Believe it or not, I wasn’t always an environmentalist. In fact, I didn’t know about composting or environmental justice until I was 19 years old. I often tell people with a precarious smile that it was my undergraduate studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder that turned me into the person I am today. But my journey to full-blown New Age hippy didn’t start with “save the whale” protests or “save the rainforest” campaigns. It began with environmental justice.
When I attended CU in 2004, I was one of roughly 500 African-Americans on a campus of over 30,000 undergraduates. I remember my freshman year clearly—thousands of students in UGG boots, velour sweat pants, aviator glasses and down jackets swept the campus. And then there was me—a bright-eyed, passionately optimistic 17-year-old, desperately searching for a store that sold Black hair products and mesmerized by the concept of “trust fund hippies” and their casual display of wealth.
Touting the line
I realized early on that the hardest thing about college wasn’t the homework, but the never-ending struggle to find where I belonged. I joined the Black Student Alliance to counteract the Young Republicans’ Affirmative Action Bake Sale and to celebrate Black History Month, but always felt like something was missing. Things really changed when I took a job as CU’s first Environmental Justice Outreach Coordinator, and was tasked with increasing underrepresented student participation in Environmental Center activities. Little did I know, this would be the single most rewarding experience of my entire life.
While working as Environmental Justice Coordinator, I had the privilege of working with a group of wicked smart peers that would become lifelong friends. I spearheaded a three-part Environmental Justice Roundtable entitled, “Privilege, Accountability and the CU Community.” I also organized concerts for the national Climate Change Teach In and discovered my passion for conservation, resource management and community building. Most importantly, I started eating better, exercising regularly and began exploring my spirituality more deeply.
I spent the next two years touting the line between the Black Student Alliance and the Environmental Center. Which means to say, I spent a lot of time hiking, biking, recycling, participating in protests and taking the bus down to Denver to buy Black hair products.
Finding the “us” in environmental justice
The more I learned about environmentalism, the more I understood why the Environmental Center needed an Environmental Justice Coordinator. Not only was I almost always the only African American at environmental events, even my understanding of environmentalism was closely rooted to climate change and pictures of polar bears standing on melting icebergs.
Later, a friend introduced me to Van Jones and Majora Carter, whose thoughts on the “Green Economy” and “Greening the Ghettos” radically changed the way I conceptualized environmentalism. Their work demonstrating how solar panel training and green roofs can combat incarceration rates, decrease unemployment and increase access to healthy food was a no-brainer to me. Not only did this realization solidify my identity as both an African-American and an environmentalist, I quickly shifted my conversations with students from polar bears to the Inuit and from recycling and organic food to job creation and sweat shop labor.
I realize now that environmental justice is part of a larger discussion on racism and that similar to how war, poverty and sexual violence are often perceived as affecting “others” who live “over there,” environmental justice is rarely discussed as an issue affecting the 7 billion of “us,” who live “here.” I think about it this way—similar to a drop of water being absorbed into the water table or captured as runoff by a reservoir, toxic waste dumped in underserved areas poses a threat to surrounding communities and to those hundreds of miles downstream. This becomes an environmental justice issue when those who can afford to live in gated communities have the resources to purchase bottled water or move, while those living in the ghetto lack cars to transport bottled water and face housing discrimination when searching for a new home. Thus begins the vicious cycle of environmental injustice that can be difficult to break.
Get comfortable being uncomfortable
So what’s my advice for scientists, politicians, environmentalists and activists looking to heal the wounds of environmental injustice? Quite frankly, get comfortable being uncomfortable! Engage in meaningful interaction outside of communities in which you self-identify and don’t be afraid if you lack the vocabulary to have politically correct conversations. In fact, that probably means you’re on the right track. Know that sustainable solutions are built in partnerships founded on respect, transparency and trust. Most importantly, understand the spectrum of privilege and where you fit in it.
Do this and the environmental movement will become what it should have been all along—a movement to create ecological, economic and social justice for all of us on Earth.