Learning interdependence from nature

June 07, 2020

By Boyuan Gao

There is no way to kick off a blog post without acknowledging the time that we’re in. We’re at the apex of an economic, health, and racial crisis, and in fact, they are one-in-the-same. In the U.S., who is most in harm’s way, or have been historically harmed the most by any of these issues? Black folks. 

The opportunity is now

There are two opportunities here: acknowledging what’s so, such that we are able to begin addressing things that have been swept under the rug for too long as someone else’s problem. And by someone else, I mean, white folks’ orientation that racism is Black people’s problem and the problem of other POCs, not their own. So long as that’s the orientation, there will remain the concept of ‘us’ and ‘them’.

The second opportunity is in our response to these crises. Not just what we say on social media or corporate landing pages. But how we collectively move/act/do together in order to create something that finally works for everyone. This means that what works for you, is not at the expense of anyone else. What a radical idea! The operative word here is “collectively.”

Art by Sacree Frangine

The nature of humans

Humans live and work in silos. To be straight about it, we are segregated. You will see that when you walk into an Apple store and see racial diversity on the floor with hourly workers vs. an Apple corporate headquarters. Only 3% of the technical staff is Black. The same goes for pretty much any retail scenario you can think of. You see the same thing in the zoning of neighborhoods, the makeup of schools. That’s not by accident, that’s by design. 

You might be thinking, “what does that have to do with me? I’m just an individual, how do I impact Apple’s demographic makeup?” You cannot alone change the makeup of Apple or your neighborhood. What you can begin doing is shifting your mindset about what is “normal.” We can begin by taking a step back. We can take a deep breath. We can unplug from the digital world for a second, and tune into the nature around us. Yes, even if you live in the city. Instead of jumping into strategy and propelled into the urgency of a response, let’s approach things in a different way. A way that is more sustainable goes against the dominant culture. This really gets into the root cause of why we find ourselves here.

Defining interdependence

One of the defining laws of the natural world is the law of interdependence. Interdependence speaks to the mutual dependence and mutual benefit of all living things. We humans haven’t been on that tip for a while. I don’t even know when, but it’s certainly not intuitive to the culture that we’ve inherited. Certainly not in the United States. In fact, the culture of “grow and scale as quickly as possible,” or of optimization and efficiency at all costs has dictated to us that it’s unacceptable to do things any other way. There’s a grave cost to that as we all are experiencing today. 

Animals are able to provide CO2 to plants, which is needed during photosynthesis. Butterflies and bees pollinate and distribute seeds. We need our little worm friends and other critters to help us create the fertile soil that is needed to plant crops. Just like our beautiful cannabis plants. These are the lessons we learn as kids in a science context. And we strangely don’t learn these lessons, outside of elementary school, as the way to conduct ourselves in life, work, and commerce. The absence of this is catching up to us hardcore. And yet, there are glimmers of interdependence all around us. 

The gem of interdependence in our current realities, lies very much in the questions of “what’s my role to play?” and “What am I uniquely positioned to contribute?”

Supporting each other

During the beginning days of COVID, mutual aid groups began cropping up all over the place. Folks with means, began crowdsourcing those means, and redistributing them to folks who suddenly lost their jobs, businesses and even homes. 

Another example is the response from white-led companies in relation to the protests and mobilization of hundreds of thousands around this country (and now the world) against racial injustice, police violence, and white supremacy at large. White corporate leaders are shifting millions of dollars into POC organizations and businesses, with mixed intentions. No doubt, some are avoiding a PR disaster and jumping on the bandwagon. There will be a lot of POC eye rolls and skepticism around “why now?” No matter the case, funds are going toward Black leaders to lead the solutions, meaning that white folks are sitting their asses down, being quiet, and listening. 

boyuan gao and jahan martin project inkblot

Improving intersectionality

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, as a Chinese-American, immigrant woman. I am a non-Black person-of-color, who has benefitted from anti-Blackness through examples like I am not visibly a threat to most people. I can walk into most stores and not be seen as suspicious. I’m easily admitted to “member’s only” situations. I’m pretty well networked. I dedicated my life to doing racial equity work as a profession, training/consulting/coaching with corporate clients, who up-until-now, couldn’t digest the concept of anti-racism. We use our skills as writers, former music + culture journalists, storytellers, facilitators, and educators to engage media and tech teams on how to begin designing against the dominant culture. 

My business partner is a Black woman. Our realities are different therefore our unique gifts at this moment are important to activate. I have the power to speak to non-Black POC. I can speak to my Asian community. I retain the right to be seen as unassuming and possibly docile in corporate engagement in front of mostly white folks. I can hit them with the POW where they least expect it. And they might automatically expect that my Black colleague is going to be the more confrontational or “threatening” one of us. 

boyuan jahan

I can bridge-build between creatives, the academic elite, my working-class fam, and corporate leaders. I can bridge-build between my predominantly white-Jewish rural middle-class hometown community, the bustling working-class Black community. Where I called home for the past 15 years, with my Asian family here and overseas. Plus my unique life experience has put me in good graces with so many people in so many places. In an interdependent ecosystem, I can bring all of that to the table as a translator, weaver, a bridge builder. 

Holding ourselves accountable

To start to live and work interdependently means to identify the role that you are uniquely positioned to play. Not the one that you think you should. Again, reaching for the lesson right in front of our face from the nature that keeps on nature-ing, no matter how messed up our humanity feels. And this shows us that instead of doing-the-most, we can focus inward. Thus staying in our lane (not in a dismissive/stank way, but a mutually beneficial way). And we must stay on course. It is more sustainable than if we try to use the dominant culture to strategize our way out of racism because we can’t. 

pyramid of accountability

Remember friends, this is a marathon, not a sprint. 

Here are some things to consider when it comes to interdependence from mutual aid movements. Including the redistribution of wealth and recourse tracks with the fact that creatives and social activists are always ahead of governments in leading the shift of systems. We’re on the right path.



black lives matterintersectionalityracism
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