when our nation is being forced to reckon with racial violence and oppression on a daily basis.
This work is also happening through institutional entities at Stanford that champion environmental justice and include students in their work. From the Haas Center for Public Service, who is playing an important convening and support role for educators who are working on building racial justice into their curriculum — so that faculty, staff, and students can see, recognize, and support each other as we engage in this uphill effort — and to build community-academic partnerships that advance community-driven initiatives around climate change & watershed protection in our region. From the Stanford Educational Farm — which has supported a safe and welcoming gathering space for BIPOC students (including for for group events like Earth in Color/EarthTones, for individual students to access healing time through working in gardens during COVID) and for Indigenous communities through building gardens oriented towards Indigenous foodways and food sovereignty. And Stanford Environmental Justice Working Group members who have been working with students, faculty, and students to create a new EJ minor that will launch next fall, who are connecting/supporting researchers to include EJ and health equity into their work, and who are leading and supporting a wide range of EJ initiatives on campus and beyond (nice work, EJWG team!!!).
We do not yet have the answer as to how we can best achieve our goal of creating a “just society” for the new school. Yet, when I look at where progress is being made on campus, part of the solution is about who we include in the problem-solving process. There is a vital need to include students and the growing EJ community at Stanford as an integral part of the institution building. Students and our EJ community are highly attuned to what is happening in society — and they are asking the hard questions about how to also include communities in our institution-building process. Together with students, our administration, staff, and faculty are well positioned to pinpoint opportunities for rethinking institutional frameworks and empowered to strategically redirect resources and policies to authentically advance a more “just society”.
“Just societies” is not a small goal. This is not where we have been, and certainly not where we are now. Our thinking and structures from the past are not the thinking and structures we need to transcend current societal divides underpinning our own academic institution and daily functions. Yet we have the opportunity to change this, and to do so from the bottom-up through an intergenerational effort. We can do this through repairing relationships, and thinking deeply about structural problems that we have an opportunity to transcend at this momentous time in history — and by including multiple generations in our efforts to understand and attend to complex sustainability and environmental justice problems together.
I am sharing updated news about the special issue I am working on with Dr. Mehana Vaughan and Dr. Mez Baker-Medard on Collaborative Management, Environmental Caretaking, and Sustainable Livelihoods. We are moving to Ecology and Society with submission dates are: July 7-September 7, 2021.
For those who are interested, please send an abstract to firstname.lastname@example.org. More details available at https://www.ecologyandsociety.org/issues/view.php?sf=151. Thank you!
Race in STEM hire at Stanford & environmental justice
I’m grateful to be part of the Environmental Justice Working Group (EJWG) at Stanford — my favorite group of people at Stanford. Our work is guided by an intergenerational leadership team with faculty, staff, and student co-leads, and with coordinating council members coming from 20 different organizational affiliations on campus. We serve a broader community of over 600 members, and we collaborate with a broader network of scholars advancing EJ through academic-community partnerships. (All are invited to connect with EJWG members on Twitter, Facebook, or through our listserv.)
For some time, the Stanford EJWG have been working to institutionalize EJ efforts at our university, particularly within the new school of sustainability that is currently in planning phases. This builds on years of student and staff-led EJWG leadership, as well as our engagement in Stanford Long Range Planning and our 2019 recommendations for an Environmental Justice cluster hire — supported by over 800 Stanford community members.
Last summer, in response to the killing of George Floyd and the Movement for Black Lives, Stanford announced a provostial cluster hire on issues of race. Now, just this month, we are excited to see this hiring effort moving forward with four faculty positions that will be dedicated to race in STEM and environmental justice included as a possible hiring area. As part of a broader opportunity for institutional change, this is an important step, and a significant investment by Stanford leadership.
