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Tori Tsui: Intersectional Environmentalism, Joy and Hope

A piece by Leila Meredith, who joined the EH*V team as a summer volunteer in 2020.

Meeting Tori, even online, was such an enriching and invaluable opportunity. Her truth, authenticity and empathy was really humbling to experience. She brings such passion and sensitivity to her work, striving to imagine and create a more caring, fairer, greener world. Tori describes herself as an intersectional climate activist, an educator and a mental health advocate, who focuses her work on recognising and communicating the intersection of issues of social justice and the system that creates and proliferates the climate crisis.

Tori’s journey to activism

In talking to Tori I was interested in understanding where she felt her commitment to activism grew from, what motivated and inspired her; essentially what journey had she taken to become the passionate, accomplished activist I experience her as. Tori described her activism as something that is intrinsic to her sense of self ,‘It is basically an extension of me’.

Growing up in the countryside around Hong Kong, Tori always had an affinity with nature which grew into an academic interest, which flourished into studying conservation and ecology at university. She cites this journey from childhood, to academic, to activist as a ‘very linear journey’. Instead of focusing her life on academia and providing more science about biodiversity loss, Tori recognised the urgency of this crisis and the importance of communicating this in a relatable way that would incite action within people. As she says, the science is already there, but ‘what we need at this point, in such a small timeframe, is for people to communicate it in a way that is accessible, relatable and tangible’.

I feel that Tori’s activism connects the climate crisis to the personal and emotional, recognising the anxiety, depression and inequalities that are cultivated and proliferated by the system of power that is the root of the climate crisis.

‘So much of the nuance about the climate crisis, and so much of the anxiety that I felt was not being captured in a way that felt relatable’.

Within her platform Tori is deeply honest saying that her activism is ‘built from a lot of my own mental health struggles, a lot is also built from the sensitivity I feel as an intuitive empath .’ It is within this authenticity and honesty that she connects the social and emotional realities to the crisis. Amsler (2015) argues that the current system of power compartmentalises our being, disconnecting the ‘body, mind, spirit and society’(Amsler, 2015, p.174). Tori’s work reflects Amsler’s argument that it is vital to value and give time to the emotions that are needed to understand this crisis. In this way I perceive Tori’s description of her work to be filling exactly the gap that she described. Tori creates an authentic space in which people can begin to unpack the climate crisis from a position that is not solely academic. She communicates the social and ecological crisis from a compassionate perspective that is very relatable.

Intersectional environmentalism

In creating a relational and authentic community within her social media Tori opens up a space for communication that is deeply critical and highlights the systems of oppression that are the source of the climate crisis. Tori asserts that the systems advancing the climate crisis are the same systems that proliferate racism, sexism, ableism and so many other social justice issues. Therefore, to fight for climate justice is to attempt to dismantle all of these oppressive systems. For Tori climate activism should work in deconstructing ‘the systems of oppression that have led to the climate crisis in the first place’.

Tori notes the exclusionary nature of the climate movement from the tactics and role models to the focus of the movement.

‘I don’t think the climate protesting and the climate movement in its quintessential or stereotypical form is particularly accommodating’.

Tori suggests that in order for the climate crisis to continue to gain momentum and make meaningful change it is crucial that the movement analyze the intersections of the climate crisis and social justice issues. Tori advocates for ‘more inclusivity in the climate movement and more emphasis on the different justice issues.’ Furthermore, it is vital for the health and continuation of the climate crisis to reflect inwardly to how dynamics of power and privilege are playing out within the movement. Indeed, Tori highlights the problematic nature of the climate movement and the media in capitalising on a few climate activists as our ‘saviours’.

‘I find that very problematic because a lot of the time they are young white women, which is not to say that they haven’t done much for the movement, but you know the climate movement has been going on long before it became an issue for the Global North’.

It is important to consider the positionality of our role models and the voices we are listening to. Are we just listening to white women for the Global North, how did we come across these voices? Tori highlights this in our conversation.

‘I encourage for anyone who is thinking of their own role models, how many of these people have you found in the media, how many of these people have you found because they have been popularised’.

There is so much to learn and unlearn in the fight for climate justice and the voices that we listen to are vital in shaping the journey.

Cultivating critical hope

Within our conversation we discussed different understandings of hope, how the concept of hope can either be rooted in comfortable inaction or a critical motivator to drive profound change. Often hope is considered to be or used as comfort, allowing people to delay action in the hope that someone or something else will make the change. Tori describes the futility of this hope, arguing that it is often used to patronise young activists and place the responsibility on their shoulders.

‘The sentence I hate the most is ‘you give us hope’. I hate that… that feels like the biggest back handed complement ever’.

This conception of hope allows people to evade the harsh reality of having to make purposeful change themselves. However, together we considered the importance of critical hope, a concept championed by critical theorists who consider critical hope as vital to the struggle for change. It is through recognising the failings of this system and actively imagining what a better world would look like that we can build the strength we need and fight off hopelessness (Ojala, 2017; Freire, 1994).

By critically recognising the destructive and oppressive nature of our current society we can begin to imagine and put into action a world that is compassionate. Tori’s words highlighted this for me when she was discussing how her experiences surrounding mental health have enabled her to picture a better world. ‘how am I going to carve out a space for myself and embody the values of the world I want to live in’. For Tori it is identifying how this system does not work for her that she can begin to piece together a picture of what a world that accommodates her would look like. ‘So for me understanding myself, my traumas and what I imagine a world that would accommodate me would like helps me, at least in my advocacy, move forwards with intention and creating this utopia’.

