As we move from Black History Month to Women’s History Month, I wanted to spotlight one Black woman doing all sorts of impactful and meaningful work. Meet Rachel Cargle. She’s a writer, educator, philanthropist, scholar, and overall queen. She’s also a contributing editor here at Atmos, where she curates a monthly series on the intersection of race and the environment. (Some of her contributions include this and this.)
Welcome to The Frontline, where we recognize the power of Black women. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. I’m in conversation with Cargle to discuss Instagram lessons, environmental justice, and mental health. Be sure to follow her latest project, the Great Unlearn, where she invites scholars of color to discuss their expertise on a topic. Attendees can donate to join.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Firstly, I’d love to get a little bit of your history. When did it become clear to you that environmental issues were rooted in systemic racism and that you wanted to work on it, as well?
Yeah, I think I was pretty late to the game in having a real understanding about the intersections of my race and the environment. As a teacher—and as all teachers do—we teach and learn. As I was moving into spaces and having better understandings of what that intersection looks like—how the environment was in direct relationship to how I existed in the world as a Black woman—it was as I was learning that I began to be in more conversation about it. I think that the first time that it was starkly clear to me—and to many people—was when you saw the water issue happening in Flint, Michigan. That was a huge recognition that like, Oh, something as basic and Earth-driven as water is being weaponized in some way against me because of my skin color.
That was when I had the consciousness, but the deep diving is a continuous journey even now.
And how have you managed to weave in this newfound understanding into your greater work around dismantling systemic racism?
Well, the first part in approaching this type of dismantling is having an understanding of the landscape and what we’re up against. So much of our understanding of ourselves has been developed through a lens of whiteness, whether it’s understanding ourselves through literature or media. We rarely get an opportunity to witness the reality of things. So, teaching this is essential to providing us the knowledge to be informed and then developing the empathy within ourselves to say, This is imminent. This is killing people. These aren’t just numbers on paper.
And this directly affects our community based on all of these other things we’ve been fighting around: our race, our gender, our sexuality. Looking at the ways that systems are impacting how we can be in relationship with the Earth. And that is just so mind blowing. As an educator and as someone who is looking to dismantle these systems, there has to be a conversation about what the systems are, and the Earth comes into that very imminently and naturally.
I was a big fan of your Black History Month series on your Instagram where you encourage your followers to educate themselves. Why is it important to ensure that people, specifically non-Black people, are taking that labor on themselves instead of expecting you to explain it for them?
Well, one part of it is: I’m tired. I don’t want to consistently exist in a space that is in defense of or in service of whiteness. That’s a big part of me taking that approach with that series. But also for me, as an educator, I understand the importance of introducing your students—which is how I often consider my followers—into not just what to think, but how to think, how to be critical, how to look into it, how to recognize that Black people aren’t holding secret information. Everything you need is also available to you. This approach is twofold, both offering prompts that people might not have even thought to look into but also a subtle reminder that if you wanted to learn, you could learn because it’s here.
Speaking of Instagram, you have a tremendous platform! And not just on social media. You’ve sat at the Red Table, which I am obsessed with. How are you using that reach to discuss the histories and the stories of Black environmentalism left untold?
I sit in a very particular space of being in relationship with academia, institutions, and other scholars—but also having a pop culture space. Like the Red Table and other ways I exist online.
One of my favorite ways to bridge those two communities and, particularly, to use my platform to bring in this education, this knowledge, this history, this deep wealth of understanding that often isn’t put out into the public spaces is that I often invite Black scholars and Black queer scholars to present their work in my spaces. I love being able to take these actual experts who have done this really meaningful work and invite them to my platform where they might not have been able to share with nearly 2 million people. I love being able to bridge those two spaces of deep and beautiful scholarship with a public space and people who are interested in learning.
“We are put into compromising spaces of being stolen people on stolen land.”
With the environmental history in particular, how have your followers responded to that? I think that this is a topic folks in the environmental space are still catching up with—that deep and rich history that exists between Black people and the natural environment.
I think the way that the conversation is showing up in my space is twofold, and I really love the duality of it. My non-Black audience has that recognition and moment of, Wow, I didn’t consider the fact that Black people exist in this way. Or that, I owe to Black people my understanding of the Earth in this way. All of these aspects of recognition on behalf of the non-Black people. But for the Black people, it is so dope for them to have moments of seeing themselves as a forager, as a snowboarder, as a water activist, as a global citizen, which often is not the case in the realities of the ways Black people are treated in the U.S. in particular.
And so I love that it’s both kind of a stark dose of reality for white people and their considerations—and then it’s also a beautiful moment of self-understanding and self-possibility for my Black followers.
Mental health is a big part of your work as well. I understand that the Loveland Foundation touches on this. How are you bringing that conversation into climate spaces? We know doing work and organizing and advocating and writing about the climate crisis can be mentally exhausting, especially for people of color like us whose communities are being disproportionately impacted.
I think that particular conversation offers a double opportunity. There’s both the conversation around what’s happening, particularly around race and environment and what environmental racism looks like, and how Black people exist in the world in different ways based on white people’s weird management of Earth. Also, I have to note that we can’t possibly have this conversation without talking about Indigenous communities, and we are put into compromising spaces of being stolen people on stolen land. And that complicates several conversations. So I just wanted to acknowledge that, but going back to the conversation.
Firstly, these things are happening. For so many people, including myself at a point, that was something that took you aback like, Oh my gosh, I had no idea that this was a specific experience of our people. But then this offers an additional lens into the necessities of mental healthcare, the necessities that not only are we dealing with everything we knew we were dealing with, but we also have this subconscious layer we’re experiencing in the world of our tangible space: our geography, our water, how our bodies relate to the earth that we live on.
I love this conversation because it is both education and reiteration of what we understand is the necessity of mental healthcare for the Black community as a whole, for the BIPOC community as a whole. My work with the Loveland Foundation is particularly rooted in supporting Black women and girls from that subset because, in my living and my knowing, Black women are the foundation of so many spaces within the Black community. And if they heal, it’s a guarantee to ripple out into other spaces. And the weathering that happens to our physical body—but also our mental and emotional health—is worth deep investment.