Happy Earth Day! How Climate Change, Feminism and Shmita are all Connected

Originally posted on the Ma’yan blog on April 22, 2015

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In the mainstream, feminism is often defined as equal rights for women. Here at Ma’yan we like to take an expanded view. My co-worker Pippi Kessler says, “At its core, feminism is about yearning for a world where every person gets to be a full human being.” To me, that means that as feminists we must actively fight to ensure that people of all backgrounds not only get to survive, but actually thrive. And the truth is that we can’t thrive without a healthy planet. And that is why, in honor of Earth Day, we are talking about climate justice as a feminist issue.

In most countries, climate change is no longer a debate. Scientists understand that we have been playing fast and loose with fossil fuels and we are already starting to pay the price. If we go much longer, we’ll pay an even bigger price. And because of systems of oppression, people of color and the poor and working class pay the greatest price. Those who own fossil fuel companies along with the wealthy elite (whose money is invested in fossil fuels) are not currently feeling the devastation at all. (For more information, I highly recommend the movie, Disruption, a concise and well-made documentary released in preparation for last year’s national climate march in NYC.)

For those of us not affected by the immediate impacts, climate change is hard to regularly pay attention to. Our minds are pulled into emails, bills, advertisements, work, friends and day-to-day realities. That’s one of the reasons why attending last year’s climate march was so powerful for me. I watched all kinds of people walk, chant, sing, and display beautiful creations of art. I was reminded that we all want to survive and we all want to thrive. I was reminded that humans are totally brilliant. I believe that we will figure out elegant, creative solutions to climate change. We just have to put our minds there.

So what’s a Jewish feminist to do?

Draw from traditional practices:

Interesting that the climate action occurred during the Shmita year, the Jewish traditional seventh year in which we are commanded to release all debts owed to us and to let the land rest. I’m guessing the Shmita year would probably not be a good time to, for example, dig up new earth, lay in more pipelines, blast through more mountains, or drill deeper into the ground. It’s probably not the year to scrounge up every last bit of fossil fuel just to keep feeding our oil addiction. And if we are letting go of debt, then it’s for sure not the best time to find new enemies and start new wars. On the other hand, harnessing the power of the wind and sun seems like an excellent Shmita year activity, as does taking time off to rest and plan exciting visions for the “post-carbon economy” (as Naomi Klein calls it).

The Shmita year is also about the concept of “letting go.” So what can we let go of to end climate change?

  • Addiction to fossil fuels: including oil, plastics, and more
  • Investments in non-renewable energy
  • Greed: In this Shmita year I want to examine the places where I feel greedy. Is it with time? Food? Clothes? Travel? I don’t know what the next step is exactly, except to reflect on what my actual human needs are and how best to fulfill them
  • Isolation: the more I seclude myself from others, the less I see what is really happening in the world
  • Numbness: I want to combat numbness and face reality by doing things like going to marches and protests, sharing my feelings with friends, reading about climate change, and writing and making art about justice

Make personal changes:

I am aware that the biggest polluters and wasters are not individuals, but big corporations and industries. These are the places we need to target to effect change. But I’m still opting to make personal changes as well, and here’s why: I’m training to minimize the voice in my head that says: “You don’t matter.” Every time I reuse gray water or recycle, that voice rages loudly saying, “You’re insignificant! It won’t make a difference what you do!” But I am learning to persist. Because the quieter that voice gets, the more my thoughts and actions will be able to align, which will increase my capacity to think and do on a bigger scale. Here are just a few personal changes I’ve tried that you could consider as well:

Ultimately we know the path is about organizing to fight the institutions that perpetuate our systemic greed and over-consumption. The above lists the little steps that help prepare me for this work.

So feminists unite! We still have about five more months of the Shmita year. What can you commit to doing towards climate justice?

Talia Cooper is the program director at Ma’yan. Contact talia@mayan.org for more information on writings and trainings. She can also be found playing music.


The Un-Discussed Ism in the Miley Cyrus Scandal

Miley Cyrus has been making me sick. Her performance at the VMAs and her video of “We Won’t Stop” were both filled to the brim with racism, cultural appropriation, misogyny, and general unappealing weirdness.

