Groundswell: Abby Bresler on Climate and Disability Justice

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Abby Bresler is a senior at Dartmouth College and the coordinator of the Jewish Youth Climate Movement. She co-founded the Sunrise Movement’s disability and accessibility volunteer team and is a trainer in disability justice. 

What do you see as your role in confronting the climate crisis?

I’m the coordinator for the Jewish Youth Climate Movement, or JYCM, which was started in 2019 because there was no movement organizing Jewish youth from a Jewish perspective around the climate crisis. Teens and preteens have a special kind of power, and at JYCM we really pride ourselves on being an authentically Gen Z-led organization. A lot of the support work that I do is sending emails and trading Zoom links and communicating with teens. Behind-the-scenes, I’m working on a big picture strategy—where are we going as a movement, and how do we get there in a way that feels sustainable and equitable? My third bucket is visual strategy, and thinking about how we tell stories through everything from our social media posts to the colors and fonts that we use.

What is one way the climate emergency has directly impacted your life?

I have a respiratory disability. I feel heat and humidity in my body. I remember this moment, three years ago, I was in New Hampshire for the summer. I thought it would be a pretty cool and nice place to be, all this way up north, but we had a heat wave and it was almost 100 degrees every day for a week. I could not breathe. I was coughing and wheezing through that whole week. I really realized that the climate crisis was not only the future, but really the present, for me and for other people with all sorts of chronic health conditions and disabilities. That’s when I decided to start organizing.

Where have you found community, allies and connection in your work?

This summer, this year’s incoming national leadership board had the opportunity to gather in-person for the first time at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut. We ran a Shabbat together, and I remember there was this moment where we were all sitting around the campfire at Havdalah. We were doing this beautiful service led by Rabbi Isaiah Rothstein, and we were singing. Some people just started getting up and dancing, and it turned into this joyous dancing event, and Rabbi Isaiah was playing his guitar, and one of our teens, Ezra, brought out his flute, and it was just such a powerful moment as a community. At some point, we were singing Hanukkah songs and some Passover songs, which we hadn’t had a chance to experience together because of the pandemic. That sort of thing sustains me as I do this work.

What tools or practices for processing the enormity of the climate crisis have you found within the Jewish tradition? 

Jewish praying and singing, especially in person, and especially if it involves a guitar or other instruments. There’s a really beautiful song called “May The Life I Lead.” Hazon teaches it as in call-and-response. The song goes, “May the life I lead speak for me,” and you call-and-response that, and then it says, “When I get to the end of the road, and I lay down my heavy load, may the life I lead speak for me.”

And then you can substitute in all these other words, like, “May the songs I sing,” and, “May the prayers I pray,” and, “May the movements I build.” I had a call today with Rabbi Isaiah, and we sang it to start off our call!

Another Jewish concept that’s really big for me is B’tselem Elohim, that we’re all made in the image of God, and I think about that in terms of equity and inclusion a lot: We are all exactly the way we are supposed to be, and we need to honor and make space for all sorts of people. I think that applies to the climate crisis as well as disability justice. If we are all made in the image of God, we are all supposed to have a livable planet and a livable future.

What other traditions and lineages do you draw upon?

I reread the Ten Principles of Disability Justice every week. They were created by a group of queer disabled femmes and women of color, and are just so huge. I think it is really an important document that can guide us towards an equitable and inclusive and just and libratory world and movement.

One of the principles that I think about a lot is recognizing wholeness. We are more than just our climate justice organizer label, we’re more than just our Jewish parts: There’s something really special when you allow and welcome a whole person and a whole group of people into a space. We’re stronger as a Jewish people and as a movement when we’re able to bring our other identities and experiences into our work and into our interactions. I know I personally have sometimes not felt comfortable in certain spaces bringing my full self, and at those times I haven’t added as much as I would have. It’s electric when you think about how much potential disability justice has.

In the lead-up to COP26, what have you been doing and feeling?

On the morning of October 18th, nine people, including three rabbis, were arrested as Jewish Youth Climate Movement shut down the headquarters of BlackRock, an investment firm. We were calling on Larry Fink, who’s the CEO, to stand by his Jewish values and divest from fossil fuels. Larry Fink is a prominent part of COP26, but BlackRock is an extremely large funder of the fossil fuel industry, and of companies tied to deforestation. Larry Fink has stated that climate change has become a “top priority” for his firm’s clients. I think it’s great if the intention is there, but BlackRock has invested $336 million in Enbridge, the company that’s building the disastrous Line 3 pipeline. He’s writing these op-eds about his commitment to climate, and meanwhile, investing in companies like Enbridge, Formosa Plastics and Shell.

And so, a lot of what I’ve been doing is supporting that action from afar—my colleague, Madeline Canfield, a JYCM associate, has been working tirelessly in coalition on this action. I’ve been thinking about and working on strategy, especially in messaging, to support her and that planning team.

What aspects of the climate emergency do you think deserve more urgent attention?

One thing that’s close to home in New Hampshire is that the allergy seasons are already so much more intense here, and also the amount of heat waves and heat we’re having. Dartmouth College was built so long ago, and even once air conditioning was invented, it was not something that was ever really needed here, so it was not installed. Now you get these summers here, and it’s just so hot. Sometimes the college has to open spaces with air conditioning and put out cots for people to sleep in, if their dorms don’t have air conditioning. And this is just New Hampshire!

How do you find meaning and hope as you navigate the climate crisis?

The power of visioning. Visioning is a really powerful tool that helps me really internalize that we can win, we can do this. I imagine myself in the future, looking back as if we have won, or as if it is the end of this campaign that we’ve been working on, or whatever it may be. And I write about it, in the past tense: “We got millions of Jews from thousands of Jewish institutions to really see climate justice as a central part of what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century.” Or: “X number of people came to this huge action, and then it blew up all over social media. We had a lot of people join the movement.”

We need a radical imagining of what the world can be. We need to be using our imaginations and our creativity. There is something about internalizing in that different way—not a goals list or a to-do list, but really “looking back” on having done something. Giving yourself permission to dream that it is possible.

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