Please share this call widely:
FACULTY POSITIONS AVAILABLE: CLUSTER HIRE ON IMPACT OF RACE IN STEM – Stanford University
Stanford seeks to hire at least four tenure-line faculty who study the impact of race in STEM fields. This includes research and development in broad areas such as medicine, engineering, computer science, sustainability, and environmental justice, including the development of methods and technologies that reduce bias and harm. We seek to support, deepen, and enhance the important research and teaching in these areas to strengthen our existing programs and develop new impactful programs. Appointments will be made in the following schools: School of Engineering, School of Humanities and Sciences, School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, School of Medicine, and other relevant STEM departments and units.
Although there is the expectation that emphasis will be given to appointments at the assistant professor level, other career stages will be considered. We are particularly interested in candidates with outstanding records of achievement in developing or implementing innovative approaches or technologies in the broad areas of their discipline. The teaching and research expectations associated with these positions will vary accordingly across schools and departments.
Review of applications will begin on February 1, 2021 and will continue until all of the positions are filled. Candidates are invited to apply by emailing a one-page cover letter describing their academic background to: email@example.com. Please also include the following items: curriculum vitae, research statement (3 pages max), diversity statement that describes the applicant’s commitment, including past experience and future plans, to contribute to diversity, equity, and inclusion (1 page max), teaching statement (2 pages max), and the names of three recommenders. Please direct questions to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’d like to take a moment to honor the life of Professor Viktoria V. Petrasheva, Itelmen elder and senior researcher at the Kamchatka Branch of the Institute of Geography in Kamchatka, Russia, and send my best wishes to her friends and family following her passing.
In May 2014, I had the pleasure of visiting Professor Petrasheva with my Alaskan and Russian Far East colleagues, while attending a wonderful international conference on Indigenous Peoples and salmon organized by the Kamchatka Branch of the Pacific Institute of the Geography, the Kamchatka Association of Indigenous Peoples, and others. Everyone was thrilled to be in Professor Petrasheva’s presence — she was full of energy and stories, and gave us a warm welcome, as she has always done for Indigenous scholars and allies visiting Kamchatka from all corners of the world.
I first met Professor Petrasheva around 2007 at her home in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. She introduced herself informally as “Vika”. I had heard so much about Vika and her work. I had been working on Kamchatka for a small non-profit on and off since the early 2000s. On this visit, I was connecting with one of our local partners, which organized small grants for grassroots Indigenous-led projects related to salmon. Within an hour or so of our meeting, Vika decided we would embark on an expedition together to a youth salmon camp that mutual friends were leading in a hard-to-reach coastal area.
She promptly called up a jeep enthusiast friend, and we were off–after gathering provisions to share with friends along the way. Our journey involved getting stuck in the mud, walking several kilometers in the dark through bear country, joking with officers on a Russian military base, meeting with Indigenous fishermen continuing their subsistence fishery in a disputed area and (of course) hearing their stories late into the morning, witnessing ocean waves momentarily lit with bioluminescence, enjoying time laughing with young people and friends, riding home in a military tank, and several bottles of cognac.
I felt very fortunate to have had these visits with Vika and her family. She contributed so much to her community; she was one of the best adventurers I have ever met; and she knew how to create authentic and lasting connections with people of all ages and from all cultures. For those who have not met Dr. Petrasheva, here are a few links highlighting some of her research contributions, which include work on Indigenous resilience, Indigenous knowledge, Itelmen salmon culture:
Long-term tribal partnerships in the Klamath Basin: Advancing Karuk tribal sovereignty & self-determination through water quality
Thank you to the Environmental Justice and the Common Good Initiative and Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences at Santa Clara University, and also to colleagues in the Network of Community-Academic Partnerships for hosting our talk last week. It was a privilege to present with collaborators Ron Reed and Susan Fricke on “Long-term tribal partnerships in the Klamath Basin: Advancing Karuk tribal sovereignty & self-determination through water quality.” We also recognize Kyle Whyte and collaborators Teresa Cohn for inspiring us to put together this talk (recorded) for an upcoming symposium on tribal water quality. I noted final comments from Ron regarding the need for solidarity in this work, despite many differences.
