Participants from Lead to Life stand shoulder-to-shoulder holding shovels that they used to plant trees.
Courtesy of Lead to Life

Lead to Life: A People’s Alchemy for Regeneration

Oakland, CA

Lead to Life transforms weapons into shovels for ceremonial tree plantings at sites that have been impacted by violence or carry spiritual significance across Atlanta and Oakland. The intention of Lead to Life is “to transform that which ends life into that which sustains life—to facilitate an alchemical healing process that can physically transform both our weapons and our imaginations.” Incubated within Kalliopeia’s Spiritual Ecology Fellowship, their collaborative ceremonial interventions are designed to: bridge connections between restorative and environmental justice; restore the ecological foundations of sacred spaces within our urban geographies; rekindle relationships of reverence and reciprocity with each other and the Earth.

Featured Media

brontë velez hands Dr. Bernice King a gun to be delivered to the furnace on the 50th anniversary of her father’s assassination.

Applied Alchemy

This story features Lead to Life’s inaugural event in Atlanta, Georgia, on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and shares some of the inspiration behind the work.
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Embodying the Revolution

In this podcast, brontë velez, co-founder of Lead to Life, guides us through an expansive exploration of critical ecology, radical imagination, and decomposition as rebellion.

brontë velez, Co-Founder of Lead to Life Kyle Lemle, Co-Founder of Lead to Life

Three questions with brontë velez and Kyle Lemle, Co-Founders

Where do ecology, culture, and spirituality connect in your work?

bv & KL: Lead to Life’s ceremonies invite communities who have been impacted by violence to lean in and find the place within themselves that can access grief—which comes from a love for life. And from that place of deep longing, respect, recognized kinship, shared destiny, and interrelated structure of reality (Dr. King), we will not stand for the unjust killings, genocides, and displacement of black and brown people and the planet. This is a spiritual movement—a calling from the Earth itself to protect life, honor, revere life—and we are responding through public ceremony, melting guns, planting trees, singing, dancing, spellcasting, and living the future we know is possible.

Our praxis utilizes radical imagination as a necessary response to interrupt environmental racism and climate apartheid. We want to interrupt toxic cultures of capitalism that render most beings as disposable. Our work is to bring about reverence for life—drawing attention and love to preserving and protecting life. It is a similarly poisoned mind that can be apathetic to the killing of unarmed black people as it is apathetic to the destruction of our rainforests and oceans. An ecological practice in liberation requires that we do not see these violences as separate but actually deeply informing one another and a part of one another.

We couple our art praxis with public pedagogy and theology, ceremony, organizing, and ecological restoration projects rooted in healing justice as the work that will reconnect us and ultimately address climate change—suturing folks of color’s proximity to healing modalities, closing nature-connection gaps, grief-tending and opening the room, and reparations for radical imagination anchored by rest. Bearing witness and participating in our alchemy ceremonies brings us into a quality of deep time that allows us to attend the horrors and traumas left unacknowledged and unattended that remain present while also dreaming us into black futures where all beings are free from suffering.

What do you see happening in your field—or beyond, in the world—that you’re really excited about?

bv: Sadly, the dominant paradigms addressing our current climate crisis are often failed by capitalist psychology. Situated in western science and tech-based “solutions,” carbon neutralization, and changing individual consumer choices, the dominant narrative affirms that we can “solve” the climate crisis. This dangerous approach reifies the root of the problem and further alienates us from connection with the earth. The climate crisis at its core is only symptomatic of a deeper cultural crisis of relational imbalance with ourselves, with one another, and with environments perpetuated and created by capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy. We’re already too far gone, and it has been proven that recent climate science regarding dates for specific “tipping points” is conservative—climate change and mass extinction are well here. There will be severe militaristic response towards black and brown communities in the midst of climate apartheid. No historical reference cites that we will be supported. Our current moment reveals that we will not be supported. Poverty will be criminalized. We’ve seen it time and time before. We see it right now. We expect that hundreds of millions of black and brown, queer, poor, differently-abled, and unhoused folks will die, along with hundreds of more-than-human kin, every day, unless we get real about what is going on.

