The Black Eco List: Black Women Making Environmental History Now
Arielle King, Jaylin Ward, and Heizal Nagginda are just three of the women leading the environmental justice movement. For Earth Day, we’re shining a light on their fight for a sustainable future.
“Climate change is not just a white people problem,” Heizal Nagginda explained as she detailed the conversations she’s had within her Ugandan community — and she’s right. It’s an issue all of humanity has to work against since years of commercial drilling, deforestation, and clogging our oceans with waste impacts us all, and Black women are leading the cause.
When a movement dedicated to saving the planet and all its inhabitants doesn’t reflect the diversity of the planet, it’s clear we have an imbalanced equation. For so long the environmental justice movement has been posited as a white movement because of the assumption that Black people aren’t aware or don’t care about the environment or the consequences of environmental injustice. That’s simply not true.
The myth that Black people don’t have vested interest in their environment and community’s health is perpetuated in moments like Professor Dorceta Taylor recounting how she was dismissed in a conversation by a white male colleague before she gave her keynote address, only to have him quickly approach her to attempt damage control by saying, “Oh I had no idea who you were. If I knew who you were I would have talked to you” — as if that excused his behavior. While this might sound like a one-off example, the research Taylor has done solidifies the work that still has to be done. Being Black should not diminish your fight for the environment and the women who’ve been active in this conversation are breaking the glass ceiling.
Dr. Beverly Wright and Vernice Miller-Travis have laid the groundwork for younger activists like 27-year-old Brianna Amingwa, who believes that if more Black children have opportunities to play in nature like she did,she can dispel their fears of the outdoors. There’s also Leah Thomas, who uses her social media to fight against the white-washed narrative of environmental justice. And climate awareness isn’t solely centered around melting ice caps and changing climates — it’s visible on a local level.
In 2014, news of lead in drinking water in a predominantly Black and poor community in Flint, Michigan captured our attention, with political leaders only now facing legal ramifications. Food deserts sound mythical, until you drive through neighborhoods in Manhattan and notice that liquor stores, check cashing, and fast food restaurants are nowhere to be found in white neighborhoods; the higher the avenues climb, the clearer the cracks in economic and health care equity. It's clear that food security and health care disparities are real. When Black and minority communities continuously lack access to healthy food options, clean air and drinking water.
“Though the land has been the site of our oppression and is soaked in the blood of our ancestors, African and Indigenous, we need to reconnect with that history and let it fuel a renewable future that lives in harmony with this planet by any means,” climate activist Jaylin Ward explains to R29Unbothered. Ward — along with Arielle King and Heizal Nagginda — understands the importance of her work. For Earth Day, R29Unbothered is shining a light on three Black women who are dedicated to continuing the momentum in fighting for a cleaner and sustainable Earth.
Arielle King, 23
Who I Am: Vermont Law Student, co-founder of Vermont Law School’s Environmental Justice Law Society
What I Do: “Through work that we've done at the Environmental Justice Law Society, we've been able to help create a network of support in education with conferences and lectures about in the area, but also across the northeast. Last school year, we opened up the Environmental Justice Clinic. So we are now providing free legal services and support to low income and BIPOC communities who are disproportionately impacted by environmental harm all across the country. Through that partnership and through that clinic, we were able to write public comments for proposed rulemaking that would create more adverse harm to environmental justice communities.”
Why This Work Matters To Me: “I decided that I wanted to pursue a degree in environmental studies even though I was initially going into environmental science. For me, environmental studies just made sure that there was a priority of understanding people's connection to all of these issues that were happening on the planet, the responsibility of people to protect this planet, but also the way that people are impacted by this planet.
"Protecting people and protecting the planet are inextricably linked. Fighting for racial justice is just as necessary as fighting for a clean and healthy planet."
I was really excited about looking at things in a more holistic way that included people. My minor is in political ecology, which talks about the ways that environmental protection and our connection to the planet is really based on politics and culture and where we grew up and how we grew up and what we've been taught in relation to the planet.
To me, protecting people and protecting the planet are inextricably linked. Fighting for racial justice is just as important and just as necessary as fighting for a clean and healthy planet because those things are also linked.”
When I Knew This Was My Calling: “I've always been really passionate about the environment. I remember going to my first rally on stopping global warming when I was eight or nine. I learned about Earth Day pretty young, and I talked to my principal of elementary school about making sure that we celebrate Earth Day by doing planting projects and cleanups, which the school actually still does now — something I'm very proud of.
This has always been a part of my world. And I feel very fortunate because so many people I grew up with don't have that experience. I was able to join different programs that got me into the outdoors even more like Young Women at the Helm, which was a program [for] inner city teen girls. We went to live on the Hudson River on a giant, working sailboat to learn about marine biology, conservation and water protection; that really opened my eyes.
That same summer, I did this camp that was created by the Department of Environmental Conservation in New York. It was like it was in the Catskills mountains. I learned a lot about plants, and being outside created a love and a desire to protect this earth.”
