To be an activist is to be dedicated to forward motion and positive change. Yet all too often, activists become exhausted and demoralized because of how slowly things change. How does one stay strong and hopeful despite the constant challenges? How do we keep paddling when it seems like the horizon will never draw near?
For myself, I find personal grounding in being a historian. It’s a part of my identity that existed long before I became an activist. The historian inside me records the story for the activist inside me. The past and the future co-mingle, which oddly enough, allows me to find my balance in the present.
I know there are other stories I could share about 2023 that are more focused on the outer work of ethical sourcing. I could be spending my time writing a formal Sustainability Report and calculating the statistics to show my real and measurable progress. Instead, I have chosen to share a small glimpse into the emotional and intellectual labor of these past few months. What follows is a story about activism in Hawaii, Zimbabwe, and Madagascar. It is also a story of friendships all over the world.
It’s August 2023 and Maui is on fire.
That was the news when I woke up, as I packed my bags, and as I drove to the airport to get on a plane. I was leaving my home island of Oahu, Hawaii to attend a conference on ethical sourcing in Chicago. The scale of the tragedy in Maui was already clear, but like any tragedy, it was difficult to know what to do with it. How do I hold space for a town that was in the process of being completely destroyed? What should I do? Should I post something on social media? Is it awful to admire the artistic composition of a photo taken of a tragedy? Is it weird to be worried about a famous tree? How many dead? How many dying? A jumble of thoughts and feelings are inside me. I get my first text messages from people on the mainland, they say: “checking in to make sure you are safe”; “hey, making sure you are ok and safe”; “Uh, you’re not on fire, are you?” I’m fine, but my heart is heavy. When my plane lands, I’ve got a message asking for advice on which organizations to donate to for the fire relief. I have no idea, but I’ll look into it.
The next morning, I dress for success and stride into the Chicago Responsible Jewelry Conference. This is the fourth year I’ve belonged to this small but passionate ethical community. There are those who attend virtually, those who attend in person, and a handful who will reliably raise their hand to ask questions. I’m one of the questioners, I’m far too curious to be shy.
Before the sessions begin, we mill around drinking coffee and chatting. A female mine owner from Zambia greets me. We tried to do business last fall, but the deal fell apart because of technology and communication mix-ups. We immediately agree we still want to do business and that this time we won’t leave the conference until the deal is complete and money exchanges hands (we hold true to our word). She introduces me to a women’s rights activist from Zimbabwe and I feel an instant spark of connection with her. We were both teachers before we got involved in the gem industry and I have a feeling that we might become good friends. I greet people who have been involved in the ethical jewelry community for many years and I meet someone who is just at the beginning of her journey. Several people ask me about the fire in Hawaii in hushed tones. I tell them, “It’s awful, just awful.” What else is there to say?
We begin the conference by discussing the United Nations’ Sustainability Goals. I’m feeling good since I’ve already begun incorporating those goals at Moonrise Crystals. A few hours later, I’m getting a glimpse into the African Union’s mining vision. This information is all new – both to me and the world. The African Union had their first conference on mining just a few months ago. I make a note to look into this further. It seems only prudent since a quarter of the stones I sell come from various African countries.
Typically, this conference focuses on gold and diamonds, but this year we finally have a panel to discuss Responsible Silver. I listen carefully and take note of who could be a potential source for Fair Mine Silver and Recycled Silver if I decide to pursue it. My assistant and my customers have been asking if we can wire-wrap some of the tumbled stones. I’ve resisted the idea, but now that I can find ethical silver I’m open to the option.
One of the things that I love about this conference is the scientific presentations. This year the topic is Deep Sea Mining by a marine ecologist. While many countries mine in their own coastal waters, international waters are still off-limits. That could change at any time. You might think it would be the big wealthy nations that would be debating the issue, but instead it’s small Pacific Island nations leading the conversation. While Hawaii is a volcanic island that rises high above the ocean waves, Kiribati and Palau are atoll island nations, barely a few feet above sea level. If climate change continues, the waters will rise and these nations will cease to exist. Kiribati will most likely be the first county in the world to disappear because of rising waters. Perhaps that explains why Kiribati wants to open the ocean up to mining. Fatalistically, they want to get whatever they can, before their nation is gone. Palau will survive a little longer, they can afford to care about deep water ecosystems. Palau was the first nation to call for a memorandum to protect the ocean from exploitation by large mining corporations.
It’s fascinating to see which countries are taking a stand on this issue. I’m unsurprised that New Zealand wants to protect the environment, while I’m astonished that Norway is so careless and eager to mine. I express my confusion to the people around me and they reply, “look at fishing” and “the Norwegians dump mine tailings into the fjords.” Oh my goodness, there are so many details to keep in mind when evaluating a country! I ask the presenter about the United States’ position on deep sea mining. Turns out the USA has never signed the United Nations’ Law of the Sea because, “Americans don’t like being told what they can and can’t do.” I smile wryly and sigh in exasperation. As an American, I do resemble that comment. My independent streak is part of why I study ethics, rather than just follow the crowd.
The final talk of the day is on Sex Trafficking in the Mranga diamond fields of Zimbabwe. It’s awful, just awful. My heart tries to get bigger, to hold space for the fire in Hawaii and the Zimbabwean women. They are on the exact opposite sides of the world. The Hawaiian Islands are a rich vacation paradise, while Zimbabwe is one of the poorest countries. Yet in both places, right at that moment, I can feel the despair and suffering. How can I help? Thoughts and prayers are nice, but is there anything I can do? I’m itching to take action, but I don’t know what to do.
There are more presentations the next day, with topics as diverse as Russian sanctions due to the war with Ukraine and the relationship between small-scale agriculture and small-scale mining. I take notes and ask questions. I also quietly fact-check on my phone when something doesn’t sound quite right. For example, during the talk about Russian sanctions, the speaker mentioned a Russian submarine named after Alrosa, the Russian diamond conglomerate. This submarine is supposedly proof of collusion between the Russian military and the Russian diamond industry. Everyone else is nodding their head, but it doesn’t smell right to me, so I do a little independent research.
Alrosa is a collection of Russian diamond companies that together control over a quarter of the world’s diamond supply. They are located in the Sakh Republic in Eastern Siberia, thousands of miles away from Ukraine. The Alrosa submarine is currently patrolling the Baltic Sea armed with Kalibr missiles, possibly tipped with nuclear warheads. So are Alrosa diamonds helping fund the Russian war on Ukraine? Of course they are. TASS, Russia’s leading news agency, reported that Putin raised the federal tax rate on Alrosa by billions of dollars each month, specifically to help cover federal deficits due to the war. Alrosa’s tax dollars support the war. That’s no different than saying Microsoft’s tax dollars helped pay for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s true, but so what? Of course taxes pay for wars. As for the submarine, it was commissioned and named back in the 1980s, when Russia was still the Soviet Union. The fact that the Alrosa submarine is still operational over thirty years later, doesn’t really tell us much about Alrosa’s impact on the current conflict. This serves as a reminder that even though I am surrounded by experts, it’s still important to continually use my own critical thinking and verify the facts.
The very last presentation is about human migration patterns and mining. The speaker is a member of the UN advisory board for the Sustainability Goal of Zero Waste. He challenges us to “think like social scientists” and to “accept suboptimal solutions.” That first part intrigues me, while the second part amuses me. I raise my hand to ask a question, because I’m definitely going to need more information about why I should want “suboptimal” solutions! His answer appeals to both my compassionate and practical sides. We can WANT optimal and ideal solutions, but we must remember that sometimes perfect is the enemy of good. Sometimes we just need to make imperfect progress, rather than wait for a perfect solution. Sometimes we need to sacrifice something small, in order to keep the larger picture in balance. The word “suboptimal” will be on my tongue for the next few months. I roll it around and get the taste of it. It’s such an unappealing word, but I can sense the wisdom in it. It’s an invitation to another way of thinking.
The speaker challenges my thoughts on deep sea mining. On the one hand, I think it’s obvious that we shouldn’t destroy an ecosystem that we barely understand. On the other hand, deep sea mining offers some possible solutions to help the world shift its energy consumption away from coal and oil. The ocean protector inside me really dislikes this suboptimal solution. The climate activist inside me is more open-minded. I hold space for both parts of me to coexist.
At the end of the day, my new acquaintance from Zimbabwe stands up next to the founder of the conference. They ask us if we will help the Zimbabwean women who are fighting against sex trafficking. The women want to build a large community chicken coop. This might seem like an odd request until you realize the power and protection that comes from food security. Within a few minutes, I am the proud financial investor in a chicken coop in Zimbabwe. Prior to this week, much of what I knew about Zimbabwe was related to healing crystals like Buddstone, Chrome Chalcedony, and Magnesite. I knew Zimbabwe intellectually, but not emotionally. Now, a little part of my heart is in Zimbabwe.
With the conference over, my thoughts turn back to Maui. I’ve been getting messages from Asia, Africa, Europe, North America and South America all asking about the fires in Hawaii and if I am safe. I make my first round of donations to organizations helping with the Maui fire relief. I fly home and reach out to my tea suppliers at Maui Tea Farm to make sure they are safe. Their farm escaped the Upcountry fires, but was severely damaged by the hurricane winds. I make my second round of donations, to the farm and to others. Then I pause and wait. This will be a long recovery and I need to watch which way the winds blow. No doubt there will be land grabs and water grabs – disaster capitalism is a tale as old as time. The world will soon move on and locals will be left to pick up the pieces. I need to make sure I help take care of my local community, not just pay attention to what’s happening on distant shores.
My crystal supplier in Madagascar reaches out to me. She wants to know if I’m ok and she wants to donate money to help Hawaii recover from the fires. Madagascar is even poorer than Zimbabwe. For years I have been donating money to Madagascar to support an elementary school and to support climate change initiatives. I’m used to thinking of Madagascar as the receiver, not the giver. I’m incredibly touched and humbled by her generosity. A month later, I receive the donation money, some from Madagascar and some from a mutual friend in Germany. I match their funds and donate it to help rebuild King Kamehameha III school, a public elementary school in Lahaina that was completely destroyed by the fire.
While I’m figuring out donations for Maui, Morocco suffers a brutal earthquake. I just so happen to be at the Denver Gem and Mineral Show. My long-time Moroccan supplier is there too, so of course I immediately go see him. I tell him about the fire in Maui and ask him if his loved ones are safe in Morocco. We hug and I give him some money to take home to aid in the disaster recovery. A few hours later, I’m eating Vietnamese food with a Turkish miner. We joyful plot together, formulating a plan to bring safer factory conditions to healing stone polishers in Malawi. It’s the sort of project that will take years to complete, if we can even get it off the ground, but it starts with a hopeful conversation between two activists. What a wonderfully small world it is! Isn’t it amazing how interconnected we all are!
The very next day Libya has a horrific flood due to a storm and the collapse of two dams. The death toll is in the thousands and I don’t know how to feel about that. So I gently but firmly say to myself, “that’s enough dear” and turn off the news. A few weeks later I hear rumblings about war in Israel/Palestine. I refuse to watch. My grandfather died in a Palestinian refugee camp and I have taught at the collegiate level about the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The violent collision between Israel’s Likud party and Gaza’s Hamas is the inevitable result of decades of generational and individual trauma. I don’t have to be a seer to know how this conflict will end and which side will pay the higher price. The only person I want to talk to is my Israeli next-door neighbor. Picture this: an Israeli and a Palestinian sitting on the beach in Hawaii, sharing a bottle of wine and praying together for peace.
On the subject of trauma and friendship, around the same time that Maui was on fire, an old friend in my hometown suffered a complete mental health breakdown and lost almost everything. They asked if I would be their emergency medical contact. For months, we were “in the room together” cautiously figuring it out. I wasn’t there as a healer, I was there as an absolutely trustworthy friend. Other people worried I was giving too much of myself away. How many hours can two people spend on the phone? I shrugged and didn’t worry. I agreed that the situation was “suboptimal” but it was okay. As long as I ignored the news and took a break from social media, there was enough energy to take care of what was already in my hands.
It’s been four months since the fire. In Maui, elementary students are attending classes inside fancy modern tents. A temporary school is being built nearby and should be available by the spring. On the school’s website, the principal’s message is: “E kaupē aku no i ka hoe a kō mai. (Put forward the paddle and draw it back. Go on with the task that is started and finish it. Finish strong!) Meanwhile my new friend from Zimbabwe reports that the chicken coop has been built and soon there will be chickens! She says all the women are very pleased with it. Back in my hometown, my friend is doing much better and the darkest days are behind us. In Madagascar, my friend and crystal supplier is putting on her annual Christmas party at our elementary school. I really wish I was there with her, this year each kid got a new pair of shoes! It makes me so happy to think of all those little feet dancing around the playground. Since I can’t be there in person, I’m dancing there in spirit. Life goes on…
E kaupē aku no i ka hoe a kō mai.