What feels most exciting for folks working to weave spirituality and ecology is understanding that the response to our climate crisis is cultural at its roots. These folks are willing to disrupt the illusion that we might solve this crisis through industrialized means rather than grappling and reckoning with the truth of where we are and how we got here and grieving that before a response emerges—humbling ourselves to collapse and then responding from that place of revelation. The work that feels critical and inspiring for us right now is Jem Bendell’s theories around “Deep Adaptation,” and Bayo Akomolafe and The Emergence Network’s questions around “post-activism.” Their work urges us to continue with large-scale mitigation but also to interrogate how our responses are actually supporting and often denying the problems at large.

Lead to Life is excited about transitioning our work into a Deep Adaptation model, because we know the rootwork of responding to climate crisis is about shifting our cultural framework around what we care for. We are excited to inquire about how we can exchange deep adaptation skills in black joy, imagination, and community. What are the ceremonies to grapple with climate anomie and grief? How do we integrate ceremony into our climate mitigation and adaptation work? Who is dominating and corporatizing climate change response, and how are the ways we are responding to climate disaster exacerbating the problem? How are those most marginalized by climate injustice centered in our response; how do they inform our protocol? How are we going to protect those who are most likely to not be cared for in the midst of climate disaster?

What was the biggest challenge or accomplishment in your work last year?

bv & KL: On MLK Day 2019, Lead to Life hosted the sunset ceremony to close out the annual People’s March to Reclaim King’s Radical Legacy, organized by Anti Police-Terror Project (APTP). Over 500 people joined us for this historic night in front of Oakland City Hall, where we honored the tenth anniversary of Oscar Grant’s murder by BART officer Johannes Mehrsele. Our lead metal casting artist, James Brenner, and local Oakland metal artists transformed weapons into metal stars—the constellations that were in the sky above Oscar Grant when he was murdered on January 1, 2009. We will plant those stars as plaques with trees across the East Bay (occupied Ohlone territory) later on this year.

Local artists, dancers, and elders were there to hold space, including Afro-Boricua folkloric dancers, Oya Nike Botanica, and black youth from Prescott Circus. The mothers of Sahleem Tindle, Christopher Lavell Jones, and Dujaun Armstrong, who were killed by gun violence and police brutality, shared their stories, prophecies, prayers, and hearts, and brought weapons to the furnace to be reimagined. The Robby Poblete Foundation and United Playaz brought representatives to share how they are interrupting gun violence across California. Cat Brooks, founder of APTP and 2018 Oakland mayoral candidate, ushered us into prophetic liberation with 500+ Oakland community members to cast our prayers for a world beyond violence into the stars.

We are humbled and stilled at the co-created magic that transpired that night. This ceremony embodied the future beyond violence we know is possible in our hearts. It helped all who attended live into the truth that we are no longer waiting for our freedom: we are becoming it in the here and now; we are creating the world we want to live in.

We are left contemplating how story can take place; the reclamatory power of imagination and dreaming; the urgency of ceremony as essential to our movement building and to shifting our collective consciousness. We trust that we can not restore ecological well-being without Indigenous land sovereignty and Black liberation. Healing our human relations is essential to the Earth’s liberation, to the rebellion against extinction, to the freedom of the bees and air and water, and we will continue to walk into the depths of those intersections together.

The impact rings in the voices and memories of those who attended. Here are a few:

“There is no way to put into words what just went down in Oscar Grant Plaza this evening. But if I were to try, I would say something like this. When the spirit and the earth meet, at the intersection of the depths of sorrow and the brightest of lights in the universe, that is when the deep change comes. And tonight was the deep change … I’m in awe and ready to show up even more—because it is everyone’s birthright to be free, to be safe, to have a home, and to be one with the holy.”
—Jen Myzel

“The vision that Lead to Life has is truly transformative, and I am so grateful to both brontë and Kyle for bringing it to us … I feel not so different from what I felt a couple of years ago as I was driving away from my time at Standing Rock—feeling, in a really embodied way, a commitment to continuing the work of resistance as an act of ritual and ceremony. The elders there would always tell us: that when we go into town to do direct action, we are going to ceremony. To always take that spirit with us wherever we go. And your event brought me back to that.”
—Kazu Haga

This project is fiscally sponsored by Planting Justice.