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Five ways to make the climate movement less white

Family stories about tedious days out picking vegetables or managing herds of cattle always left me with a sense of pride. As the granddaughter of Colorado ranchers and farmworkers, I have a great appreciation for the hard labor involved in food production and agriculture – and the ways it connects my family to the natural world.

My family has already been deeply impacted by climate change and their experiences mirror countless other agricultural workers across the US. Yet so many young people who identify as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) are poorly represented in environmental decision-making. I myself have sometimes felt like there were only certain ways to participate in environmental activism, that not only excluded me, but also devalued my lived experience.

As part of the team of first-time voters who are guest editing the Guardian’s climate coverage today, we want to highlight ways to build a more inclusive environmental movement, and we’ve interviewed five experts below.

One reason it’s so important to include BIPOC communities in the conversation is that we have unique solutions, drawn from centuries of working the land. Acequias, for example are communally managed systems of ditches used in the American south-west to irrigate fields – and offset water scarcity caused by the climate crisis. – Sofia Romero Campbell

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Elizabeth Yeampierre: ‘We have to build intergenerational power’

Elizabeth Yeampierre.Elizabeth Yeampierre. Photograph: Courtesy of the subject

Puerto Rican attorney and environmental justice leader. Executive director of Uprose, Brooklyn’s oldest Latino community-based organization

“What [big organizations in the climate movement] should be doing is supporting frontline leadership because we’re the ones that are being impacted by climate change. Not the other way around. They extract our narratives. They extract our resources. They extract our young people. That extraction is capitalist and it’s colonizing. Changing their culture of practice so that it’s in alignment with the work that we’re all doing would mean a fundamental change.”

Savitri Anantharaman: ‘The kind of action that we need requires white organizers to confront their internalized white supremacy’

Savitri AnantharamSavitri Anantharaman. Photograph: Courtesy of the subject

17-year-old activist with Sunrise Movement in Oakland county, Michigan

“True climate justice demands that we work towards collective liberation and create spaces for BIPOC organizers to be in community with each other and heal together. Instead of recreating the corporate and capitalist dynamics that we’ve been fed, we need to create sustainable, anti-oppressive methods of contributing to the movement. That means intentionally creating opportunities for lower capacity volunteers to contribute, compensating working-class and BIPOC organizers for their labor and truly investing in leaders of color as organizers and people instead of further marginalizing and tokenizing them.”

Allyson Smith: ‘It begins with conversation, understanding and acknowledgement of those peoples who are doing the work that don’t look like the cookie cutter activist’

Allyson Smith.Allyson Smith. Photograph: Sabrina Lucas

Climate activist in Memphis, Tennessee, and guest editor of a special climate edition of the Guardian US

“All of the climate activist spaces that I’ve been to have been predominantly white and cisgender people trying to advocate for those who don’t look like them. We all know the climate crisis disproportionately affects black and brown communities. Walking into these spaces and seeing people who don’t look like me actually leading them – it’s very disheartening.”

Robert Bullard: ‘We need to acknowledge the history, practices and policies that created the inequality’

Robert Bullard.Robert Bullard. Photograph: Courtesy of the subject

Considered the “father of environmental justice” and Texas Southern University professor of urban planning and environment policy

“The question of ‘how do we make a more inclusive climate movement’ is one that people of color never got a sufficient, adequate answer to when we challenged [green groups] in the early 90s. Thirty years later, we’re dealing with the same questions. [Environmental and conservation organizations] have a long history of attracting resources to perpetrate their will on the physical environment, as well as the social environment in terms of policy. They were unwilling to recognize the fact that those people and places that were on the receiving end of the negative impacts were seen as less than.”

Isaias Hernandez: ‘We need to provide accessible environmental education that comes from nonacademic ways of learning’

Isaias Hernandez.Isaias Hernandez. Photograph: Courtesy of the subject

Environmental educator and creator of Queer Brown Vegan where he makes easily accessible resources and environmental education content

“To decolonize the current language that we use in the environmental movement is to also acknowledge how our lived experiences and also our ancestral knowledge is part of our environmental education. More often than not, we look into these academic terms as the key to justify our actions within the climate movement. I try my best to advocate for the fact that many of us aren’t prolific in this type of language.”

  • This article was amended on 21 September 2020 to correct a misspelling of Savitri Anantharaman’s name.

The Guardian is the lead partner in Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story. This story is part of that partnership

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