Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Katharine Bierce headshot

The Necessity of Inner Work To Be An Effective Environmentalist

woman meditating in the woods while wearing a business suit

“Love and justice are not two. Without inner change, there can be no outer change; without collective change, no change matters.” — Rev. angel Kyodo williams

In the last part of this two-part article series, we examined how white culture and white privilege impact the ways in which we engage with communities around sustainability. As Rev. williams suggests, to solve the problems of separation, obsessive productivity and exploitation caused by white culture, we need to advance our “inner change work,” which impacts the “outer change work.”

Unlearning white conditioning is an ongoing process — like an intention rather than a goal, you’re never completely done. I’ll be the first to admit I’m still a work in progress here. But here are some ideas on how to get started. 

Mindfulness meditation practice

The same mental process that helps you come back to the present moment when you’re working or feeling stressed can also be used to wake up from thoughts like “that person looks suspicious” when it’s just a person of color walking down the street. (“Suspicious” is a behavior, not a skin color, and sadly, deaths caused by police disproportionately affect people of color.) 

You can’t change what you are not aware of, so the first step to making change happen in your own behavior is to be aware of your inner dialogue. Don’t believe everything you think. Mindfulness meditation practice helps with cultivating more focused attention and relaxed awareness so you can catch white supremacy culture thoughts before they turn into racist beliefs, comments or actions.

Loving-kindness and self-compassion: Appreciate the parts of yourself that you don’t like

The zits, the self-criticism, whatever you don’t like about yourself, you can’t fix it with more self-hatred. (Believe me, I’ve tried.) The Buddha said, “Hatred is not conquered by hatred, but by love alone is healed.” Every major religion talks about the value of unconditional love. While that may sound doable sometimes for people who are suffering, with the abundance of self-criticism that white culture creates, how much unconditional love can you have for yourself? 

If you think you’re smart enough to skip this practice, don’t. Practicing self-compassion when you feel like crap or like you don’t need or deserve it is absolutely critical for having more patience and compassion with the “other” you don’t like — whether that’s a person of a different skin color, religion, political party, or any other category you can come up with that triggers the feeling of “other” for you. The mind that wants to fix and judge yourself is the same mind that wants to fix and judge others.`

As UNtraining co-founder Rita Shimmin put it: 

“Loving yourself is a political act. We are taught not to love ourselves, and from that place we are easily manipulated... Love yourself so much that this love changes the world.” 

If you prefer to look at the science, this University of Sussex research found that seven minutes of loving-kindness meditation was effective at reducing racial bias. 

Practice seeing the “other” as a part of yourself

Is your sustainability work treating people as a resource to be controlled? Does your climate action technology treat nature like a machine to be optimized? What would change if you viewed the “other” (people, nature, etc.) as a grandparent, an uncle, a sister, a niece or nephew, and so forth?

The United Nations has some inspiration here that all religions see nature as an act of divinity that should be treated as such. 

The challenge is to remember that hatred is not ended by hatred, but by unconditional love. Our perceived “enemies” (an opposite political party, a dictatorial leader who is impacting resource flows to other countries, whatever) is also a person who is suffering because they are stuck in the trance of separation culture. When in doubt, go back to No. 1: the inner work.

See mistakes as learning opportunities

No matter how committed you are to being antiracist, to unlearning the white conditioning that contributes to the self/other dichotomy, you’ll probably make a mistake at some point. As Dale Carnegie said, “Look for areas where you can admit error and say so.” If you’re on a subway train and you step on someone’s toes, you apologize. If you say something that’s actually a microaggression and then pretend it didn’t have an impact, it’s like stepping on someone’s toe and then blaming the other person for the pain you caused. If you cause pain, you apologize for the impact (the pain), even if you didn’t intend to cause the pain.

The learning is in how fast you can become aware of the mistake as a learning opportunity, rather than denying or minimizing the impact or putting the focus back on you rather than the person you harmed, even inadvertently. 

Some more helpful resources

Here are few resources I find helpful, from the easier to the more challenging:

  • "How to Be an Antiracist" by Ibram X. Kendi. This book covers how racism is endemic to our society: Racism is the “default” – even if you think you are a “good white person” who’s “not racist.”
  • Guided meditation recordings. I like those from Nikki Mirghafori when my mind feels particularly self-critical.
  • Emotional awareness resources. This blog I wrote is a good starting point. 
  • The (re)Biz one-month program. Made for people who want to build a regenerative world and get unstuck from separation mindsets in sustainability work — note that you get $100 off if you mention my name as the referral source.
  • UNTraining White Liberal Racism. This is a powerful series of programs over a few years (in six-month increments), which help us un-learn our conditioning that keeps us stuck in separation/white supremacy culture. Note that to avoid well-meaning white folks triggering people of color, they have programs specifically for white folks only to work on our stuff before doing activities with a mixed-race group. Because people of color also may have internalized oppression, they have groups for people of color, Jewish, and Chinese folks to explore cultural conditioning, heal from trauma, and more.

The more we see how white conditioning operates in us, the more we can make choices that are different from what our conditioning wants us to do. Treating ourselves with more kindness and awareness can help us be less reactive and more responsive to the events of life. 

Image credit: Kelsey Krach

Land Acknowledgment: Katharine is a Mayflower descendant who lives and works in unceded Lisjan Ohlone territory, what is now known as Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda, Piedmont, Emeryville and Albany, California. The Sogorea Te’ Land Trust is an urban Indigenous women-led land trust that is today working hard to restore traditional stewardship practices on these lands, heal from historical trauma, and facilitate the return of Indigenous land to Indigenous people. May they be successful in their work!

Katharine Bierce headshot

Katharine Bierce cares about bringing attention to what matters through marketing and mindfulness. She is a connector in business-driven social innovation with a tech marketing and startup background. In 2012, she was a Finalist for the Net Impact “Impact at Work” award for her “intrapreneurship” in a global employee volunteering group at work. Outside of work, she enjoys hiking and teaching yoga. Katharine graduated Phi Beta Kappa in Psychology from the University of Chicago.

Read more stories by Katharine Bierce