The Institute for Climate and Peace Returns to Montgomery, Alabama for Place-Based Exchange

This past September, the ICP team had the privilege to engage in place-based knowledge-building, truth-telling, and relationship-building with communities in Alabama.

Institute for Climate and Peace

ICP in Montgomery

In October 2019, the Institute for Climate and Peace embarked on a journey to Montgomery, Alabama. This experience provided vital connections to ICP’s co-founders, advisors, and senior leadership team and intensified the organization’s growth toward centering racial justice, peace, and legacy building. This past September, ICP had the opportunity to return back to Montgomery, Alabama, for five days of immersive justice education and capacity-building. A community steeped in histories of racial justice and reconciliation, Montgomery is the birthplace of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Selma March for Voting Rights. Our team encountered both painful and triumphant stories, in addition to learning from inspiring leaders grappling with some of the nation’s darkest history and continuously working to seek reconciliation. At ICP, we are deeply invested in the stories and futures of all communities braving the threats of violence and inequity, and we are committed to carrying their stories forward with humility while centering collective healing. This reflection is only the beginning of that commitment.

The team’s engagements in Alabama were thoughtfully planned to encapsulate our four pillars of ‘Team Building for Justice’, including:

  • Contextualizing ICP’s values, programs, and changemaking work within Montgomery’s ecosystems in site visits, community engagement, and reflection.
  • Cultivating authentic and trusting relationships within our ICP team and community of practice through time, activities, and mentoring.
  • Affirming ICP’s connections toward peace and justice.
  • Building positive peace in a changing climate by providing critical information, spaces for collaboration, and frameworks for internal learning needed to be good leaders of the work necessary.

This experience prioritized learning and exchange, our relationship to the environment, cultural humility, connections to place and community, collaboration and partnerships, and opportunities for visibility. Some of these engagements included team building opportunities, site visits, community engagement, moments for reflection, mentoring and coaching sessions, and deep connections to peace and justice movements. Furthermore, it served as an opportunity for relationship-building within the ICP core team to lead an Institute which is values-driven, women-led, environmentally conscious, and sustainable to achieve our mission and vision.

Montgomery and Mobile

Day one was spent connecting to place and rooting in the physical space and history of Montgomery led by Michelle Browder, founder of More Than Tours. Michelle began our tour at the historic marker dedicated to the Indigenous communities who first stewarded the land around the village of Encanchata.

While continuing through the Montgomery Riverfront, a powerful moment curated by Michelle was shared when the team walked in a single-file line starting at the riverfront and progressing towards Commerce Street. Our arms were outstretched to the person ahead, symbolizing the shackles of those forced to march from the port or train station to be sold in the city’s slave markets. A sobering reminder that the lives of those kidnapped and enslaved who walked this forced path would be changed forever.

The team rode through Montgomery in Michelle’s red trolley and made a stop at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. pastored for six years. A pastor who was visiting at the same time took a moment to share his experiences of racial discrimination in his youth, and his journey to attend the inauguration of President Barack Obama– the fulfillment of an arc “from the outhouse to the White House,” as he described it. His personal story of hope and perseverance echoed Dr. King’s famous message that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

After a morning in Montgomery, ICP journeyed to Mobile to visit Africatown, a community formed by the some of the last survivors of the transatlantic slave trade and their descendants. In 1860, fifty years after the transatlantic slave trade was outlawed in 1808, 110 Africans endured a violent and horrific journey aboard the Clotilda’s illegal voyage before being forced into enslavement upon their arrival in Mobile Bay. With the guidance of the Africatown Heritage Preservation Foundation, ICP had the opportunity to visit the Africatown Heritage House and experience the new Clotilda: The Exhibition. We activated our learning through cultural humility, offering Indigenous customs and cultural protocol to the community for welcoming us into their sacred space. We committed to taking this story home, with the conviction that truth-telling is an essential step in peace and justice work.

Africatown is inundated with a long history of environmental racism. Community organizer Jocelyn Davis– Co-Founder and Vice President of the Clotilda Descendants Association– transitioned our learning in the Museum to sites of reverence for the community in Africatown, including the wreckage site of the Cotilda in the Mobile River, today at the underbelly of a monstrous highway bridge. While the place held the significance and tranquility of holy ground, the setting surrounded by industrial sites and rushing traffic was a visible reminder of persistent attempts to cover up uncomfortable stories and obscure the process of justice and reconciliation.

