On being an environmental lawyer: storytelling with a purpose

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(Cross-posted from the Science and Environmental Health Network‘s blog)

As a young environmental attorney, I am fortunate to count Carolyn Raffensperger as one of my most trusted mentors. Carolyn’s advice and guidance deeply inform my work as the Advocacy Director for Women’s Earth Alliance, where I am building and stewarding a new pro bono legal and policy advocacy initiative to support indigenous environmental justice movements. Advocates within the Sacred Earth Advocacy Network apply their skills and expertise in collaboration with indigenous women environmental leaders, working towards justice and sustainability on issues like coal and uranium mining, power plants and waste dumps, and sacred sites desecration. 

In facing the seeming intractability of these entrenched, systemic problems – the exploitation of land and concomitant decimation of culture – I have grappled with the question of how my contribution can truly make a difference. In these times I draw solace and inspiration from Carolyn’s way of working. I see her, and her colleagues at SEHN, telling the story of another paradigm. They are patiently and tirelessly describing the contours of a more just, earth-bound, peace-bringing environmental policy framework, thereby offering clear and comprehensive alternatives to our current legal regime that supports the destruction of our mother earth. Watching SEHN so effectively tell these stories – of the precautionary principle, ecological medicine, guardianship, law for the ecological age – inspires me to also be a voice for what is possible. So I asked myself about the deeper potential inherent in environmental justice advocacy; these were my thoughts, in response.

What is advocacy? Storytelling with a purpose, with an impact. Effective storytelling. What happens when a story is told effectively? People listen, and are moved. Change can occur.
Which stories do we tell?
To whom do we tell them?
How do we tell them? 

Advocacy is the narration of a story, in an effort to convince an arbiter that one of two (or more) competing stories is the more correct, the more just. Justice is the arbiter’s choice of the story which most aligns with a shared set of values. Inherent to the achievement of justice is the telling of stories, the assurance that all who are impacted by an injustice may be heard and witnessed in the telling. 

A body of law is a narrative describing a shared set of values. This larger narrative defines the parameters according to which individual stories may be told. What are the values that underlie our present system of justice, which in turn shape the way that we tell stories within that system? The maximization of economic value is the highest good; the earth is a collection of resources; people are entitled to employ those resources. What results? The commodification of the sacred. The commodification of all life. Disregard for the humanity and value of people whose lives aren’t worth as much as the land they live upon or the resources in the way of which they stand.


How do we bring about a change in these underlying values? Who are the people we must address, what are the stories we must tell, to bring about a framework of collective rights and balance on earth? Which narratives must we surface in order to alter our shared cultural narrative, moving towards sustainability, balance and peace? And how do we tell those stories when our system of justice is not yet trained to hear and digest them? 

The dilemma: withdrawing our complicity from tyranny, while at the same time operating within the parameters of a system that generates and perpetuates tyranny. We recognize that the achievement of true justice is beyond the present capacity of a legal-economic system that relies on injustice in order to function. Simultaneously, we strive for justice according to the terms of that system, in order to protect the land and the people as much as possible while driving systemic change through the introduction of new narratives. 

How do we defend a sacred, alive world within the confines of a system that has no concept of the sacred, which instead sees the world as a collection of non-living resources? By telling stories which say no to devastation, according to the terms of the system, and by telling stories which say yes to alternate narratives which transcend the supposed duality between economic progress and environmental sustainability. 

Indigenous stories are stories about life. Community, future generations, the interconnectedness of being. The legal system tells stories of ownership of property, competition for scarce resources, separation. These are narratives in opposition to one another. Yet we cannot simply stand outside the gates and demand that the fortress tear itself down. We must enter the fortress and invite the guards and the leaders to see how the structure is crumbling, the architecture is faulty. We do this by telling stories that dance at the edges of the system’s capacity to comprehend and to act. We defer to the internal logic of the system, while laying a pathway for that logic such that it leads inevitably to a new result. We offer paradigm-shifting ideas which are nonetheless digestible and able to be assimilated by the system, like the precautionary principle. We advance ideas and take actions which are like strong shoots breaking through the concrete of man-made law, allowing natural law to meet the light and air once again. 

Which stories do we tell? Stories of life.
To whom do we tell them? To those endowed with power who are able to hear.
How do we tell them? In the language of power, in the language of the heart.

We did it! 2009 in review

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Dear friends,

You are amazing.

