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A Crip Struggle for Ecojustice | Naomi Ortiz and Syren Nagakyrie in Discussion



Naomi Ortiz and Syren Nagakyrie discuss Naomi's books Rituals for Climate Change: a Crip Struggle for Ecojustice and Sustaining Spirit: Self-care for Social Justice. How can disabled people and activists lean into place and self-care? How can we experience nature and witness changes in the environment and ourselves? Naomi responds to these questions and more while "expand[ing] on and complicating who is seen as an environmentalist and what being in relationship with the land can look like."


Naomi Ortiz is a Poet, Writer, and Visual Artist whose work explores the cultivation of care and connection within states of stress. Their current focus is on climate action, self-care for activists, disability justice, and relationship with place. They are a highly acclaimed speaker and facilitator with a leadership style emphasizing inclusion and spiritual growth.


Syren Nagakyrie is the founder and director of Disabled Hikers, a cross-disability led organization building disability community and justice in the outdoors. They are the author of The Disabled Hiker's Guide to Western Washington and Oregon, The Disabled Hiker's Guide to Northern California, and many other guides and itineraries.



Interview Transcript


Syren Nagakyrie:

I am Syren Nagakyrie. I'm the founder and director of Disabled Hikers and the author of Disabled Hikers Guide to Western Washington and Oregon. And we're here with Naomi Ortiz, who's on our board, and also a fabulous activist and advocate and author and poet. And I'm just really amazed by all of the work that you do. So thank you for, for being here.


Naomi Ortiz:

Thanks for inviting me.


My name is Naomi, and I am joining you from the current and ancestral lands of the O’odham, as well as the contemporary settlement of the Yoemem, the Pasqua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona, which is this region is also part of the Sonora Desert, which I love. I honor the land and the sky and all the practices of listening. And I am a Reclaiming the Border Narrative Awardee, grant awardee, and then also a Disabled Features Fellow. And as you mentioned, a poet and an artist and a writer.


Syren Nagakyrie:

Wonderful, thank you. So I'm really excited to kind of share about your work with our community. I think there's a lot here that is just so meaningful and things that we really need to have more discussions about, so I'm really excited to share this with everyone. One of the things that really strikes me is that themes of ceremony, place and justice really weave through your work. Rituals for Climate Change and Sustaining Spirit really compliment each other so well, but they also seem to complicate each other. How can we as disabled people and activists really lean into place self-care and ceremony when so much of the land is inaccessible to us and is also suffering?


Naomi Ortiz:

Hmm. Yeah. Big questions. I think a lot about the ways that disabled people survive in a world that just doesn't consider us, our survival is not easy. And yet we offer tremendous examples of creativity, slowing down and grappling with contradictory needs and how those things can actually work in real life.


In my first nonfiction book, Sustaining Spirit: Self-Care for Social Justice, which is behind me here. [image description: the book cover is a woman of color looking down at a flower in a meditative state. You can see the actual painting behind me, above my head.] I was really curious about how self-care could be a response to toxic community organizing and nonprofit culture. Not in a way where we go and withdraw and replenish and then just like jump back in - I don't think that that's incredibly useful, but in a way we’re challenging the nature of what, how we do this work. I was really interested in that.


One of the things that was interesting is I interviewed a bunch of people for that book, people doing all different kinds of social justice activism from the US. I interviewed folks from Nicaragua and Mexico, and one of the interesting commonalities was that we are all existing in a state of overwhelm. It's like, how do we participate in collective liberation if we're in a tapped out state of urgency, it's hard to be creative if we don't have capacity. So when I think about what it's gonna take for collective liberation within social justice and environmental sustainability, creativity is a huge part of that. Right? So that's why I was starting with this question around self-care. How do we develop and use this as one tactic? Self-care is one tactic to develop our own capacity. And one component of self-care that exists is finding support outside of people.


