The Impact of #WontTakeShiftAnymore and the Struggle for Co-Liberation with Vasu Sojitra and Bam Mendiola
After a coalition of 17+ people came forward to speak the truth about their traumatic experiences at SHIFT, a conservation conference that has claimed to be an “inclusive” space dedicated to “diversity,” Christian Beckwith, the Executive Director, is staying put even after countless demands for him to resign. Despite thousands of calls for him to step down from coalition supporters in the form of letters, emails, Instagram stories/posts, Facebook messages, and a Medium site dedicated to his removal and accountability, Beckwith and Shift’s Board of Directors continue to center his “growth” and “learning” at the expense of 17+ Black, Indigenous, people of color who were harmed and are now experiencing re-traumatization.
There have been many who have acted in solidarity with the survivors, which is necessary to continue to push for accountability. Justin Forrest Parks, Leandra Taylor, and Aisha Weinhold, have all stepped down from their positions as board members at SHIFT as a way to communicate to Christian Beckwith that he is ill-fit for his role as Executive Director, and really, in any DEI space. Teton Science School (TSS) also announced that it will not renew its contract with SHIFT because of its violence. Since 2016, TSS has hosted and facilitated the Emerging Leaders Program (a program created by SHIFT that claims to train a diverse group of outdoor recreationists to help revitalize conservation).
The articles that have come out about the #WontTakeShiftAnymore campaign have been egregiously apologetic about Beckwith’s and the Board’s actions. Though journalists are trying to remain “unbiased” there is no such thing as “unbiased” when it comes to racism. These articles are actually reaffirming white supremacy in the way that they give more air time to the Board of Directors, and they end up centering Beckwith even more by publishing his quotes. In this way, most media out there right now about #WontTakeShiftAnymore is protecting and reaffirming Beckwith’s power and position. It is impossible to stay “neutral” when harm has occurred and survivors come forward with their stories. When someone claims to be “neutral” they are choosing complicity. To stay silent and not speak out against that harm is to allow it to continue. As reporters and witnesses, especially if we are white folx, it is necessary to speak out against this violence. To avoid doing so is to avoid holding the perpetrator of the harm, in this case SHIFT and Beckwith, accountable.
No matter what, we always need to center and believe the survivors and center their voices and needs. The articles coming out have been using words like “alleged” as if what the coalition is saying could somehow be false. In order to set the record straight and speak truth to power on their own terms, the coalition is taking to Instagram Live to discuss why they started the campaign, what has been happening since, and the impact it has had on their lives.
There will be a consecutive stream of Instagram lives throughout this week by way of co-organizer Vasu Sojitra’s Instagram Live. The first live chat was recorded yesterday Monday, April 22, 2019 between Sojitra, professional athlete for the North Face and equity and inclusion advocate, and co-organizer Bam Mendiola, a national speaker, writer, and inclusion and equity consultant. Tuesday, April 23, will bring us a chat between Sojitra and co-organizer Anahí Naranjo, NYC Latino Outdoors program coordinator at 4pm MST. Wednesday, April 24, we will hear from Sojitra and Nadia Mercado, an outdoor aventurera by day and cardiac nurse by night, at 4pm MST. And Thursday, April 25, Sojitra will chat with co-organizer Sarah Shimazaki, a multimedia creative who is dedicated to equity, healing, and justice, to discuss what’s going on at 4pm MST.
Here is a summary of what we learned yesterday during the chat between Sojitra and Mendiola:
Many have been decrying the coalition as “disrupters” in an attempt to devalue their efforts and silence their message. Mendiola recalled what co-organizer, Nadia Mercado, said in response to this: “…calling us disruptive to white supremacy and misogyny is actually quite the compliment.”
Mendiola discussed his first interactions with Beckwith when they were first accepted into the Emerging Leader Program (ELP). Mendiola recalls that Beckwith wanted to have a chat with them and get insight from them about social media materials. The materials said, “All men and women deserve access to the outdoors.” To which Mendiola said, “Hey, Christian, you’re employing a gender binary because our access to the outdoors shouldn’t be informed by our gender.” From the get-go it was clear that Beckwith had no business leading this conference, especially if they were receiving labor and not offering to pay for this consultation. Too often, BIPOC are approached by someone saying, “Hey, I just want to pick your brain,” or “let’s have coffee and chat,” and most of the time it’s white people asking for free labor, insights, and knowledge without offering anything in return, no compensation, or mutual exchange.
Another cringe-worthy moment that Mendiola recalled was when they found out that SHIFT gives out awards for the industry’s “pioneers.” Mendiola had to have yet another conversation with Beckwith explaining that anything anyone is doing today has already been done. “The things we are doing have been done by indigenous people. The original stewards have been taking care of the land since time immemorial, since before it was colonized,” Mendiola stressed on the Instagram Live.
“When you google ‘pioneer,’ the connotation of a pioneer is a colonizer who steals indigenous land, indigenous joy, their lives, so don’t center white colonialism. Center the folx who this conference is alleging to center, the marginalized communities and indigenous folx,” Mendiola described. This is not the first time the outdoor industry, or any environmental conference has used the word “pioneer.” It’s all over outdoor propaganda. Jolie Varela of Indigenous Women Hike has put in massive amounts of work to eradicate this word from ever being used as a synonym for leadership again as well.