Karuk tribal dipnet fisherman Ron Reed, Karuk Department of Natural Resources Water Quality Programs director, Susan Fricke, and Stanford-based environmental scientist Sibyl Diver will share perspectives on their experience working together on tribal water quality issues for over 10 years. We discuss the history and future of Karuk water quality science, policy and advocacy, consider what this means for linking traditional knowledge and western science. We also examine progress towards ecological and cultural restoration in the mid-Klamath Basin (Northern California), including the Karuk Tribe’s work advancing the largest dam removal project in the US, now projected for 2023. This event is co-hosted by the Environmental Justice and the Common Good Initiative at Santa Clara University and the Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences.
I’m proud of the work in progress occurring within Stanford’s Earth Systems Program that seeks to advance diversity equity and inclusion and anti-racism. Here’s a starting point for ongoing conversations with students, and the broader Earth Systems community:
Earth Systems Action Plan for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Anti-Racism, DRAFT for distribution: 11.20.20
Statement of Intent: During the summer 2020, the Earth Systems staff met together and with students to discuss ways to change aspects of our academic curriculum and improve program management. In response to the Movement for Black Lives, we discussed the goals of increasing transparency in decision-making, nurturing a climate of greater inclusivity and equity, and more directly engaging with environmental and racial justice.
As one of the most diverse communities within the School of Earth, the Earth Systems Program stands in solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives, and seeks to advance anti-racist practices through our teaching, research, and community building. We must do what we can to bring about changes in the Earth Systems Program that will empower students to investigate and address the roots of social-environmental challenges more holistically, and better account for the problems of racial violence that are intertwined with environmental degradation. With the goal of creating an anti-racist community, and ensuring that Black Indigenous and People of Color BIPOC communities and other underrepresented groups can thrive as valued members of the Earth Systems Program, we put forth this action plan for diversity, equity and inclusion and anti-racism for consideration. We look forward to community feedback, especially from BIPOC students and others coming from underrepresented communities. We hope that this effort can contribute to the broader commitment to anti-racism that has been articulated at the highest level of leadership at Stanford.
The main goals of the Earth Systems Action Plan for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Anti-Racism expanded on below, include:
- Anchor diversity, equity and inclusion and anti-racism as core priorities for the Earth Systems Program and broader community, making explicit the connections between BIPOC community experiences, anti-racism, environmental science, and environmental movements.
- Engage Earth Systems students in a diverse set of perspectives on social-environmental issues, which center the experiences of BIPOC and other underrepresented communities, in Earth Systems classes, events, internships, community-engaged learning projects, and capstone experiences.
- Create a culture within the Earth System Program that facilitates belonging, inclusivity, and respect for all members of the Earth Systems community, especially for BIPOC and other underrepresented students that have historically been excluded from environmental science and mainstream environmental movements.
4. Advance processes to increase procedural justice with Earth Systems Program operations, in order to attend to key DEI and anti-racism concerns expressed by students, and enable more equitable and transparent allocation of resources.
Importantly, this document includes actions the program already taken, approved governance changes, and planned actions for the following year, as well as a detailed strategic plan that links goals to specific actions and assessment metrics that will help us to determine how we are doing in relation to the aspirations set forth for increasing equity and justice in environmental science.
A huge shout out to the Karuk Tribe for a key win moving the Klamath Basin towards a long-awaited Klamath dam removal project! The states of Oregon and California have recently joined the Karuk and Yurok tribes, PacifiCorp, and the Klamath River Renewal Corporation in signing a new Memorandum of Agreement. In the MOA, the two states agree take on ownership of the dam together with the Klamath River Renewal Corporation to provide additional financial assurances for the removal process. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) will now review the new arrangement. The next step will be for FERC to approve the transfer of the dam licenses, and also approve the dam removal plan, which has long been established through the 2016 Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement.
The removal will open up important salmon spawning habitat in the upper Klamath Basin, and also improve downstream water quality. This will be the largest dam removal and most ambitious river restoration project in US history. It is a key component of restoring social and economic resilience in the Basin, especially for tribal communities.
