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Who Gets to Breathe?

August 13, 2015 by Joseph DiCenso

We're surrounded by mountains. At some point it occurs to me that that's how this state, Montana, got its name. We're a circle of about fifty. It's the morning of our second day with a group from the US Forest Service. I'm part of a team that's facilitating a program called "Leader as Convener," a three-day workshop designed to help leaders shift their mindset about collaborative leadership and adopt new approaches and skills for working with stakeholders

Bridging

Tom,* a Forest Supervisor and the person in our group with the most positional power, speaks. His demeanor is thoughtful and serious, telegraphing the importance of what he's about to share. He lists a few topics that have been in the news: policing in communities of color, marriage equality, climate change. He describes these as very difficult conversations our country is trying to have. Then he says something like, "... and I want us"--he means the Forest Service--"to model for the rest of the country how we can convene and conduct such conversations."

It's the first time I've heard someone of Tom's "rank" in a federal government agency connect the work of the institution so clearly to the social and environmental justice work going on in the wider world. It gives me a glimpse of two worlds coming together: the world of my organizational consulting and the world of my community building and social justice work. It's like seeing the center span of a new bridge lowered into place. It registers viscerally. I feel more weight in my feet, more length in my spine. A subtle tension in my gut eases.

Privilege's Price 

It's weeks later. The moment has stayed with me. I'm making dinner with Kathrin, sharing with her the phone conversation I've just had with a dear friend (I'll call her Amina) who was reeling from the day's news of three more black men brutalized by the police. Amina described her fear for her son and her brother. Her voice was reedy and taut. I struggled to find words, to connect with her, comfort her.

I try to describe to Kathrin what it's like for me to recognize that I simply cannot know how it feels to be the mother and sister of black men when such news breaks. I wanted to offer Amina empathy, but that would have required something I'm not sure I have. Along with being spared and granted so much as a white man, I've also been numbed, made oblivious to the reality of the lived experience of the global majority. There's a pain in my heart like a stone in my shoe. I'm feeling the price of privilege.

Gatekeeping the Commons

What would become known as the US Forest Service was created in 1876. In Montana, I heard a district ranger say that the Forest Service's mission is to steward the "wise use of our public lands." I think of it as a gatekeeper to the commons. The idea of "the commons" can be traced back to the Romans. Historically, it was the green space where people grazed their livestock, gathered wood for their home fires, collected drinking water.1   

From my teens to my thirties I went to such a green space--the White Mountain National Forest--to backpack, to immerse myself in nature, to breathe the clean air and drink in the long views. Those trips fed and fueled me spiritually.

There is the literal, physical "commons"--the public green space. As gatekeepers to that commons, agencies like the Forest Service control, to a large extent, who gets to extract minerals, drill for natural gas, graze their cattle, backpack, or preserve a piece of their ancestral lands.

There is another "commons," I would suggest, and gatekeepers to that space control who has access to things like education, healthcare, housing, healthy food. When a black family calls the police because their autistic son is needing to be restrained, they are stepping onto that commons. When their son ends up dead--shot by the officers they'd entrusted to serve and protect their child, we might ask whether they truly have "access."2  When Boston Pride and OutVets petition for their members to be allowed to march in Boston's St. Patrick's Day parade, they're petitioning to enter that commons. When Hillary Clinton decided to run for president, she made a bid to enter that commons.

Unfettered Access

As a white male, I have had unfettered access to what we could call the social commons--as well as the literal commons. I get to breathe. I get to breathe mountain air. I get to breathe in a kind of unquestioned belonging: Every day I hear and see people who look like me in media ranging from the catalogs in my mailbox to the broadcasts on the radio. I assume I will be safe from sexual harassment or assault when I walk down the street--day or night. I got to breathe an education, during which I was taught by people who looked like me, and treated as the capable learner I was. I get to breathe when pulled over for speeding.

Even when I've been denied access, I don't wonder if it's because of things over which I have no control. When I was turned down for a bank loan years ago, I never once thought my race or my gender influenced the loan officer's decision.

That I have more access to the commons does not make me a "bad person." That I am aware (to some degree) of my unearned privilege--and of the system that benefits me over others--makes me more effective at working to change the system.

Wake-up Calls 

The mountains of Montana stay with me--their broad shoulders mantled with snow, stoic in the cold, clear air; how near they seemed. But there was no time to explore. Work filled our days, and the morning after we finished we were in the belly of the metal bird, heading home.  

That I am so unfettered, means at times I have missed the beauty and "medicine" that is all around me, and well within reach--people and planet. Sometimes my wake-up call is the astringent admission of what I haven't let myself feel.

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1  From Wikipedia: "The commons is the cultural and natural resources

    accessible to all members of a society, including natural materials such as

    air, water, and a habitable earth. These resources are held in common, not

    owned privately."

2  Here is a Chicago Tribune account of this incident, which occurred in early  

    February of this year.