Words by Isaias Hernandez (as told to Daphne Chouliaraki Milner)
The environmental educator, best known as @QueerBrownVegan on Instagram, is upending elitist academic norms by bringing lived experience into discussions about veganism, zero waste, and climate justice.
I grew up in Los Angeles, California, and more specifically, in the San Fernando Valley region. My whole family lived in affordable housing, near toxic facilities and next to the Metrolink station. I remember waking up every day to a sky filled with gray fog and my throat burning. I remember having to wake up early because the train passed by our house and caused our whole apartment to shake at five o’clock every morning.
I started to question my environment when I enrolled in different schools that had “better” educational opportunities in zip codes I didn’t have access to as a low-income student, but got into through various programs. That’s when I realized how many more resources rich communities have compared to low-income communities. One day, when I was in elementary school, we went on a field trip to clean up a beach in Venice, and I asked the question: why have we been sent here to pick up trash for rich people, if they don’t come to our communities to pick up our trash? I remember being silenced by the teacher, who told me I was being disrespectful.
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My question was rooted in the fact that people had repeatedly told me that the reason why I lived where I lived was because my family didn’t work hard enough. They used racist rhetoric to justify an unjust system. It was only in high school that I learned of the term environmental justice after a teacher taught us that zip codes are one of the primary indicators that determine a person’s economic, social, and health status. Furthermore, they explained that a lot of Black, Indigenous and Brown people who lived in Los Angeles, specifically in low-income regions like San Fernando Valley, have higher rates of air, water, and soil toxicity. That term got me angry because it validated what I had been feeling—but didn’t have the vocabulary to express—for so long.
This validation of my anger, sadness, confusion, joy and curiosity led me to pursue an environmental science degree at UC Berkeley. During my time in academia, I realized that the elitism, classism, sexism, ableism, and other interims that exist within such institutions created fragments in the environmental movement. While Western science is essential to [our understanding of the climate], it struck me that grassroots, local, and Indigenous sciences were rarely mentioned during the course of my degree. After I graduated, I decided to make social media my outlet to educate people because I felt that Instagram and TikTok were the best, most democratic way for me to share my curiosity for the world. And so, at 22, I started @queerbrownvegan.
I don’t want to see other kids of color struggle like I did in university. I don’t want people to feel that shame of not knowing the right words.
Since then, I’ve been focused on presenting as many topics as possible. I spend about three to four hours researching articles with my team every day, and then have active conversations—one or two hour discussions—to better understand how we want to communicate the topic at hand. Whether it’s zero-waste, veganism or environmental justice, we aim to provide a cultural component to each video, without diluting any of the terminology. And sometimes that requires a lot of emotional unpacking on my end because I try to tap into my lived experience both on Instagram videos and in my longer-form, in-depth content on my blog.
I’m a big proponent of drawing on personal memories because, when I was growing up, a lot of my lived experiences were invalidated by many dominant environmentalists that did not share the same economic or gender identity as me. I also want to show people that not everyone is going to respond to Western science models. We need to rely more on local or Indigenous sciences that have always existed and have offered conceptual foundations to many environmental philosophies we talk about today.
I don’t want to see other kids of color struggle like I did in university. I don’t want people to feel that shame of not knowing the right words. Rather, I want to redistribute information in a way that empowers people; in a way that saves them emotional labor. When we uplift lived experiences, we also validate the lived experiences of others and, in so doing, give them the emotional drive to pursue change. I see it as passing down the torch of information to those that really need it in their communities. It’s also a way to continue sharing the gift that is local ecological knowledge and traditional knowledge, which I believe to be true wealth. It never rots, it never dies—and that’s something I want to keep sustaining.
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In the same vein, I’m not here to give people answers. Because there is no such thing as one single solution to a problem as vast and multidimensional as the climate crisis. A lot of people get angry at me because I don’t provide solutions. They’re like, well, what is a sustainable product? Or, what do we do then? But the reality is that there needs to be a multitude of solutions and perspectives. We need nuance. That’s something I encourage on my platforms—by not offering answers in our videos, people turn to the comment section to debate complex issues. That’s where collaboration becomes key in the course for climate justice solutions.
Although I may not offer answers, I do encourage people to be more mindful about their role within extractive and destructive global structures. Take the food system as an example. Our participation in a globalized food system in the Global North contributes to both human and animal exploitation. It’s important that we recognise this, and understand the importance of researching where we get our food from. It’s easy for us to go to the grocery store and buy food. But we need to ask ourselves: Where does it come from? Should we be buying this particular fruit in the middle of winter? What alternatives are available to us? That might also mean divesting dollars away from certain industrialized systems—like the dairy industry or large-scale commercial farms—if you are someone who isn’t experiencing food injustice or lives in a food desert or food apartheid.
The best way to sustainably love yourself is through community.
It could also mean getting involved with mutual aid networks, which is the bare minimum people can do to participate in financial redistribution. Having said that, there needs to be a deeper discussion about why these organizations exist. Because mutual aid networks are responses to failed systems—they are not the solution to our oppression. There is so much solidarity work that must be achieved and I think when people actually do that work, whether it’s in person or virtual, it does make them question the existing privileges that exist within this society.
So, as the holidays approach, a time when the extent of the country’s food poverty problem becomes especially apparent, what we can do is make space to share food. Sitting opposite others to enjoy a meal can catalyze discussions about power and privilege. The pandemic, in particular, has made it difficult for us to share food with our loved ones. And I think that’s one of the most radical things we can do: to share food amongst each other, especially with those who do not have certain privileges because they live in time poverty or financial poverty.
I always tell people that the best way to sustainably love yourself is through community. We cannot possibly tackle the work required for meaningful change to come about alone. And I’m not talking about being without friends or romantic relationships. This movement can be isolating when you don’t create networks and nurture your roots to others. Community is a lifeline.