Nov 2 • 52M

Arizona Equals Dr. Tekola

A conversation about the politics of cultural change from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter with Dr. Sarra Tekola

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Appears in this episode

Equality Arizona
Arizona Equals is a conversational interview podcast chronicling the lives and experiences of LGBTQ+ Arizonans. Listen to new episodes weekly on Wednesdays, featuring conversations with queer people living in Arizona.

On today’s episode of the Arizona Equals Conversation, listen to an interview with BLM Phoenix Metro co-founder Dr. Sarra Tekola about their research in sustainability and colonialism and their political history leading social change work in Seattle and Phoenix.

Links & Context

Arizona Equals is a conversational interview podcast chronicling the lives and experiences of LGBTQ+ Arizonans. If you're a part of Arizona's LGBTQ+ community, we want to you to be a guest on our podcast. Sign up today on our website!

Full Transcript

00;00;00;03 - 00;00;22;11

Jeanne

From Equality Arizona. You're listening to the Arizona Equals Conversation. I'm Jeanne Woodbury. I'm the interim executive director of Equality Arizona, and I've been hosting this podcast for a few months now. As I step into this new leadership role, it's really rewarding to be able to talk to queer people from across the state who are already involved in community leadership.

00;00;22;27 - 00;00;50;22

Jeanne

My guest today, Sarra, is one of the first people I wanted to talk to when I actually started this podcast earlier this year, and fortunately we were able to schedule something just recently. So I'm really excited to release this interview. It was really fascinating to hear about their path through advocacy, from their initial activism in the Occupy movement all the way to what they're doing today with Black Lives Matter Phoenix Metro.

00;00;51;27 - 00;01;19;21

Jeanne

I didn't get involved with the Occupy Wall Street movement at the time, but I think it's clear that it's a really defining moment for not just a lot of people's political journeys, but the way politics works today and the potential that exists in progressive organizing even now. There's some really unique things about that moment in time, and I really appreciated getting to hear from someone who was there and was really involved in it.

00;01;20;08 - 00;01;40;26

Jeanne

That's certainly not the biggest part of their story, but it's something that really stood out to me, and I think that there's a good chance you'll find something like that in the interview that can really resonate for you in terms of how you've thought about politics, or that might open you up to maybe some new ways of thinking about politics and thinking about organizing.

00;01;41;08 - 00;02;07;01

Jeanne

So, really just a fascinating conversation. I don't want to spend too much time in the intro here, but that being said, today is the 2nd of November. If you're listening to this, when it comes out, it's the 2nd of November. And that means there's less than a week left at this point until the midterm elections. Early voting continues through Friday, and then the polls will be open for most of the day on Election Day.

00;02;07;01 - 00;02;40;18

Jeanne

So make sure to get out and vote when you're able and make sure to make a plan so that you will be able to vote. If you're looking for any more information about that or about what's on your ballot, just visit our Voter Guide online at EQAZ.vote. Yeah, that's a URL. All right. Let's start the interview.

00;02;45;00 - 00;02;57;06

Sarra

My name is Sarra. My pronouns are they/them. I am an organizer, co-director and co-founder of Black Lives Matter, Phoenix Metro. And, happy to talk to you all today.

00;02;57;16 - 00;03;18;14

Jeanne

Thanks for your time. I think it's always interesting to talk with someone who I don't know, I haven't met, but I'm familiar with your work. I've heard people talk about your work and so it's an interesting starting point I think, for me. I feel like you've gotten caught up in like a couple of controversies. People have feelings about you without actually knowing you.

00;03;18;28 - 00;03;20;24

Jeanne

What is that experience like?

00;03;21;28 - 00;03;49;22

Sarra

Um, yeah, it kind of sucks, but I guess it's been a lesson in just like, really, I think a lot of people are like, Oh, I don't care what people think. It's like, do you really? What about when they're dragging your name through the mud and you don't even know them? But, yeah it's been kind of just like, you know, an exercise in releasing expectation and just, like, really realizing, you know, like, I am who I am.

00;03;49;22 - 00;04;00;08

Sarra

And you can either, you know, like the people who need to be in your life, who understand where you're coming from and the people who don't, you shouldn't have to explain yourself to.

00;04;00;26 - 00;04;08;29

Jeanne

Yeah, I like that. What were some of the expectations you had before that you had to let go of?

00;04;08;29 - 00;04;46;18

Sarra

It's like wanting to be understood, wanting for my perspective to be heard. But then like also coming to an understanding. There's a quote, I'm not going remember who, who said it unfortunately but, that talks about like, you know, don't spend your time trying to be understood by people who perpetually seek to misunderstand you. And I feel that a lot.

00;04;46;18 - 00;05;16;12

Sarra

And so for me, it was like, okay, instead of like, feeling like, you know, as black, queer person, multiple like various identities, I feel like I've often times felt misunderstood and not heard. And so for me that — sometimes I'll feel like, oh, I want to, I want to make sure they understood like, where I'm coming from or see my perspective.

00;05;16;12 - 00;05;43;27

Sarra

But now I've kind of come to an understanding that, you know, like this world wasn't built for me and that there are people who are going to misunderstand me soon as they hear my pronouns or as soon as I see the color of my skin. And so instead of like being, trying to get everyone on your side or trying to speak to everyone, it's just like being confident in who you are and not like needing that validation from others.