Furthermore, for Tori it was this consideration of the way in which this system marginalised her experiences as someone with mental health conditions that allows her to be compassionate and empathetic to other social justice issues.

She suggests that ‘the same struggles that I experience as someone with mental health conditions, not directly but can be applied and extrapolated to apply to a lot of other social justice issues.’

I consider Tori’s work, her understanding of herself and the empathy she holds towards the struggles of others to be acts of resistance, cultivating critical hope. In a society so built on individualism Tori considers the collective. In a world focused on the impossibilities of any alternative way of being Tori recognises the destruction and imagines a utopia that is accommodating, caring and green (Amsler, 2015).

Joy as resistance

Tori and I discussed the roles of rest and joy as acts of rebellion against the fast pace of capitalist society. This is more than just rest this is instead an ‘act of resistance’.

‘This culture that we live in, this society that we live in always, always capitalises on grinding and burn out and excess because we live in a capitalistic system where people are just told they are there to work and earn money.’

By structuring boundaries around the use of her energy and time, and recognising that she cannot constantly carry the weight of the social and ecological crisis, Tori creates a space in which she can challenge the burn out culture of capitalism. This culture forces productivity and constant fight, ultimately leading activists to burn out. Instead Tori is actually ‘here to say I’m in this for the long run, this is a huge fundamental part of me and my joy is political warfare’. Tori’s words make me consider again the work of Sarah Amsler where she suggests that it is powerfully countercultural to meet the speed of capitalism with slowness (Amsler, 2015). It is within this slowness and reflection that activists can learn, imagine and teach how to be differently. Indeed, in Tori’s vision of utopia there is space to rest, be joyful and ‘take care of my mental health’. In this way Tori is performing prefigurative politics, the notion ‘the struggle for a different society must create that society through its forms of struggle’ (Holloway, 2010, p.45). Tori’s activism and rest reflects bell hooks’ assertion that ‘our lives must be a living example of our politics’ (hooks, 1994, p.48)

We went on to discuss the role of the current pandemic in providing the ‘crack’ we need in order to reflect, adapt and move forward into our vision of a better future. It is arguable that there has been space for growth within this tragedy, because there is no denying or glamorising Covid has been devastating. However, as Tori suggests, it forced us to adapt.

In adapting, it has actually made us slow down and listen, again it is part of challenging burn out, grind, capitalistic culture because it has forced us to literally sit with our feelings, sit with our thoughts… and reimagine a world that we want to live in’ .

Furthermore, this crisis has enabled us to reorganise social relations, though this has definitely not always been positive Tori highlights that Covid has made activism more accessible and facilitated the building of global networks of activists through social media and conferencing platforms. ‘we are connecting through different means’.

Community and connection

Something I have observed in following Tori’s work via her Instagram is the sense of community that she has created. In creating this community Tori provides connection and solidarity, a place to learn and critically engage in conversation. Tori has very effectively followed the desire that she expressed to ‘communicate it in a way that is accessible, relatable and tangible’. It is Tori’s authenticity and vulnerability on her Instagram platform that opens up the opportunity for conversation and community. As she states herself her posts are raw and vulnerable which allows her followers the space to be real and honest about aspects of their life and learning. ‘nearly all the posts I make are literally like I have a thought and I need to brain dump this’.

We talked a little about the value of having a community in supporting and motivating activism. Tori highlights that ‘when we think of the systems that we live in, these are literally systemic problems and the only way that we can dismantle them is through the collection of individual actions to form some sort of system change’.

Tori proposes that ‘in the society we live in we put so much pressure on individual action’ but it is the system that is broken,‘it is almost like a disease that has effected entire populations and so we need to think about it in terms of how we are going to find a collective solution’.

I consider that in a society that promotes individualism it is an act of rebellion to build connections reaffirms belonging and allows us to reclaim the truth of humanity, that we are caring and altruistic (Monbiot, 2017). Tori notes how important it is for her to feel validation and compassion from her community ‘when it comes to the things that I am fighting for on a day to day basis it is so heartwarming for people to go: I see you and I hear you and I agree with you and I want to challenge you as well’.

Towards Utopia

Tori’s work holds a spotlight to the systemic nature of the climate crisis, highlighting that our current society is destructive and oppressive. The climate crisis is an intersectional crisis, intertwining with issues of social justice. The capitalist system of the Global North drives the destruction which disproportionately harms those in the Global South.

Power and privilege deeply affect how the climate crisis is experienced and filter into the way activism is perceived and organised. If the system is destructive, how do we begin to live differently and motivate for change? Tori highlights the need for collaboration, to connect, feel supported but at the same time challenged to think critically.

‘There is something so beautiful that we are all in this together... for me communication is a really big thing and finding a sense of community whatever community that might be.

Finding a community enables us to have critically challenging conversations, to question systems of power and listen to alternative voices. Community allows us to demystify the neoliberal myth that we are alone and that we must challenge this system alone.

Tori shows us that our fight for a new world can create that new world within it. She demonstrates the importance of knowing yourself, your experiences and allowing space for rest and joy. This does not take away from your activism but enhances it, it is resistance and allows you to maintain motivation and strength against a system that can often feel immutable.

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