What I Hope To See: “Ultimately, I hope the work that I do will protect all people with a particular focus on those who have been most harmed by environmental injustice. I recognize and I am a firm believer that if you prioritize frontline communities and communities who are most vulnerable to environmental hazards, environmental harm in policies, procedures and practices, then everyone else will benefit as a result. Those who have the means to be protected have the political wherewithal. They have the political clout. They have the voice in government in one way or another. If you're prioritizing those voices and protecting those groups, then many will get left behind. And so if we start prioritizing frontline communities, defined as communities who are going to experience and are experiencing environmental harm first and worst, then everyone else is going to benefit from whatever policies, procedures and practices you're putting in place.”
Heizal Nagginda, 24
Who I Am: Founder of Climate Operation based in Uganda
What I Do: "I just graduated from law school last year in December, and I founded the youth organization called Climate Operation. We educate children and communities about climate change, its intersection, and then to take it a step further, we include them in climate related activities; the activities we've been involved in the most is planting fruit trees."
Why This Work Matters To Me: “Climate-based education is not in [Ugandan] curriculum, meaning that children go through school and become young adults and they really don't know anything about climate change or anything to do with the environment. So I created Climate Operation, for one, to make children aware of climate change and the fact that it's not just about greenhouse gas emissions, but that there's a human impact to it. Here in Uganda, we are already facing those impacts. So I educate them about it, give them information about it, and then further challenge them to actually go in and start creating innovations that are not only going to help them in school, but also can be taken into communities and curb the impacts that we are facing with climate change
While kids are young, why not educate them so in the future they have already created those climate solutions that the developing world needs right now?”
When it comes to the tree planting activities, I thought we shouldn't just go out and educate people about it and give them information. We should go a step further and connect them with nature. If you connect someone with nature, for example through tree planting, it really engages them.
I will keep doing [this work] because someone needs to fight for this, because someone needs to raise awareness. Someone needs to educate their children about climate change because as everyone keeps saying, the impacts of climate change are going to heavily impact the future, though, it has started happening to us now. While these kids are young, then why not educate them now so that in the future they have already created those climate solutions that the developing world needs right now?”
What I’ve Learned While Doing This Work: “The lesson that I've learned from my work is that we really shouldn't underestimate the power of being informed. So much is being ignored and being pushed out because we are not informed. I've learned that being informed about something really can take someone to greater heights when it comes to changing.”
Jaylin Ward, 20
What I Do: “I played a leadership role in bringing a Farmer’s Market to Howard University as well as reviving our community garden. Our garden is being prepared for the spring in solidarity with Sovereign Earth, a queer & trans, Black & Indigenous (QTBI) collective of urban farmers. This garden has been a sanctuary for Howard University students facing food insecurity, which uncoincidentally brought together a team of Black women and people in the LGBTQ+ community. Our collective also works with returning citizens in the non-profit Hustlaz 2 Harvesters to bring fresh fruit to elders living in the Garfield Terrace public housing complex.
mAK Collective is another queer space I helped established along with my dearest friends Royal Thomas, Ryan Thomas, Ua Hayes, Natalie Courtney, and Precious Swinton. Together we’ve made a safe place for Black non-men to create art driven by Afro-Futurism. We’ve had work in DuPont Underground, organized a protest against forced sterilization and maltreatment in ICE Detention Centers, and started a frequent clothing drive and swap with Casa Ruby.
My liberation and safety is contingent upon rebuilding community... I am doing everything in my power to show Black people that we can affect change.
To me, all of these things are environmental liberation (EL) issues and require a liberation framework (shout out to Ayana Albertini-Fleurant for coining EL), and that’s where Generation Green comes in. We’re a band of HBCU students providing the language and coverage of Black geographies and ecologies. There, I serve as the Director of Diaspora Engagement which is tasked with creating a global network of Black youth fighting the climate crisis through intersectional issues like period poverty, gender-based violence, and several other geographies. Our network provides amplification for campaign support, media coverage, and a plethora of mutual-aid negotiations.”
Why This Work Matters To Me: “I recognize that my liberation, my safety, is contingent upon rebuilding community in a way that doesn’t rely upon scarcity, exploitation, extraction, and fossil fuels. I have no interest or intention of reincarnating on Earth, and I am doing everything in my power to show Black people that we can affect change and our own destinies.”
When I Knew This Was My Calling: “Organizing and activism shouldn’t be anyone’s calling. I’m still working on understanding my calling outside of digesting all of this. Fighting to live is a reality of living on Earth that I struggle with everyday. This is not a cry for help. Buddha said, “life is suffering.” Finding peace is most definitely my calling. I find a piece of that through growing meals from seeds and sharing that joy with people. The most unfortunate part is, like my ancestors, I have to spend more time fighting to live than living. Every organizer, activist, or changemaker should read Pleasure Activism by Adrienne Maree Brown and connect with their spiritual community to find what their real calling is.”
What I’ve Learned While Doing This Work: “I’ve learned that liberation isn’t one size fits all. Nothing in your life should be one size fits all— that’s oppression, beloved. I want people reading this to choose themselves every day. That looks like fighting for your community, honoring your boundaries, and venerating those who’ve come before you. Liberation is contingent upon balance and harmony. That doesn’t mean an absence of issues, hurt, and fear, and Afrofuturism accounts for this. Octavia Butler told us, “embrace diversity. Unite— Or be divided, robbed, ruled, killed by those who see you as prey. Embrace diversity Or be destroyed.” That includes our intra-community steps toward decolonization. Let’s envision something that has never been done before and experience it abundantly.”