00;05;43;28 - 00;05;45;08

Sarra

You know, it's a journey, but…

00;05;45;23 - 00;06;13;06

Jeanne

I think that can be kind of freeing. Like when you are trying to talk to people and get your message across, if you're not worrying about what they're thinking so much or how they're going to receive it, and you can just speak the message confidently. I feel like it can help a lot. I spend a lot of time talking to people who have very anti-trans opinions just as part of my work.

00;06;13;22 - 00;06;31;07

Jeanne

And there's that distinction between people who, like, have these opinions and will listen and people who just are intentionally going to always misunderstand you. Do you feel like it's a helpful tool in your work — like for the work itself — and not just for yourself as a person to take that approach?

00;06;31;12 - 00;07;01;23

Sarra

Yeah, I do, so because I think that, um, I mean, we see it with the Democrats and their, their spinelessness where like, you know, they perpetually try to, to work with the other side when you know the other side is not interested in working with them and, and then also in trying to, to be understood by someone who perpetually seeks to misunderstand you.

00;07;02;04 - 00;07;30;20

Sarra

What we've seen in politics, how it shapes up, is that, you know, we don't have a left and right. We have a far right and a central, because they want to make the other side hear you. But it's like, with certain groups or certain people like, it's a waste of your time because the only way you are going to connect to them is, is by compromising your values.

00;07;30;20 - 00;07;48;20

Sarra

And I'm not saying that about everyone. You know, it takes discernment and seeing like who is actually curious about hearing, who has already made up their mind and is only seeking to speak to you or work with you to prove their point about their, you know, already made up mind.

00;07;48;28 - 00;08;03;15

Jeanne

And I feel like, unfortunately, a lot of people are just drifting into that category of, they've already made up their mind. Do you conceive of your work as politics or is it just politics adjacent? How do you think about that?

00;08;04;02 - 00;08;41;24

Sarra

I mean, I think it depends on what we talk about, politics, right? Because on one hand, I intentionally don't engage in like electoral politics. I don't do work, you know, trying to get people elected because from my viewpoint, it's really about the collective. And so, you know, like while I do work on policy and policy can be written by a community and can be — while it may take, you know, you need your political allies, you need politicians on your side —

00;08;42;03 - 00;09;09;04

Sarra

It's not putting all your faith into one person, which I think is my issue with a lot of electoral politics. I mean, we can just look at even when we got Obama in office for the first time, it was like, oh, we can all go home now. He's going to fix America, you know? And in a lot of ways, I feel like that reduced his power because we thought we had won and we all went home.

00;09;09;04 - 00;09;37;18

Sarra

And I feel like we're seeing this again with Biden in office where, you know, people are like, okay, we won, Trump is gone. But like kids are still in cages. And so I think that for me, politics is a lot more than politicians and it's a lot more than policy. For me, being a black person and expressing joy is a political act.

00;09;37;18 - 00;10;04;14

Sarra

We talk about all the time how black joy is part of the resistance. Being a black, queer, African person is a political identity whether or not I want to be or not. And so I think that I think that my work is politics, but it's really the politics of cultural change and societal shift. And that's the work that I'm most interested in.

00;10;05;03 - 00;10;36;23

Sarra

And I think, you know, it's in the same way, you know, like trans people's identities are politicized. It's like, these are things that are thrust upon us and we can either attempt to ignore it, but we're always going to have that, that politicization in everything that we do. And for me, it's like, well, I'm going to take this politicization of my identity and use it to to change society.

00;10;36;23 - 00;11;09;20

Sarra

And, you know, I think societal change work, it's a lot harder to measure, whereas policy and politicians are like, did you get them in office or not? Did the bill pass or not? You know it's very — there's no nuance to it, right? But I feel like there's a lot more nuance to, to social change work. Like the first, the first activism I got involved in was actually the Occupy Wall Street movement.

00;11;09;28 - 00;11;12;23

Jeanne

Oh wonderful, like back in 2011?

Sarra

Yeah.

Jeanne

Yeah, okay.

00;11;14;01 - 00;11;51;08

Sarra

So both my sister and my mom were, you know, working class people in the unions. And because of their union involvement, it's kind of how I kind of began to develop my class analysis and where I learned about like, you know, we are the 99%, in that there's the 1% that's hoarding all this wealth, and started to really — where I guess I developed my anti-capitalist analysis, and a lot of people criticized the Occupy movement in a similar way to they criticized the Black Lives Matter movement.

00;11;51;08 - 00;12;13;21

Sarra

And there's a lot of overlap in the movements where we intentionally didn't choose to have a messiah or a singular leader, where it's leader-full, where we didn't have a singular demand, but we you know, we're really talking about these cultural shifts. You know, a lot of people looked at Occupy and was, like a lot of people sat in parks and nothing happened.

00;12;13;21 - 00;12;44;18

Sarra

And, you guys should have had one demand, and nothing changed. But for me, I felt like the Occupy movement was successful because it did have, uh, basically push forth the consciousness of capitalism and the late stage capitalism that we are in today. And I think even a lot of you know, what I see in Gen Z and a lot of young folks who have this analysis, a lot of the words that they're saying analysis that was developed during Occupy.