For me, that support comes from land, specifically from the Sonora Desert, the mountains, the soil. I have lovely friends and loved ones, but you know, they're also working at capacity. They're also burned out. There's only so much support we can provide each other, that's just reality. So I get that support from place, and yet I was noticing changes in the desert as it's been getting drier and hotter. The land is changing. So I got really stuck, you know, I launched Sustained Spirit, and I was talking a lot about all these different elements of self-care, which relationship with place is one piece of it. And yet I was like feeling really challenged in my own relationship with the land because of witnessing these changes.


And I got really stuck in trying to figure out how to love place as a disabled person who can't do a lot of the traditional environmental justice work, things like going hiking and picking out invasive grasses, things like that. I wanted to figure out how to love place and to be in relationship with it as these changes were unfolding to evolve in the land. Not just supporting me, but also supporting the land. So, grounded in the fear and despair I was experiencing, as well as this question of how to support the land is really where the work for Rituals for Climate Change came from. Disabled people you know, we have to be part of re-imagining a more sustainable society.


Syren Nagakyrie:

Yeah, absolutely. And I think that reciprocity component is so important. In Rituals for Climate Change: A Crips Struggle for Ecojustice, in Interlude One, you share a story about visiting an observatory and encountering incredulousness from the guide and an inaccessible facility. You say "sometimes ableism smacks into a lifelong dream that has a coupon." I laughed so hard at that, it really reminded me of all the times that I have been so excited for something that seemed to be a less remarkable experience for the more abled and financially privileged people in the group, and how that definitely can cast a shadow on the experience and definitely impact that.


Later on in the piece, you talk about how you have also been unimpressed by everyday miracles and feel most centered in the spaciousness of the universe. I think we all need perspective sometimes, for sure. What do you think about these kind of peak experiences, whether it's, you know, staring at a galaxy that's light years away or sitting on the top of a mountain. What role do those kind of experiences play in a crip struggle for eco-justice?


Naomi Ortiz:

Oh, man. I think, for Crips, you know, sometimes these experiences are so rare, these like peak experiences, but also if we redefine what peak experiences are, I also think that we can access them so much more easily sometimes.  So for example, because I go slower [and] a lot of my experiences with places are like sitting on the edge of a parking lot or at the beginning of a trailhead, I bring a little bench or I have my chair, my wheelchair and I'm just chilling out, watching, observing, doing my thing. But I'll watch people with their backpacks, you know, march along the path and they're like at a good clip. I can imagine that that would be incredible to get to a summit and look down and see this huge swath of land in front of me.


It could be magical. But I think because I go slower and can't do that marching down the trail, in this spaciousness of observation, I get to witness beauty in a much more deep and impactful way. So I think finding peak experiences for me is watching a lizard jump from a rock several feet up onto a big boulder. It's totally amazing, these teeny little legs, somehow they spring, like you imagine a squirrel or something. I don't know how they do it. Or  watching a mother hummingbird feed a baby hummingbird. These things that I get to just observe because I'm slow and I'm sitting there and I'm paying attention. So, because sometimes I get to witness these magical things at a picnic area or the side of a parking lot, I am able to hold a deeper value for land and animals and plants that are everywhere instead of being solely focused on the value of, "wild and pristine spaces." So because I'm seeing life and all this magic happen next to what we consider not wild spaces, I know that it's everywhere. I'm truly aware that it's outside my doorstep or even underneath the concrete of my house or where I'm living.


Syren Nagakyrie:

Yes! I love that. I love watching, like you said, the lizards, or even a cat jump from the top of a bookshelf to the floor, I'm like, that is like 50 times your height. How did you just do that?


Naomi Ortiz:

I know!


Syren Nagakyrie:

It's amazing. I really love how you talk about nature as everywhere in Nature Defined another section in the book, you say that "nature is in the edges between this world and the next, the cusp of human-dominated and wild. And in the relationships between one living thing and another." Do you experience nature as a borderland?