Thanks to you, 2009 was a banner year for Women’s Earth Alliance. With a week left in 2009, we had raised 75% of our $100,000 match. By New Year’s Eve we had raised $120,000. In just six weeks, 135 donors stepped forward to make this possible.
Here’s a fun slideshow of the year that changed everything. Below is just a glimpse…

In 2009, WEA…

singing small



… supported fifteen teams of African women to launch viable water projects in seven African nations through the Global Women’s Water Initiative;


… convened international experts with leading Indian women farmers and organizations;


… coordinated pro bono services for indigenous environmental justice campaigns in North America;




… grew with more supporters, new goals, a larger budget, a new home, and an expanded online presence;


… and met and exceeded the $100,000 match by $20,000 in 6 weeks!

See more faces and places from 2009:

Thank you for being the wind at our backs. 2010 is going to rock.

With joy,

The Women’s Earth Alliance Team

Victory for Earth and Community in the Navajo Nation

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This week, an administrative law judge for the Department of Interior issued an historic decision revoking Peabody Coal Company’s permit for its Black Mesa and Kayenta coal mines, effecting a precedent-setting victory in the decades-long struggle for environmental justice on Black Mesa. The decision also signals that while the Obama Administration still has its work cut out for it, it has nevertheless departed from the Bush Administration’s wholesale support for fossil fuel based projects — the December 2008 Black Mesa permit was one of Bush’s many 11th hour dirty energy permits.

Judge Holt ruled that because the Department of Interior’s Office of Surface Mining (OSM) failed to issue a supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement on the project, after Peabody revised its plans for the project, OSM’s Final Environmental Impact Statement did not comply with the law. The judge thereby revoked the 2008 permit, which was based on the faulty Final EIS, and remanded it to OSM for revision. 

Wahleah Johns, the co-director of Black Mesa Water Coalition — a Women’s Earth Alliance project partner — spoke to the significance of the decision. “As a community member of Black Mesa I am grateful for Judge Holt’s decision. For 40 years our sacred homelands and people have borne the brunt of coal mining impacts, from relocation to depletion of our only drinking water source. This ruling is an important step towards restorative justice for Indigenous communities who have suffered at the hands of multinational companies like Peabody Energy. This decision is also precedent-setting for all other communities who struggle with the complexities of NEPA laws and OSM procedures in regards to environmental protection.” 

The decision is only part of the larger effort towards healing, for land and communities. Wahleah reminds us that “we also cannot ignore that irreversible damage of coal mining industries continues on the land, water, air, people and all living things.” 

Women’s Earth Alliance honors the tireless work of women like Wahleah Johns and her Navajo and Hopi colleagues, whose persistence in advocating for environmental sanctity and cultural sovereignty yields game-changing successes like this decision.


We are over half way there!
Last month we shared that a very generous donor has offered to match every dollar donated to Women’s Earth Alliance up to $100,000.  And they will every year for the next three years!
As of today you have contributed $65,000 towards this incredible match opportunity.  We are overwhelmed by your support and feel so grateful for all that you’re doing for WEA, for the women we serve and for our planet earth.
If you have not yet donated to WEA, this is the time!

Work we believe in (A letter from Paul Hawken and Julia Butterfly Hill)

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Dear Friends, 

As you know, Women’s Earth Alliance has a $100,000 match on the table. This morning Amira and Melinda told us that they are 75% there.  As WEA Advisors and donors, we see this as a tremendous moment for this world-class organization. 

If you haven’t already (which many of you have!), we invite you to include Women’s Earth Alliance in your year-end contributions.  There has never been a better time to step in and support their work because your donation will be matched dollar-for-dollar. 

When supported with the tools they need, grassroots women leaders are an unstoppable force.
Solome from Uganda is a perfect example.  She works with grandmothers who are left to care for as many as 12 grandchildren because their parents have died from HIV/AIDS.  Through her work with WEA and the Global Women’s Water Initiative, she has taught grandmothers throughout her region how to bring clean water to their families using rainwater harvesting techniques. Hundreds of people in this community now have access to a safe, hope-filled future. 

Here are the ways for you to participate in inspired giving to WEA:
1. Make a one-time contribution or a 3-year pledge today. Gifts of any size make a huge difference.
2. Buy a WEA Gift Card for a loved one. (Here’s a video to tell you how.)
3. Join the WEA Giving Circle by making a three-year pledge (which will be matched dollar-for-dollar each year)
Thank you for being a part of the WEA family and helping us reach this unprecedented dollar-for-dollar match.

With joy,

Paul Hawken and Julia Butterfly Hill