00;12;44;18 - 00;13;12;12

Sarra

Probably way before they were even. You know, aware or understanding and so for me that is the cultural shift. And, you know, we needed that Occupy movement then to be where we are today. And I think the Occupy movement inspired Arab Spring. I think it inspired the Black Lives Matter movement in the ways in which it was organized, very decentralized.

00;13;12;12 - 00;13;35;23

Sarra

There wasn't one group that spoke for the whole; there wasn't one policy demand. And I think that's a beautiful thing. And so when we look at cultural change work, I think that we also have to have more complexity about wins and losses — such binary thinking — and as a non-binary person, it's like, it's so much, it's more, you know, it's more like an X and Y scale.

00;13;36;02 - 00;13;38;22

Sarra

It's, you know, like this —

Jeanne

It's multidimensional.

Sarra

Yeah.

00;13;39;13 - 00;14;03;29

Jeanne

One thing I remember from Occupy was the, like, human microphone and the consensus decision making. And I think some things like that are also the legacy of Occupy, that those kinds of techniques for organizing have, have held on and hung around. Is that part of what you're talking about when you're talking about cultural change? Like techniques and…?

00;14;04;16 - 00;14;27;22

Sarra

Yeah, techniques, new ways of looking at things, and new ways of even doing things like, you know, like the people's mic is a great example where like there are so many times, you know, from BLM to Standing Rock where I remember the people's mic helped get people out, helped save people when, you know, police were coming to attack us or, or otherwise.

00;14;27;22 - 00;14;39;17

Sarra

So, you know, I think that, you know, when we look at, oh, whether or not a movement won or not, I think that if there is a shift in consciousness, that that is a win.

00;14;39;27 - 00;14;50;05

Jeanne

Yeah. So when you were involved in Occupy Wall Street, were you in one of the cities that was really active, or what was your engagement like?

00;14;50;06 - 00;15;25;03

Sarra

Yeah, I was in Seattle, so there was, at the community college there was a huge occupation. I wasn't very much involved in that piece, in the occupation, that I was in community college. I think I was like 18 and during that time I just remember the fact that we took the Occupy movement and we used it to call out the practice happening at our University of them hiring only adjunct professors and not paying them enough.

00;15;25;03 - 00;15;46;05

Sarra

We took the practice of Occupy and the 1% and we used that to push back. My first campaign was actually lobbying to reduce lunch prices in the cafeteria of our community college, and we won and it felt really good and I was like, this is, this is how change is made. And, you know, looking back, it was like a really like kind of small campaign.

00;15;46;05 - 00;16;16;25

Sarra

But at the same time I'm glad that it was my first campaign because we got to see like the power of social change, even if it was on the scale of, you know, a few thousand people.

Sarra

Jeanne

Hyper-local.

Sarra

Yeah. And so there was just like a lot that opened up because of the political moment that we were in that we were able to change things and, and so my involvement — a lot, I remember being out protesting on the day student debt hit $1 trillion and now it's like way more than that.

00;16;16;25 - 00;16;36;26

Sarra

But you know, all of that, I think shaped not just like who I am, but the way I organized. I mean, even the fact that I've never, I've never had a bank, I only bank with credit unions because, you know, coming in and seeing like the Wells Fargo and Chase, who, you know, "Banks got bailed out. People got sold out!"

00;16;36;26 - 00;17;10;01

Sarra

That was one of our chants. It was like I don't want to bank with the banks, like and even now that influences my politics and even the way in which like, you know, who, who we'll take money from or who we'll work with because yeah, we're fighting for black liberation, but because of, of what I've learned from, you know, the fight against capitalism and the 1% now we have to include that because if we don't, then, you know — Everything is intersectional.

00;17;10;01 - 00;17;41;25

Sarra

Like during the subprime mortgage loan crisis, black women lost the most amount of houses. And so, you know, it's important when you look at that, that you see like how all of these things are connected and why like a single analysis can't work. Like, you know, I, and why I critique things like black capitalism and yes, I do want black people to be successful, but liberation isn't going to be black capitalism because I have an understanding that capitalism is, it requires an exploitation.

00;17;41;25 - 00;18;02;05

Sarra

So if we don't want to be NIMBYs and just like push it, like, oh, we just want to, we just want to sit at the table like white people, you know, which is essentially, you know, the people like Kanye. Then we, we do have to include not just, you know, an anti-capitalist analysis, but also something else in our work.

00;18;02;10 - 00;18;30;24

Sarra

And BLM Phoenix is like we also have to make sure that we realize while we have oppression because we are Black, we have privilege because we're American. And for those of us who have American citizenship. And so what does that mean? And what for me — oftentimes when the conversation around privilege, especially white people, often is like, I have privilege, I have to feel guilty about it.

00;18;30;29 - 00;19;17;07

Sarra

And it's like, no, you feeling guilty is only going to make yourself feel worse and it's not, like it doesn't help anyone at all. Like what we need is you to look at privileges and responsibility. And so that's something that, you know, we're trying to do is like, how do we use this responsibility, having American citizenship privilege? How can we wield that in a way that supports our brothers and sisters in the Global South, in the motherland, you know, and why we center as an organization here in Phoenix, why we center queer and femme folks, you know, with an understanding of, since the Civil Rights, women and queer people have been getting erased from the movement.

