Photo of "Molly Pitcher" or Mary Hays, loading a cannon. She wears a sanguine red dress and has a stoic look on her face. The sky is cloudy and burnt-looking. An cannon explodes behind her.

 

By: Andrew Van Gorp, 30 November, 2015.

I am inspired by the story of Mary Hays, who took up firing the canon when her husband was injured at the Battle of Monmouth in New Jersey during the Revolutionary war. At one point Joseph Plumb Martin, who was fighting alongside her, recalls the memory of Mary’s response to a cannonball flying between her legs: “Looking at it with apparent unconcern, she observed that it was lucky it did not pass a little higher, for in that case it might have carried away something else, and continued her occupation.” 

If you really take a moment to consider that she is making light of a few pounds of solid metal flying 2,000 yards per second nearly taking away large chunks of her body, it dawns on you how badass this woman really was. This was a woman who believed in the idea of Liberty so fervently that there was a literal moment in her life where she had to ask herself, “do I believe in this idea enough to lose my life for it?” to which she then responded, “yes.”

I am in awe of her bravery and resolve. How did she find it within herself to make that choice? How does anyone?

There is an idea floating around in the zeitgeist today that pride in place, such as Nationalism, carried out to it’s nth degree, leads to genocide. Which, in many applications, can be true. Pride in identity can lead to xenophobia and a division of ignorance between peoples. But I have more hope in Humanity than to believe that we must all conversely become blind in order to accept our intersectionalities and diversities. That is just the equal and opposite end of a radically imagined spectrum.

The cynical belief that ignoring differences in people = harmony, is the same dangerous belief that leads to the phrase, “I’m colorblind, I don’t see race.” Many people the world over have written on this dangerous colloquialism that leads to a basic denile of the diversity that exists outside of the mainstream, a denile that allows for continued injustices in our nation’s power structure.

I believe we should all aim for a healthy balance between taking pride in our identities and cherishing our diversities. I don’t see those two options as mutually exclusive. You may be wondering, how the heck does pride in identity relate to sustainability, or a canon-slugging revolutionary for that matter? I believe they relate intimately.

To be honest, this entire article started when my friend Grace sent me a photo of the pie she had made with the apples I’d harvested for her from a beautifully weighed-down tree that lives down my street. Into the crust of the pie she had carved the outline of DuPage County. 

An apple pie has carved into its crust the shape of the border of DuPage County. The outer edge is pressed together with fork marks.

Something beautiful struck me about Grace’s pie, and it took me a while to figure out why it moved me on such an emotional level. 

A moving .gif of a man dramatically having a pie crash into his face and explode in slow motion.

I am the kind of person that best appreciates something by sharing it with someone else. In fact, most of the time, I can’t appreciate something until I share it with someone else. That’s one of the reasons why I am working so hard to build a core group of fellow eco-revolutionaries who are as excited about strengthening our community and transitioning it away from fossil fuels as I am.

Thinking on Mary Hays however, I realized that to be a revolutionary one has to believe in something enough to sacrifice for it, which makes revolutionaries hard to come by. When I was away at school studying Sustainable Community Development at Northland College, I was surrounded by 499 other environmentally-focused students 24/7. After leaving Northland, as much as I hate to say it, living in DuPage felt like living in a vacuum of community. 

A gif of Ace Ventura, played by Jim Carey, in a scene where he sarcastically says, "Activists, M'yes." He shrugs his shoulders and shakes his body in disdain.

 

For example, some people who first see the Sustain DuPage logo don’t realize that I designed the Solidarity Fist within the actual outline of DuPage County. I can’t blame them! After all the years of growing up in this place, in DuPage, I never felt consciously proud to be from here. I wouldn’t have recognized the outline either. I mean, I felt a little pride here and a little pride there, but not laughing-at-a-canonball pride. I never felt the level of love for a place that would make me willing to sacrifice everything I had to protect it- including my life. There were many things preventing me from feeling pride in being born a DuPager.

First off, my parents moved to DuPage when I was just a few months old, so I’m the first generation to be raised here. Our family doesn’t have a storied past in this place. So, even when I was learning “my” history in our third grade classroom- eating up every second of the stories of Glen Ellyn’s five mineral springs, or its six previous names, or our historic tavern at Stacy’s Corners- all of it fell short of inspiring cannonball-level-pride in me.  In my undergrad I focused within my major coursework on Native American Studies. You can imagine how heartbreaking it was for me coming home and finding out that the displays at the DuPage County Historical Museum begin their account of our local history at european settlement with only the slightest mention of the thousands of years of previous human history that existed before Europeans arrived. You have to seek out the history of Native peoples in our region from old books if you would really like to learn more. It’s hard to feel proud of a violent history of colonialism so shameful that we pretend it never even happened in the first place.

An open book shows a map that is hand-drawn of Glen Ellyn. On the North side of the map there are teepees along the river.

I didn’t receive much rooting in my personal ancestral heritages either. For the longest time, I felt like a poser in my own upbringing. I oftentimes felt myself regretting that I was brought up in a period where there was so little regard given for identity based in tradition, history, family, community, culture, and connection to the land. The context of my life had always been jumbled. I was just “sort-of” Italian and Sicilian and Dutch and British. Each of my family lines were shamed out of their native clothes and languages in this country, striving to be mainstream. My Nanno (grandpa) wanted his kids to speak perfect English, because his parents were shamed for speaking Italian. When I asked him about why he didn’t teach my mom Italian, he teared up and couldn’t speak. I don’t think people appreciate how great a loss it is when you lose the language that connects you to your cultural history. Very little of my history survived the shaming we were met with in this country. A tattered story here, a handed down recipe there.

Sometimes when kids around me asked me about my fairly-hard-to-explain history and I began to answer, I was rebuked. I was told that the various cultures I descended from didn’t matter, and that I should only say that I was “white.” I’ve found that as you grow older, people don’t say things so bluntly, but in other more subtle ways. Because of these realities, I felt for a long time as though I was not really “from” anywhere. I didn’t feel like I was from DuPage, and I didn’t really feel like I was from anywhere else either. This was very confusing and frustrating for me throughout my childhood and, if I’m being honest, is still disorienting for me now into my adulthood. When you’re not from somewhere, it’s hard to feel like you belong anywhere. There’s a context to your life that always seems to be missing.

A black and white portrait of famed chicano activist Ruben Salazar.

Learning about Ruben Salazar’s life was the beginning of a new chapter of healing for me. He was a Chicano reporter and activist in California who, like me, was of mixed descent. Growing up, this was very difficult for him as well. I was so inspired that he outspokenly revolted against the idea that people should conform to the dominant society that tells everyone to get in line and just “be as white as you can.” I won’t unpack the dynamics of race and power in the United States for this article; however, I will say that I identified greatly with his condemnation of the denial of an individual’s unique narrative as being violent and regressive.

From Ruben I learned that no one should have to cram the full context of their life story into a little box that is a bite-sized and watered down sound-byte made to satiate a greedily impatient listener. I learned that it is ok to pay respect to a storied and diverse history that may be complex and long-winded. Hearing Salazar’s words finally explained to me why my peers had snubbed me for honoring my full and true narrative when I was a child. By identifying as anything other than “white” I was upsetting the white supremacist power structure we are taught to reinforce from a young age in the United States- (regardless of if we benefit from it or not). After all, “white” is a social construction invented through the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade meant to bandy together various unique and diverse European cultures into an exploitative position of authority over People of Color.

The flag of the UK.     The flag of Sicily.     The flag of the Netherlands.    The flag of Italy.

So how does someone of mixed ancestry who’s family only recently began living within an arbitrary border of stolen land earned through genocide come to peace with their past? The answer is, it’s difficult.

Ruben’s work has given me such healing by allowing me to state my blood right to re-explore the indigenous cultures of my ancestry and to reconnect with the rich bounty of knowledge they have to offer. I aim to honor my full background all the while remaining an outspoken witness to the injustice of the white privilege bestowed upon me by a white supremacist system of power. Creating Sustain DuPage has hopefully created a platform which will elevate marginalized voices in our community to speak up about the Environmental, Economic, and Social Justice issues we face in our communities.

A large part of my goal in founding Sustain DuPage was to get people to feel proud about living here. Like, cannonball-proud. Because we need that. I’m not sure people really grasp the severe threats we face in our community’s near future. I’ve learned in my life that people don’t protect anything they don’t care about. It seems so often today that the problems we face are larger than the sum of all of our hopes. But for me the shape of DuPage in our logo represents that we are a diverse people of various backgrounds and turbid histories. Regardless of whether or not we identify as being from here, we are all currently here in this place. The Solidarity Fist is a visual expression of an active resistance to the dominant narrative, a solidarity for the pursuit of progress. To me the Sustain DuPage logo represents that we don’t have to accept the story we’re told. We don’t have to accept that things are the way they are here and will always be so.

Seeing that my friend carved the outline of DuPage into her pie moved me. It moved me because I often feel alone or overwhelmed in this revolt. Many people I speak to make a terrible habit of bashing the place that they live, instead of becoming involved and changing what sucks about their community. For so long in my life I felt barred from a feeling of patriotism for fear of the evil that blind allegiance can create in the world. But in seeing that pie, I felt like I reclaimed something for myself. People use the phrase, “as American as apple pie” with pride. In seeing the growing environmental movement in DuPage, I can feel nothing but patriotic pride. We are a part of a storied tradition of everyday United States citizens rising up and fighting for what they believe in. We are fighting against ignorance, oppression, exploitation, greed, and indifference. To me, this pie was a vision from our future. It is a future of bounty. It is a future in which we have harmony with the land and our neighbors.

If we are serious about strengthening our community, it must begin to be engrained into everything we do. Mary Hays fought for Freedom. She didn’t say, “Gee, I would take up the cannon, but my husband got wounded and I’d rather be at his side in the field hospital tent.” She didn’t say, “I would help, but I’m just so busy tending to my farm.” For her, giving up wasn’t an option. I hope we can begin to realize that we also are not afforded the option of giving up. We must encourage each other to keep raising the bar. We can’t throw our hands in the air and say, “the UN has shown that Climate Change is now irreversible.” We must fight to transition ourselves off of fossil fuels so that our children may live healthy lives. We can’t say, “Oceans are acidifying and expected to collapse!” We must correct people when they badmouth the places we live. There are many ways to take pride in being from somewhere. If you haven’t already, I hope you can begin to take pride in being a DuPager. You live in a beautiful place deserving of stewardship. “DuPage!” must be our rallying cry. If we don’t stand up for this place in the time that we are living here, then no one will ever stand up for it. 

Sean Astin as Sam in Lord of the Rings telling Frodo, "There's some good in this world Mr. Frodo, and it's worth fighting for."

 

 

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