Show Notes

Dany Sigwalt, Executive Director at Power Shift Network, has spent much of her career moving between movement building and youth leadership development, working to marry the two into one cohesive strategic reality. She cut her organizing teeth providing solidarity childcare for housing rights advocates in DC, fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with the Occupy DC movement. She joined Power Shift Network in 2016 as Operations Director and has been supporting the organization in exploring better distribution of leadership energy for long term sustainability ever since.

She addresses the question of “What Could Possibly Go Right?” with thoughts including:

  • The reflection time during the pandemic supporting being more “thoughtful and intentional in our activism”
  • The legacy of Black feminists in identifying language and providing analysis of the intersectionalities in systems causing harm
  • The growing collective consciousness in activism and the “willingness not to leave anybody behind in the work that we’re doing”
  • The benefits of policies that have impacts across different issue areas, such as the Green New Deal
  • The power-building of mutual aid, through developing relationships and local resiliency; reducing “the level of control that the normative economy has over our lives”.

Connect with Dany Sigwalt

Twitter: twitter.com/danysiggy

Instagram: <instagram.com/danysiggy

Website: powershift.org

Facebook: facebook.com/powershiftnetwork

Twitter: twitter.com/powershiftnet

Instagram: instagram.com/power_shift

Vicki Robin

Hi, Vicki Robin here, host of What Could Possibly Go Right? a project of the Post Carbon Institute. We interview cultural scouts, people who see far and serve the common good, to help us all see more clearly and act more courageously in times of great change. My guest today is Dany Sigwalt, a native of Washington, DC. She has spent much of her career moving between movement building and youth leadership development, working to marry the two into one cohesive strategic reality. She cut her organizing teeth providing solidarity childcare for housing rights advocates in DC, fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with the Occupy DC movement. She joined the Power Shift Network as Operations Director and has been supporting the organization and exploring better distribution of leadership energy for long term sustainability ever since. The Power Shift Network mobilizes the collective power of young people to mitigate climate change and create a just, clean energy future and resilient, thriving communities for all. Now, here’s my interview with Dany.

Vicki Robin

Hi Dany, and welcome to What Could Possibly Go Right? I have to say that you are the most radical guest I’ve had. I’ll bet that’s a compliment, right?

Dany Sigwalt

Absolutely.

Vicki Robin

In a piece in Medium, and I don’t often read things out but because I’ve been researching you, I’m doing this. In Medium, you said, “To show up for black folks in the climate movement, it means consciously choosing your movement homes. It means looking at who’s in the room and asking why black folks aren’t there. Choosing carefully means leaving and finding the work that Black folks, Indigenous folks and folks of Color are leading, and plugging into that.” Here on your website, you say, “We’re committed to action, mutual support and solidarity. We’re building a strong intersectional bottom-up movement to take on the climate crisis, shift the power and change the system.” And you’re focused on youth. What you’ve just said there is the fundamental truth that sometimes gets sugar-coated. Also, the spokespeople for this truth are often sort of prettied up, so that people who don’t agree can take it on. So, as you may remember, the point of this podcast is not analysis of what went very, very wrong, or an outline of our plan to make it right. Rather, we turn to people like you who have their eyes on the horizon, who’ve been strategic, who’ve won and lost and won again, who are seasoned, to tell us what you see emerging that bodes well. We started the podcast in the midst of the pandemic, and the massive international response to the murder of George Floyd, then the election, then January six, but now we are opening up again, ready or not. People want to get back to normal and as you and I know, that’s abnormal. It’s time for people like you to notice opportunities for change that are ripe and already blossoming and could blossom more if we pay attention. So in that vein, I am pitching you our one and still relevant question: In the midst of all that seems to be going wrong, what could possibly go right?