00;19;17;08 - 00;19;54;29

Sarra

You know, Bayard Rustin, you know, is an architect of, you know, the huge Civil Rights Movement and, and erased from it. And so, because he was gay and so like, if we want to do differently, we can't continue to like try to basically get us out of our situation without — And then what I see so often is it's like cutting the ladder that we climbed up on. It's like, how do we ensure that not only are we building a better world for ourselves, but everyone else?

00;19;54;29 - 00;20;27;01

Sarra

And so like another thing we've been working on lately is a disability justice lens and like, okay, so if we're saying we're intersectional, how are we also holding like a disability justice lens and what are the things that we don't know and what are the things, you know, even now, I think being a Black queer femme, like a lot of — often times it's like, people are like, oh, you should, the people closest to the problem are the closest to the solution.

00;20;27;11 - 00;20;56;01

Sarra

But we also, even myself, I have to also look at, okay, just because I have these various marginalized identities doesn't mean that I can speak for or understand any sort of experiences other than my own, you know. And so still realizing and having the humility to be like, no, we need to go back and ask the community. And even now, like being, um, most of our org is millennials.

00;20;56;01 - 00;21;09;20

Sarra

And so it's like, okay, as the gap between us and the youth gets wider and we're like, okay, so now we have to realize now like the adult-ism and like how we're perpetuating that.

00;21;09;20 - 00;21;31;12

Jeanne

I think about that for myself as like an adult trans person; so much of the anti-trans policy just targets kids. And I don't have that experience and I, you know, even my own experience of being a kid is very different because it was, it was a while back. It wasn't the experience they're having now. It's something where I kind of have to recognize, like — I have to listen and I have to learn.

00;21;31;12 - 00;21;34;24

Jeanne

I can't just come in and say, Well, okay, I'm trans. I know all about this.

00;21;34;24 - 00;22;04;18

Sarra

Yeah, yeah, exactly. And so I think that's another important part in this work is just like having the humility to always be learning and always — and not like, you know, I've been doing this for over a decade now, being an organizer and activist and, um, and there's still a lot I don't know and there's still, um, there's always a moment for humility.

00;22;05;13 - 00;22;16;02

Jeanne

I'm curious about your path over that decade; you were in Seattle, you were organizing at community college. How did you get to Phoenix and get into organizing here?

00;22;16;16 - 00;22;58;02

Sarra

Yeah. So, um, I think my experiences and identities kind of pose me to, to be interested in and involved, but I think my trajectory, a lot of it came through school. So initially first getting involved was at community college; when I then transferred to University of Washington where I did my bachelor's in environmental science. And during that time I got involved in the fossil fuel divestment movement also.

00;22;58;16 - 00;23;31;00

Sarra

Shell made the the wrong move to dock their Arctic driller in Seattle. And, you know, Seattle's a very environmentally friendly city. So we organized at the scale that like, was at like the WTO protest, which also happened in Seattle. And we got to work with folks that were involved in that and learn from them on like how to do basically citywide mobilizations to like direct action to go against that.

00;23;31;17 - 00;24;02;19

Sarra

And I definitely have a love and a passion for direct action, especially climate direct action. Um, but it was, you know, for me, I think getting involved in the Black Lives Matter movement was, came like the night of Darren Wilson's non-indictment. Darren Wilson was a murderer of Mike Brown, and I was involved prior to that. But it was just like, Oh, this is just a terrible thing that happened like, what do we do.

00;24;02;19 - 00;24;32;24

Sarra

But the night of Darren Wilson's non-indictment kind of changed everything. I remember I was at the University of Washington studying, and we heard about it, and I went to — one of my study places was something that was also very formative for me, was at this multicultural center, the Elson office, and it was a bunch of other, lot of like other African folks in STEM in this program.

00;24;33;03 - 00;24;49;11

Sarra

And so I ran in there. We're supposed to be staying biology and I'm like, did you guys hear what happened? We have to go to the streets now! And they're like, What do you mean? I'm like, I'm sure other people are going to be there, but we just, we have to go outside now. And so I dragged them from their books and we ran outside.

00;24;49;12 - 00;25;14;09

Sarra

We got to the streets and Capitol Hill, and there are thousands of people there. And we marched like all night. It was, it was amazing. And then I think I marched every single day for like weeks after and that was kind of my, yeah it was, it was the kind of the the spirit of the age at the time.

00;25;14;09 - 00;25;35;13

Sarra

And I think I've learned so much since then. And, and it was interesting in the last, like the 2020 movement having been in a different position now because during then I was like, we got to go in the streets every single night. But years later I found out, you know, we increased the police budget because we were marching every night.

00;25;35;13 - 00;25;36;00

Jeanne

Oh, gosh.

00;25;37;16 - 00;26;14;23

Sarra

You know, more overtime for the police and, and learning about, you know, Frederick Douglass says "power concedes nothing without a demand" and really realizing like, okay, yes, we want justice for black lives. But that's not a tangible demand that can be implemented. Like what are, how can you articulate the actual things that you're asking for? You know, this came years later, but that was that was my my kind of yeah, just kind of jumped headfirst in and both organized on the community level in Seattle as well as on the campus led level.

