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White Patriarchy Won’t Solve the Climate Crisis: Antiracist, Feminist Leadership Is What We Need Right Now

Squad member: Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) speaking at a rally for Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid at the University of Minnesota on October 4, 2016. Omar is the first Somali-American congressional representative and one of the first two Muslim women (along with Rashida Tlaib) to serve in Congress. (Photo credit: Lorie Shaull/Flickr)

Research shows that countries that have women in leadership positions adopt stronger policies addressing the climate crisis than nations that don’t have women in leadership roles.

By Jennie C. Stephens

7 min read

The following excerpt is from Diversifying Power: Why We Need Antiracist, Feminist Leadership on Climate and Energy, by Jennie C. Stephens. Copyright © 2021 by Jennie C. Stephens. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C. It has been adapted for the web.

A new kind of leadership is emerging to confront the climate crisis in an inclusive way. We know that we need to stop burning fossil fuels, we know that we need to transition to a renewable-based future, and we know that we need to invest in our communities to strengthen resilience and reduce vulnerabilities in the face of growing climate instability. But we are paralyzed by inadequate leadership in the United States. White, patriarchal leadership has been focusing too much on technocratic investments based on narrowly defined results and quantitative outputs. The prevalence of this rigid leadership style, based on assumptions of domination and competition, has been exacerbating the climate crisis, reinforcing racial and gender disparities, and excluding diverse voices and perspectives. But as the Squad grows, a new kind of leadership is emerging and widening the circle of power and opportunity. New coalitions of leaders are calling for public investment in collective, collaborative action that harnesses human potential, nurtures people, and builds strong communities.

Antiracist feminist leadership is essential to effectively address the cli-mate crisis and to accelerate a just transition to a renewable based society. So what do I mean when I refer to antiracist and feminist leadership?

To understand the term antiracist, I refer to Ibram X. Kendi’s powerful 2019 book, “How to Be an Antiracist.” In this book, Kendi explains that anyone who declares that they are not racist is signifying neutrality, but, he points out, in the struggle with racism, there is no neutrality. Kendi explains that the opposite of “racist” isn’t “not racist,” but is “antiracist”—whenever we ignore issues of race we are inadvertently perpetuating racism. Given the deep legacy of racial injustice embedded in our culture, our institutions, our communities, our economy, and our policies, those who do not actively resist racism are in fact supporting it. Antiracist leadership requires continual recognition and active resistance to racism in all its many forms and structures.

A similar argument can be made regarding patriarchy, misogyny, and gender discrimination. Like racism, sexism is deeply rooted in our society, and many of our institutions, norms, and values will continue to reinforce gender discrimination unless we are continually and actively resisting. Leadership that is not actively resisting racism and patriarchy is actually perpetuating these systems of oppression.

According to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of “We Should All Be Feminists,” many men say that they don’t think much about gender or notice gender disparities. Similarly, many white people say that they don’t think much about race or notice racial disparities. Those with privilege who consider themselves successful within current systems are generally less aware of the structural oppression that stratifies society than those without such privilege, which is why antiracist, feminist leadership is so critical in society’s efforts to confront the interconnected challenges of the climate crisis and growing inequities. If we continue to rely on climate solutions proposed by those who are unaware of or indifferent to racism and sexism, we are guaranteed to reinforce those inequities. And if we don’t embrace antiracist and feminist leaders, we are unlikely to succeed in designing inclusive and effective responses to the climate crisis.

Anyone can embrace antiracist and feminist principles. Bernie Sanders is a prominent example demonstrating that leaders with any racial or gender identity, including older white men, can bring antiracist feminist principles to their leadership. Every human being has the capacity to learn, understand, and have empathy for other human beings, and we can all resist systems of oppression, regardless of where we are positioned within those systems. As Rep. Ayana Pressley (D-MA) often says, “There is no hierarchy of hurt.” Ultimately, because everyone is negatively impacted by racism, misogyny, and other forms of oppression, everyone—regardless of gender, race, or any other identities—can be encouraged to embrace and prioritize antiracist and feminist principles.

Why Diversify Leadership?

As a related but distinct priority, we need not only antiracist and feminist leadership, which women and men of any racial identity can bring, but also more people of color and more women in leadership positions. The experiences and perspectives of many leaders in climate and energy have not represented the diversity of people and communities in our society, and this lack of representation has limited the ideas and priorities that have been integrated into climate and energy policies.

Recently published research showed that countries with more women in leadership positions adopt more stringent climate policies than countries where women do not play as prominent a leadership role. This analysis of ninety-one countries concluded that increasing female political representation is an underrecognized mechanism for addressing the climate crisis and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This study is consistent with other research showing that women have greater awareness and concern about environmental issues and that diversity of all kinds encourages innovation.

To implement the scale of change that is required, we need visionary leaders who represent a more inclusive, broad, and diverse set of experiences and perspectives and who are better able to integrate social justice into every aspect of climate action and the renewable energy transformation. This requirement goes beyond the value of leadership that embraces antiracist and feminist principles; it is about recognizing the value of bringing a range of experiences and perspectives to the table.

The distribution of representation on the United States Supreme Court, an influential group of nine judges appointed by the president and confirmed by Congress, provides an example of why diversity matters so much. The societal value of moving away from the 180-year legacy of a court that was made up of only white Christian men is undeniable. The first Jewish justice, Louis Brandeis, was appointed in 1916; the first African American justice, Thurgood Marshall, was appointed in 1967; the first woman justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, was confirmed in 1981; and the first Latinx justice, Sonia Sotomayor, was appointed in 2009. There have still been only four women who have ever served on the Supreme Court: Sandra Day O’Connor, who served from 1981 until 2006; Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who served from 1993 until her death in 2020; Sonia Sotomayor, who has served since 2009; and Elena Kagan, who has served since 2010. Although some claim that gender, race, and religious views have played little documented role in these justices’ positions and decisions serving on the Supreme Court, the increased diversity of the people represented there has undeniably changed the perspectives that are being integrated into the court’s deliberations.

When Sotomayor was being considered for the Supreme Court in 2009, she was widely criticized by her opponents, who found this quote from a speech she gave in 2001: “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” Barbara Ransby in a 2019 New York Times article explained that what Sotomayor was saying was, “If I come in, my family, my community, my elders, my people, will in some form come with me.” When women and people of color bring their whole selves into leadership spaces where they have historically been excluded, they are necessarily going to approach things differently than their white male colleagues.

We each bring our family, our community, our elders, and our people with us into our professional lives. The experiences we have throughout our lives influence who we are; they determine what we prioritize and how we view the world. Diversifying leadership is therefore critical because some of us experience racial and gender oppression, and others do not. Some of us experience economic and environmental injustices, and others do not. More often than not, those in positions of power have been among the most privileged in society who often have less direct experience with the negative effects of oppression and injustices. But the Squad and many other leaders are challenging that reality, and momentum is growing. To confront the devastating societal impacts of racism and to dismantle the destructive patriarchal systems that perpetuate the concentration of wealth and power, leadership must be diversified at every level—and on every issue.

Jennie C. Stephens is an educator, a social justice advocate, an energy expert, and a sustainability science researcher. She is Director of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University in Boston, where she is also the Dean’s Professor of Sustainability Science & Policy, Director of Strategic Research Collaborations at the Global Resilience Institute, and a member of the Executive Committee of Northeastern’s Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program. She has written on this topic for professional and mainstream media including Science and the Wall Street Journal.


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