On imperfection, humility, community-care, and collective action

Back in July, months into the COVID-19 pandemic, I was sitting outside after the sun had set. Like for so many others around the world, it was an isolating time, and a turbulent one. Living with an immunocompromised family member, I hadn’t seen much of anyone else in months, and hadn’t left the house except for walks. But outside my quarantined house, there were mass protests for Black lives and racial justice around the world. The pandemic felt out of control and never ending. And the climate crisis was, as it had been for years, rising like the sea level, threatening to make the post-pandemic future I was longing for violent, scary, and unrecognizable.

Isolation, fear, dissonance between the mass global movements for justice and the suffocating monotony of my daily life in quarantine, and loss all around– all this made me feel stranded and kind of empty. Like I was longing for work to do and nothing I did was enough because I was alone.

So, naturally, I turned to podcasts to make me feel better. I found Bad Activist Podcast, a bunch of recordings of young women like me, talking about climate justice, activism, mental health, and structural change, laughing and learning from each other, validating each other’s thoughts and flaws, many of which echoed my own. 

I listened while I struggled through the long days and felt a little less alone. 

A few months later, I found myself working for Rainforest Partnership, energized by what I had finally found– meaningful work that fit my interests and impulses, and a community of people with the same passions and energy. So I reached out to the folks at Bad Activist Podcast, and interviewed one of them, Julia Gentner, for the Gen Z blog series. 

Here are some highlights from our conversation: 

A bit about Julia and the podcast

Raina and Mia: Tell us about yourself, your background, your work, and your podcast.

Julia: I consider myself an activist for justice, and an intersectional climate justice activist. I am focused on the way that environmental and climate change intersect with so many social issues. I am a program manager for a nonprofit called Grow Ahead that connects people directly to small scale farmers organizations.

For a while, I saw my personal and political beliefs as separate. I was actively engaged in local mutual-aid organizations, like some community fridges out in Seattle, where I lived for a while. I’ve been engaged in the Black Lives Matter movement for years, but it’s really been in the past two or three years that I’ve been learning how to put this together with my work  and intersect them. 

So I actually met the other two people on our podcast, Bad Activist Podcast, in Colombia, and we became really good friends. They had just sailed across the Atlantic Ocean with a project called Sail to the COP. They sailed from Europe to South America for the UN climate conference, which actually got moved to Spain after they’d already left.

At that point they were leading a new project called Sail for Climate Action, which was going to bring activists from Latin America and the Caribbean to Europe. The boat was halfway across the ocean when the pandemic started. And all of those participants had to return to their host countries. 

But we became really good friends. And we had all these great conversations and thought we should just record them. It’s been exciting to see that a lot of people have been really resonating with the premise of Bad Activist, which is basically shutting down the idea of perfectionism. We reject the idea that we have to be perfect activists. That’s literally not possible. You can’t be 100% sustainable living on the earth under this capitalist system. Everything we’re doing is just striving to do better. And if we negate ourselves by thinking that we can’t talk about anything unless we’re experts and perfect, we can’t do anything at all. Then we’re stopping ourselves before we even get started.

Bad Activist Podcast logo.
Mia and Raina: Can you describe your path towards becoming an activist? What did that look like for you?

I studied abroad in Costa Rica and lived in Mexico, working on a bunch of projects while trying to reject white saviorism.  It took me a few years to really learn how to navigate the complexities and to recognize all the symptoms of oppressive global systems.

We see things like police brutality and extreme inequality, but how do we bring that back to talk about the systemic roots of these symptoms? And then we take climate change, and I was always a bit annoyed or disheartened by how it was just, like, recycle and that’s all you can do, like that’s the extent of your agency and power. 

That didn’t sit right with me. And then I remember learning that the personal carbon footprint was a marketing scheme by BP and like Exxon and other of the the biggest polluters to then return responsibility to the individual.

That’s what was the thing that ignited my flame. That was the thing that I was like, wait, this is what I want to talk about. This is what matters. 

Expanding our ideas of activism

Mia and Raina: What is activism to you, exactly? What does it look like? 

Julia: Once you stop thinking about just the individual and start thinking about communities and systemic issues, you are seeing the world through an activist lens. For me, that is the definition of what it means to be an activist.  But you can perform that activist impulse in a thousand different ways. 

