The following conversation took place February 14, 2019, between Kristina Ortez, and writer and photographer Jim O’Donnell. Ortez and O’Donnell have been friends for over five years. O’Donnell currently works part-time as the communications and policy director for the Taos Land Trust.
Jim O’Donnell (JOD): We hear the phrase “the radical middle” a lot in New Mexico. It’s catchy. But is there anything to that?
Kristina Ortez (KO): When you’re in the business of protecting land and water there are times when we have to rely on compromise. I struggle to find a way to talk to people who have completely opposite views of mine, but I increasingly recognize that my job is to focus on the middle. It’s radical. And I have to tell you it hurts. There are certain times when there is no room for compromise. For example, the rights of LGBTQI people, civil rights, rights for women. But when you’re talking about land and culture there is utility in opening yourself up to listening, even though it might confront your own deeply ingrained beliefs.
When I go to the state Legislature and I hear things that are utterly ridiculous I have to spend some mental energy figuring why someone would say something so absurd. Where are they coming from? Why do they have such opposite view points of my own, which is clearly the right one!
JOD: Is compromise harder than it used to be?
KO: It’s easier. I find myself at the age of 45 more understanding of the foibles of my own deeply ingrained way of thinking. At the same time, I want folks to see my way. So, I have to disentangle what is a deeply held belief and what is right.
JOD: Why compromise?
KO: We get something that meets some of the needs for the greatest number of people. Not all of the needs of all of the people. That’s not possible. But something can happen in our community. And I don’t think that change needs to happen gradually. It can happen immediately through compromise.
JOD: What about when it comes to the environment? What is the line on compromise?
KO: We are now in a rapid adaptation phase. We are responding to things that 20 years ago we couldn’t comprehend. But now we’re in it. We must adapt to bigger storms, bigger droughts. These are things we can’t compromise on like policies that would reverse these terrible things from happening.
But when we are talking about long-term land management there is a place for the art of compromising. There has to be. We are talking about people and culture. In Northern New Mexico we are talking about people who have been on the land for millennia.
JOD: How do you compromise with people who don’t see compromise as a legitimate tool and how do you compromise with someone who is ill-informed?
KO: You have to look at the long game. People are changing. This is where hope comes into the equation. We need to have a dogged, hopeful determination that things will keep moving forward. We have to make slow, steady change. It’s true that there are punctuated events where things change all of a sudden. But we also need to put our heads down and just make it happen while hanging on to hope and faith.
JOD: Faith, as in optimism?
KO: Yes. That has to be a part of how you approach big problems.
JOD: Why does the work we do as conservationists matter?
KO: I used to work on big, landscape-scale public lands protection, like you. Wilderness campaigns are so long and forward thinking, and you just assume you’re going to be in the trenches for 10, 15 years or more. Then, every once in a while, there is going to be someone like Senator (Tom) Udall or Senator (Martin) Heinrich who is like, ‘We’re going to do this. Now.’ And all of a sudden things change in a way that is surprising. Think about this public lands bill that just passed. (On Feb. 12, the U.S. Senate passed a bipartisan public lands bill that safeguards more than 2 million federal acres.) Who would have thought this would have passed in this senate? So, things like this come up and it seems surprising, but it isn’t when you look at that long, methodical steady work that went into it.
The question I pose to myself and others doing this kind of work is: How do you keep yourself from going crazy? How do you keep motivated? Real change does happen over the long haul, and how do we self-care while we’re doing the work? What gives me solace, true comfort and rejuvenation is my tribe. My community. I’m highly energized and boosted by my community. Taos has it. Even with all of its issues, I feel uplifted by what we have in this town. At the end of the day, we will take care of each other.
JOD: You once joked to me that you’re motivated to do this work by “fear and loathing”. And while I knew it was a joke, it stuck with me because to a certain extent it got to my motivation.
KO: I don’t want to die. I don’t want to fight my neighbors over water. I don’t want my children or grandchildren to worry about where their food is going to come from. And those things are real. Those things could very well happen in our lifetime. And that motivates me to work in community and invest in community.
JOD: And the loathing part?
KO: I don’t want to let the bastards win. Oh, and I have to tell you…there is a part of it where I’m motivated by someone underestimating my abilities.
JOD: There is an ego in there?
KO: Oh boy, there is ego in there.
JOD: There is the fear and the loathing, but isn’t there a third leg to that stool?
KO: Love. Love for myself. My community. This place. Love is the necessary third leg.
JOD: Does the love piece give you the ability to compromise?
KO: It must. You can be successful with just fear and loathing. But it’s pretty empty. It’s pretty exhausting. Look, we have strong ideas about things. And we’re all close-minded about things. But we have to understand our motivations. Are people who drill for oil driven only by greed because that’s the story we’ve told ourselves as environmentalists? Or is there more to the story?
JOD: Empathy? Can we have empathy for our opponents?
KO: Yes. It gives us the power to change their minds.
JOD: Does empathy help us with structural racism? How about with the structural capitalism that is eating us alive?
KO: Empathy is not going to cut it alone. This is where we talk about those punctuated changes that need to happen. We are in oligarchy right now and the ramifications are real. And people are starting to see that the leadership of this country doesn’t care. There is empathy and then there is just forcing the change because it has to happen.
JOD: Where to next?
KO: We need to continue to align our priorities with what is sustainable in our communities. When you’re investing in community, you’re empowering members to understand their own needs and to be able to vocalize their priorities. What we have to do as a non-profit is continue to create that space, create the venues where people can have those discussions. We can provide the venues in ways that other entities can’t.
To change your community you have to be part of your community.