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.
Black History Month is marked as much by a reflection on the past as a look to the future, a time to consider the achievements of Black icons and to shine a light on the work of their successors. In that spirit, we talked with six leading Black activists about what they have learned in the fight for justice.
Quentin Bell, a trans man, is the executive director of The Knights & Orchids Society Inc., a Selma, Alabama-based nonprofit led by Black, Queer, and gender non-conforming activists who are working to protect LGBTQ rights in the South.
On his philosophy of organizing
“My philosophy, when it comes to organizing, is unite and empower. We have to bring people together to do the work needed in our communities, but we can’t do that without encouragement and resources.”
“Many of us forget that this work is long term. It isn’t an overnight fix, and we have to prepare the next line of fighters for the work. I had to become my own advocate because there wasn’t anyone who looked like me that I could relate to through my transition. Once I created what I needed, I reached back to help others like me. In that reach back, I realized that I had to move out of the way.”
On the hard work of organizing
“Take care of your mental and physical health. We can’t do this work without putting our mental and physical health on the list of priorities when organizing, leading and training our people.”
“Remember those before you. We didn’t get here by ourselves. We had people sacrifice their lives, time and resources for us.”
On environmental justice
“It is more than just fresh air. Fresh food, clean land, taking care of the land, clean water, not having my people relocate because of poor conditions created by storms, poor planning from government and pollution from factories.”
Environmental organizer Rachel Stevens got her start working with college students advocating for clean energy in South Florida, and went on to work with indigenous communities fighting for their land in Peru. Most recently, she worked with the Sierra Club, organizing communities of color threatened by urban oil drilling in Los Angeles. As a part of a movement that has long been helmed by white men, she is pushing to see more Black and Queer organizers in positions of leadership.
On environmental injustice
“Black folks, low-income folks, and other people of color and indigenous peoples contribute the least to environmental destruction, yet we experience the worst impacts of climate change and pollution.”
“Environmental justice demands we acknowledge how white supremacy, patriarchy, transphobia, imperialism and capitalism have caused the climate catastrophe we find ourselves in today. Our polluted rivers, contaminated soils, melting ice caps and unpredictable weather systems are symptoms of a culture of exploitation reflected in these societal oppressions.”
On diversity in the environmental movement
“I think a lot of the narratives our country centers on when we talk about the history of environmentalism in the U.S. are around land conservation and protecting natural resources related to John Muir’s work who, unfortunately, was racist and had eugenicist beliefs that inform how a lot of ‘big greens’ — large, traditional environmental organizations — view land conservation today. Muir and others definitely need to be discussed, but in a way that acknowledges the harm they’ve done, as well, and how their racism shaped the environmental movement today so we can make sure to discontinue that legacy.”
“I definitely want to say to young, Queer, Black folks, your Queerness, nonconformity, Blackness — and everything else that makes you wonderful and complex — you are needed and relevant to this work. If you feel safe and are safe enough to do so, don’t leave parts of yourself out.”
Kibiriti Majuto, 20, came to the United States in 2012 as a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Now a student at Piedmont Virginia Community College, and a member of the board of the Charlottesville Center for Peace and Justice, he organizes against pipelines, mass incarceration, a lack of affordable housing and the mistreatment of immigrants. Last year, he helped plan community-building events on the anniversary of Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.
How climate change creates refugees
“Climate change is affecting people in the Global South worst and causing them to lose their lands and resources that they need to survive. I didn’t want more people leaving their native land and then having to come to a country that resists them, puts borders or punishes them for being refugees.”
On the trauma of oppression
“A lot of organizers don’t know how to deal with trauma and intergenerational trauma. I feel like they don’t understand the importance of healing work, especially for the community they are organizing for. I’ve just realized how important it has been for me and my work. We cannot talk about moving forward without talking about intergenerational trauma. A lot of people don’t want to address it.”
“A lot of people are reluctant to deal with internalized oppression. It’s easy to point out an oppressors’ oppression but it can be very difficult to come to terms with one’s own oppression. I think we have got to start decolonizing ourselves.”
“Believe in the power of building communities to stop the problems we face.”
Melanie is an African eco-feminist and campaign coordinator with WoMin, a Johannesburg-based group that is organizing women who are threatened by industrial mining.
On how development projects (mines, dams, etc.) impact women
“Water pollution, air pollution, environmental degradation, and destruction of forests and wildlife devastate women, and therefore environmental justice should ensure that women do not unjustly bear the costs of the so-called development projects and should give their consent to the project.”
On the need to organize
“Having been born during the colonial era where my family and a lot of my relatives were organizing against the colonial regime, where the liberation movement was extremely active and mobilizing, I later grew up to understand that people must organize and build movements against injustice.”
On letting women lead
“There is often the belief that peasant women and other grassroots groups do not know what is good for them, and that they should be taught, trained and organized. I think this is where some of the organizers get it all wrong. Learning is a two-way process.”
“I believe that organizing should be led by those who are directly affected by the harmful projects. That is, it should be driven from the bottom going up. In our case, and in a lot of cases in Africa, the peasant women should be the drivers of the change they want to see.”
Rev. Dianne Glave
Rev. Glave is an environmental historian and theologian. Her works include Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage and To Love the Wind and the Rain: African Americans and Environmental History. Her forthcoming book, Black Eco-Theology Through History: The African American Experience, is due out in 2020.
On the study of environmental history
“Though there has been change, much of [the research into environmental history] focuses on the white male experience. The number of Ph.D.’s who focus on diversity in environmental history is limited. And the number of persons of color in the field is low.”
“I was led to write [Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage] because of the environmental influences of my grandparents and parents. My grandparents had a farm in Jamaica, the Caribbean. There I was immersed in farm life when I visited as a child. My parents took my brother and I to upstate New York during many summers of our childhood. There I had the freedom to run around the woods and row on a lake on my own as a small child.”
Her advice to young African-Americans who want to study history
“Keep trying. Don’t give up. Every presentation at a conference, every article and book published means incremental change.”
On her work as activist
“What we are seeing is not only that climate change threatens life as we know it on Earth, but it is impacting communities right now through stronger storms, rising seas, droughts and wildfires, crop loss, mass migration and so many other issues. It’s also disproportionately impacting communities of color — the type of community I grew up in.”
“I get to go all over the country in many different places where people are suffering and dying. I’m here now in Los Angeles, where I spend a lot of my time, and there are families that live a few feet away from oil drilling sites. They look outside their window and see people working in hazmat suits — but these families don’t have hazmat suits!”
“I know as an artist and activist, aka ‘artivist,’ I can use my platform to help the cause… Our existing on this planet is everything. There’s nothing more important. That’s why I fight.”
On diversity in the climate movement
“This study just came out that shows that the diversity at major environmental groups and foundations is actually on the decline. While communities of color and the poor are impacted first and worst, our representation at the traditional environmental table is on the decline. It’s very shocking that these main organizations have gone backwards.”
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.