Meet a Progressive: Creating a Cleaner, Greener Future with Donna Kohut
"Climate collapse leads to societal collapse, and I’m not sure our leaders fully grasp that."
What inspired you to start working for progressive social change?
Growing up in coal country – Schuylkill County – I was surrounded by the economic and environmental scars left by the coal industry. And those scars evolved into a legacy of right-wing politics that lends towards folks voting against their long-term economic interests and a conservative culture that decries the loss of “freedom” while it demands unquestioning loyalty. I also experienced a lot of sexism and misogyny, although I wasn’t able to fully label it – or my class consciousness for that matter – until I studied political science in college and women’s history in graduate school. College is where it clicked – I learned how the world worked. I was offered a scaffolding that helped me map out just how overlapping oppressions maintain this competitive dynamic that serves only the wealthy – primarily men who are white, cis-gendered, and heterosexual. The meritocracy dissolved, and it was replaced with class consciousness, feminism, and an awareness of structural racism. I was always a troublemaker, and once I saw how the world worked, I was eager to change it.
What do you identify as the top issues progressives must confront nationally and globally?
First and foremost, we’ve got to address the climate emergency. Climate scientist Peter Kalmus started using the hashtag #emergencymode, and I’m in full support of that term. Climate collapse leads to societal collapse, and I’m not sure our leaders fully grasp that. And if they do, why aren’t they behaving as such? However, we cannot successfully address the climate emergency if we don’t expand and protect voting rights and the democratic process here in the U.S. We need to be vigilant and dedicated to ensuring that people of color and Indigenous people are able to vote. That includes addressing legislation that aggressively attacks voting rights, as well as protecting access and expanding opportunity. If the democratic process crumbles, there is no way that we will avert climate disaster.
Lately, I’ve been having conversations with folks about connection and dialogue. In my mind, progressive policies tend to support the working class and low-income folks. However, we don’t spend much time talking to those communities that are in “Red” counties or in “Trump Country”. So, we create an echo chamber in which we tout gender equity, anti-racism, taxing the rich, etc. I am in full support of all of that. Full stop. But we need to stop talking only to each other. We need to intentionally connect with workers of a different mindset and listen. We don’t need to appease them or agree with them or support their views. But if we can’t engage with our neighbors, how the hell are we supposed to get them to understand that progressive policies will reduce the cost of their medications, make childcare more affordable, provide access to broadband - do so many things that will give them greater access to financial stability and “The American Dream”? That’s the goal, right? Workers and progressives have a shared interest, there. Unfortunately, we’ve failed on our ability to connect by providing a coherent message that educates the public on what we stand for. In order to make inroads with folks outside of our echo chamber, a big part of this will be messaging on the recent infrastructure bill. We need to ensure that folks in these communities realize who voted to improve their bridges and clean up legacy pollution in their communities. And more importantly, who didn't.
What types of organizing and projects are you working on right now?
I work for an environmental advocacy organization, so all of my professional energy is dedicated to organizing and advocating on behalf of a cleaner, greener future. In my free time, I made the conscious choice to get involved in local environmental efforts and local government. I sit on the board of a watershed organization in the Lehigh Valley, I took classes in land use and zoning, and I was just appointed to my borough’s planning commission. I volunteer my time for as many trail clean-ups, tree plantings, and stream restoration projects as time allows. Service is something I take very seriously.
How can folks get engaged and involved?
I strongly suggest that folks get involved at the most local level they can. The last election proved just how influential hyper local elected positions are in our daily lives. That being said, there is no wrong or right way to get involved. You can go the traditional routes of calling your legislators, voting, writing letters to the editor, donating money, running for office, etc. Those are all terrific.
Follow Donna on Twitter: https://twitter.com/kohut_donna
But movements need everyone. Take a look at your passions, skills, time, and energy level, and then use them! If you’re able, donate an entire hour of your week to pushing for policy change. This can look different for everyone. Are you a writer? Write an op-ed or start a blog. Are you adept at building relationships? Good, then connect individuals and organizations to build power. Do you have space or land? Fantastic. I bet there is an organization or campaign out there that doesn’t have the funding to rent space. The list goes on. Because I’m passionate about preventing climate collapse, and I recognize that there’s power in our ability to envision a different future, I start most days by tweeting about potential visions for the future depending on the scale of our action or inaction. Each tweet begins with “Imagine if…” It may seem small, but it’s a way to keep the conversation going and to articulate my hopes and fears in a public space. There’s power in that.
Which journalists, writers, podcasts, and publications do you turn to for information and inspiration?
For me, the gold standard in journalism is Democracy Now!. Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzales are phenomenal, and their work is groundbreaking. I also read Mother Jones regularly. My favorite climate crisis newsletter right now is Heated by Emily Atkin, and I keep up with the latest work of Dr. Robert Bullard, the father of environmental justice.
If anyone is interested in learning more about how we got engulfed in a white supremacist culture – or what that term even means – I highly recommend Scene On Radio’s “Seeing White” podcast series.
If you want to learn more about how we got to this environmental tipping point, “Drilled” is an excellent podcast. I’m not sure if this would be considered “progressive” per se, as it’s not focused solely on politics, but “On Being” with Krista Tippett inspires me. She hosts in-depth interviews about challenging questions, and the perspectives gleaned are priceless.
I do spend a lot more time on Twitter than I’d like to admit. But some of the folks that I follow include Reverend Dr. William Barber II, who is the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, Winona LaDuke, who is an Anishinaabe author, activist, and speaker on Indigenous rights, as well as the Executive Director of Honor the Earth. (She’s also a former Vice Presidential candidate; she ran on the Green Party ticket with Ralph Nader in 1996 and 2000.) She’s been a central figure in fighting the Dakota Access pipeline and now Line 3.
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Thanks for reading! I look forward to your feedback and suggestions. And most importantly, keep organizing!