November Spotlight: Mateo Nube
Movement Generation is not just an organization, it's also a family. We had the chance to meet with Mateo Nube, Staff Co-Director, in his home, which also happens to host the Movement Generation office and garden. Passing through numerous fig, apple, pear, orange, and kale trees (yes, the kale was that big), we settled into his living room to hear stories of his politicization, the birth of Movement Generation, and how they are sculpting ideas and strategies to seed local and national movements with ecological justice.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Blue Heart: Can you tell us the story of how Movement Generation began?
Mateo Nube: In 2005, we were facilitating a study group for a fairly large network of organizers in a range of organizations around the bay, some doing tenants rights organizing, some doing labor rights organizing, some organizing against police brutality. All using an intersectional perspective around race, class, gender, and sexuality, but we came to realize that ecology was very absent from our organizing dialogues. Then Hurricane Katrina struck and how interlocking the ecological crisis is with racism and classism couldn't have been made starker. We realized we needed to create a political space to be analyzing this moment in time from an ecological perspective, and rooting it in a race and class context in the US. At a minimum, we felt that our peers in movement organizations needed to be understanding what was at play and what was at stake in terms of the shifting terrain of the living systems of the planet, and how that was starting to impact in even more dire ways the communities we were organizing in.
"We realized we needed to create a political space to be analyzing this moment in time from an ecological perspective, and rooting it in a race and class context in the US."
It was also around the time that Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth came out. It was important that he was sounding the clarion call and mainstreaming something that needed to be understood, but he and his friends were articulating their set of solutions: “Let's all buy a Prius and we're going to be good; there's a clean way to reorganize capitalism”. Cities are already being dramatically reorganized to “address” these crises, but that reorganization is actually fueling gentrification and displacement. It was clear that unless social movement forces articulated clearly what our set of solutions were, other sets of solutions would occupy that space and win the day. It was a very useful invitation.
BH: How would you describe what Movement Generation does now?
Mateo: Most of us in the U.S. are functionally illiterate about home (that is what Ecology means--literally ‘knowledge of home’). What I mean by home is where our food come from, what’s our foodshed. Where does our water come from, what’s our watershed. And that goes hand-in-hand with the fact that the communities that we organize in have been dispossessed of their land and their labor. Movement Generation is about reclaiming our Right Relationship with home. Reclaiming our Right Relationship with our land and our labor and our culture. To be accountable to each other and to be accountable to the land, we need self-determination. In these times of tremendous transitions in the living systems of our planet, the only way we're actually going to be able to return to this Right Relationship is to practice deep democracy.
BH: What’s deep democracy?
Mateo: It is our capacity to actually govern our destiny. Where we are truly accountable to our neighbors and our home and to our waterways, to the soil that nourishes us. We live under the illusion that casting a ballot every four years is democracy. But determining how we protect seed, soil, and story, and challenging and banishing the enclosure, requires deep democracy. This includes everything from participatory budgeting processes to not thinking of ourselves as consumers, but as creators, of culture.
BH: How have you become awakened as a political organizer? When did that happen for you?
Mateo: I've identified as an organizer or activist educator for 30 years now. I was initially politicized by the simple fact of being born under a military dictatorship in Bolivia. When I grew up there was no such thing as growing up in a suburb shielded from what was really going on. It was clear that there was military rule because there were rich folks who had a vested interest in staying rich and to do so they needed to oppress the poor majority, who were mostly indigenous peoples. It was actually that simple. The history of colonialism was still playing out in very clear terms. I was coming from a privileged class, being of European descent and, like Howard Zinn said, ‘you can't be neutral on a moving train’. You just can't. So I had to choose a side.
The struggle for democracy is actually a struggle for economic sovereignty and self-determination and that is true for all of us. A ‘me and I’ society is damaging to people's well-being and also damaging to the soul. Building a ‘we and our’ society is where it’s at. And I think the other element is the role the U.S. government played in making this military dictatorship possible, that this kind of repression and injustice and enforcement of an economic order that was so cruel would not have been possible without the tremendous financial and political support of the U.S. government - regardless of whether it was a Democratic or Republican administration. That's why I became an organizer even when I came to study in the U.S. and why I initially worked as a union organizer, as worker rights felt fundamental to challenging economic inequality.
