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We Save Each Other: Disability Activism, Climate Crisis, and the Power of Fighting with Love

Patty Berne in conversation with Julia Watts Belser

March 1, 2024 
A close-up of a brown-skinned woman with red lipstick and perfectly arched eyebrows, looking into the camera with a playful gaze. They are wearing a grey sweater with stripes of blue and purple, black-rimmed glasses, and their dark hair pulled back from their face.

Patty Berne (they/she) is Co-Founder, Executive and Artistic Director of Sins Invalid, a disability justice-based movement building and cultural organization which centers Black, Indigenous, and all disabled people of color, and queer, trans, and non-binary disabled people. Patty’s experiences as a Japanese-Haitian queer disabled woman provides grounding for their work creating “liberated zones” for marginalized voices. Their professional background includes advocacy for immigrants who seek asylum due to war and torture, community organizing within the Haitian diaspora, and mental health support for survivors of violence. Patty is the recipient of the Ford Foundation’s prestigious Disability Futures Fellowship, and they are widely recognized for their work to establish the framework and practice of disability justice.

Julia:  Patty, you’ve been immersed in climate and environmental organizing for years, drawing attention to the way disabled people—especially disabled queer and trans people of color—bear the brunt of so much environmental violence. 

I’d love to talk more about how you ground your environmental activism, not just in terms of your political commitments, but also through your embodied relationship with the land. I’m thinking of the way that disabled people often face barriers in terms of access to nature, how we get shut out of wild spaces. Can you tell us more about how your own disability experience has shaped your relationship with place?

Patty:  I grew up in San Francisco, which was already a very industrialized transport hub even in the 1970s. But I feel fortunate that for the first eight years of my life, I lived right at the ocean. I grew up in the Richmond District, four blocks and a highway across from Ocean Beach. 

Ocean Beach gets criticized because it’s not the classic Southern California beach. It is a gray and stormy coast. But I love that stormy coast. I used to wake up to the sound of fog horns and sea lions. And when I would get off of the school bus, my mother and I would go to the beach.

Julia:   Like you, I love being out at the ocean. But as a wheelchair user myself, I know that wheels and sand don’t mix!  It’s really powerful that so many disabled folks find ways to tap into the sensory experience of the natural world, even when our access isn’t perfect.

Patty:  Yeah, we have to get creative about it. In those days, there was an amusement park at the beach, but you could go past it and just sit at the water. I did that all the time. I couldn’t access the water itself, because of the sand. But I was surrounded by the salt smell and the spray of the water.

Just talking about it now, it brings back the sight and the sound of the waves.  My mom and I used to watch the waves for hours. And because of that, because I know that ocean so well, I know how angry that ocean can get. When it storms, I’ve seen it completely cover Highway 1.

One of my biggest concerns about climate change is that we could be facing up to ten feet of sea rise. That will devastate the coast. It means we won’t be here.¹

Julia:  As someone who grew up right by the ocean, you have a visceral understanding of the danger. As climate change intensifies, a lot of the San Francisco Bay Area is going to be at risk for serious flooding. And some of the coast will be underwater.

Patty:  You know, I’ve looked for wheelchair accessible rafts! After seeing what happened during Hurricane Katrina and other storms, I wanted to be prepared. But I couldn’t find any wheelchair accessible rafts or small boats that I could keep at home. I’ve looked. I can’t find them.

Julia:  That hits me so hard. I think about that—about all the ways disabled folks fight for our own survival. Yet so often, we can’t get what we need. 

Patty:  I remember sitting in my living room with Leroy Moore, one of the co-founders of Sins Invalid. We were saying to each other, “If there’s a flood? If a disaster happens? We’re dead.”

Later, I was telling that story to a friend of mine and they were outraged. They said, “I’m not going to just let you die.” That’s when I realized: It requires a conviction that we’re worth saving.

Julia: That’s such a powerful reorientation: that recognition that disabled people are worth saving. How do we get to that conviction? Can we talk about what it takes to really feel that—to know that we’re worth it?

Patty:  Ableism guts us to our core. So many disabled people end up internalizing that eugenic idea that we’re not worth saving, that our lives are not worth living. A core piece of my healing work is to challenge that.

One of the reasons I founded Sins Invalid was because I wanted to create a place where disabled people were seen as the beautiful, sexy, powerful people that we are. You know, I look at Leroy and I know: he’s worth saving. And, by extension, I’m worth saving.

Sometimes we have to be the ones to reflect that truth for each other. We see each other’s beauty and power, even when we can’t see it for ourselves. That’s what I mean when I say, “We save each other.”

Julia:  That feels like bedrock to me: “We save each other.” Even though we know that we can’t save each other from all harm, even though we know we’re going to face some intense climate violence, the reminder that we’re doing it together—that’s powerful.

Patty:  What I keep coming back to is this: So many species have already gone extinct. If this is our end—if we humans are going to go down as a species—I want us to go in love.

Julia: Love feels so fundamental to the work of making our way through climate crisis. But I’d like to explore that more concretely. What do you mean when you talk about love? What does that look like for you?

Patty:  Love is action. Love looks like making sure someone can eat. It’s calling DoorDash for someone when they can’t afford it. It’s making sure we slow down enough to figure out each other’s access needs.

That’s become really important to me personally. My disability has really increased as I’ve gotten older, to the point where I can’t meet my own access needs during the day. So Sins makes sure that I have an access person available all day, to adjust my body and do a lot of other things for my own safety. And, not just for my safety—it’s also for my comfort. 

