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.