00;26;15;05 - 00;26;52;17

Sarra

In 2015, I worked with black organizers on the campus to hold like the largest walkout at the University of Washington since the 1960s. And we did have demands on every college level throughout the university, and we were able to move millions of dollars into racial equity and make some tangible changes. And then from there, I guess another one of my actions that was one of my favorite was during that march we walked past Greek Row and we got called like, monkeys and n-words and stuff.

00;26;52;26 - 00;27;12;19

Sarra

And there was a moment because I was in the front of the march and there was I don't know how many, you know, hundreds, if not thousands behind me. And, uh, and I wanted to beat up that frat boy right there. And the point at the time was like, do you see a leader right now? And if you do that, you're gonna get charged with instigating a riot.

00;27;12;19 - 00;27;41;23

Sarra

And also, like, that's not good to, you know, like people are looking up to you. And right now we're headed to the president's office and we're going to drop this off and we'll come back for those frat boys later. And so we did we left. I was like, okay, you know, I'm just going to — because I knew if the way I reacted because so many people were following me that I would not only be held responsible, but people could get hurt.

00;27;42;02 - 00;28;09;13

Sarra

So we had to let it be, which was hard at the time. But we marched to the President's office and we finished the, what we intended to do that day. And I think for me, that was also a lesson in not reacting. And that's, that's something I'm still learning today. But you know, like responding versus reacting, you know, because this racist, homophobic, sexist system…

00;28;09;15 - 00;28;32;08

Sarra

…will have you reacting all the time. There's an abundance to react to. But it's like, you can't really strategically, when you react you're not being strategic. You're being emotional, you're being shortsighted, you're being guided by, you know, endorphins, basically, you know. And so it's like if we want to move strategically, if we really want to win, we have to be, we have to think it through.

00;28;32;08 - 00;29;16;27

Sarra

And so what I really appreciated about that action was that we did that. And then we tried to report them. They, I'll never forget, they had this huge poster of like all the frat boys: they're all in the same polo, they all had the same haircut. And they're like, which one did it? Like really? And so we actually, because you know like, as we can expect, institutions won't deliver justice, we decided to deliver justice ourselves and we connected with a lot of people who had been wronged there, you know, queer people who have been locked out, dark skinned people who were told they're too dark.

00;29;16;27 - 00;29;40;17

Sarra

But the light skinned one can come in. Girls who had been raped and date raped there. We brought them all together and we were like, okay, we need to like the Greek Row has become a cesspit at University of Washington. And so we were like, we're going to hold a check your privilege party. And so there's like kind of a strip of grass in between the roads on Greek Row.

00;29;40;17 - 00;30;05;26

Sarra

And so we went, and it was like one of the first actions I got a permit to because I know these people have too many lawyers to just take up their lawn without a permit. So we did that and there is so many like barriers that they tried to stop us. And that's when I learned how powerful and hegemonic and white supremacist patriarchal the fraternity and sorority systems were in so many different ways.

00;30;05;26 - 00;30;36;18

Sarra

Just like how like at least at the University of Washington the sororities, they had to have a house mom, otherwise it'd be considered a brothel. But meanwhile the fraternities, they don't have no men in there, like making sure they don't rape girls. So but then even like, I think it's like, don't quote me, but I think it's like around like 60% of people in government and 80% of Fortune 500 companies are alums of fraternities.

00;30;36;29 - 00;30;54;03

Sarra

And so when we started to even try to get the permit and stuff we had like Homeland Security call us up — which I'm like, I know you probably part of this fraternity — and telling us, we're not going to protect you, so you're on your own. And this is after we told them we were getting death threats and like, that's your response?

00;30;54;03 - 00;31;12;25

Sarra

Like, you're on your own? Oh, okay. I was like, well, you know what? You know, at the police, we don't we didn't want your support anyways. We never expected it. And then we created our own security, which is something, you know, from then on, I've realized we have to do, you know, like if you really are an abolitionist, like that means that you can't expect the state to ever protect you.

00;31;13;10 - 00;31;39;20

Sarra

But what was beautiful about the event, despite the hate and like mobs of trolls that tried to stop us, mostly virtually. And I should have taken the forewarning and seen all the trolls that came from Arizona taking that as, maybe I shouldn't have come here. But I didn't. But anyways, we held the events anyways and we even got like, the notification from Southern Poverty Law that the Klan from Idaho was coming and like,

00;31;39;20 - 00;32;04;11

Sarra

Just like they really tried to scare us away from this event in all sorts of ways, but we held the event anyways. We held really a party like we had a whole like sound system on stage and between like dope, like woke rappers and people coming and telling their stories of what happened, we did it differently than a protest, which I think also made people more receptive.

00;32;04;11 - 00;32;23;16

Sarra

And so you have fraternities and sororities coming here like they were unsure, like, are you guys coming to fight us, or what are you doing? And then they come and they sat and they listened and they listened the whole time. And we had, you know, a black student union and MECHA and a bunch of other like queer groups and the black sororities and fraternities.