We don’t need perfect activists working in this separate bubble that doesn’t exist in most people’s everyday lives. You just can’t change things that way. We need people who are vocal and excited to talk about the things they care about in every space of our lives. 

So, for example, someone could say, okay, I work in an accounting firm. How do I take an activist lens in that space? Does it mean stepping up for the interpersonal relationships between my coworkers? Or speaking up and saying that our company invests in deforestation or fossil fuels? And so I think that we don’t all have to have this big, statue toppling action to be activists. Activism can also be just the way that we engage with the world.

Learning Humble, Empathetic, Imperfect Activism

For a while I had an idealized version of activism in my head and wanted things to be clear cut. Right or wrong, black and white. More and more I have been learning new perspectives, lived experiences and understanding just how complicated so many issues really are. We all need these continuous checks. That’s the whole thing. You think you have a firm understanding and then something comes along and shatters your whole view. We’re shedding that perfectionism, always learning new information, always hearing new experiences from different people. I just try to say myself, am I criticizing down or my criticizing up? 

And if you mess up, you learn, you readjust, you re-engage, and then you do better. And that’s what we have to do as activists who are also human beings.

Internalizing Community care

Raina and Mia: A lot of activists’ vision for a sustainable, just, and peaceful future is grounded in community-care. But many people struggle with this on an interpersonal level– whether that means welcoming new and inexperienced activists into a space, meeting people where they are at, having difficult conversations, or forgiving your own mistakes. How do we internalize these ideas of communal care and perform them in our daily lives, in how we treat ourselves and each other?

Julia: Community care is central to the way that many communities survive, especially indigenous, immigrant, and black communities. But the classic United States mythology is based on such harsh individualism, especially for folks who are  ingrained with that kind of culture, that this becomes a challenge. 

We all need to take time to think about the way that we structure our understanding of ourselves as humans, as individuals within the context of the world. This can look like how we engage with our communities, our neighbors, and ourselves. But then another part of it is that Western culture has separated humans from the natural world, when really we are part of it.

In the  environmental movement, we need to center climate justice. We can’t just “save the trees” or “save nature” without addressing the harm that is happening in our own communities. 

Towards collective action

Thinking about community care can be a beautiful thing. But then how do we actually create these structures? And that’s where I think I need to be a follower and not a leader. There are community organizers on the ground across the United States and across the world that have been doing this work. I just need to rally behind them and support their leadership. 

It starts with reflection and personal understanding. And then it’s figuring out what is your passion, what is your place in the greater movement, and then finding the people that you can work with.

Mia and Raina: What gives you hope for the future? What keeps you afloat when so much feels uncertain and threatening?

As a young activist, I sometimes can feel overwhelmed by all the issues I want to tackle. Every day there’s another heartbreak or another global system that needs dismantling. It can feel like it’s taking over. But we’re also seeing really awesome connections between movements and so much of that is because of youth-led movements. We’re now all talking to each other and having these interconnected conversations. And that’s that’s how we’re going to make effective change, by realizing that we’re not competing with each other, but actually striving for a collective goal: a better, more just and livable planet.

There’s a lot we can offer each other–words of advice, connections, support, opportunities, knowledge– but sometimes what people need most is to feel less alone. Especially now. Perfectionism, individualism, pride, focus on individual actions… these are things we must let go. Activism is a way of understanding and interacting with the world; activism isn’t just for the most experienced, passionate, or eloquent organizers. We need people with this lens and impulse towards justice in every space, every job, every corner of the world. 

Imperfection isn’t something to hide, shun, or shut out. To build systems grounded in empathy, compassion, community-care, sustainability, and regeneration, we all need to adopt this imperfect, humble, community-facing activism. We need to focus all that energy on listening, learning, re-adjusting, re-engaging, and doing better. Activism is a vision and a practice, and it is at its core, an essentially human act. We live it, imperfectly, always, but with forgiveness and compassion, we can weave it into the fabric of our lives and create the world we envision.

If you’re new to activism, wearing your activist lens for the first time, or feeling the pressures of perfectionism, productivity, and individualism, here are some ways to move forward: