12/22/2014 10:35 am ET Updated Feb 18, 2015

The Post-Ferguson World: Rules for White People

These words have never been more true in America than in the soul twisting days that followed the miscarriage of justice in Ferguson and Staten Island. Young black men in our nation are, and I use this word with purpose and the pain it entails, routinely gunned down by the police with no repercussions. Once every 28 hours. None of this is new. What is new is that we as a nation are noticing. The brave response of communities in Missouri and New York and around the nation have made policing and race an issue that no American of conscience can continue to ignore.

Like many of you reading this, I am white. And like many of you reading this, especially my friends and colleagues in the environmental movement, I have dedicated much of my adult life to the pursuit of justice. In my case, that is about protecting forests for the people and wildlife that depend upon them, it is about fighting for a stable climate for all of us but especially for those who are already being hit first and worst. For 20 years I've jumped directly into these fights to battle corporations and governments doing wrong to the environment, people and wildlife. I don't like sitting on my hands and I don't intend to on the issue of racism in the United States. I will not be silent; I will not side with the oppressor.

That said, there is a difference between neutrality, and unstrategic self-indulgence. Confession: I have had many a self-indulgent daydream about my role in this fight - making a big speech, running a full page ad, TV debates, leading protests, the examples go on and proportionately more earnest and more embarrassing. Fortunately, I have resisted the strong impulse to take solo action. I interrupted one white guy, me, from jumping out in front. A small victory.

We cannot let the fact that we must fight injustice overpower the equal truth that how we wage this fight is critically important. As a white activist, the center of attention is not the place for me. Anyone and everyone with a sense of justice must join this fight, but it matters how we give voice to our outrage. I've come to understand that I must support this fight in ways that don't undermine the people who are on the frontlines. To do that I've had to confront the privileges I enjoy as a white American. Here are some guidelines I am proposing for myself. Fellow white people, I encourage you to join me:

  • Do not speak at a rally - We all have something to say about injustice, but my role is to elevate the voices of those whose voices are too often ignored. I will be present, but I will not grab the mic.
  • Do not organize a demonstration - Support the efforts of leaders from communities of color who are already doing an amazing job bringing and keeping this issue front and center in America.
  • Do not wear the hashtags and symbols that apply to black and brown people. I am white, I can breathe, my life matters, and the criminal justice system works quite well for me. It doesn't mean I don't feel deep, crushing despair and pain about this injustice - but I am not at risk of being choked, killed, shot, or jailed.
  • At a rally, don't agitate for violence. Antagonizing the police at demonstrations and rallies is not helping - and when the police take the bait, who do you think will receive the sharpest blows and the bullets?
  • Don't get offended. This is unfamiliar terrain for most of us (the subject of a future blog) - on issues of race, most white people, myself included, are mostly tourists. I've stepped on my share of toes and inadvertently caused other people pain trying to assist this movement and this moment. I will make mistakes but I will also do my best to understand them and stay in the fight. Most important: I will not make myself, my offense, or my mistake the issue.
  • Ask. You may be able to help but it starts with a question - ask if you can help. Assist a black leader if they want your help, pitch in, organize, be the person handing out materials, getting sign-up sheets circulated, organizing snacks and drinks, getting people to the rally, etc.
  • Step back. This is different from leaving the party - step back mindfully and make room for black leaders to rise up.
  • Donate. There are great leaders and organizations out there and they need our financial support. I am supporting
  • Engage. Your family, your organization, your networks. We are talking about 500 years of racism - we need to move millions of dollars and millions of people. This uncomfortable, but sane, civil discourse is part of the work and many white Americans want to pawn this off on some cause other than racism. Get in there.
  • Use it. We white folks have privilege - use it for good. If you have media contacts, a social media network, use it for this issue as black leaders propose. If you have meeting space, make it available; offer in-kind donations of materials, labor, communications support, web support. When people are crazy busy, sometimes they are too busy to accept or know how to best use your help. Persist. Find a way to be in service.
  • Communicate. Do use hashtags that do not usurp black experience - for example, #BlackLivesMatter is a statement that doesn't usurp, and it is powerful. #ThereIsNoNeutral is also good.

The racial division that is acutely visible in America today is an opening, an opportunity for partnership, and in this partnership my role is service. I will support the leaders at the forefront of one of the most important human rights flashpoints in our country's history. It is an honorable and critically important role. It is how I will not be neutral at this historic moment.

Deep gratitude to Angel Kyodo Williams (@ZenChangeAngel) for inspiration and mentoring on this blog, to all the organizers and activists all over the U.S. who are risking their lives to put this issue in front of us daily, and to the longterm activists who have dedicated decades of work on an issue that is new to many of us.