This is part of a series for Black History Month on Black scientists, activists and entrepreneurs who are tackling the greatest problem of our time.
The mainstream environmental movement is overwhelmingly white — and it’s only getting whiter. Black people are a small minority in big green groups, despite the fact that environmental issues disproportionately affect people of color. But the next generation of Black advocates is working to change that. To learn more, we spoke with four leading climate advocates to talk about justice, activism and what it means to be Black and green.
Adrienne Hollis is a scientist and environmental lawyer who serves as the lead climate justice analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, and teaches law at American University and public health at George Washington University.
“I try to make sure that people who have traditionally not been allowed — or included in places where decisions are made — to be in those spaces so they can speak for themselves and influence environmental, public health and policy issues.”
“I like to describe environmental justice as an umbrella, an overarching construct. Then there are various parts that make up that umbrella, including climate justice, civil rights, criminal justice, economic justice, housing justice and food justice, as well as other important issues that are incorporated into our environment — where we live, play, pray, go to school, recreate and interact with others. It means equity and distributive justice — meeting people where they are, determining what they need to be safe and healthy.”
Her advice to aspiring Black scientists
“To those interested in joining this movement, your fresh insight is a critical component in growing this field. At the same time, recognize and respect the history and knowledge of those who have been doing this work for a long time — in some cases, longer than you have been alive.”
A sociologist and organizer, Ife Kilimanjaro serves as the senior network engagement director at the U.S. Climate Action Network. She was spurred to work on environmental issues after working as an elementary school principal in Detroit, where she saw children get sick and miss school because of air pollution and lack of access to clean water.
“I recently spent time with Indigenous and African-American elders and leaders in rural North and South Carolina who spoke to — among other things — the complete lack of support for their communities between hurricanes Matthew and Florence by the government agencies who benefit from their taxes.”
“Behaving in a way that is morally right and fair toward Mother Earth and her children, including but not limited to humans, means everything to me. It is what takes up considerable brain and heart space, it informs many of my decisions, and is what threads seemingly disparate aspects of my life. That said, environmental justice to me means that all life is valued socially, politically, legally and economically, and not simply the lives of humans who, under the recent few socio-economic systems — feudalism, mercantilism, capitalism — have been considered more valuable than everyone else’s because of their race, class, gender and culture.”
On diversity in the climate movement
“Often missing in the literature and research are important pieces of history made and told by Indigenous people, people of color, poor folks, rural folks and others on the front lines of environmental injustices and climate change. Relatedly, expertise, wisdoms and presence of these frontline communities are missing at tables and in rooms where decisions are made that impact them.”
“One thing that I can say with certainty is that relationships are fundamental to this work. You must get to know people in authentic ways and demonstrate integrity.”
Natalie Mebane has tackled environmental issues in the United States and the Caribbean, having family in both. She currently serves as the dirty fuels lobbyist for the Sierra Club, working to stop the spread of fossil fuel infrastructure.
On the politics of climate change
“I am most passionate about electing leaders who will take this crisis seriously. Right now we have all of the tools needed to combat climate change. Renewable energy technologies have existed for decades and are only improving, yet our political will has not matched the scale of action needed.”
On the state of the environmental movement
“Sometimes people who enter the environmental movement do not always approach it with a justice-centered lens — that racism and the segregation that comes with it plays a part in the climate crisis, that relegating certain individuals to environmental harm is a form of violence. The climate crisis and its impacts are violence, and fighting it is just as much sociological as ecological.”
Her advice to the next generation of Black advocates
“Know your worth. You will be told almost daily that you are not good enough. Your intelligence, your experience, your insights and knowledge will continuously be questioned. You will make people uncomfortable simply by your presence in their space. Once you decide that this is your life’s work, do not stop and do not be discouraged.”
Rev. Michael Malcolm
Rev. Michael Malcom is a pastor and environmental advocate, serving as director of of South Carolina Interfaith Power and Light and Alabama Interfaith Power and Light, organizations led by faith leaders working to protect creation.
“Environmental justice means loving my neighbor. It means speaking truth to power and standing up for the right to breathe clean air, the right to drink clean water and the right to eat clean food. Environmental Justice means equity for all, most of all, environmental justice means putting justice first.”
“Environmental historians have left the contributions of people of color, Indigenous people and communities of faith out of the landscape of the history of environmentalism. It is as if they have attempted to separate environmental justice from environmentalism. There should be an assertive effort to bring in the voices and the presence of leaders on the front line of community efforts.”
His advice to young Black advocates
“My advice is that you always inspect your motivation. You’ve got to do this work because you are driven by a passion to empower communities to fight for environmental justice. The work is hard, the opportunities for finding solutions are vast, and the fact that you are leaving this world better than you found it is your reward.”
Nexus Media is a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture. Markeya Thomas, Shravya Jain-Conti, Mina Lee, Celia Gurney and Bartees Cox contributed to this report.