Julia:  I’m struck by the correction you just made: that access isn’t just about safety, it’s also about comfort. Disabled folks are always expected to scrape by on the bare minimum. So much of our lives are lived in struggle, like we’re always pushing ourselves up another mountain. 

Your choice to emphasize comfort feels really profound. I don’t want to lose that. Access isn’t just about survival. It’s also about pleasure and ease.

Patty: Yes, that’s right. I deserve to have someone around in case I get thirsty. It makes me think of a poem by Laura Hershey, who wrote about wearing a fancy-knotted scarf and deserving to have it just so.²

Julia:   Exactly. You want your scarf tied in a particular kind of way, and you deserve to have someone help you make that happen. It’s the recognition that our autonomy matters. That what we want matters. That our desires matter.

Patty:  That we’re actually human.

Julia:  This is such a powerful recognition, and particularly for minoritized communities, it really matters that we get to claim the significance of our own desires.  At the same time, I’m also struck by the way that climate change is forcing us all to grapple with the fact that we don’t always get what we want.  We’re having to rethink the question of limits.

Patty:  One of the things I’ve learned from the desert is just how tender and unforgiving life can be. If you don’t comply with what the desert says? Yeah, good luck. When it’s 105 degrees, you need to drink water. If you don’t, you’re going to imperil your organs.

Julia:  Yes, the desert demands its due. Of course, there are a lot of situations where people don’t have a choice—people who’re living on the streets or in their cars, people who’re crossing the border under duress, especially in cities that have criminalized the very act of leaving water for migrants.

Patty:  Exactly. There are a lot of people who don’t have that choice when they cross. But for those of us who do? I’ve seen so many survivalist movies with cis men going out into the mountains or the ice, trying to prove something. I guess if you want to battle nature, you can do that. But my own preference is to roll with what the universe is suggesting.

Julia:  Yes, exactly. And not just listening to the universe, but also listening to my own bones. Disability has really taught me to pay close attention to the actual capacity of my body. That practice feels like it opens up a powerful ecological recognition: an understanding that there are real limits in life. We can’t do everything we want. We can’t have everything we desire. As a disabled person, that isn’t abstract for me.

Patty:  That’s right. Our private ecology can really bring that lesson home. There are limits. And if we push them, we bear the consequences.

It’s the same with climate. There’s a cost when we disrupt an ecology that’s in balance. I’m thinking about the rainforest in the Amazon, the way that parts of the forest are now giving off more CO2 than they’re absorbing.³ It’s another example of how we don’t want to stay within the limits of our ecosystem. 

Julia:   I really resonate with that. And I think this is another place where disability can offer us a powerful set of insights for acknowledging those boundaries. Of course, it can be intensely frustrating. I don’t always want to stay within the limits of my own bones. But it’s not only about what I desire.

Patty:  Yeah, it’s not. We don’t get to have everything we want. We’re not toddlers. As a culture, as a country, as a socioeconomic giant, we have to listen to the limits that are imposed on us.

Julia:  I’m wondering what insights you draw from your own lived experience of disability, what kind of wisdom you think disability can offer for navigating climate crisis?  Would you say more about that?

Patty:  In many ways, I identify as a fighter. Not just in the political sense, but also a physical fight for my life. 

You know, I’ve never watched sports. My whole family loves the 49ers, the Giants, the whole works. But the first sport I ever came to appreciate was mixed martial arts. I’m always hesitant to say that, because it seems so violent. But I really identify with it. I think so many disabled people are fighters. We learn to anticipate. We know there’s always going to be another fight.

I used to resist that, but I’m trying to orient myself to the fact that life requires fighting. And I have a lot of fight.

Julia:  That willingness to fight, that understanding that life is worth fighting for—that’s a tenaciousness I feel from a lot of disabled folks. It’s a powerful orientation to bring to activism. We keep fighting, even when it’s difficult. We don’t expect it to be easy.

Patty:  In the US, there’s this expectation that life should not be a struggle, that things will work out the way that we want. There’s this fantasy that everything will get better and better, easier and easier. 

I think that’s one of the things disability communities can offer: that we can struggle in grace.

When I think about fighting, it’s not the same as violence. It’s not meanness or domination. We can fight with love. We can fight with integrity. We can fight for each other.

¹ For projections of anticipated sea-level rise in the San Francisco Bay Area, see this map.

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² Laura Hershey (1962-2010) was a beloved disability activist and poet. You can read her poem, “Translating Crip”, here.

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³ To read about the way that deforestation, fire and other environmental changes are affecting the Amazon’s ability to absorb carbon emissions, see this article.

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Patty Berne and Julia Watts Belser, “We Save Each Other: Disability Activism, Climate Crisis, and the Power of Fighting with Love – Patty Berne in conversation with Julia Watts Belser.” Disability and Climate Change: A Public Archive Project. March 1, 2024. 

Curated by Louisa Buckingham, Olivia Chuang, Rhea Iyer, Naveena Nanda, Kathy Wei, and Julia Watts Belser.

Edited by Naveena Nanda and Julia Watts Belser.

Photo provided by Patty Berne.

Image Description: A close-up of a brown-skinned woman with red lipstick and perfectly arched eyebrows, looking into the camera with a playful gaze. They are wearing a grey sweater with stripes of blue and purple, black-rimmed glasses, and their dark hair pulled back from their face.

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