Even so, I posted on Facebook my discomfort with the woman-hating that ensued. Miley’s performance was offensive, upsetting and nauseating, but she doesn’t deserve to have her butt compared to the backend of a turkey, or to have all kinds of slut comments thrown at her (especially when Robin Thicke didn’t appear to take much heat for his creepy rapey-ness).

Yes, Miley is an individual, and she has agency and a voice (and a fairly good one at that). She could stand up, take charge and refuse to propagate this bullshit. Instead she perpetuates it by saying she wants a “black” sound, using black women’s bodies and sexuality to promote her own coolness while never having to learn anything about black culture, history and oppression.

She could take a stand.  I hope one day she does.

But Miley is also being produced, marketed, engineered, managed and generally controlled by a whole lot of older people who are out to make a buck, and will encourage any wild antics if they seem like money makers.

If Miley says she wants to twerk, my guess is it gets run by a whole bunch of older men who eventually come to the consensus: yes, Miley twerking= profit.

This is sexism, capitalism and a whole lot of yuck in one seemingly small interaction.

But there is one other ism wrapped up in this that no one is talking about.


In my organization- Jewish Youth for Community Action (JYCA)- we talk about Adultism as the oppression of young people by older people. It is different from ageism (which is oppression based on age, and also targets the elderly).

Adultism is the way that young people get oppressed by adults and society because they are young. Adultism is adults who won’t think twice about screaming at children and teenagers to shut up and behave but would never speak to their peers that way. Adultism is stores that put up signs “limit 3 teenagers at one time” and no one calls the ACLU. Adultism is youth getting sent off to die in wars at the age of 18, but are not trusted to drink responsibly. Adultism is the way youth in most school systems get zero say in their education. Adultism is the way young black men get stopped, frisked, beaten, killed by cops on the street all the time.

Adultism doesn’t stand alone. It intertwines with racism, sexism, homophobia, able-ism, militarism and much more. It’s also important to say, as we do in JYCA, that the opposite of adultism isn’t treating youth like adults, but rather Youth Empowerment: helping youth see themselves as powerful agents of change. Just in the way the opposite of sexism isn’t “treating women like men,” but rather building rights and power for people of all genders. So too, youth empowerment and anti-adultism is about meeting youth where they are at and supporting their process. In fact, it would be adultist to try to treat youth like adults, rather than their actual age.

Back to Miley. And to me.

Miley, daughter of Billy Ray Cyrus, famous country music star.

My parents aren’t famous on a Cyrus level, but they are both well known in some Jewish communities. I’ve spent much of my life with the name “David & Linda’s Daughter.” I dreamt of making a name for myself (of being Entirely Talia). I love my parents, and sometimes being their daughter gains me access to people and places that have given me enormous privilege. But the adultism of not being treated like my own person is hard. And I can’t imagine what it must be like for kids of big time celebrities.

At age 11 Miley became famous in her own right: a Disney Channel star, an immediate success with her role as Hannah Montana, a character trying to be a normal kid while leading a secret life as a pop star. Like all Disney stars she is sweet, funny, innocent, perky, pretty…

Miley is not the first Disney star to progress from lovely princess to sex-pop icon. Most notably, Brittany Spears went from Disney Mousketeer, to innocent schoolgirl seductress, to full-out sex kitten, to mental breakdown and back again. Christina Aguilera also ditched her Disney innocence for her “grown-up” image. It looks like Selena Gomez is right on track. Heck, even Justin Timberlake was eager to show off his sexuality post-Disney days.

So what’s going on? Is there some Disney conspiracy to create future sex icons?


But I think this is also how oppression and adultism works.

These young folks with talent are taken from their lives, offered promises of fame, money, popularity, and then forced to promulgate a specific image of youth (that has nothing to do with their actual lives): a sugary image which then gets spoon-fed to the rest of the nation’s young people who will gladly take a break from their own lives filled with adultism, sexism, racism, poverty, boredom and whatever else. In these adult created Disney representations of young life, kids experience snafus, embarrassment, fights with friends or parents…. But they are well taken care of, well resourced, with a perfect rainbow of friends who never have to confront racism in multiracial friendships. They have crushes, but they don’t have sexualities.

