Louis Alemayehu: Some thoughts on diversity, leadership and patience in Transition

Proposed purpose statement:  "Transition Network supports community-led responses to climate change, inequality and shrinking supplies of cheap energy, building resilience and happiness.”

Who proposed this and why


By Louis Alemayehu, Transition Minnesota, Transition US Trainer

Authentic help means that all who are involved help each other mutually, growing together in the common effort to understand the reality that they seek to transform.
       - Paulo Friere, Brazilian popular educator

I must own up to something at the start of this: I have a bias. I have an agenda.  I am not impartial.  I see things through a complicated lens of culture, class, and gender.  I am a mature male of African, Native American and European heritage, a son of the Americas.  I decided at an early age that all of that, despite what was happening in the outside world, would be at peace with me.

I live in the Borderlands/La Frontera, as described by Gloria Anzaldua. In Borderlands, Anzaldua describes this as a state of transition, of ambivalence, of conflict; someone who is infused with many cultures yet cannot claim a single one wholly for oneself.  I don't personally feel so conflicted about my complexity.  I see things through some amalgam of African, Native American and Buddhist teachings with some blind spots too. I have had several feminist mentors.  At this stage of my life, I am pretty synthesized, but not homogenized!  Rather, I am whole and complete and ready to live the role of elder to multiple communities with a world unfolding before my eyes that hopefully flows from a collective heart, yearning for the manifestation of a peaceable land.

In 2001, a group of environmentalists who were First Nation and People of Color began to have rather intense dialogs about a larger environmental movement in which they felt they had no authentic voice.  Some of us had been involved in the creation of the principles of Environmental Justice, which acknowledges that poor people, Indigenous Peoples, and People of Color are paying a higher price in the environmental crisis.  For example, the least expensive housing is often located in the most toxic areas of our environment.  Rather than be victimized by the principles of "divide and conquer", we found unique ways to stay rooted in our culture and sounded a collective voice that to this day is still calling.

In 2003, we put together something called "Earth Summit: The Making of Family".  We had a powerful meeting with nutritious food, art and cultural sharing and vigorous open forums that were sometimes painful.  We went back to our respective communities to work on environmental justice within our own cultural context, but taking the unique step extending invitations to one another to be on each other's boards or to be in mentor/mentee relationships.  Several organizations emerged during this time, including Ce Tempoxcalli, the Women's Environmental Institute, Afro-Eco, Environmental Justice Advocates of Minnesota and the veteran of them all, the North American Water Office.

Soon I began to hear about people organizing within the rapidly growing Transition Towns.  As I got involved in their dialogues and training paradigms, I slowing realized that we, in Minnesota, particularly Indigenous peoples and people of color, had been essentially been doing Transitions relevant work for well over a decade.  We are now poised to develop working relationships nationally and internationally with those doing the work of creating the new communities, the new way of being in harmony with Mother Earth, a new culture. 

Permaculture, for us, is the reclamation of our cultural roots, of indigenous ways.  The awful truth that still yearns for healing is that the attack upon Mother Earth also parallels the attack upon our cultures, our homelands around the globe.  The Industrial Revolution required the domination and rape of our homelands. The natural resources that feed the machinery of the modern industrial world were not used the way the West used them. Oil was the blood of our Mother Earth.  It mostly was left where it was to keep things in balance.  Our prayer now is that we will all experience The Global Village as conscious relatives with a respect for all life.

My first encounter with formal Transition Towns facilitators was not pleasant, but I must add that they didn’t find me particularly pleasant either.  We have since had positive interaction.  Let me explain.  My first Training for Transition experience was made up of about 40 participants.  About 10 to 12 of us were Indigenous or people of color.  I noticed at the beginning that some of the people of color were asking questions to try and get a handle on what this was all about.  I could be wrong, but I believe the facilitators thought we should have arrived already knowing about what is referred to as the Transitions movement and jump in ready to go.  We could recognize a good idea when we saw one, but we also recognize that no people of color seemed to share leadership in this “movement”.   The silent unasked questions in our heads where something like: So how do you do business here? What do you want from me or my community?   Who has the power here?  Where do I fit in Transition Towns?  I know how things work in the real world, so is this more of the same?

At the end of the 2-day workshop I realized from a conversation with the trainers that they understood our questions to be a challenge, if not out and out negation of their authority or leadership, an insult.  It seems to me that the Transitions paradigm puts a lot of emphasis on “getting through the material” and sometimes that urgency can get in the way of allowing time for people to digest the content and begin to figure out what it all means initially.  It seems like concern about time can undermine an experiential model of learning or not take into account a diversity of learning styles or channels.  Open Space activities did help people be fully present.

