The first time I observed Reverend Lennox Yearwood Jr. in person, I noticed two things about him: a deeply grounded calm, and a willingness to speak out.
A legendary activist, Rev Yearwood wears many hats—ordained minister, community organizer, former Air Force chaplain, and most famously, founder of Hip Hop Caucus, a nonprofit that’s been working at the nexus of climate justice, voting rights, and hip-hop culture for nearly two decades.
We crossed paths at the TED climate conference in Edinburgh last year, where Rev Yearwood was co-leading a session on “how to be a good ancestor.” In a week packed with slick presentations on a fancy stage, Rev’s intimate session went gently against the grain. It was the first moment where I saw the high-performing attendees that TED attracts breaking down in tears, as Rev and his co-leaders encouraged them to engage with the climate crisis not just as strategists or decision-makers, but as people.
“You can’t do this work if you don’t have something to pull on. Because if you pull on yourself, you’ll become bitter, jaded, and cynical. Having a faith, or some kind of grounding system that helps you reconnect to humanity, to life—you need to have that to do this work,” Rev told me later.
The flipside of Rev’s capacity for emotional and spiritual vulnerability was a strident willingness to articulate hard truths. The biggest story of the conference in Scotland surrounded teen activist Lauren MacDonald’s onstage confrontation with Shell CEO Ben van Beurden, an action that was supported by a coalition of youth activists who took issue with TED granting a platform to an oil major. The showdown went viral online and was hotly debated on the ground—and while many of the adults present responded by critiquing MacDonald’s tone or saying that fossil fuel giants need to be invited into the climate conversation, Rev Yearwood drew a striking comparison to another historical fight for justice.
“It would have been strange to invite the slave trader to the abolitionist meeting,” he commented.
This duality of emotional generosity and boldness that I saw in the Rev during that one brief week seems in some ways a fitting emblem of his long, illustrious career in the climate movement. Since founding the Hip Hop Caucus in 2004, Rev has collaborated with stars like P.Diddy and Jay Z on voting initiatives, organized award-winning relief efforts to support the survivors of Hurricane Katrina, and generally worked to close the gap between the too-often whitewashed climate movement and Black and Brown communities on the front lines.
“I came up through hip hop, not a big green organization. Nothing wrong with the Sierra Club or whatever, but that wasn’t me—as a person of color, I didn’t come into the movement that way,” he says. “It put me in a position to really help the movement because I was outside of that lane, so I could help make our movement stronger and more diverse and inclusive.”
A few months after having met in Scotland, I called up Rev to talk about environmental justice, why he believes culture needs to play a bigger role in the climate conversation, and how his faith informs his activism.
How did your experience working in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina shape your engagement with climate?
I’m from Louisiana—seeing your family and friends drowning in the richest country in the world does something to you. I began to really wonder about climate change.
Katrina was a major flashpoint. That is where the environmental justice movement came out from the shadows. This movement had been going on through the ‘80s, and was really birthed with Dr. Martin Luther King and the sanitation workers—he was killed around issues of environmental justice. But it didn’t crystallize as a movement until Hurricane Katrina.
The narrative around environmental justice has evolved a lot since then. What do you think that the mainstream conversation is getting right, and what is still missing?
Environmental justice used to be seen as an add-on to the climate movement that predominantly concerned people of color, and that had to do with pollution, which wasn’t what the climate movement was focused on. That created a disjointed movement, focusing a lot on wildlife and the Arctic—which it should, but it didn’t connect those dots to humanity as it should have. And because of that, people began to think the climate movement, or being an environmentalist, meant you were white.
But Katrina was one bookend, and the Flint lead crisis was another, and the reality of environmental justice began to weave in the fact that emissions and pollution are connected—what is going on with pollution is also having an impact on our climate.
Then you add a pandemic, and a reckoning for Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd, and you begin to connect the dots that racial justice is climate justice. Young people are now rising up, realizing that these things are not disconnected, calling out white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy. All that is happening with the lens of climate and environmental justice. Also, there’s a sense of urgency, because if you’re a young person, you realize that people fought for clean air and water in the 20th century. You’re literally fighting for existence in the 21st.
Communities of color are adamant about telling their stories and being a part of the solution. That is also a huge shift—they’re not looking for translators to come in here to tell their story anymore. Frontline communities are not going to be spoken over and are going to be the ones leading for solutions in regards to environmental justice, particularly in their own neck of the woods.
Why do you see climate as a civil rights issue?
If there’s lead poisoning and you don’t have clean water, it will shorten your lifespan. 68% of Black Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant. So it is a civil rights issue to assure that no one stops you from living because you are deemed to be in a “sacrifice zone.” Everyone—Republican or Democrat, no matter who you are—has a right to clean air and clean water.
“Communities of color are adamant about telling their stories and being a part of the solution. They’re not looking for translators to come in here to tell their story anymore.”
Your career has involved using the arts and culture, especially working with hip-hop, to try and advance ideas around voting rights and climate justice. Why do you think this cultural lens is so crucial?
I realized that the climate movement had a very distinctive culture—I use the example of Birkenstocks and Ben & Jerry’s, not that there’s anything wrong with those, but basically, it was a very white culture. And that was scary to me, because I realized that this is going to hinder our growth as a movement. If you’re fine being predominantly white and male, you’re going to hinder us from growing this to be the worldwide movement it needs to be. That is what really began to catalyze the creation of culture—we had to create a parallel culture that was so dynamic and beginning to create its own headwind so that people would want to join it.
You’ve done a lot of work around voting initiatives in addition to climate work. Beyond the obvious bit which is that we need to vote climate champions into office, how do you see those two domains as linked?
There is a direct connection between climate and democracy. The communities who are most in harm’s way in the climate crisis are the exact same communities targeted for disenfranchisement from the voting process. The fossil fuel industry doesn’t want these communities to be able to change policies that would impact their bottom line. Many times the fossil fuel industry’s business plan means a death sentence for these communities. They understand that policy can change that.
The thing that makes me excited is seeing how much democracy and climate are now being put together as a strategy. I was actually shocked at how many large climate organizations weren’t working on democracy. But I think more people now understand that we can’t get anything done unless we deal with policy. We’re not going to be able to shape climate policy unless we grow climate voters to go along with it.
What can people do to engage on climate beyond just showing up to vote in federal elections?
Vote every time the ballot box is open. Not just every four years—every two years for midterms, in some cases every year. Local elections are also very important for climate legislation. Second thing is holding your banks, insurance companies, and pension funds accountable for who they give money to.
There’s also a lot of work to do in regards to street heat. People need to see each other out there to know ‘I ain’t crazy, I know something’s wrong, and I ain’t the only one.’ And then it’s important to pass the information on—figuring out what you can do to continue to tell the story of why the climate crisis is happening, making sure that your neighbor is not giving up, having person-to-person conversations. We can do so much to create change. It’s not just every four years in the ballot box.
“Vote every time the ballot box is open. Not just every four years—every two years for midterms, in some cases every year.”
You were formerly a chaplain in the U.S. military. How did that experience shape you?
I’m a big non-violence person. I realized that because I was an officer in the Air Force at the time of the build up for the war in Iraq. That led me to politics, because I didn’t see many people of color doing anti-war work at the time. I’ve evolved into someone who calls for ‘no war, no warming.’ Even now, with the war in Ukraine—that is a climate change war, 100%. What we saw in Syria, what we see in Ukraine… we’re going to start to see people fighting for resources, and right now it’s fossil fuels, but one day it could be water. We have to see how these things are connected.
What role has faith played in your climate activism?
My main faith system is Christianity. But as time has gone on, I’m much more open to whatever you need to do this work. God, to me, is the God of the oppressed. And the story of Jesus outlines that he doesn’t come to the Exxon boardroom. There’s no room in the inn when he shows up. I think that is a sign for all of us fighting this battle. If you’re following the Christian tradition, that’s one thing to know—God is on the side of the people, not the Roman Empire.
You also can’t do this work thinking that you are going to solve it. You’ve got to believe that it’s a relay race. If you believe that it’s gonna be you and only you, you’re going to be in trouble. As a movement, we need to talk about the good news. We talk a lot about what’s wrong, but we’ve got to share the wins more. Even in the civil rights movement, they would have horrible things—church bombings and activists killed. But this is where they would bring up the stories of overcoming and changing civilian laws, and they celebrated that. We have to do a better job of bringing joy into this process.
And faith helps with that. I want to bring a sense of hope that we’re going to win. Organized people beat organized money every single time—we’ve never lost that fight when we come together. I still believe in the Davids meeting the Goliaths, and I still believe in the power of the people.
This story has been edited for length and clarity.