These four large dams on the Klamath have provided limited benefits—generating little hydroelectric power, and no flood protection or irrigation benefits. At the same time, these dams have blocked salmon from accessing over 350 miles of fish habitat, and have contributed to significant water quality problems: harmful algal blooms, fish disease, and large-scale fish kills.
Native American tribes have played a lead role in dam removal and restoration efforts. For these tribes, salmon are a cultural keystone species, supporting distinct tribal cultures that are interconnected with salmon and ecosystem health. For tribal members, the Klamath dams have been linked with decreased access to traditional food sources like salmon, high levels of diet-related disease, and negative mental health impacts. Dam removal is therefore a vital part of tribal eco-cultural restoration strategies, i.e. strategies coupling ecosystem rehabilitation and cultural revitalization that will enable all communities on the Klamath to flourish.
Dam removal is predicted to improve water quality by restoring key hydro-ecological processes like flushing flows in winter. Dam removal will also significantly expand fish access to high quality upriver tributaries, fed by cold water aquifers that can support a more resilient habitat for salmon under expected climate warming conditions. Improving the river’s health will also likely improve the resilience and social well-being of tribal communities who rely on it.
I refer to resilience here as the capacity of a social-ecological system to absorb shocks and maintain essential structure and function. Importantly, management interventions for resilience can transform a system into a new and different regime. Tribal communities in the Klamath have long viewed dam removal as an opportunity for system transformation and community healing.
With a long set of negotiations coming to a close, the next step will be to ensure that this unprecedented event will take place in a way that supports the ecological and social resilience that tribal communities in the Klamath Basin have long imagined and worked towards.
Thank you to the incredible team who created our 3rd annual Environmental Justice Symposium at Stanford: Dr. Emily Polk, Dr. Esther Conrad, Erin Pang, Bianca Santos, Keoni Rodriguez, and David Gonzalez. We also are so grateful to presenters Gustavo Aguirre, Jr., Ingrid Brostrom, Sheila Davis, Dr. David Pellow, Deja Gould, and Dr. Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio, as well as everyone who attended over the course of the day! What an inspiration to have 230 people in a virtual room listening and learning about frontline community EJ work together.
In February 2020, a group of Indigenous and allied scholars from Australia and North America collaborated with Ad Astra Comix to produce a series of comic art posters about some of the experiences that Indigenous peoples have in the academy.
Led by Indigenous collaborators, the result is the “So You Care About Indigenous Scholars?” comic posters series. The posters recognize and celebrate Indigenous peoples and their ongoing survival, resistance and resurgence. The posters are an arts-based intervention: they use humor and irony to create teachable moments for a broad audience and build critical consciousness.
The four posters, described below, can be viewed and downloaded for free at https://adastracomix.com/2020/10/22/comic-art-poster-series-so-you-care-about-indigenous-scholars/.
- Extraction Zombies highlights the tokenism and minority tax experienced by many Indigenous scholars across multiple universities and departments.
- Pass the Ball expresses frustration about non-native scholars occupying the fields of Native knowledge and refusing to “pass the ball” or recognize Native scholars as experts in these very fields — and imagines a win for the team when Native scholars are valued.
- The S.S. Academy depicts microaggressions experienced by Indigenous scholars, who are working in all corners of the academy but are not always appreciated for their merits.
- Indigenous Land emphasizes that the university campus always was, always will be Indigenous land, and a place of Indigenous teaching.
Note that these posters are made for others to use – although please do credit the authors, thanks 🙂 . You can share these images on social media, and download a PDF here and print it out for your department, office, dorm room, etc.
Please feel free forward this resource to your networks, and check us out on Facebook and on Twitter @Rin_Sullivan, @casmith_phd, @AdAstraComics, @DrJKWeir, @SibylDiver and on Instagram @bethpiatote.
I’m writing with friends, colleagues, and co-editors Mehana Vaughan and Mez Baker-Medard to share an opportunity to join a special issue on Collaborative Management, Environmental Caretaking and Sustainable Livelihoods. This special issue endeavors to deepen the field of collaborative care and governance of lands and waters. We are particularly interested in inquiries that expand understandings of reciprocal relationships and how collective responsibilities are enacted in natural resource management. This includes governance rooted in meaningful participatory processes devolving decision making to those most affected or connected to a given resource and the physical and spiritual sustenance it provides.
