“Extending Ourselves”

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I’ve done work from nearly all corners of the globe, but I can certainly say that I’ve never found myself writing while tucked inside a sleeping bag, wearing my boyfriend’s sweater and sheltered from the winds of Tasmania in a teepee.

My teepee home for the week at the Newkind Festival

And yet, here I am, having arrived just a few hours ago at Newkind Festival, a small yet sweeping social justice and environmental activism conference that offers a week’s worth of inspiring speakers, interactive workshops and behind-the-scenes conversation among likeminded people who care about making a difference in our troubled world today.

“You probably have no idea what is going to happen. You likely don’t know anyone on site, but you’ve shown up because you know that something has to happen in our society,” the event founder, Erfan Daliri, told the small group of volunteers and speakers who were on the beautiful Marion Bay property today. “We are extending ourselves at Newkind. That makes it challenging and also exciting.”

I did know someone on site: My friend Olga, who I came to love during the Ocean Yoga Festival in Amed, Bali last October, is the festival’s safety coordinator. Another dear friend, Jodie, a funny and passionate vegan activist I met at an ashram in December, arrives tomorrow. They both encouraged me to come here. It was life-changing, they both said. It was something I’d love, they both said.

Erfan talking to the volunteers the night before the festival begins. It’s a non-profit festival unlike any other one I’ve attended … and I’ve attended heaps (as they say here in Australia).

They didn’t even realize my history with activism. I’ve been doing my little part since I started thinking for myself. I was the president of a recycling club when I was in sixth grade. I became vegetarian when I was 15. I spend hours – full weeks, at times – doing community service projects when I was in middle and high school, helping poor people who couldn’t afford to fix their homes or delivering meals to elderly. At New York University, I spent a week every year volunteering at AIDS centers or homeless shelters. I was the president of the environmental and social justice club there, too. We organized protests to stop the destruction of old growth redwoods, strengthened the recycling program at the university, worked with the purchasing department to buy post-consumer waste paper for the copy machines and, along with the vegan group, pressured the dining hall to carry dairy-free milk. We supported the pop-up community garden movement that was threatened by the city administration at the time. I marched down Broadway to stop corporate media buyouts. I got a mic ripped from my hands in Washington Square Park when standing up for the rights of women. I was never scared to get involved.

Me in Washington Square Park, where I once got kicked off a stage for a surprise pro-feminist protest against Baywatch, the crap TV show that happened to be holding try-outs for objectifying women on Earth Day and allowed me to speak to the crowd as the president of the environmental club. NEVER MISS AN OPPORTUNITY!

I saw a bumper sticker today that read: DILLIGAF!?Underneath, it translated: “Does it look like I give a f**k?” Well, I GAF. I have always given AF.

When I graduated, however, things changed. I started working as an environmental reporter for a chain of newspapers. There’s a thing about journalists: They cannot get involved with activist causes for fear of ruining their objectivity. I did make a difference as a journalist, shining the light on serious water quality issues and other major concerns impacting the natural ecosystem of Florida. When a county engineering department was forced to remove the gravelly road bedding they put on the beach to protect the condos (to the detriment of the sea turtles trying to nest), I cried with joy at what my dogged reporting could accomplish. But after a while, I yearned to raise my hand and offer my own good ideas for progress.

When I finally left journalism, I worked for social movements that helped children and families. I secured grants and organized construction of a playground in a minority community that suffered from gang violence and childhood obesity epidemics. I organized a fundraiser among friends to buy a trombone for a boy whose family could not afford one. I helped pass a referendum that saved $9 million every year for good programs like prenatal care for mothers who couldn’t afford it, mental health programs for kids and school nurses. I created a project that placed 100 little libraries overflowing with books in my community. And all the while, I bought vegetables from local organic farmers, picked up litter in major sweeps of my neighborhood twice a year, voted in every single election and signed all the petitions on topics I cared about.

But as faithful readers of this blog force me to acknowledge, I’ve been resting on my laurels lately. Besides expressing outrage for the direction my country of origin is going, I have not been doing a lot of looking outward. I’ve been looking inward. I’ve been traveling, experiencing new cultures, learning about life and, most importantly, understanding and falling in love with myself. It’s been important work for me. But how am I helping?

This is where I am on the first day of this different kind of festival. This isn’t like the music festivals I wrote about in my book, “Operation Big Fun: A Fest Life Guide.” There will be some music, but it’s a drug-free and alcohol-free event. The program is packed with lectures on solar power, cultural awareness, ecofeminism and community engagement. It serves only vegan food, and you have to bring your own utensils and bowl (which I carry in my pack anyway). There are no trash bins because there is no waste. Over dinner, I had my first of, surely, many conversations about what we can do to make the world a better place.

It’s really hard to respect people who think it’s OK for a government to take children from their parents and then lose track of more than a thousand of these children, all because the parents tried desperately to offer a safer life with food.

Here’s one thing I need to do, starting today: Be more understanding. I have struggled to find respect for those, particularly in America, who support the rich politicians who talk about grabbing women “in the pussy,” who take away the rights of anyone who isn’t heterosexual, who support neo-Nazis and criticize anyone who is a minority and whose agendas are designed to make life worse for anyone who isn’t in the top 1 percent of the socio-economic national structure. I still struggle with that. A lot. I learned that a lot of people who I presumed were loving, compassionate humans actually had a lot of hate and prejudice in their hearts. These Trump supporters told me to “go to the toilet and find a snack,” called me illiterate and stupid, all because I had the nerve to speak out against hate. I cried, but then I gave up on a lot of people. 

Maybe that’s natural, but giving up on people is not going to make the world a better place.

“There is a huge amount of work needed to change our behavior. Let’s be sensitive of our differences,” Ella Rose Goninan, another organizer of the festival, told the small crowd tonight. “We need each other to change the world.”

The moon will be full tomorrow morning, and I’m excited to see it. I’m excited to be inspired this week to be a better version of myself. I’m excited to extend myself. I’m ready to make change.