PBA Spotlight: Petra Kuppers – Disability Culture and Feminism within Sustainability

What is Queer/Ecofeminism?

Queer/ecofeminism is an orientation to the world that looks at gendered and sexed power relations within a wider field of discriminations and exclusions. Some topics discussed within queer/ecofeminism include how ‘land’ became gendered in heteronormative frameworks, how National Park conservation reinforced discrimination against black and indigenous people, how plant taxonomies and plant collections come to us through colonial travel, and how gender and sexuality are interwoven into the categorization of living things. It also includes gardening as a survival practice and as a focal point for community assembly, indigenous revitalization, eco-sexuality, access to land as it intersects with women’s property rights, or racist red-lining of towns and cities.

Professor Petra Kuppers leading an eco-performance workshop with Movement Research in NYC

This is just a snippet into what Petra Kuppers’ class on Eco/Queer/Feminist Art Practices covers. As a disability activist, community artist, and professor at U-M, Petra hopes her teaching will engage students in working towards more just and enjoyable futures. Some other core aspects of her unique class include visits to the Matthaei Botanical Gardens where students act as citizen-scientists and engage in experiential movement exercises, journaling, interviewing others, and what Petra describes as “deep listening to the world.” This empowers others to look at how artists address art-making, gender, environmental justice, community well-being, and interspecies dialogues.

Sustainability within Disability Culture

For Petra, sustainability means living with attention – to source and to renew ourselves and others as a social justice issue. Her concern and a concern of her class is how to think differently about the relationships between ourselves and the world around us. “Disability offers some interesting terrain to these kinds of queries,” Petra says, “disability activists ask questions about interdependency, moving us away from the notion of the ‘environmentalist’ as some kind of Indiana Jones figure who breaks a path in untouched terrain and, then, has an epiphany on a cliff at the ocean’s edge.” Instead, as a disabled artist, Petra works with people across the disability spectrum. 

One activity Petra does in her class to draw attention to this new way of thinking is to take outings to local parks. On these types of outings, everyone involved pays attention to what can happen when you step from the concrete onto the forest floor. They take a moment to notice how it feels to hold and stabilize someone through this, paying attention to where feet fall and how wheelchair wheels feel against the forest floor. “Paying attention to those whose nervous systems are finely attuned and easily overwhelmed… we find accessible practices that allow more of us to give sensuous attention to our world.” 

Petra with her Winter 2019 section of her Eco/Queer/Feminist Art Practices class

Petra’s class follows the lead of environmental justice activists who find joy and survival in compromised systems, while pointing out the injustices that have created inequality and endangered human lives in toxic zones. Petra mentions Detroit organizer, writer, and thinker Adrienne Maree Brown’s book Emergent Strategy as inspiration for her class, specifically the way that brown uses biomimicry to think about a movement’s sustainability. For instance, she takes inspiration from artists who use mushrooms to detoxify urban poisoned lands, accessing a different kind of fertility and growth to create places to live more peacefully with one another.

Call For Action

Petra would love for others to unearth these types of complicated issues between sustainability, disability culture, and feminism. One key point that she would like anyone to know, whether it be staff, fellow faculty, or students, is that there are many different ways to live a sustainable life. As sustainability ambassadors, we need to be careful about what we name ‘waste’ and what happens with it. For so many people, what we label as waste is actually something that aids them in living their day-to-day life. Too often, lives get discarded as unlivable, when those communities can lead the way in showing all of us new perspectives on environmental attention. 

Ambassadors, take a look at the United Nations disability-inclusive sustainable development goals. Reflect on how your experiences with sustainability may differ from persons with disabilities and how inclusivity within sustainability can benefit us all.

Petra leading a ‘Helping Dance’ performance at the University of Hawaii – Manoa

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