Please consider submitting work to our special issue and share with your students and others who might add to the building of knowledge and experience within this area. Please feel free to email with questions (email@example.com) or to send an abstract for feedback over the next few months. You can reach out to any of us three guest editors below, but please also cc: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for sharing news of this groundbreaking issue. We so look forward to reading your work and learning about the places, communities and voices you carry.
With warmth and respect,
Mehana Blaich Vaughan, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Management College of Tropical Agriculture & Human Resources, UH Sea Grant College Program & Hui ʻĀina Momona
Sibyl Diver, Earth Systems Program, Stanford University, Stanford, CA
Mez Baker-Medard, Environmental Studies Program, Middlebury College
Call for papers website: https://www.ecologyandsociety.org/issues/view.php?sf=151
The current pandemic, and increased visibility of deep social inequities has creates a huge opportunity for leadership from the academy to address social justice issues. Yet as I reflect on discussions at environmental science institutions here at Stanford, I have been struggling with the lack of concrete action steps to date.
Concerned students have made specific proposals to promote greater social and environmental justice. Unfortunately, such concrete steps have not entered into the broader department-level or institute-level discussions that I have been part of.
Last week, I was inspired to see a different trajectory occurring in environmental science departments at UC Berkeley. Led by a large and interdisciplinary group, the faculty in environmental sciences has responded directly to student action requests with a clear set of commitments.
These includes establishing a mandatory training on diversity and restorative justice for all faculty and staff, building anti-racism training and readings into core classes, ensuring that 50% or more of departmental seminars are given by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) scholars or scholars from other under-represented groups, encouraging the representation of BIPOC authors within course materials and using a teaching self-assessment to help achieve this goal, increasing efforts to identify and encourage BIPOC candidates for faculty positions, and more.
I am grateful for this important leadership towards systemic change. These commitments speak meaningfully to the broader asks being made for cultural change within the academy that support the Movement for Black Lives, e.g. #ShutDownSTEM.
Earlier this year I gave a research seminar on the topic of Sustainability and Equity. This builds off of my long experience with community-engaged research, and also off of severals years of supporting the Environmental Justice Working Group at Stanford. The reception to the seminar around my department was positive, but quiet. A few months passed without comment on the topic.
We have now experienced consistent media coverage on racial disparities of COVID-19 impacts that are linked to environmental exposures. Black Lives Matter solidarity movements are calling for racial justice. There has been a new level of engagement. I have been encouraged by the number of faculty signing onto a new proposal, seeking to build a meaningful sustainability and equity initiative at Stanford. This proposal builds off the work that my collaborators and I have been doing for some time. My colleague described this positive response as “whiplash”. How did we get here after receiving such a lukewarm reception to the EJ issues for years?
It is confusing. Perhaps it is also hopeful.
6/6/20 In solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives I wish to express my deep sadness and anger at the senseless violence against Black people and honor the memory of my friend, Ashanti Aku Hassan, and so many others, who have been taken too early from this world due to racial prejudice and inequity.
Ashanti Crosses the River
In Memoriam, Ashanti Aku Hassan, aged 29. For Ashanti and your many friends and family members. Written by your friend Sibyl Diver on the day of your funeral in Riverside, California, July 12, 2012.
Today, a bright light floats away, crossing over towards the heavens and the great unknown. On Monday, July 2, I received the news that Ashanti had been shot and killed over the weekend near her home in Riverside, California. The email was sent by Robert Burkhardt, head of the Eagle Rock School, which is where I met Ashanti in 1997. Such a very sad day. It is an unfair death. It makes me sick at heart. To lose Ashanti Aku Hassan to unnecessary violence, so early in her life. I am now focused on completing my graduate studies at UC Berkeley. Instances of youth violence seem like something to read about in the news, but now my young friend has been shot and killed. Such awful words.