So I admit it. I watched a few episodes of Hannah Montana when it came out. I watched because I was taken with her singing. She was this very young girl, and yet her voice was so mature. In fact at some moments, she almost sounded like an adult. Hmm. As if that’s what it takes for young people to get an adult’s attention. To sound like an adult. To act like an adult. To look like an adult.

Given Brittany, Justin, Christina and everyone else- I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised what happened.

In 2009 Miley came out with “Party in the USA” and was bombarded with accusations of stripper-ness. Disney refused to comment. Then- you know the rest, with her new “black sound” and scandalous performance. And now women are accusing her of being slutty, of not being a good role model. Youth are not supposed to talk about sex, even as they (and all of us) are being bombarded with it thousands of times a day.

These young Disney girls get set up to be fantasies. Whether they are the fantasies of young people wanting a better, easier life, or the sexual fantasies of older men with some healing to do, or even the fantasies of adults such as me, intrigued by something adult-like within them. Is it any wonder they rebel, partially by running in the other direction (“I’m not that innocent!”) but also straight in the direction they have always been pointed: deeper into fantasy land, taking the hidden sexual fantasy element of their stardom and making it fully public?

The oppressive cycles of adultism, sexism and capitalism continues.

I wonder what would happen if we could get Brittany Spears and Miley Cyrus to one of JYCA’s Youth Empowerment and Adultism workshop. If we could teach them about how Adultism is the first oppression that everyone experiences and how it conditions us to accept all other oppressions and eventually perpetuate them ourselves? If we gave them space to remember what it was like for them when they were young, all the ways adults controlled them and took away their voice even as they belted it out. Would they then go out to all the other young stars and say, “Hey, it’s okay. Oppression is real. I know. What’s it been like for you? What do you really want for yourself? For the world?” Maybe we could start an army of pop princesses, marching hand in hand right to the studio execs, to the 1%, to anyone who will listen and demand an end to adultism, to racism, to sexism, to the perpetuation of oppression.

By the way, if you’re a high-school aged youth in the Bay Area and want to talk about this stuff more, come to JYCA’s “Adultism and Youth Empowerment Workshop.” Sunday September 15th, 2013 at noon in Berkeley. Email Talia@JYCA-Justice.org to RSVP or for more info. (Open to all high-school aged youth)

For more info on JYCA and Adultism, you can visit our website, and follow us on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Tumblr.  Contact Info@JYCA-Justice.org if you are interested in bringing the Adultism and Youth Empowerment workshops to your organization, workplace, circle of friends etc… (for groups of all ages).

If you want to hear my music (not my parents!), check out my Facebook, Reverbnation, YouTube, Twitter and WordPress.

And for more information on Adultism, also check out Paul Kivel’s website for lots of great resources.

On Self Care and the West Coast Port Shutdown

“Here’s where I’ve come to,” I explained to Paul Kivel (my activist mentor), “In the realm of Self Care.” Paul and I were checking in over the phone. I’d been going non stop from meeting with Jewish Youth for Community Action (JYCA), to board meeting, to music rehearsal, to Occupy assembly to Occupy protest… and so Paul had started encouraging me to sit down and do some reflecting on this illusive topic: Self Care. Two words that have haunted me for years (though “haunted” seems a little dramatic).

When I hear those two words I picture: wealthy women dipping manicured hands into luscious coconut cream and paraffin wax, cucumbers over their eyes, an unnamed person rubbing their feet, as a small breath escapes their lips forming a frozen comic book bubble above them reading: “I just needed a little Self Care.

I also picture activists who needed Self Care, who went inward, and then never seemed to return to the movement.

Capitalism tells me Self Care is going shopping, is getting drunk or hooking up with someone, is eating to the point of discomfort, is watching TV ‘til my brain feels like birdfeed and burnt out firecrackers… all because I needed to “let loose” and “have a little fun.” All because I just needed a little Self Care. When I look at it this way, I can’t tell how coconut cream, going inward and birdfeed equals the collapse of capitalism. Sounds more like collusion. Sounds like systems of oppression running just fine. I’m trying to bring this shit down, not fuel it.