Naomi Ortiz:

So as a child of formerly undocumented indigenous and multiracial people, I have always been emmeshed in a political reality of being in between. That political reality is even more embodied as I navigate society, as a disabled person living next to a militarized border and driving through checkpoints that are set up, you know, five to 25 miles away from the actual borderline is part of my everyday life. But borderlands are constructed, they're created by politics and militarization. They create a false sense of separation. And I often think the ways we think about nature are also being falsely constructed. So nature is everywhere, but as a society, we create boxes where it's acceptable to view land as nothing more than a resource. Growing up on the US-Mexico border, I'm intimately aware of the impacts of militarization and fear when it comes to relating, not just to a sense of place, but to family and to culture.


I hold this knowing in the same crip hand and need for others to grow my food, for electricity, to charge my scooter for concrete, to help me ease and, you know, to move around and be part of community. I don't know if I experienced nature as a borderland as much as allowing myself to witness and love the soil, plants, animals, and the way that I am impacting them by what I need. It's touching something that's so complicated while also holding a lot of grace. Borderlands are constructed to delineate between what's ours or not ours. And being in relationship with nature is different. It's about consistently being in the challenging perspective of how we are sharing what exists. For me, that means challenging myself to think more deeply about what I need or do not need to contemplate this, while also understanding that for climate change to be addressed, systems need to be responsible beyond individuals too.


Syren Nagakyrie:

Yeah. I think there is such a false binary between built and natural and what is considered natural and environmental and what is not. So, I appreciate that discussion and that consideration and wrestling with that in your work.


Naomi Ortiz:

Yeah. Even with what’s okay and not okay, you know, we like to make these boxes to kind of let ourselves off the hook sometimes. It's not that we shouldn't use any land at all, of course, we have to in order to live, but it's being in that question and the discomfort of that. Whew. Yeah. That's the work.


Syren Nagakyrie:

So we receive a little bit of your personal story of disability in Ceremony as Medicine, another entry in the book where you talk about undergoing surgical procedures that you weren't allowed to consent to and spending time in bed while mending. I really related to your description of the desert being a slow, yet consistent and reliable place of change when your body did not feel that way. I have felt that way with my own landscapes of sanctuary when I wasn't able to really rely on my body in a certain way. So that was really meaningful to me to read. You also speak to the ways that you feel both called to and repelled by the desert. With the ways that places are losing that kind of reliable and consistent change as the climate crisis escalates, how do you think this relates to disability? How can we witness each other, people and place?


Naomi Ortiz:

Yeah. In Rituals for Climate Change, I have several conversations with the land that are threaded through the book about what it means to witness - if witnessing can be not just solidarity, but an action. In my experience, witnessing is grief work. And I'll say, as a disabled person, I have a lot of practice with grief work with figuring out what's in my control and not in my control. It's extremely humbling. And climate change, you know, is also humbling. It's bigger than any one person or one community can tackle alone. We need systematic support to survive and in order for ecosystems to survive. I think about how as a disabled person, I need one-on-one support. Interdependence is key to my survival, yet that systematic support has to be there in order for me to actually live. It's more than the individuals in my life can do or can provide. And so I think it's like holding this book, and we need our own individual practices of witnessing and doing this grief work, while at the same time being part of the conversations that are happening at a systematic level to think deeper about what we can do, how do we move forward together?


Syren Nagakyrie:

Yeah. You write a lot about that, about vulnerability and interdependence, especially in Sustaining Spirit. What does this mean in the context of disability and climate change when our interdependence can feel so vulnerable?


Naomi Ortiz:

Yeah. I don't know how you feel about this, but to me, disability is just confrontation with vulnerability all the time.