When a teacher approaches a learning experience as though teacher is not also a student, the learning experience is diminished.  The teacher should take cues from the students individually and collectively to know how to effectively proceed from one lesson to the next.  What knowledge does the student bring into the classroom from his or her lived experience that can enrich the lessons taught?  If the learning environment always has European heritage people with no experience communicating across class and culture in the position of authority, a much needed global movement to create a new culture that all of us claim will not be possible.  And I am very clear that the challenges we face now environmentally, socially, politically, economically or spiritually cannot be met in isolation from one another. 

We need to admit that most of us were not acculturated to build community beyond whatever identity we were taught was ours.  We tend to see the world through lenses of “us and them”; my country vs. your country; my religion vs. your religion; my futball team vs. your football team, rah, rah bravery, manhood, patriotism, etc. etc.  Loving our country more than the Earth that cradles all of those national locations roots us in a profoundly false consciousness, a dangerous fairytale-view of reality and we all fall down.

There is something brilliant about Richard Heinberg’s 300 Years of FOSSIL FUELS in 300 Seconds.  But what if you use it as a teaching tool to a group of people who are not all middle class people of European heritage?  One thing you would have told them unintentionally is that they don’t exist, that their history is expendable for the sake of saving time via abbreviation.  Really?  How can I trust your judgment about things that matter to my existence?  How many wars have been fought? How many people have died? How much land has been stolen/colonized in order to fuel the Industrial Revolution?  What does the Ulster Plantation tell us about the plantations that arose in the Americas? And let us not forget that the Irish and the Welsh paid a price in their homelands that became a part of the British Empire and their descendents continue to pay a price upon land stolen from the American Indians called Appalachia.

“So let’s not speak falsely now, the hour is getting late”.  Wherever we are going, we will probably all be going together.  Fukishima actually happened to all of us psychologically, spiritually and physically.  It is one world, the wind blows, and the water flows.  We are all touched by the elements.  What we do the earth, water and air we do to ourselves, to one another.  Our fragmented mentalities create the fragmented, violent world we live within.  If we intend to build an authentic movement that speaks across the “boundaries” of nation, class, “race”, gender and culture, we must create learning environments where to one degree or another we are prepared to share our knowledge and be changed by what we learn from others.   The common ground is sacred space that must be cared about and cared for.

There is a need to reclaim our authentic history(ies) and traditional cultural Earth-based wisdom(s) so that we can learn to greet one another as relatives as we live in the Global Village.  We must name the realities of inequality and understand what a balance of equity might actually be.  We are not “all the same”, but there need not be fear about our differences.  There is a way that our differences can be the foundation of a life sustaining unity of vision, purpose and a functional wisdom that appreciates this gift of Mother Earth we are all dependent upon and accountable to.  One way or another, this is Transformation Day.  The world is literally in our hands.   The New World is in our hands, fashioned from the old ways and our renewal of imagination, a rebirth of wonder.  There will be conflict, but conflict can be way to build community and transform our environment.  Conflicts hold a wisdom that is waiting to be revealed.  Courage is the key to the wisdom than can heal what is wounded, broken and weary.

We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.
                                                            -Thich Naht Hanh

Reposted from the Transition Network website here


Louis Alemayehu is a writer, educator, activist, poet, father, grandfather of African and Native American heritage. He facilitates workshops on racism, culture, environmental justice and community building. His writing has appeared in national and international publications such as The International Process Work Journal.  Louis is a cofounder of the Native Arts Circle, the oldest Native American artists organization in the Upper Midwest. Alemayehu was a founding member of the poetry/jazz ensemble, Ancestor Energy. In 1993 he was awarded LIN (Leadership in Neighborhoods) Grant from Saint Paul Companies as a community based artist. In 2003 the Headwaters Foundation gave Louis an award for life-long commitment to social justice. Alemayehu’s work focuses on teaching, writing, mentorship, community organizing, and Transitions related initiatives. Louis works deeply across multiple cultural communities with the North American Water Office who’s mission is to phase in modern renewable energy and energy efficiency systems and technologies, and phase out abusive energy practices: with Ce Tempoxcalli for Chicano cultural arts and environmental justice; with AfroEco for food security and reclamation of African/African American environmental wisdom and connection to the land; with Environmental Justice Advocates of Minnesota for urban agriculture, youth development, green economics and health disparities; with Multicultural Indigenous Academy for intercultural education; with the Women’s Environmental Institute on health disparities and food justice and Finote Tibeb for Ethiopian cultural arts and language preservation.  (Read full bio)

Newsletter Signup


User login