00;32;23;22 - 00;32;53;00

Sarra

They all came together. And really, we kind of, um, for me that was like a beautiful moment of cultural change. And after that event, not only did I have so many of the people who had threatened to kill me apologize and said that their heart was changed after that, but also what came of that was like the fraternities, they started holding as part of their like welcome week, or like the initiation or whatever you call it.

00;32;53;23 - 00;33;22;06

Sarra

They now are teaching about rape culture and about whiteness and white privilege. And they created like a diversity council, which, you know, I have my thoughts about that. But, you know, they, they started it. And so for me, that was like a great example of like culture change, which happens, you know, if, if I had I just reacted, you know, cussed them out and kept pushing, like that really wouldn't have made it.

00;33;22;06 - 00;33;34;13

Sarra

But, but, that being said, that work, it takes time and it also takes the ability and, you know, like there's, there's a time and a place for it I guess I'd say.

00;33;34;19 - 00;33;59;23

Jeanne

Something I've seen in Seattle is that there's this, like you're talking about, there's a whole tradition of organizing that — Something I noticed in 2020 was like that Seattle Autonomous Zone that they formed felt very Occupy. I don't think Arizona really feels the same way.

Sarra

Not at all.

Jeanne

Did you, when you came to Arizona, did you notice a pretty big contrast right away?

00;33;59;29 - 00;34;27;01

Sarra

Yeah, definitely. So I came out here, to start my Ph.D. at ASU, and I knew like, I had heard about Joe Arpaio. I knew it was a red state, but I guess I didn't understand to the extent of? And for me, I have this running joke that Arizona is the Sunken Place because not only is it a conservative state, you also have a lot of people of color who have, you know, drunken the Kool-Aid who, you know, need to be woken up from the teacup.

00;34;27;27 - 00;34;55;22

Sarra

They're, they're really in the Sunken Place. And so I with three others co-founded BLM Phoenix Metro in 2017, a year after I had come here. And, you know, there's been a lot of lessons and, you know, I still go back and forth because when we first came out, you know, two of us coming from Seattle being the type of activists that we were, we were way too radical.

00;34;55;22 - 00;35;22;27

Sarra

And like the community was not messing with it. They're like, uh uh, they're trying to get us arrested, you know, yeah, they weren't feeling it. And so we had to adjust and reevaluate and learn like you know, there's a cultural context in every city and what works in Seattle is not going to work in Arizona. And so we had to you know, restrategize and change the way that we were going about it to meet people where they're at.

00;35;22;27 - 00;35;45;12

Sarra

Because at the end of the day, it's like if we want to be a community org, then we have to meet them where they're at and not be like, Oh, like, you know, this is what we should be doing. So that's, yeah, there's, there's a few rebranding and restructuring that we've had to do and we continue to do to continue to try to meet us where we're at in the time.

00;35;45;12 - 00;36;06;03

Sarra

And you know, there's been a lot of shifts even since I came in 2016 to now, I think there's been such in the last two years, such an influx of new people. So even now, like the Black community, I think there's just so many transplants that back then it was really a thing about like making it safe and like meeting people where they're at.

00;36;06;03 - 00;36;15;11

Sarra

And now for us it's like a lot about building community because there's so many transplants and like people looking for for political homes and stuff. So yeah.

00;36;16;02 - 00;36;24;29

Jeanne

You mentioned you came here for your Ph.D. Was that also environmental science?

Sarra

Sustainability.

Jeanne

Oh okay. What's your focus within that field?

00;36;25;19 - 00;36;28;19

Sarra

So my dissertation, I just finished in May —

00;36;28;28 - 00;36;29;19

Jeanne

Oh, congratulations!

00;36;30;19 - 00;37;02;24

Sarra

Thanks! So my dissertation was on decolonization and response to climate change and basically drawing the connections between climate change and colonialism. And while on one hand there's the material need, you know, like climate and colonial reparations to address, you know, the divide between the First World and the Third World was created through colonialism. And that really the only way to move forward with climate justice is to change that.

00;37;03;01 - 00;37;36;06

Sarra

But before we can even get there and what really drew me to how I got here in the first place was like looking at like, climate change is getting worse and no one's doing anything about it. So what's wrong with our society and what prevents us from addressing it? And that's where I got to colonialism and found out like how, you know, Western society and not just the United States, but the United States is the worst in terms of like the cognitive dissonance, you know, and even like talking about like, oh, we are a nation of immigrants.

00;37;36;06 - 00;37;59;17

Sarra

No, we're not. Like this is a stolen country, like, you know, and even now with like things like in Arizona, how they banned ethnic studies and now they're trying to basically ban history. There's just so much cognitive dissonance. And so it's like if we can't even look up where we came from, how can we go forward? The only way we can look forward if we can't look at where we come from, is the continuation of the colonial narrative.

00;37;59;27 - 00;38;30;19

Sarra

So what I focused on was really the, what I consider the societal illness that prevents us from addressing climate change. And I termed it the pathology of modernity. And it's really like modernity and like how modernity was created through colonialism and slavery and genocide. And so there are traits that was learned during there such as exploitation, consumerism, control, domination, cognitive dissonance.