You know, one definition of ableism that I really like and I use a lot to explain the ways that disabled people are discriminated against and excluded, talks about how vulnerability is a foundational part of why that happens. A fear of vulnerability is a foundational part of why that happens, because people in general, of course, do not like to confront what makes us feel vulnerable. But as disabled people, we don't have an option to not confront the ways that we are vulnerable in society, in our homes, in our lives. And we're very often alone in the emotional and social and spiritual grappling with ways that we are vulnerable because people are afraid to acknowledge that their own potential futures of disability for their bodies, and climate change makes us vulnerable in such a tangible way. And it's something that a lot of people can't turn away from. Here in Arizona, even though people try, our water future is very much in question. And yet our state government refuses to touch it, like really refuses to grapple and ask the hard questions with it because they're afraid of that vulnerability.


As a disabled person, I'm pretty much on my own to plan and think through changes that happen for my body and what having more defined limits means. In society, respecting our body's capacity or even developing a relationship of what our capacity is, is challenged, and I would even say vilified. Capacity is treated like failure. In one of the poems in the book, Epicenter, I share a few lines that begin the poem that say: "body ground zero for how we are instructed to control the world." The body can be an entryway into thinking about capacity and our limits, and we need an embodied sense of our limits in order to respect and truly understand the limits and capacity of the places we live. It's like this knowledge in our body also translates to a desperate knowledge we need about how we relate to where we live.


Syren Nagakyrie:

I think that's so powerful. And it makes me think too, you know, I have been accused of being too confrontational at times, and I'm like, well, it's because I've had to be, I've had to move through feeling overly vulnerable into that space of having to confront these issues on a daily basis. I don't have, you know, the privilege of not doing that. So, I think it is very often vilified, but there's a lot of power in that too, being able to embrace that.


Naomi Ortiz:

Yes, absolutely, and I think people really react to the confrontation that happens around capacity. And in that same way that we react to our fear of vulnerability, it's all related. So how do we unpack that and start really challenging and working on that within ourselves? And that's really why I wrote both the books I did, because these are the questions I'm asking for myself, and I wanted to share how I move through things and invite people to accompany me as I accompany them in this work.


Syren Nagakyrie:

Yeah. That's incredible. Well, these books are both such a gift, really. They sit out on my table and I pick them up pretty often and just flip through and say, okay, you know, what can I read today?


Naomi Ortiz:

Thanks so much, Syren.


Syren Nagakyrie:

Well, is there anything else you would like to say? How can people learn more about your work, order the books?


Naomi Ortiz:

So you can find information about the books on my website, which is my name, NaomiOrtiz.com. There is the ability to get Sustaining Spirit in a bunch of different ways. The publisher [of Rituals for Climate Change] part of what they do is the print book, but you can also download a free PDF version of the book from the publisher's website. So professors or teachers out there, or folks who wanna use this work for discussion, you know, it's something that people can access for free too.


Syren Nagakyrie:

Nice. And I know you ensured that was screen reader accessible for PDF?


Naomi Ortiz:

Yes, I did try to work with that, what was that confrontation thing again? <laughing> But my publisher actually was super; they stepped up and did it. And so we worked in partnership on it, so it was great.


Syren Nagakyrie

Great. Well, is there anything else you'd like to share or do you have anything exciting coming up that you'd like people to know about?


Naomi Ortiz:

Ooh, I feel like I've just come off this huge a few months of doing all these book events and stuff, so if you're interested in hearing some from the book - I really love story time personally, like I feel people are just reading to me - I also have videos on my website of talks and readings I've done from the book, so people can access those on my website as well. If you're interested just in learning more, hearing some directly from the book.


Syren Nagakyrie:

This is a good season for story time too. Well thank you, for sharing a little bit about your books and your work with us. I'm really excited for the community to get to know a little bit more and to find you and all the places. I know you also have an Instagram as well, right?


Naomi Ortiz:

I do. It's @NaomiOrtizWriterArtist is my Insta.


Syren Nagakyrie:

Great.


Naomi Ortiz:

Thanks so much Syren, and thanks for all the amazing work that Disabled Hikers does.


Syren Nagakyrie:

Thank you. Yeah, I'm honored to be in it with everyone.

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