All that said, I think even though I grew up appreciating the beauty of nature, I never really identified as an environmentalist. That felt secondary until I had a kid. I grew up an atheist and I found spirituality when I noticed that my heart beats at a healthy, tranquil, and peaceful rate in the living world. Whether I’m planting a seedling or taking a walk in the woods or just communing with friends in a park, there's something inherently right about life in that context. It became a spiritual thing for me because I realized ‘oh, everybody deserves this right to be in communion with soil and the land.’ That's what we all inherently desire and that's what we all inherently deserve. It's not a romanticized thing - living with the land is hard, seasons can be harsh. Nature is organized in an interdependent way where symbiosis is the governing law that holds us together. That's the spiritual part for me. It’s upon us as humans to listen to that deeply and to organize our social systems and our social structure in that way as well. We ignore that at our own peril and we are suffering the consequences of that right now.
“Nature is organized in an interdependent way where symbiosis is the governing law that holds us together. It’s upon us as humans to listen to that deeply and to organize our social systems and our social structure in that way as well.”
When I had a kid, that was a tremendous call to action. I realized that what we're doing to this planet is killing so much of the life that exists on the planet - it created an existential crisis in me. But thankfully I was surrounded by peers who believed in a ‘we and our’ society. I came to realize that the most inspiring social moments I grew up learning about and being exposed to in Latin America were rooted in a seamless understanding of what it means to live in Right Relationship with the Earth. I realized in this journey that when we govern at the local scale we're accountable to the people we live next to and the land that we live on. That's how we stay in Right Relationship to the Earth. When we challenge the fact that someone somewhere else is making decisions about where we live - and using an army to enforce those decisions - that's how we start being accountable to the Earth. At MG, we often say that ‘what you do to the land, you do to the people, and what you do to the people, you do to the land’.
BH: Can you give us an example of a MG project that you all are excited about right now?
Mateo: Our Earth Skills program runs quarterly in different communities around the Bay Area, rooted in places like East Oakland, Richmond, the Mission or Excelsior Districts. We partner with community organizations organizing to reclaim economic and political power in their neighborhoods. The program teaches hard skills, say rainwater catchment or grey water harvesting, and then we apply our labor in that moment to build up the infrastructure of a community organization in a community-run space. That is the purpose of Earth Skills programs - to popularize the skills and infrastructure that we actually need to return to direct relationship with home. But it's also meant to amplify what it is that we need to build to scale. It's not enough to build some of the samples, we actually have to couple this infrastructure creation with our political power to get this to scale. It’s not enough for a handful of boutique grey water installations, that’s not what’s going to save the day. Nor is it going to help to create them at some scale in neighborhoods that have been built to be gentrified and then have the majority of folks now living elsewhere without that infrastructure in an era of extreme drought. We are scaling up creation so that everybody is fully resourced to live in neighborhoods that have that kind of infrastructure.
We are also very excited about a new program we started last year in partnership with the BlackOut Collective called the Black Land and Liberation Initiative. The Black Land and Liberation Initiative is working in tandem with a range of activists organizing through the Movement for Black Lives. It is supporting folks who have already begun land reclamation campaigns or are looking to do so, to really give life and give very tangible shape to the concept of reparations. And when we say reparations, it means to ‘repair our relations’. If we think about how capital has been amassed in the U.S. context, it's actually all built on the dispossession and theft of other people's labor and wealth. So the redistribution of wealth, taking capital that has been enclosed and returning it to the Commons, is part of our collective winning formula - it’s how we all become free. The Initiative supports black communities that have been historically dispossessed of land and labor to be able to once again be sovereign - to live dignified, productive livelihoods, and govern land on which they live. We are working with black activists and organizers around the country to reclaim land. Maybe it’s idle land, maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s public, maybe it’s private. And start growing our food and feeding our own folks. To build community-run housing or a land trust. The Black Land and Liberation Initiative is meant to provide a space to build critical analysis and network infrastructure to bring this to scale.
“When we say reparations, it means to ‘repair our relations’. So the redistribution of wealth, taking capital that has been enclosed and returning it to the Commons, is part of our collective winning formula - it’s how we all become free.”
BH: How do you measure impact?
Mateo: It’s a “both, and” thing. There are a number of people who go through our strategy retreats or Earth Skills programs and then turn around and start applying concepts and tools to their work. Historically, AYPAL staff have gone through multiple MG retreats and have landed in the space where they're organizing under an ecological justice framework. So that's one way to measure impact. And at the same time we appreciate that our areas of work are very conceptual and it’s around creating memes and frames and ways of talking - a universal language. Popular culture and culture work is a central part of how we approach the world - that’s the other side of the ‘both, and’.
We believe that transformational, positive change, when it's happening at scale, is not linear, it's exponential. We are seeing current examples - the struggle for queer liberation is one - where we're seeing shifts in popular culture that even in the last 5 to 10 years would have been difficult to predict unless you were appreciating the level of movement building and networking that was already happening across the country.