00;38;30;28 - 00;38;53;29

Sarra

These and other traits make up the pathology of modernity. And not only do they prevent us from addressing climate change, they prevent us from caring about anyone other than ourselves. The pathology of modernity was very apparent during COVID and why the United States fared off the worst with COVID despite us being the richest was that we don't care about anyone but ourselves.

00;38;53;29 - 00;39;20;12

Sarra

And this was learned from colonialism. And until we really look at the embedded, like even people like to call about like, oh, the Constitution, our foundations — our foundations are rooted in genocide and colonialism and slavery. And so in order for us to go do anything differently, we need to have a reckoning. And so that's kind of where I come when we talk about like cultural change work.

00;39;20;20 - 00;39;46;14

Sarra

That's part of the work that I'm interested in doing. And I think that it does mean like we do need to have a reckoning and we're starting to see in some places like Canada's doing the Truth and Reconciliation. I think that's a good first step. I think one of my issues with when they did it in South Africa was truth and reconciliation is an important first step.

00;39;46;14 - 00;40;10;06

Sarra

And I think that it can help to heal the trauma and peel back the layers of cognitive dissonance that are able to continue because of the lies that we continue to tell. Like the story of Thanksgiving is a great example. And then we want to say, Oh, this is just about gratitude. Like what, if the foundation of your gratitude is on genocide, then like we're not really going to do anything differently.

00;40;10;06 - 00;40;28;25

Sarra

And so, but I also think the next step after truth and reconciliation is reparations. And if we don't have a material change to change the conditions of those of us who are still suffering from colonialism, then we're not going to get any different outcomes, like we've seen in South Africa.

00;40;30;04 - 00;40;53;13

Jeanne

What you were saying in terms of like, why aren't people taking action about climate change, is something I've wondered about a lot living in Phoenix, where there's so many like really simple climate change mitigation strategies that are basically just things that would make living in Phoenix nicer immediately. And it's difficult to look at that and think, But why aren't we just — why don't we have more solar in Arizona?

00;40;53;13 - 00;41;23;14

Jeanne

Right. Questions like that that occur to me, and your analysis of it makes a lot of sense: that people aren't taking action that would benefit them because of this cognitive dissonance that you're talking about. I know ASU has a lot of different programs around like urban development research in terms of climate change and all of that. Did you feel like ASU was a good institution to study the things you wanted to study?

00;41;23;14 - 00;41;51;01

Sarra

Not really. I mean, there's a lot of gaslighting and like just denial of reality for example. For example, I got my Ph.D. in the school of sustainability. School of sustainability, one of our main funders is the Walmart family. And, you know, like, it's crazy when you think about like, okay, it's one thing, you know, like, I get it. They're a huge funder, they're here in Arizona, okay, take their money, but okay, put their name on our school.

00;41;51;23 - 00;42;24;06

Sarra

But, you know, you can see the, the Walton Global Institute of Sustainability. But it changes what we're allowed to talk about. And they don't — And when you bring it up, you get gaslit. But we are talking about sustainability, but we're talking about recycling and composting and we're not talking about capitalism and the fact that the way that — and consumerism! — and the fact that the way that we consume as Americans would take four and a half Earths if everyone was to live like us.

00;42;24;06 - 00;42;47;07

Sarra

And so it is quite literally impossible for the Global South to develop like they like to say, because we're taking all the resources. And so, but we can't have that conversation because our funding is rooted in the consumerism that we're speaking out against. And so, and so that changed even what they're willing to talk about, that changed the possibility of what we're willing to look at.

00;42;47;29 - 00;43;16;24

Sarra

I came into this work, you know, my, my undergraduate was in the physical sciences and I switched to the social sciences because I realized we have all the research and technology we need to transition. We've had it since before — I remember in 2012, a paper came out in Scientific American that talked about the technology we would need that we currently had to go 100% renewable by 2030.

00;43;17;01 - 00;43;47;00

Sarra

What is missing is the political and social will, and that is because in order to change and to do differently, then we would need to really address capitalism, address consumerism, address colonialism and the global divide between, you know, the developing world and the developed world, which, you know, these are colonial terms. But the chasm between the global North and South was created through colonialism.

00;43;47;00 - 00;44;24;26

Sarra

And now we have stuff like sustainable development where they're like, how can we help Africa? But we're not even talking about how Africa got there in the first place, you know? And so I think that it's missing a lot. But, the kudos I'll give to ASU you know, is that while, you know, I didn't really get much at all out of the classes because we weren't having critical conversations in sustainability — they are very much like, I have this paternalistic view that I now think, you know, I used to have it too, but now I think is naive.

00;44;24;26 - 00;44;47;11

Sarra

This belief that you can save the world, when one that like individuals aren't going to save shit, but that also like the the reality is that, you know, it's going to take a change in collective consciousness and we're not having the deeper conversations about the system change that needs to happen because yes, your little solar panel you made out of pop cans is cute.

00;44;47;11 - 00;45;15;00

Sarra

But however, like when we're talking about the change that's needed, we are talking about a need to restructure society. And so it's like we can't expect a different outcome until we have this, uh, this change in societal consciousness and until we basically heal from the pathology of modernity, we're going to continue to exploit, extract, steal, you know, this like, the whole colonial paradigm.