Dany Sigwalt

I love that. Thank you so much for having me, Vicki. There’s so many things that can go right because there are so many opportunities that we are looking at today. I think that a lot of us saw at the beginning of the pandemic this moment, this glistening moment of what is possible when it comes to restoring ecological life. There were all of those pictures of the fish flying in Venice and the open, beautiful blue skies in Delhi, which are normally very polluted. I think that this year and a half of forced reflection for a lot of us and forced pause has created a lot of new opportunities, especially for young folks who have both seen what is possible if we are able to slow down and pause and reflect and be thoughtful and intentional in our activism and also in terms of the ability for our entire lives to crash in on us at just a second’s notice. I think that in terms of a movement ecology, we are in a moment, thanks to incredible Black feminists like Kimberlé Crenshaw and Audre Lorde and the Combahee River Collective and all of these other elders in the movement, who have brought us the language and analysis around intersectionality that really helped us build out frameworks to deeply understand the interconnectedness of all of the various systems that are causing us harm; causing us as individual humans harm, causing collective groups of marginalized humans harm, and the environment as a whole.

So I think that there’s a very real willingness and commitment to get things right in terms of policy and in terms of community building, and a willingness to pause and reflect. My favorite thing about working with young folks in this particular moment is that people are really willing and committed to a black feminist framework that centers people who are most deeply impacted. There’s a growing consciousness about what that means at all times. There are new groups and new marginalizations that come into collective consciousness, but there’s a willingness not to leave anybody behind in the work that we’re doing, which feels newer to me, and feels more normalized, which I really appreciate. The ways that we are building a future that works for us all and the commitment that people have to do that, rather than being okay with individual groups having their individual moments, but letting folks really sink through the implications of the decisions that we’re making on folks who are traditionally marginalized. I think that the disability justice movement has really done so much fantastic work in lifting up folks’ consciousnesses. There’s a lot of beauty on the horizon.

Vicki Robin

Yeah, so I wonder. Clearly I’m not of your generation. I wonder if this positivity that you see is located, it increases as you go down the age scale. I mean, statistics say that young people are easily 50% positive about socialism, and people in my generation are still like in the Cold War, still like “duck and cover”. That’s what I grew up with. So is it that the younger the person is, the more open they are to change and the more radical they are?

Dany Sigwalt

I think that that’s always been the case to a big degree, right? The people who are young now are definitely a new generation but I think that there’s something across movements, across time, that has strung together young people. Young folks have always been at the forefront of social movements, because young people understand that they have the most to lose, because they are going to be living for the longest in whatever reality it is that we’re building together. And also, young folks have had less time to be indoctrinated.

Vicki Robin

Exactly, and I was very radical when I was young.

Dany Sigwalt

I mean, thinking about the Vietnam War, thinking about the suffrage movement, even going back to abolitionists, young folks have always been at the forefront of social movements, not just in the US but internationally. Because when you have kids and when you have responsibilities and all of these things, that becomes much more difficult. Also, policies like austerity measures, and things of that nature, are going to have the biggest impacts on young folks. So they’re most directly impacted by negative policies. Thinking about social security and all of these things, those policies end up benefiting older folks on the backs of younger folks, and we have a really, really strong and strategic analysis about what that means for our lives and for our futures.

Vicki Robin

Yeah, I know I asked you in the beginning to not do the analysis. But I wonder, what are the policies that the young folks in your movement, if there were one or two that would be linchpin policies that are getting people really excited?

Dany Sigwalt

Yeah, I think the policies that get folks most excited are the policies that are gonna have lots of impacts across different issue areas. The Green New Deal has obviously been a really big deal for young folks, partially because of green infrastructure. But there’s a lot of conversation and a lot of intentionality going into what the individual policies are, or individual programs are, that go into the Green New Deal, because something so massive has as much of an opportunity to go incredibly well as incredibly badly. It’s really important that we are framing government investments to go towards people and not corporations.

