Why Black Womxn & Girls Belong in Climate Work with Wawa Gatheru of Black Girl Environmentalist

Why Black Womxn & Girls Belong in Climate Work with Wawa Gatheru of Black Girl Environmentalist

I was recently honored with the opportunity to interview with Wanjiku “Wawa” Gatheru, who is an extraordinarily accomplished young scholar-activist and the founder of Black Girl Environmentalist. We discussed how parts of her journey as a young, Black woman aspiring to work in climate were disappointing, and drove her to focus her energy on shifting the field of environmentalism to not just include Black women and girls, but center them.

It was a warm, intimate and inspiring conversation which I hope you’ll enjoying listening to and learning from. I also wanted to expand upon the interview where it touches on, but doesn’t fully explore, some topics. Scroll on to read my short addendum below, and please leave your feedback in the comments.

Heard on the street: “Black people don’t care about the environment”

During the conversation, I brought up a common misconception: that Black people don’t much care about the environment, that it ranks low in their priorities as voters and citizens. We didn’t fully dig into this during the interview, so to do this topic better justice, I wanted to give more context here.

So what does the research say? Do Black Americans, the most important voting block in 2024, care about the environment? Yes, they do, says this poll by the Brookings Institute. In fact, they care about climate change and the environment more than the average American.

And why wouldn’t they? Black people, like all people, do have a lot of competing priorities upon which to base their votes, but generations of environmental racism are now being compounded by extra-painful climate grief due to the knowledge that the increasingly harsh impacts of climate change will hit is hitting communities of color the hardest (and on purpose, thanks to NIMBYism). Of course Black people care about climate. (In fact, President Biden would do well to make climate a more prominent part of his reelection campaign if he wants to win Black votes, according to the New York Times. But that’s an aside.)

This whitewashing has been a problem a long time. Way before the climate crisis and NIMBYism were things, the environmental movement as a whole started off on a racist foot. There was a conscious exclusion of people of color baked into early 20th century conservation (think: Teddy Roosevelt) and its mission to create a pristine landscape devoid of human presence, especially the presence of societies most directly in relationship with the land. Sadly, Wawa’s college experience was marred by the unsolicited responsibility of having to bring attention to this and other inequities as a Black student in an environmental education program absent of positive representations of people of color in its curricula, assigned readings and faculty.

Fast forward to the 2020s, and environmental advocacy groups continue to have a serious problem with recruiting, and especially retaining, Black women activists, Wawa says in our interview. The typical environmentalist pipeline is that privileged white people become interested in protecting the environment because they have positive childhood experiences exploring nature with their families, going to summer camp, etc. Compare that to Wawa saying she chose the field “out of fear of a climate future that ignores Black lives.” (That’s from her Vice op-ed that went viral.)

“If I’m honest, I’ve considered leaving [the environmental field]. Sometimes, I still do. But unlike many of my classmates, I did not choose my area of study on the basis of a childhood curiosity. I chose it out of fear of a climate future that ignores Black lives.” — Wawa Gatheru

The white-dominated nature of environmentalism often makes Black women feel like outsiders. It’s uncomfortable to be put in a position like Wawa was in and feel obligated to make colleagues and leaders aware of how the nonprofit that employs you has been shaped by systemic racism, for example. It takes extra will and determination to stay in a field that makes you feel like you don’t belong, and that’s why the support and community that Wawa’s nonprofit, Black Girl Environmentalist provides is so necessary.

Why Black female environmental leadership is essential

It’s not just about equity or ensuring that Black women have a fair shot at a career in climate. Having more Black women leading environmental work makes the work more successful; Wawa says everyone benefits when policies center the needs of those typically on the margins. When Black women move from being marginalized to influential within environmental activism, climate policy, and more, the movement as a whole will be more effective at achieving its goals.

Black women are well positioned to counter the industry-driven technocratic model that dominates environmentalism by bringing different perspectives like Ecowomanism to the table. Ecowomanism is a name for an interdisciplinary, interfaith approach to spiritual connection with the land, inspired by African and Indigenous traditions. It’s just one opportunity for Black women to help influence the evolution of our capitalist society’s culture of extraction and consumption into something more harmonious with our life source, the earth.

It’s your turn

Are you a BGE (a Black female-identifying environmentalist)? BGE chapters are currently active in Los Angeles, NYC, Chicago, New Orleans, Washington DC, the Bay Area (Oakland/SF), Miami, Atlanta, Boston, Columbus, Knoxville, and Philadelphia. Join in here.

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