Breaking Open

By Guest Contributor

The summer before my senior year of high school I joined a pretty radical group working for environmental justice in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, Calif., my hometown. I had read about the new group in an article online and asked to join in its efforts. 

We ran a free environmental education summer camp for kids in the neighborhood, started an urban garden and rehabilitated a property that was to become the group’s new home. When not working we meditated with anarchists, practiced yoga and held sessions on restorative justice during which we cried for the world and each other (In retrospect, I may have joined a cult).

At one of these sessions we studied the work of the esteemed environmental activist Joanna Macy. A senior member of the group read aloud one of her quotes, “the heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe.” I remember the moment distinctly; these words sank into me, cementing a truth I understood but had not been able to fully articulate.   

The previous year, my junior year of high school, I fell in love with my AP Environmental Science class because it led me to a realization that now seems so simple, but at the time it was, and still is, profound: the fundamental interconnectedness of all life on Earth. 

High school had come with all of its usual — and some not so usual — traumas, but through environmental science I came to see the disconnections in my own life as a microcosm of the larger disconnections in the global environmental system. I was broken open, as Macy says, by the realization of my own disconnections, and thus could accept and act upon disconnections in the global environmental system.  I could “contain the whole universe.” 

For me, environmentalism means acknowledging interconnectedness — within ourselves, friends, communities, institutions and countries — and examining when these connections are severed and the often consequent environmental damage to ecosystems that ensues. As an environmentalist, I work to return to and repair connections — connections which are unlike puzzle-piece connections, but that are dynamic and perceptive of societal and environmental changes. 

I am far from my cult days but the premise of my work and thinking remains the same: connection. Through this column I hope to broadly explore a range of disconnections from the personal to the communal to the global, and tackle themes related to balance and identity and to my work in the Socially Responsible Investment Club, Research and Investment in Sustainable Equities (RISE), the SGA and the Commons System because I think we could all use a little more broken openness — a little more connection.  I will, however, leave out more discussion of anarchist meditation. For that, you will need to speak with me directly. 

SOPHIE VAUGHAN ’17 is from OAKLAND, Calif.

Artwork by JENA RITCHEY

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