Podcast 5: Climate change activist-educator: Russ Vernon-Jones


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Podcast Transcript:

Amrita Acharya 0:00
Welcome to climate change at home, a podcast series produced by the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Greenfield Recorder, and Athol Daily News. I am your host, Amrita Acharya. And on this podcast, we will look at the impacts of climate change and those active in the fight against it in the Pioneer Valley. Climate change at home is sponsored by Whelan insurance, providing protection to Pioneer Valley families and businesses since 1961. Today, I'm speaking with Russ Vernon Jones, a retired teacher in Amherst, and a creator of an eponymous blog about the intersections of climate change racism and justice. Through his accessible platform online, Ross has gained readers globally interested in topics related to current elections and climate change bills, as well as how to support listening sessions for racism and climate change. His posts aimed to educate on how these two issues are not only very similar, but have been used against each other in the media and politics to divide people.
With a simple goal of leading with compassion, Ross's website slogan is this. Love, justice and climate change? I know you can make a difference. Listen, as he and I sit down to chat more about his work, and the strong influence that his teaching career has had on his current blog. So Ross, can you tell me a little bit about yourself?

Russ Vernon Jones 1:12
Well, you know, I was retired when I came to this. But, you know, it was it was a real question, What can I do? I'm not really a scientist, wealthy, I'm not a politician. But I've been an educator all my life, and I'm a bit of an organizer. So, you know, I decided to try to write a blog. But I also got involved with the local climate action now organization and started a working group within that organization on cool racism and white supremacy. And yeah, climate justice.

Amrita Acharya 2:16
You mentioned talking about climate change and racism and the sort of intersectional work. Can you speak a bit more about that in some of the initiatives you've worked on?

Russ Vernon Jones 2:27
Well, I see them as very much tied up with each other. You know, I mean, racism in the US really depends on the dominant white population, either not caring or ignoring what's happening to people of color. So with regard to climate, it allows oil refineries, pipelines, toxic dumps, pollution, emitting power plants ought to be located near communities of people of color. If all of those things had to be located in white middle class neighborhoods, we would not be talking about fossil fuels as our dominant energy system right now, we would have already begun, you know, a transition. But because we can make sacrifice zones, out of communities where poor people of color live.
We're stuck with the mess that we're we're in now. So for instance, the Dakota Access Pipeline got a lot of publicity at one point when the indigenous people in the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation stood up against it. It had been originally proposed to go near North toward Bismarck, North Dakota. Bismarck is 95% white people, when they objected that it might ruin or contaminate their water supply. They moved the the pipeline route, but they moved it to run right next to the Sioux reservation, and through sacred lands and through vulnerable water sources. And they are when the people objected. They brought out the police, the military, and the full power of the state, went to controlling the protesters and enabling the pipeline to go through.
The other thing that as I look at racism, it seems it's been used to divide people. I mean, it divides people on the basis of race. But it also, you know, get used to intensify class divisions and to set people against each other and that division of people has interfered with people getting together to insist, frankly, on a more fair, society, communities.

Amrita Acharya 4:49
So can I just ask you a bit about maybe how you're seeing that played out here in Western Massachusetts, if that comes to mind.

Russ Vernon Jones 5:01
We all you know, there's a, they wanted to build a biomass plant, which the governor strongly supported. But it turned out when people researched it, he was going to be horribly polluting and emit a lot of greenhouse gases and be bad for climate change. But where were they gonna put it? They're gonna put it in Springfield, right in the heart of the black community. And it's one of the better pieces of local organizing, I think, is that the Springfield Climate Justice Coalition, got together and started a real campaign, but eventually linked up with allies all over the state, all racial backgrounds, who said we don't want any biomass in Massachusetts.

Amrita Acharya 5:49
So I just want to combine some of these pieces here. So your backgrounds in education, you're interested in the intersections of climate change and racism? How do you see that intersectional thinking being played out in how we teach climate change today teach about climate change today?