00;45;15;12 - 00;45;28;07

Jeanne

Well, when you think about the collective change, you want to be involved in, now that you're done with your PhD program at ASU, are you interested in staying in Arizona to do that work, or would you go somewhere else?

00;45;28;07 - 00;46;05;27

Sarra

Um, I, there's a few things. I plan to stay here as long as it takes to really just stabilize my organization and have an appropriate transition. Because it's important to me that the organization continues to run without me because it was never about me. It's really about community and about system change. And so, like, it's important that the institution that we're building differently continues to exist so that we can continue to change the culture here.

00;46;06;10 - 00;46;40;27

Sarra

I will say that Arizona's been a terrible place and has, you know, broken my spirit in some ways. And I don't think that I can ever stay here forever. In addition to that, while I'm still continuing to fight against this, I had helped also co-founded the Phoenix Environmental Justice Coalition. And we're actually even giving a talk at the big Race Forward conference happening in November about this topic, about the water.

00;46;41;10 - 00;47;03;20

Sarra

I also struggle with the fact that, you know, as I've gotten older and also begin to like understand, you know, like it takes system change, not climate change; it takes a collective, it's not individuals who can stop things. We're in the middle of the water crisis. And if we don't do something differently in the next two years, we're not really going to have water here.

00;47;04;01 - 00;47;26;23

Sarra

And so it's you know, Phoenix is kind of like a hot potato, like the market right now, like the housing market's really hot. And I'm like, do people understand we don't have water? Like we don't even have till 2030 if we continue business as usual? And you know, you can look at Lake Mead and look at the water levels and I can't tell you the anxiety it gives me and we continue to build.

00;47;26;23 - 00;47;45;05

Sarra

Phoenix is one of the fastest growing cities, and so the arrogance there is deafening. And like I said, while I'm here, I'm going to try to change it. But I also know I have to leave soon because I don't think there's, I don't know how much longer there's going to be water, to be honest.

00;47;46;24 - 00;47;52;00

Jeanne

Well, yeah. Oh, my God. Now I'm just anxious.

00;47;52;00 - 00;47;53;13

Sarra

That's usually what people say after I talk about that

00;47;53;25 - 00;47;59;03

Jeanne

Oh, oh, well, thanks for being on this podcast with me.

00;48;00;09 - 00;48;02;13

Sarra

Wait — can we end on a positive note?

00;48;02;13 - 00;48;03;06

Jeanne

Yeah, let's do that.

00;48;03;16 - 00;48;42;16

Sarra

Don't want to leave everyone anxious. Okay, so I think that, yeah, these issues are heavy and I try to, you know, not get burdened by them. But I also think that it's important to recognize that there is a lot of cultural change happening here and I think that it's exciting to see. And I think that one of the things we see, you know, is the fact that even like when BLM first started, we were one of the only black queer femme led abolitionist organizations.

00;48;42;18 - 00;49;15;05

Sarra

To my knowledge, the only in Phoenix when we started in 2017. And now there's like four or five different ones. And so that's culture change right there. You know, and understanding like even if we survive or not survive, it's an understanding that like even our time here has made a difference to allow for, for another world. Like the Zapatistas said, another world is possible — like we are starting to create, you know, who would every think, in the red state of Arizona…

00;49;15;08 - 00;49;46;16

Sarra

…we're starting to build like havens for black queer abolitionists. Like, I wouldn't think that before I came here, you know, and so while I think that, you know, Arizona is a tough place to be, I sometimes I'm like, you know, we got like scorpions and rattlesnakes and even the vegetation, will hurt you? Like, the cactuses. But at the same time, I think there's a ,what I've learned in my time here is like there's a certain level of resilience here.

00;49;46;16 - 00;50;25;19

Sarra

And so while, you know, I don't know what's going to happen with water in the future, I believe that black, and indigenous and queer folks will continue to survive and thrive because of our resilience and because of the resilience of this land. And so I think that's something that, that keeps me going and realizing that with a lot of this work, you know, when you are doing culture change work, you usually are often, you know — think about Galileo and talking about like, you know, the Earth is round and it doesn't, you know, like not everything revolves around it, and you know, he was killed.

00;50;25;26 - 00;50;48;21

Sarra

But at the same time, like, you know, it can be isolating to be to be on the edge of culture change. But at the same time, what I think about is like, you know, we're planting trees that we might not ever get to sit under the shade of, but we can rest easy knowing that, you know, for the next generation it's going to be better.

00;50;49;05 - 00;51;21;18

Jeanne

That's a fantastic thing to end on. Thank you.

Sarra

Yeah.

Jeanne

Thanks so much to Sarra again for taking the time to talk with me on the Arizona Equals Conversation. We have new episodes with queer people telling their stories that come out every week, every Wednesday morning. I'd love to talk with you, so check out our archive online at EqualityArizona.org/stories and use the form at the bottom of that page to sign up to be a guest on a future episode of the podcast.

00;51;21;18 - 00;51;49;00

Jeanne

If you're not already subscribed to the show in a podcast player, I'd really encourage you to do that. You can find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or really any platform, and if you're enjoying the show, please consider leaving a rating or a review, especially on Apple Podcasts. Those really help us to get to a wider audience. Thanks so much for listening, and talk to you again next week.