But the part of the Green New Deal that a lot of young folks are really excited about, that might be a separate program, is the Civilian Climate Corps, because the way that our economy has been working out, in terms of both young folks’ ability to get jobs, in terms of debt burdens that young folks coming out of school have now, the housing costs; all of these things come together to make an incredibly horrific economic situation for Millennials and Gen Zers, that really investing in opportunities for young folks to have access to living wages is really critical, both for our generation and the entire economy as a whole. Because we see things like birth rates declining so drastically and that’s happening because we’re just so economically marginalized as a generation or as generations of younger people. So I’m really excited about that.

I think that the other thing, especially coming from a climate perspective, that’s important to talk about, is that there’s a variety of programs and policies and coming from a climate lens, it’s really important for us to understand that housing policy is a climate policy, and immigration is a climate policy. Part of the newer generation of youth activists, and why I appreciate them so deeply, is that there is a willingness to show up and bring that articulation and bring people together around it; like United We Dream and DACA, Deferred Action for Child Arrivals. Recipients and activists have been out here really pushing for immigration reform. I’ve been really, really happy to see journalists and see narrative folks really pushing an understanding that deep immigration reform really needs to be a part of a holistic climate policy. Because you know, so many Latin American folks are coming to the States now, because of the impacts of the hurricanes. Those things aren’t separate. Really just understanding that they’re not separate, and that we need to be building a values-aligned base of folks in elected office to be able to really articulate those things and realize that our future is actually not about corporate interests, but the well-being of our people.

Vicki Robin

Yeah, right. And so how is the activism going now? I mean, we’ve had a year plus of flocking online, and we used to talk about people in the streets. How is it now? Where are people in the streets now?

Dany Sigwalt

Yeah, there have been massive waves of mutual aid for starters. I know a lot of people in a lot of organizations really shifted pretty drastically at the beginning of the pandemic, to focus on people meeting people’s needs in the community. Both organizations and individuals have been building into that. The thing about mutual aid is that it’s a power-building technique, right? So through doing mutual aid, we’re building relationships, deep relationships with people in our communities, and also building power because we’re removing the level of control that the normative economy has over our lives. So by building mutual aid frameworks and networks across our communities, we’re going to be more able to mobilize humans who had been left out, who might not have had capacity. We’re going to have the ability to do things like offer child care, so that people can actually mobilize when the time comes, when it feels safe and when it feels appropriate. But also, I think that local resiliency piece is a really important thing there too. Lots of folks have been really invested in figuring out what it looks like to grow their own food, to lessen their dependence on an economic system that’s really been invested in extracting from us, to produce in our own communities and share and build abundance locally.

Vicki Robin

Yeah. Is there a solidarity with what we’ve called essential workers? Because essential workers are, in a way, exactly who you’re talking about.

Dany Sigwalt

Yeah, absolutely. I think a lot of those people end up being the folks that are being welcomed into community mutual aid programs and practices. I’ve seen so many wonderful things happening, here in DC where I live, that are both essential things… and there’s a collective of people who bake birthday cakes, for folks, for kids specifically. Every month, they’ll take orders and just bake these really beautiful cakes with very cute decorations, and put a lot of care and love into it. I think that that kind of care and love is something that has to really be cultivated, and is also really important for climate resiliency as a whole in terms of our abilities to withstand climate change in the long run, because it’s coming. And in a lot of ways COVID has proven to be kind of a microcosm of what that can look like, in terms of the government ignoring the science and the government investing in corporations over individual relief packages, and things like that; where folks are getting a lot of really good practice in building in the the practices and procedures to be able to take care of one another on a local level, which is really beautiful.

Vicki Robin

You looked excited and you said a lot of cool stuff is going on in DC besides birthday cakes. Do you have any other stories?

Dany Sigwalt

I’m trying to think. I haven’t been at the center of it, but really great examples of tenants organizing their buildings through rent strikes and pushing the city to support excluded workers, so folks who are undocumented who for whatever other reason don’t have the paper evidence necessary to be able to collect on unemployment, to be able to support those folks. A lot of really beautiful community organizing happening to make sure, both within and outside of the government, to make sure that folks’ needs are being met.

