South Kansas City’s Resilient Activist finds help for grieving environmentalists
By Jill Draper
Sami Aaron’s oldest son was an environmental activist working on a master’s degree when he took his own life in 2003.
“He felt like he could make no difference,” says Aaron. “We had no clue about the effect the state of the world and social injustices were having on him.”
At a friend’s suggestion, Aaron turned to yoga to help cope. She also spent many hours outside in nature, eventually becoming a master naturalist and organizing nature-connected workshops for healing grief. She trained with Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project to better understand environmental justice issues and attended a Bioneers conference—always on the lookout for what would have benefitted her son.
Three years ago she founded a nonprofit, The Resilient Activist, with three goals: nurture the Earth, inspire community and replenish yourself. The organization’s website displays a line from Thich Nhat Hanh, a pioneer in teaching mindfulness: “The best way to take care of the environment is to take care of the environmentalist.”
New words, strong feelings
While the environment has improved in some ways since Earth Day began 51 years ago, in other ways it’s much worse. Air pollution remains a global issue, deforestation is on the rise and the ocean is full of microplastics. All contribute to climate change. And even being outside in nature can be disheartening for those aware of invasive plants and other land issues.
“Every moment you see something that is not in alignment with the natural world. It’s devastating,” Aaron says.
When her organization partnered with the University of Kansas Psychology Department to survey nearly 50 environmental activists, it did not surprise her that they shared feelings like sadness, frustration, hopelessness and anger.
She learned that mental health professionals have been slow to support environmental conservationists. They know about domestic violence and eating disorders, for example, but aren’t always aware that climate change and other environmental crises can affect people in much the same way. She notes that two new groups have formed in response to this situation—the Climate Psychiatry Alliance and the Climate Psychology Alliance.
New words also are emerging, a whole glossary found in books like “Earth Emotions” by Glenn Albrecht, she says. Eco-anxiety is worry about the Earth’s future, solastalgia is pining for lost places, terrafurrie is absolute anger over environmental destruction, and ecocide is widespread criminal activity that damages the Earth and is viewed on the same level as genocide.
What can be done?
“The most important thing is to talk about getting our connection back to the natural world and the impact this can have,” Aaron says. Focusing on corporate greed, political shenanigans and new laws is not the only way. “That’s not talking—that’s demanding. That’s creating a divide.”
The Resilient Activist offers programs to get people talking. Monthly Climate Conversations are informal gatherings that highlight visionary activists and changemakers. Climate of Community sessions are monthly talks led by a clinical psychologist that focus on resilience tools for people who are grieving, anxious or fearful, especially those in the environmental field. And The Visionary Activist is a fee-based program that holds workshops on guided meditation, journaling and conversation. “If someone cares about 27 different things, we help that person whittle down to what is their superpower,” Aaron says. “If they have a great idea, we help them decide how to start.”
Theresilientactivist.org website is full of tips, partnerships and resources, including a weekly online meditation class run by Aaron, a retired software developer who lives in south KC’s Bridlespur neighborhood.
If she could go back in time and speak to her oldest son, here’s what she would say: “You’re not alone, and the emotions you were experiencing are not negative mental health issues, but normal reactions to what is happening in the world.”
And to those who would listen now, she has these words: Start with little things. Take a small portion of your yard, even if it’s just 5 x 5 feet, and put in native plants so pollinators can go from house to house. Or figure out what you love—birds, water, gardening, monarchs—and volunteer with an organization that works to protect and preserve those things. Or choose one native insect that interests you, study it and provide plants for it.
“Mindfulness is the big picture and meditation is the practice,” says Aaron. “We need to stop and think about our actions. We need to notice things.”