Russ Vernon Jones 6:10
Well, I think we mostly don't teach about climate change. And, but it is, those racial divisions are part of how climate change became a such a divisive political issue in the United States. In a sense, you have one party who has been consistently manipulating racism to get elected, which sees the government as the enemy and sees freedom as mostly freedom for a small number of people to make a great amount of money. You and so the United States is really the only major country in the world that has a major political party that denies the existence of climate change, and consistently for it. And because climate change, we came a partisan issue in the United States, right, it made it very tricky for public schools to address the topic, because it seemed that they were taking a partisan stand if they simply reported what's actually happening with the science, and what's a, whatever it is 98% of the climate scientists are all in complete agreement about what the situation is and what needs to happen. And so, you know, and at this point, we see our public schools being attacked for even teaching an honest story about racism. And so most of them have simply been too frightened by the political attacks on schools and teachers, committees to even do very much with with climate change.

Amrita Acharya 7:52
For the local teachers listening to this, from your experience, and from your interest. Do you find that there things that they can do to sort of empower students to become interested in these climate change and racism? intersections?

Russ Vernon Jones 8:10
Well, I think young people, in some ways are like adults, too much scary information tends to shut us down, make us turn away, make us not want to do the situation. Yeah. So I think the key and and it's hard to go by the media, because the media doesn't report all the successful organizing that's going on, and all the things that are being done. So I think the key thing for teachers is some information about just factual information, you need to have a lot of opinions about what's happening. Where are the heat waves, who's being impacted by them, who's emitting the most greenhouse gases, and who has historically emitted the most, it's the United States, of course, by the way.

Amrita Acharya 9:04
So some basic factual information, but lots of hopeful information about what people are doing.

Amrita Acharya 9:10
So I, I spoke to Michael Rollins, on the first episode of this podcast, about some of the barriers to entry for individuals wanting to learn about climate change through academia. Meaning that within academia, usually, articles are published within journals that are read only by few, and those who can understand academic language. So when you say that you try to make your blog posts accessible to people. What do you find to be the value in doing that? And what are the methods you feel that you've reached? People that you didn't think you would be able to, to reach to begin with?

Russ Vernon Jones 9:55
Well, hi. as dire as this situation is, I actually think that people care about the earth. And people care about each other.
You know, human beings, you know, some people are trying to motivate people to get more engaged by getting them more scared.

Amrita Acharya 10:19
That's a good point.

Russ Vernon Jones 10:20
And I, I'm not sure I always succeeded this, but I'm always reaching for the PEEP place where people love other human beings, where people love the natural world, where people care about fairness and justice. Because I, I'm convinced that that's inside of everybody. And part of the current political economic situation of this country, as I said, is to keep dividing people. So I'm always looking for a way to bring people together. And to give people some sense that others care about this. There's some very interesting research, the they've done surveys of how much the American people have people in the US care about climate change, and would support positive climate policies. And there's actually a supermajority, you know, somewhere between 66 and 80%, of the American population supports climate action. But yes, your tone of voice is right on target. Because when you ask most people, how much of the population do you think supports climate action or wants the government to do more? The average guess is between 37 and 43%. So only people have are off by half. Yeah, that's a lot. And it has been a big impact on people. Yeah. And you think you hold a minority position, and other people don't care about the thing you care about, you're much quieter about it.

Amrita Acharya 12:05
So is your role in a way then to alleviate some of that negative perception of like, climate change, and that feeling of, I'm a minority, and so I have no voice.
Russ Vernon Jones 12:18
I want people to feel that they have a voice. And, you know, frankly, that I believe in them having a voice. I want people to know that other people care about this. I want people to know that people are taking action. You know, the sunrise movement, our local climate action now. The Springfield Climate Justice Coalition, yeah, various organizations, three fifty.org, Sierra Club, you know, there are all sorts of organizations who not only care about this, but are taking effective action. That's awesome. And I think people need to know that and I think this is what young people need to know. I. It's two things I would have people do want to talk to other people. The other is join a local climate organization.

Amrita Acharya 13:09
If you're interested in learning more, you can visit RussVernonjones.org, where you'll find Ross's blog posts and ways to connect with him directly on this season of climate change at home. I am speaking to individuals from Youth Climate action now and Community Action Pioneer Valley among many others. Lastly, I'd like to thank our sponsor Whalen Insurance a local business operated exclusively by solar power. Whalen Insurance has seven EV charging stations at its King Street office in Northampton, free for public use. Until next time, I am Amrita Acharya and I thank you so much for tuning in.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai