Over the last few years, youth activists have taken on the climate crisis as the cause of their lives, largely because it will determine the course of them. And yet, as these leaders and organizers tell their environmental heroes—the ones who paved the way and inspired them to fight in the first place—they can’t do it alone. Here, activists Wanjiku Gatheru and Peggy Shepard discuss environmental justice and the legacy of pollution.
Peggy, you are someone that I, as an emerging environmental justice scholar and leader, look up to immensely. Your work has really paved the way and has been a part of the blueprint of what the environmental justice movement is and what it will continue to blossom into. This upcoming fall, I’ll be heading over to the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar to continue to do work surrounding environmental justice, specifically. I’m really interested in doing my research specialties around why Black youth are among the least represented in outdoor recreation. My identity as a scholar-activist has definitely come from pioneers like yourself that have bridged the gap between the policy realm of environmental health and community organizing and who have laid this incredible framework to which myself and other emerging folks have really been looking for inspiration and grounding. So, I am feeling so grateful to have the chance to speak with you!
Well, thank you. It’s a pleasure to hear that you appreciate the kind of work that my organization WE ACT has been doing. I’m honored to have motivated you in any way. I think it’s so important to really model a certain kind of initiative and to model for younger people a path forward and the kind of roles that we can play as we face a very uncertain climate future.
I’m very happy to hear more voices of young people of color. There’s many more that are joining you in environmental science and environmental policy. It’s such a pleasure. When we started, 30-some years ago, we would always hold out for staff to get people of color. There weren’t as many, but we found them. Today, the amount of young people of color we have with environmental science and policy and health degrees has just grown exponentially. It’s just so heartening, because we need your voices and perspectives in this field. The idea of trailblazers is to make it easier for younger people, like you, to come along and to do even more than we’ve been able to do. So, I thank you for taking leadership.
As someone who has been working on issues surrounding environmental justice, policy, and health for decades, how has this arena changed? And how has it stayed the same?
What really has not changed is racism. What has changed is a little more consciousness about it, but it has not changed deeply yet. As a result, our communities are living with the legacy of pollution.
What has changed is that after 30-some years, environmental justice is finally becoming a more visible issue and condition to a broader general public than before. We have majors in universities—you can go and major in environmental justice. You can read about groups like mine in your textbooks and in environmental policy classes. We have advisory groups in more than half of the United States—EJA advisory groups.
But despite all of that, it’s not been a household word. It’s not been something that people have understood. With the issue of the COVID-19 pandemic and the research that Harvard has done that has demonstrated that people of color, especially African-Americans living in air pollution, have a higher risk of death from COVID, that has really exposed the condition that many of our communities are in and has really galvanized the public consciousnesses around environmental justice.
So, that has definitely changed. Just six months ago, if you asked me, “Well, do you have any corporate funding?” We’d be like, “Oh, no.” Corporations stay with these safe things like youth empowerment or arts education, and now, we have corporations and businesses and banks calling us to say they want us to be in their portfolio and are offering us operating money. So, that has changed.
But even though that’s a significant change, it’s still a nibble around the edges, because what really has not changed is racism. What has changed is a little more consciousness about it, but it has not changed deeply yet. As a result, our communities are living with the legacy of pollution. You can go to hundreds of communities around this country: They’re living next door to chemical and oil refineries. They’re next door to toxic waste sites. They’re living next door to combined animal feed operations.
That has not changed. Another thing that has not changed is that out of the something like $24 billion in environmental philanthropy in this country, only one percent goes to environmental justice and people of color. That has not changed. We still have a long way to go.
But I must say, we had a membership meeting—my organization is membership-based. We had a meeting last month, and we had at least six elected officials who were present at that meeting, each one of them talking about environmental justice. That’s never happened before. I’ve been on the boards of other organizations who have been having webinars, and everyone’s at least talking about the phrase environmental justice. Saying the word “racism,” you know—it used to be a few months ago, you used that word very sparingly because it would offend people. Some funders would think it’s too radical if you’re talking about environmental racism instead of environmental justice.
And now, you hear white people using the word racism every day, and I’m still a little taken aback. But it’s honest, and it’s moral, and it makes such a difference to be able to relate on an honest level. To have a white person talk about racism and want to engage that, you begin to feel that you don’t have to hold everything back and you can really begin to be honest. And of course, in a civil way, but you can be honest and forthright. So, we’ve got the first steps, and now we’ve got to see change, action, and implementation.
Yes. Even just for myself, the way that people are talking about environmental justice now versus two years ago is very different. However, something that I’ve been thinking about has been: How do young people hold all these folks accountable? Now that everyone is finally gaining this language of justice and really talking about environmental racism and the way that race is a huge indicator of how we experience our environment, how do we make sure that we’re moving forward beyond virtue signaling and ensuring that this moment is longstanding and translates into resources that can support our communities?
Well, I think one of the important actions has been that the Black Lives Matter demonstrations never stopped. Often, we do a one-day event or one-day march. A lot of the time, we have no demands, and then we go home. But they did not do that, and we had people around this country staying in the street day after day, month after month, and that made a difference. I really began to see that at first in Puerto Rico after the hurricane. They had a governor who was missing in action and probably corrupt as well. And they spent the night in the streets. They did not go home until he resigned. I said to myself, That is what it takes. And that’s what Black Lives Matter and all of the residents in this country who’ve come out to protest, that’s what they’ve done, and that’s what it takes.
And accountability is number one: Voting. People say, “Yeah, you can hold an elected official accountable, just vote them out.” Well, we know it’s not that easy to vote out an incumbent. They have money, they have some credibility because they’ve been in office. They have a whole network of people supporting them. But it does take organization, it takes finding our own candidates who we think can do the job that we need, who can be the change agent that we want, and holding them accountable as well as our current elected officials. And there are many ways we can do that. We really have to increase our civic engagement—and civic engagement isn’t something that should only happen once a year before the election. Civic engagement is about ensuring that regular people are at their police precinct meeting, or their community board meeting, or their block association meeting, or going to their district office of their elected official and telling them what their community needs.
That’s what civic engagement is about, and some of it—we’ve got to reeducate people to civics. How does government work? What is our political system really about? Who are the winners and who are the losers? That political education and that mobilization and support for regular people to express their vision and tell their own story, that’s what we need to be doing day in and day out. And believe me, what I’ve learned from my organization and our members is how much they appreciate that, but also how little you have to do to support people to rise up. They just need a little support. They may need an office so they can Xerox or access a computer, but you provide some support, and people can do it on their own. They can tell their own story, and we’ve got to find ways to support those neighborhood folks who are the lifeblood of our communities. That’s how we will begin to have more sustainable communities and how we begin to hold elected officials accountable.
And then, another thing we have to do is we have to be very strategic about the policy-making tables. How do we get to that table? A lot of us say, “Oh, those are elected officials. I don’t want to be involved in politics.” Or, “That’s a City Hall committee. That’s BS. I don’t want to be involved.” BS or not, get involved, get appointed, and begin to change it from the inside. At the very minimum, you have access to City Hall. You have access to where your phone call will be returned, because you now know a network of people. And then, you can begin to organize in that group for change that you need.
But you’ve got to get to the table, and we can’t just decide that it’s not worth it. It is worth it. We need to be there. There are strategies and tactics we can develop to make some of the vehicles for engagement that are already there more effective. And it makes sure that we get our voices there, because we know it makes a difference when one of our people who thinks the way we do, who thinks about our communities the way we do—when they are there, we have an in. We’re getting a phone call saying, “What do you think?” We’re getting a phone call saying, “Would you head this subcommittee?” So again, we’ve got to be very strategic about getting our voices in the right policy-making positions.
Something that I also wanted to talk to you about was the recent relaunch of the National Black Environmental Justice Network. Why is right now so crucial for this organization to come back and help create that intergenerational connection, especially for emerging environmental leaders of color that have looked up to the leaders of this organization?
The National Environmental Justice Movement is unique in that it’s multi-racial, multi-ethnic. And that’s important for all of our voices to come together and, of course, to stand together because we have common values and common challenges. But we also recognize that as a Black American, or as an Asian American, or an Indigenous person, there are challenges very specific to that particular population. There are challenges very specific to our very beings, and we need our own organizations as well to focus on those issues.
So, the National Black Environmental Justice Network has been restarted because we have understood that this is a particular moment when the issues surrounding our lives are really at an apex. They’re in the public imagination and consciousness. This is an opportunity for us to speak our own truth, to speak for ourselves, to tell our story, and to let the world and the policy-makers know about the issues that affect our particular community in a particular way and how we need to have those addressed.
How do you see this network working with youth? Because we’ve seen that, even in the past two years, the global youth strikes have taken the world by storm. I think there’s so much that we have to learn from folks that have been doing this for decades about what sustained organizing looks like and what is necessary to really create the change that we want. How can we best support this network but also best support and learn from established folks that know how to do the work?
Working intergenerationally is important. You hear about that a lot, but we don’t see a lot of good models for how that’s working. A lot of people still feel, Oh, it’s impossible to connect to young people, to get them involved. Of course, that isn’t the case.
One way that the National Black Environmental Justice Network is able to do that is two of the founders of the network, Dr. Bob Bullard and Dr. Beverly Wright, have been convening a conference at historically Black colleges and universities every year for maybe the past five or six or seven years, where they invite hundreds of students from all the Black colleges. Some of those students submit research projects that they would like to present, and that conference really becomes an important networking session for youth from all different colleges around the country. But also to integrate and interact with some of the senior people who have been in the movement for many years, as well as younger rising leaders in the movement. I think the National Black Environmental Justice Network will really be able to pull on the HBCUs to integrate and engage those students. Because many of those students, or the majority of HBCU students, are coming from the kinds of communities that are disproportionately impacted by pollution, that are impacted by really being left out of decision making.
In Harlem, where I’m located, we don’t have an HBCU. But our city university system of probably eight to ten or more four-year colleges and two-year community colleges primarily serve people of color. We have been running an environmental health and justice training program for one week each semester in a local high school in Washington Heights that trains 90 students a year. We ask those students to do a field project, and we have an expo in which all the students present their projects, and we have them judged. We invite people from all over the city to be judges, and then we give them cash rewards for the winners.
That’s one thing that we’ve been starting more. And we are working to get into more schools. It’s not always easy getting into schools, especially in New York City. There’s a lot of bureaucratic red tape to go through, but we certainly are making a push to do that. We’ve hired an environmental educator on staff. We are developing more and more curriculum around environmental topics, and so we’re now working to digitize our training and make it more of a national offering, so that we can really spread the learning and knowledge around these issues from a justice perspective.
I’m just so in awe of all of the knowledge that you’re passing down! I think there’s this air of pessimism that surrounds a lot of other Gen-Zers. We think about our generation and the fact that we experienced 9/11 in the first few years of our lives. One of my first memories was my parents crying in the living room about 9/11. We experienced Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Sandy, the Sandy Hook school shooting. I’m from Connecticut. That was not too far from me. The election of Donald Trump. We’ve experienced all these different things, and I think something that is left out in a lot of the conversations of why youths don’t mobilize or do X or do Y is because so much of what we have experienced has been so dire.
But I think that a lot of these circumstances aren’t new, and a lot of the circumstances that have led to organizing efforts before we were even born were also in response to problems in our communities that folks decided to correct and change. So, something that my generation and I think about is the fact that our futures really aren’t guaranteed. I was wondering if there’s any advice you have for young people grappling with this reality of not knowing what the future may hold given all these different things we’re experiencing?
I was just listening to cable TV the other day, and they mentioned all of the crises that you all have experienced. I hadn’t thought about it that way, and I’m sure it does give you a certain mindset. The current environment we’re living in is definitely challenging, but what that also means is that there is a diversity of opportunity. For instance, the job that you might think you want in high school today may not exist when you get out, but there’ll be a whole other level of jobs you never thought about. When I was growing up, there weren’t many models.
When I was growing up, I went to the movies every week, and the only women—white women—who were doing anything were journalists or authors or teachers. So, in high school, all I wanted to be was a writer and work for a Condé Nast magazine in New York City. And I did fulfill some of that. I’ve been a newspaper reporter and a magazine editor. But again, the roles were very limited. But now, there are jobs today that weren’t even considered.
There are a lot more opportunities for entrepreneurship on the internet. Now, we do also know that’s not a viable option for all of our communities of color if we are not getting the business loans or the support that our white counterparts are getting. And so, this new movement to raise up the issue of racism, we need to move that ahead into actions that will support our young people in gaining a foothold in new kinds of industries and jobs and entrepreneurship, but they will need support to do that just as other people have support.
What I’d like to know is: When did you get the bug to focus on environmental science?
It was in high school. It was junior year. I took an environmental science course that I wasn’t supposed to take. I had wanted to be a doctor my entire life. My parents are immigrants from Kenya, and I feel like a lot of African immigrant parents are like, “Doctor, engineer, lawyer, choose!” I was like, “Okay, I’ll be a doctor.” I took chemistry, and I hated it. I was like, What is another science course I can take? I guess I’ll take environmental science.
I joined that class, and it was the best class I’ve ever taken. It’s funny how time works. Your TED Talk was one of the assignments we had to watch for our environmental justice section. And it was in that section where I was able to connect the dots between race, class, gender, and our identities and how we experience the environment. I was like, Why is no one talking about this in my family? Why is it that environmentalism has always been presented to me as this very white issue that didn’t involve me? But now, I’m learning that it has everything to do with me and everything to do with my future.
I was like, Let me just do this in college and study this and learn. And that’s what I did. I got really lucky that junior year. Since then, I’ve been working backwards and recognizing the way that I was already an environmentalist grounded by all those principles long before I specifically claimed the term “environmentalist.” I come from a long line of farmers. I grew up growing food, and I realized that experience and that ancestry has grounded me in this relationship with the land. Now that I’m older, I can recognize that.
So, it’s been through learning from folks like you, and one of the first times I even heard of environmental justice was actually your TED Talk.
Well, you didn’t ask me what was one of the most challenging things I’ve done, but it was that TED Talk. And that was a small TED Talk! But you have to work for weeks, like a month, on trying to memorize and then trying to be dramatic—because I’m really more of an introvert. Trying to be dramatic and hold attention on a stage is like, Oh my God. That was really challenging!
Oh my goodness. You did an incredible job!
Well, thank you. I hope that you’ll make me this promise that when you come back with your degree from Oxford, you’ll look us up and hopefully, you won’t be too far ahead to think about working with WE ACT. I really look forward to interacting with you again and to your graduation and to seeing what you’re going to do and the kind of leader you’re going to be. I see the beginnings of that right now, and I think it’s going to be astonishing.
That means the absolute world to me. Thank you so much for your time and for speaking to me.
Oh, absolutely. I mean, you’re the future. We have to be speaking to the future.
Cascade explores the notion that every action, including inaction, is a choice—and each choice we make has a series of consequences, cascading across time. The choices we make now in regards to the planet will determine the trajectory of the human race for generations to come. Water can conform to its container, or it can gather in force as whelming as a wave. What will you choose?