The family has arranged for a joint funeral for Ashanti and her Uncle Peewee, who died following a long illness, just three days before her. A few blocks from the family’s home, the funeral parlor is elegant, stately. Pews along the sides slowly fill up with family and friends. The bright white ceiling even sparkles a little. A silver coffin provided the centerpiece for the room, a solid presence that is framed by overflowing flower arrangements of red and while carnations, with ribbons.
As we cry a little, Ashanti’s cousin starts up a video, photos of Ashanti in full force. We listen to home grown rap songs. We see Ashanti introducing her DIY weekly show on life, music, and, of course, “corporate America,” as she tells us in the video. Her cousin chimes in that they will be sure to cover rap music, too! We see her goofing around with family and friends, the way it should be. We laugh a little.
As the service began, the family processes in. Family and friends fill the room, and they keep coming. It is standing room only, with many listening and watching from the hallway. I had flown down from Oakland to be there, to begin to come to grips with this reality that I didn’t want to believe. The service starts. People say, “She is life,” because she is so full of love. Light. Love. Life. Sass. These sentiments come up again and again as her family and friends speak. People say she made them feel special. I felt that, too. I remember times of Ashanti looking over, and feeling a mutual sense of joy. She is a “sparkplug,” when she walks into the room, says the Reverend. Yes, she is, was. How do we talk about this vivacious spirit now? Oh, how it hurts to have this light of a person go out in this world.
I learn that she sang with her cousins, nieces, and nephews. I watch the antics, captured on video. Ashanti singing for the camera – always with family and friends. I am told that Ashanti inherited much of her creativity from her mom, who loved to read and write poems, before she passed away. One moment, you are hamming it up, singing on the video screen. The next moment, I approach your open casket. In a split second, I know that you were no longer here.
Many people say, “I will really miss her smile.” This was a smile of joy, of love, a smile that competes with the bright white flash of teeth that her cousin gives us, as he talks about Ashanti at her funeral service. Other people say, “She was tough,” and she pulled through for her friends and family. When her niece put in that first job application, Ashanti was in the back office arguing with the administrators. They were going to hire her niece. When her friend’s car broke down in the street, Ashanti said, “Now you are going to drive, and I’m going to push you.” She had lost her mom and her dad. Yet she loved her extended family, and she always knew how to make a new place her home. How does one measure up to Ashanti’s smile?
So many sides to Ashanti: tough, smart, wilderness, friend, singer. She was so loving, but she also knew how to act tough. She knew how to get people to like her so that they would help her out during difficult moments. The word “chameleon” comes up in conversation. Not in a bad way, but in a way that marvels at her ability to fit in, whether it was rural Colorado in the mountains at Eagle Rock School, or on the streets of Riverside, California. I always thought of Ashanti as a survivor, which makes this loss even harder to deal with.
One young woman tells us that Ashanti also had a soft side. It was not easy to lose one’s mother so young. I learn that her mother had more energy for Ashanti’s older siblings. But Ashanti’s brother would convince her mom to go out with them trick-or-treating. The youngest kid still needed her mom. Is this what the Reverend was talking about when he evoked the spiritual, “Climbing up the Rough Side of the Mountain?” Those of us who knew Ashanti from Eagle Rock School had seen her mountain climbing. We knew she could get to the top, but it wasn’t always easy.
We know her from so many different places. And now we are beginning to know each other. While I had met Ashanti in Colorado, I had never gotten to meet all the family members she was so close to. I didn’t realize how many cousins, nieces and nephews she had in her life, who loved her, whom she was mentoring now in her twenties. This gathering of people is a healing moment.
She was just starting to find herself. One family member said that they had talked with her at one point when she was thinking about having a baby. People say, “She is unconditional with her love.” What could be a more perfect characteristic for Ashanti as an aunt, a mentor, maybe even a mom? I get all broken up watching Ashanti’s younger niece crying with her mom.