BH: Where do you imagine Movement Generation being in ten years in your wildest dreams?
Mateo: Politically, we're very committed to the build up of a “visionary and oppositional economy”. We need to directly challenge the way the dominant economy is killing us. Capitalism has a tremendous capacity to allow for experimentation on the margins as long as that experimentation doesn't mess with it. We need to build alternatives in a way that actually confronts and disables the capacity for the profit and pollution economy - what we call the “banks and tanks” economy. We need to starve and stop the bad while we foster and build the good.
Ten years from now what I would love to see is dozens and dozens of liberated zones, returning huge swaths of land to the Commons and huge amounts of capital to the Commons. For us to have, amongst other things, really challenged the notion that where we live, the rules of how we live are made by a few somewhere else. Rather, how we govern land is tailored to the needs of people who live there and community economic enterprises are really serving the needs of those communities.
The mechanisms through which folks will get there will vary widely because that's the beauty of managing home and building economy in Right Relationship with place. Some folks will create community land trusts, others will create worker-run coops, but we will have actually transferred a tremendous amount of capital out of the hands of a few and into the hands of the people and that capital will be invested in life-affirming production that is meeting our needs. The profit generated from those cooperative enterprises will be immediately fed right back into that community to create even more of that life-affirming enterprise. And the rules we're making about how we can govern home are about local living, loving, linked economies that are operating in ways that are both attentive to the needs of that community but then are also inherently linked to communities all over the place. It will not be enough for one place to do it right, it actually has to be happening in tandem with communities across the country that are challenging the Monsanto's and challenging the Shell Oil's at the same time that we're building up what we need.
BH: What are some of the greatest barriers in getting there?
Mateo: One of the biggest barriers is the toxic allure that white supremacy has for so many people in this country. This economy has destroyed the livelihoods of rural America. Unfortunately, the toxicity of white supremacy is allowing for a narrative to be continually fostered that convinces the white folks in so many of those decimated communities to believe that their hardship is caused by other working class and poor folks like them that happen to have brown or black skin. That is a tremendous barrier.
One of our biggest and most important organizing challenges is to link the struggles of the Movement for Black Lives with the struggles of poor, white, rural folks. Donald Trump is a symptom of something that runs very deep. We need a multi-pronged approach to dismantling white supremacy. We need to uphold the leadership of black and brown communities in articulating a way forward. Simultaneously, we need to build up the anti-racist analysis and leadership of white communities so that we can come to a place where there is a critical mass of white communities saying “we aren’t free until we are all free”. We as Movement Generation are part of a large network of organizations that are trying to build up the protagonism, the leadership, the resourcing of folks in working class communities of color. Alongside that necessary work, we need an uprising of white, anti-racist organizing.
BH: What would you like to share with Blue Heart subscribers specifically about your work?
Mateo: That's a great invitation. One is to remember that the powers that be are continually trying to invite us into this fictitious rabbit hole that is about our individual choices and individual actions, rather than change being about systems and structures. Do not fall into a state of despondency and despair, saying ‘oh, am I at fault because I’m making these contradictory choices!’ Getting caught up in guilt is not helpful at all. We are all navigating those contradictions all the time. I wish I didn't have to drive all the time, but it's actually not my fault. The system has created a completely car-dependent infrastructure. Now that I'm a parent I have two kids and I simply can't get my kids to school and get to work without using a car. The real question is ‘what is the social movement necessary to make it so?’ Rather than 80% of federal money going into freeways and 20% going to transit, we flip it so that in five years 80% is going to public transit and 20% is going to freeways. In the same way, if you're a young professional who's concerned about land speculation and gentrification, support the kickass organizations that are challenging this stuff and feel good about that. If you work at a big organization like Facebook or Uber or whatever, have conversations with your peers about how fucked up it is that speculation is the name of the game. Organizing within the belly of the beast is one of the most important, strategic vehicles. One of the more exciting turning points in organizing during the Vietnam War was when there was a critical mass of soldiers within the armed forces who started organizing their peers and saying, ‘We need to put down our arms, this war is immoral.’
“Getting caught up in guilt is not helpful at all. If you're a young professional who's concerned about land speculation and gentrification, support the kickass organizations that are challenging this stuff and feel good about that.”
So you have a role to play as a tenant paying a $3000 rent because you can. There are so many creative ways to deploy yourself in the struggle against the death star. So find your front line and enjoy the creativity. If you’re white, figure out the most creative way to support the Movement for Black Lives in your community, organize other folks to open their eyes and ears and hearts. Don't wallow in guilt. That’s what they want us to do.