“We committed to taking this story home, with the conviction that truth-telling is an essential step in peace and justice work.”

Yet, the work of justice and peace prevails. After leaving the wreckage site, we headed to downtown Prichard at the “Door of Return”. The “Door of Return’’ represents half of an art installation that spans the Atlantic. Its other half, the “Door of No Return,” stands in Benin, Africa, and represents the site of departure for millions who would never see their homeland again. The door in Africatown is one of reconciliation, providing the opportunity to rebuild relationships fractured by the transatlantic slave trade and offering hope to descendants wanting to explore their family’s history. At ICP, we believe this work of intergenerational reconciliation is crucial for building a more just and peaceful future.

Fostering the Growth of the ICP Team

Over the course of our trip, ICP engaged in several capacity-building opportunities to supplement our engagements, allow reflection time to fully absorb the impact of our experiences, and nurture our individual and collective growth. Team members had the opportunity to meet for one-on-one coaching sessions focused on meditation and self-care with Co-Founder Maya Soetoro, and career development with Advisor Gretchen Alther. ICP President Kealoha Fox also led the team in a hands-on weaving activity, strengthening the connection with ICP’s new brand and logo which represents the weaving of experiences and knowledge of many to uplift informed solutions for climate justice, centering each unique community affected by the climate crisis.

The team also took the time to take a step back and reflect on the organization’s work, highlighting successes from the past as well as opportunities for new growth for the future. This was a uniquely valuable experience– especially given that this was the first time that our globally remote team was able to gather together in person. We came away from the session with a renewed sense of organizational vision and new strategies for working together to create the most effective change.

The Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice

During our time in Montgomery, we are honored to have been guided by the work of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a nonprofit organization that provides legal representation to people who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, or abused in state jails and prisons. Their organization challenges the death penalty and excessive punishment and provides re-entry assistance to formerly incarcerated people. On the final day of the trip, ICP had the privilege of visiting two profound sites created and stewarded by EJI: The Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. At the museum, team members journeyed through an immersive, informative, and incredibly powerful space tracing U.S. history from the Transatlantic Slave Trade to the present day. Through multi-media exhibitions– which expertly blended different combinations of text, fine art, song, objects, and video– ICP learned about the Transatlantic and Domestic Slave Trades, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and over-incarceration. Importantly, the team absorbed how the Legacy Museum places emphasis on the wisdom of both scholarship and first-hand testimony and sheds light on the often overlooked, but critical, history of racial terror lynchings.

The legacies explored in the museum have been further honored in the National Memorial for Peace and Justice — “the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved Black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence” (Memorial, EJI). During ICP’s visit, team members paid their respects through both individual practices (e.g., prayer, meditation, silent reflection) and a cultural offering created by weaving together the team’s individual lei lā‘ī (tī leaf lei) into a collective lei lā‘ī.

“If we have the courage and tenacity of our forebearers, who stood firmly like a rock against the lash of slavery, we shall find a way to do for our day what they did for theirs.” — Mary McLeod Bethune

“Inattention to the environment causes harm to the most vulnerable.” -Bryan Stevenson

After visiting both sites, ICP had the honor of sitting down for a roundtable discussion with Bryan Stevenson — renowned lawyer, activist, law professor, and Founder and Executive Director of EJI. The conversation, which was facilitated by ICP Co-founder and Senior Advisor, Maya Soetoro, allowed ICP to learn directly from Mr. Stevenson about his influential work and how it intersects with commitments to social and climate justice. Several ICP team members were also able to present Mr. Stevenson with questions addressing pivotal topics at the nexus of climate, equity, and legal policy like reparations, the “landback” movement, and environmental racism.

Throughout the day, the ICP team was accompanied and held by representatives of the Radical Optimist Collective (ROC) — a group that creates brave spaces where people can have difficult, but healing, conversations that center race. ROC gently facilitated grounding team dialogues before and after the day’s events, and offered support and guidance during site visits. With the help of the ROC, ICP team members were able to set their intentions, express their needs, and process during an incredible, and extremely heavy, day of learning and solidarity.

Our team’s experience in Montgomery was impactful and moving, and we are incredibly grateful for the opportunity to learn together in our beloved community. Emerging from this experience, we reaffirm our commitment to advancing justice for communities at the frontlines of climate change, and we understand the deep links between climate resilience and racial justice. Our place-based exchange in Montgomery, Alabama centered the truth of America’s history and the work needed for our shared futures– one in which climate justice means racial justice, and vice versa.