When I was in my mid-twenties and struggling to be a teacher, Ashanti gave me moments of real friendship. Being with her was being in the present tense. Feeling like my belly would burst from laughing so hard at our antics. Even while we studied and worked, Ashanti gave me permission to be a kid again. We would talk about the things that we were passionate about – love, family, justice in the world – jumping from our teenage selves to our adult selves and back again.
I think of calling out to her, “Hey, girl!” She almost skips up with a grin, lanky arms swinging. Fully herself, even as a cool 16-year-old. Glowing dark skin, and a brightness about her face. I don’t notice that she is petite, because her spirit takes up the whole room. She would always tell me she loved me. What a good lesson – teaching friends to be generous with their love and to say what they feel. I loved her too, and I told her so. She was the one who taught me to do that. She was simply fun to be with. Just to kick it. We didn’t need to be doing anything. She would take me for who I am. I could talk to her. We would dance crazy-like. She was a student and a friend and family. Now she is gone, and it is too sad.
We let her go by weeping in each other’s arms before a shining silver casket and bursting bouquets of flowers. The special attention to color and the decorations say we want to make your last days beautiful, Ashanti, because we love you.
We let her go by speaking and listening and singing about her, so that others begin to see the stories from all the places she has been – California, Colorado, Washington D.C., Washington State. Why not cover both coasts and the middle of the country in your short life span while you’re at it, Ashanti?
We let her go by gathering at the gravesite that will be her memorial. A carpet of green grass that rests below the Southern California scraggly desert rocky outcrops. The rocks that are continually looking down over our sad party – comforting each other, laughing with each other, and meeting one another for the first time.
We let her go by sharing a meal – greens and chicken and turkey and potato salad and peach cobbler and red velvet cake and more. Ashanti is saying, heat up the coals, let’s barbeque!
The part that we will not let go is the injustice of this. Why was Ashanti called when she was? A relative says killing of innocent bystanders is happening more and more in the Riverside area. This is for “shock value” – death just for tearing communities apart. Why are young people and other innocents dying in neighborhoods where families used to feel safe? At the same time that we search for the peace in this individual tragedy, we search for justice to cut through a societal crisis.
Ashanti was shot and killed just in front of the house where she had spent much of her childhood. She was on her way to visit her cousin who now lives there, and who just lost her own father. Her body was cool in the street before anyone got to her. Ashanti was found by her cousin, who opened the door when she got worried that Ashanti should have already been there by now. She opened the door and found that Ashanti was already there, yet already gone.
Ashanti is playing around on the video screen, and flashing her signature grin. Her hair is short now, compared to when we spent time together. She is joking around about how people are telling her to cut her hair, to give it a close crop. On the video she tells us that she is here to ask the American people to answer a simple question. “Do I look like Don King???!” she bellows at her audience. The votes are tallied… Drumroll. And a notebook page slides across the screen. The handwritten page tells us what we need to know. “Yes!” She does look like Don King!
She got shot in the back, a family member tells me. Who knows what the perpetrators saw in her silhouette, a young Black woman, as she was walking down the street to her cousin’s house. One person thinks that they would not have shot her if they had realized that she was a girl. My God, what is this? Why do gender and racial categories predispose an innocent young person to an early and violent death?
The Reverend says that God decided it was her time, and that is not for us to understand. She is in a better place, even while those who are left mourn her loss. Yet at the funeral, family and friends tell each other, we need to come together as a community. We need to watch out for each other. You need to let someone know where you going and to take extra care. We need to get organized. We need to stop this senseless violence.
The words help, Ashanti, my dear. I know I have not seen you in the last few years. There was that Facebook exchange, and the T-shirt that I mailed you. Yet that seems so small and insignificant. Now you are no longer physically with us, and I am seeing the body you have left behind. I regret that it has been so long since we had seen each other. Yet here I am also talking with your family for the first time… about you. I am writing and thinking about you. The love is there to stay. You still have things to teach me.
I will really miss that smile, and I will miss Ashanti coming up to wrap her arms around me. Saying “I love you!” and meaning it. This is something to hold on to, to remember, and to learn from. As one of her cousins said, “She is so planted with her spirit in me, I will grow again.” Let it be so.