Vicki Robin

Yeah, so now the economy is opening up, according to the newspapers. What newspapers do you read, Vicki? Well, I read a lot. It’s still difficult, you know. Companies are still finding it hard to attract workers at wages they were able to attract workers before. People don’t want to work for under $15 an hour. No, it’s just not worth it to them. I think a lot of people have figured out how to make enough money outside the dominant economy. It’s true that under times of duress, there’s an increased solidarity; then when the duress is off, that people start to try to individualize their solutions. What’s holding together the movements that you’ve built under the duress of COVID, and also the Trump administration?

Dany Sigwalt

Yeah, I’m making a face because it’s not me who’s building it, right? It’s the folks who I’m working with who are doing the work. I in no way, shape, or form want to be taking credit for it. There are, obviously, many times the number of folks who I am working with, who I’m not working with who are doing so much incredible work. But I think that when we’re talking about the movement landscape as a whole… for starters, there’s a certain level of consciousness that exists because of folks like the Fight For 15, around the level of inequity and folks have been doing really good education work. I think that folks have a deeper understanding about how everything is so broken, that opting back into a system that just doesn’t work and didn’t work, becomes even more unpalatable. I think that people were really forced to figure out how to configure their lives in community to reduce dependence on the economy and economic system that we live in. I think that there’s so many layers to that, around the political education that people have been pushing for so long, and also the availability for support, that folks don’t feel like they’re by themselves. I mean, working for $7.25, which is the federal minimum wage is just unfathomable. The idea of trying to sustain yourself, let alone a family on that kind of money; it makes a lot of sense why that doesn’t make sense to people, especially when they have other people in their communities who have their back and when they can spend their time and energy supporting other people, whether or not there’s a direct financial benefit to it.

Understanding that for us to survive and thrive, it’s about a lot more than just money, is really powerful. It’s a really powerful lesson that I think a lot of people have absorbed, whether or not that’s been directly through an organized mutual aid effort, or because families are coming together. Folks, I hope, are able to find resources outside of the government and outside of jobs to be able to figure out how to live their lives, ultimately. And in the long run will hopefully either encourage people to double down on a community level, and to be able to provide for one another, or push the government to take more responsibility. I think to some degree, we’re seeing that happen with the Child Tax Benefit that’s about to come into effect, that’s going to have a lot of really positive effects on people. And this bill that Biden is pulling together, there’s a lot of really exciting things that could be really transformative for folks. It’s interesting to see and think about how that’s gonna play out in terms of the government coming in and providing those resources and lessening the dependency on local support and resiliency practices, to see how that evens out. Because depending on how you look at it, both things are socialism, right? So it’s like, what version is going to win, and what is going to meet the most people’s needs is a really interesting interrogation that I think more folks would be talking about.

Vicki Robin

I’ve been involved in what’s been called the simplicity movement for many years, back to the land. Really, I’ve been involved in mutual aid, analyzing what needs can money fill and what are needs that money can’t fill and all that stuff. So it sounds to me there’s a possibility that what you’re seeing – not you, I’ve corrected myself – with the movements you’re seeing, is it’s very hard from top down to sell simplicity, without it sounding like, Okay, get over it and just make do. We’re gonna keep the economy rolling as it was. But the people are discovering for themselves. What do you think it’s going to take to stay bonded with that, the practices? I’m just really curious about what’s gonna stick. What do we see now that’s gonna stick? I’m just asking you as a cultural scout what your perceptions are?

Dany Sigwalt

Yeah, I think that’s a great question. To some degree, it’s gonna have to be a destruction of a lot of systems that exist right now, in terms of the multinational corporations who are exploiting people, to be able to exploit us in a different way as consumers; exploiting workers abroad to then exploit us as consumers here in the States. And including exploiting workers in the States. It’s all terrible, and global, in different ways. I think lessening our ability to have access to cheap goods overall, and thinking about the plastic production and how that’s ruining the planet; real efforts to shift culturally rather than just thinking about the ways that new technologies and pushing for new technologies is going to be a huge piece of it.