“I have been holding space for SHIFT since our first conversations with Beckwith,” Mendiola explains, “but some of the backlash that we got for speaking out, the mounting stress, the pressure, going against these systems of white supremacy since day one has affected me physically.”
Sojitra shared his experiences as well. “I have had a fear of speaking out and losing everything I have been creating for the last 27 years of my life. I’m afraid of losing sponsorship, but I got this far because I have been speaking out and having that confidence to put myself first, and putting those who are in marginalized positions first,” Sojitra said.
“What is the price I’m going to pay if i speak out? We are risking losing everything that we tried so hard to work for.” -- Bam Mendiola
Labeled as “disruptors” and “afraid of losing my friends,” Sojitra says he has lost friends along the way as he is always speaking out about ableism, racism, as well as constantly advocating for BIPOC spaces. “We wanted to create our own space and in Bozeman, Wyoming where ninety percent of people are white in ‘Bubble Bozeman,’ ‘Whitetopia, Bozeman,’” Sojitra explains.
Mendiola describes their experiences with what has led up to the campaign and how they have felt throughout it: “There has been nasty comments, emails from PR, on top of all that the erasure the coalition has experienced, and all of that affects your mental and physical health. Waking up for seven days covered in sweat. I didn’t know if I would wake up to more bad news, more backlash. I wasn’t sleeping. I wasn’t eating. I was really viscerally affected and continue to be by this campaign. And what really hurts is when they label you a ‘disruptor’ and what is implied there is that there is some kind of joy in the trauma, or that I get joy somehow waking up being covered in night sweats, like I was getting joy getting attacked and losing friends. I want to interrupt that bullshit that any of this was an easy decision to make. To decide to speak up.”
Mendiola also pointed on that to speak up about social justice almost requires a graduate degree because there is so much jargon. They remind the audience of listeners, “This is by design because they can control the language, and I want this movement to be for people like my mother. My mother has been gaslighted and tone policed her whole life, but she has never had the language for that. She doesn’t know what those things mean. Yes, we need language for these things but we also need make sure we are not failing to center those who are most impacted.”
Sojitra and Mendiola discussed the backlash and how along with the label of “disruptor” they were criticized for their emotions as if what they experienced at SHIFT was no big deal. In response to this Mendiola explained, “Rage is a reminder that I am worth more than what white supremacy can offer me, that I’m worth more than these systems, that I am worth more than the pain I am experiencing. When my boundaries are not being respected my rage is the highest form of self love. When you see dignified rage, focus on the content of their message, rather than the tone or the way they are saying it.”
Mendiola and Sojitra also discussed how there is an illusion of choice when dealing with oppression. As a marginalized person when you encounter some form of violence or microaggression you feel like you have a choice of responding and engaging or letting it go, swallowing it, burying it, letting it sit inside you and fester. Mendiola remembers how he felt like he only had two options when deciding what to do about SHIFT:
“Option A is say something, do something, start a campaign, or Option B is not do anything, stay silent, there’s less risk. What I want to hold space for is that we are constantly having to navigate these choices as if we have the choice, and we beat ourselves up no matter what we do. And I beat myself up about what I did or didn’t do, and throughout this campaign I beat myself up all the time. You didn’t do enough, you didn’t say enough, and that carries in my body and I can’t hold that weight any longer.
The message is you are not enough. The situation is lose-lose. If you show up you will lose your job, followers, friends. If you advocate for yourself you may be labeled as as disruptor, but if we don’t do anything at all we take losses as well. We internalize that guilt, we internalize both of those outcomes, and those options were never really ours to begin with.
I want to honor where people are at, and there are maybe people who feel guilty for not saying anything, and especially if they are WOC or Queer WOC. Racism is not our fault, The effects of racism are never our fault. The way we internalize misogyny and patriarchy are never our fault. The way we survive the effects are never our fault. I hope as a community we can have a conversation about healing with accountability, with the idea of co-liberation. What I mean by that is that my liberation is tied to Vasu’s, Vasu’s liberation is tied to your liberation, and I won’t be free until you’re free, and you won’t be free until I’m free. The goal of our campaign is informed by co-liberation.”
Mendiola and Sojitra ended the livestream by stressing that during this time it is crucial to donate money to the unpaid labor of the Black, Indigenous Womxn of Color, Queer and non-binary folx behind this campaign. We need to pay it forward in order to keep the movement alive. We need everyone to put in some hard work behind the scenes, so please share, tune in to the live streams this week, and donate your money.
Make sure to keep spreading the word via social media. Today, Tuesday, April 23, 2019 Anahí Naranjo, the NYC Latino Outdoors program director and founder of Inclusive Conservation, will be speaking with Sojitra at 4pm MST.
Remember that all the work has been unpaid. All the hours that have gone into this campaign have been unpaid and the work got done during unconventional hours because everyone has day jobs. Please consider supporting the co-organizers.
Support BIPOC outdoor organizations and events:
Indigenous Women Hike
Color the Crag
Give them your support in the form of money, follows, likes, shares, and messages of encouragement and gratitude.
“BIPOC can lead ourselves.” - Bam Mendiola.