The day before my phone check-in with Paul, the Occupy Oakland camp was raided for a second time, and there was a 4am call for support. I thought: I should go. Then I thought: I’m exhausted, I’ve been worried about getting sick and I have lots of work. I’m staying in bed. So I slept. It was later that morning when I finally took Paul’s advice and sat down to do some writing before giving him a call. I wrote, “I guess I made the Self Care choice by continuing to sleep…. But it seems like the Self Care choice for everyone should have been to stay home. How was 4am healthful for anyone? And so does the movement depend on some people not following Self Care practices? And then why should I be one of the people who gets to take care of myself if not everyone can? And how does Self Care make sense for a movement, when it depends on some people not actually paying attention to it?” I wrote and wrote, but could not arrive at an answer.

“Here’s where I’ve come to- in the realm of Self Care,” I told Paul on the phone.

“You have to see it as over a lifetime,” Paul said, “It’s not just one 4am protest, or one meeting, or one action. It’s the whole movement over a whole lifetime.”

We talked about the ebbs and flows of a movement, the ebbs and flows of our lives, and what each of us has to give. For some, being a parent is the top priority during a time period, and parenting in and of itself can build towards justice for future generations. And when their child grows up, the parent can refocus their energies to contributing in new ways. For others, creating posters for events and email blasting all of their friends is more healthful than actually going themselves. Self Care, Paul reminded me, isn’t just a bath and tea candles. Sometimes Self Care is actually showing up. For some, getting to support Occupy Oakland at 4am was completely thrilling. It gave them energy and passion. And maybe they even had time later to go home for a nap. For those folks, showing up was Self Care. When each of us thinks about our goals, passions, capabilities and roles, we get to show up at these Self Care times.

“Besides,” Paul reminded me, “The day before the raid, you were at Occupy Oakland supporting youth to lead an Adultism and Youth Empowerment workshop. Youth Empowerment is one of your main roles in the movement. That is what you are showing up for.”

And for me, youth work is energy-giving.

This past Monday was the West Coast Port Shutdown to show solidarity with workers’ rights and against the corporate greed that drives this hyper-capitalist system. There were two picket shifts: 5:30 am and 5pm. JYCA youth planned to have an evening contingent.

I spent a while thinking about that 5:30am shift. If one of my main roles is youth empowerment, then it was important that I be awake and energetic enough to bring JYCA in the evening. But as I thought, I kept feeling drawn to the 5:30am shift, to the idea of seeing the sunrise over the Oakland port picket line. And, I realized, I would have time to take a nap before 5pm. Could it be, in this case, that showing up at dawn actually was Self Care?

The night before the port shutdown I laid out my clothes. I set my alarm for 4:40am. I packed oatmeal in a Tupperware. In the morning I headed out towards BART, noticing how empty streets feel like an extension of my bedroom: my bed, my closet, my carpet, my front door, the cement broken by tree roots, the storefronts and their “closed” signs, the dirty white of the crosswalk, the ticket gates, the BART train… I arrived in West Oakland and found a friend with a nuzzle-able cheek. I clenched her hand and we started marching. Other faces, familiar from the past few months of occupying, early-morning fuzzed around me. Knowing smiles were shared as we groggily chanted: “We! Are! The 99%!” And the sun began to spill out over our picket line.

Later that morning, I did get my nap. As my toes thawed out under a blanket I started to dream. There I was, back at the port. The sun-spill even more golden than in real life. Our picket line circled and we chanted loudly: “We! Are! Fully Alive! We! Are! Fully Alive!”

Update 10/15/12 Just read this blog post by B Loewe at Organizing Upgrade that I think gets at some of the systemic issues involved with the feelings I was grappling with. Loewe’s point is a good one- if what we’re striving for in justice is a sense of community and connectedness, why would “self care” be the goal, instead of “community care?” But many, including  Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha at brown star girl, have accurately pointed out how this rhetoric privileges able-bodied people. What do you think?