But ultimately, I work in climate and I am not necessarily an optimist when it comes to it. We are barreling towards something really, really bad and it’s gonna continue to shift. There’s not going to be a continuation of normal, period, regardless of what technologies or plans or whatever we’re coming into in the next couple of years. So I think disaster is a part of it. We think about folks who came of age during the Depression, right? There’s all of these stereotypes that exist of these folks of saving wrapping paper, or reusing things until they fall apart. That came out of that mentality of: There is not access to these things, things are bad, we are in a disaster mode. I think that that’s going to continue. I think that there’s pieces around how we build infrastructure, that are going to be really important over the next couple of years; thinking about the food system, for example, that entire supply chain could disappear. There’s only one breed of banana that we have access to, you know. Entire economies can collapse because of a bug or a fungus or whatever. We really need to be really thoughtful about that and the way that we’re investing, and I think that longer term understanding of what we’re up against is going to be our best bet and also necessity.

Vicki Robin

I really hear you. When I listen, I just feel like all the balls are rolling around to mutual aid; that’s a foundational piece, that of people discovering one another as resources. Not an exploitative way, but in that mutuality and reciprocity way, which for me and my work has been trying to make that seem like the funnest game in town. I also hear what you’re saying – and it’s just something for me, you, people in movements, people listening – is to really understand that we have a window. If it breaks down too fast, too far, and people can’t keep up with it, then it’s going to be the darker scenarios. If we can hold on to what we’ve learned in marginalized communities and the analysis that we’re all in this together, the experience that we’re all in this together, the preference for not shooting out of your social circles if you have an opportunity to.

It’s like if these things can be reinforced, practically; things like, we have a Buy Nothing network where I live, and stuff’s moving around all the time. Every time something moves, people love each other more. That’s the cool thing. So, all of these networks that have grown up, where people are realizing we can give to one another, and it’s going to be better. I just feel like that’s such an important piece of what you’re doing, is reinforcing the positives. Not the: “Oh, isn’t it fun? We don’t have any wheels anymore. Yeah, walking is great!” It’s like that narrow passage, where we’re gonna make it through if we make it through together. And the people who don’t know how to do that are going to try to buy their way through or they’re just not going to be able to do it. Super important, what you’re doing. Do you have any last comments before we wind up?

Dany Sigwalt

I think that one of the things that’s most important to take away from these kind of conversations, especially for folks with different kinds of privilege – whether that’s racial privilege, gender privilege, class privilege – is that folks who have been marginalized forever are the ones who know the most about mutual aid. And they might not have that language; they might not have that approach. But that kind of way of living, where you’re dependent on people in your community to help you care for yourself and others in your family, is really the key. Mutual aid isn’t a new idea. We really need to be looking to and lifting up the folks who have been doing it forever, who live in that way, rather than thinking that we’re inventing something new and building leadership among folks for whom it’s a political practice, rather than a way of being, if that makes sense.

Vicki Robin

Totally, it’s a relational practice. Of course. I mean, it’s sort of like that traditionally, communities of color have figured this out big time. It’s a little hard for people of my skin tone to drop into that, even though I’ve spent my life trying to do that in my own way and educating people to do that. Actually, what you’re saying… I don’t like the word hope very much. I like something more gritty, but it does feel like there’s some foundation that’s come out of this period of time, that is really good to be aware of. And the context you’re talking about; about, Don’t think that you’re inventing something, as you say, political but that it is a emergent phenomenon. That intersectionality is super important. So anyway, thank you so much Dany, for taking some time and sharing your thoughts. I really appreciate it.

Dany Sigwalt

Thanks for having me.

Read and listen to more related articles on Resilience.org:

Prolonged uprising is the new normal

Young people and climate changes: Why it’s our time to take the reins

Pandemic solidarity: Care, love, and mutal aid