How this 22-year-old is creating an anti-racist climate movement: 'We're trying to create a new future'

Kerry Justich
·6-min read
Wawa Gatheru, 22, founder of Black Girl Environmentalist. (Illustration by Nathalie Cruz for Yahoo Life)
Wawa Gatheru, 22, founder of Black Girl Environmentalist. (Illustration by Nathalie Cruz for Yahoo Life)

In honor of Earth Day 2021, Yahoo Life is profiling some of the many advocates leading the charge to save the planet today: young BIPOC (Black, indigenous, people of color) activists fighting for climate justice through an intersectional lens.

Wanjiku “Wawa” Gatheru, 22

Environmental justice advocate, Rhodes scholar at the University of Oxford and founder of Black Girl Environmentalist — a supportive community of Black girls, women and non-binary environmentalists.

How did you get started in the environmental space?

When I was 15, I took an environmental science class. I wasn't meant to take that class, but after one semester of AP chemistry, I knew that I didn't want to take another semester. So there was only one other science class that fit my schedule. So I kind of wandered into that class with no expectations… And I ended up falling in love with the curriculum, which was largely due to my teacher, Mrs. Rose, that just so eloquently connected the issues pertaining to our environment, to our personal lives. But she actually added an environmental justice chapter that wasn't a part of the curriculum. And it was then that I quite literally understood what the missing gap was. That there was a whole area of environmentalism that took and considered how our identities informed our environmental experiences. 

We watched a TED Talk by Peggy Shepard, who is the executive director of WE ACT, which is one of the foremost environmental justice organizations in the country. When she gave her TED Talk, talking about her organizing work and just giving statistics on how Black and Latino youth are more largely impacted by air pollution and have higher rates of asthma than their white counterparts, she was giving statistics that I understood and have seen in my personal life. And it was just this huge "aha!" moment.

In what ways did your own identity impact your view of environmentalism?

I just noticed that there really was a lack of representation of BIPOC people, but particularly Black girls, Black women and Black non-binary environmentalists. Lack of representation isn't anything that I'm new to. I think it's an issue in almost every sector. As I became more involved in environmentalism, as I started getting involved in my state and doing organizing work outside of my university and inside of my university, it was very, very obvious to me that not only was I the youngest person in the room, not only was I the only person of color in the room, I was the only Black woman in the room. And it wasn't just once or twice, it was almost in every experience I was in. And even when I was with my classmates, I would be the only person of color and the only Black woman. And it was just very, very obvious to me that the connection that I had made in high school and this intentional mindset that I made of trying to understand why these barriers exist at every part of my journey,… [is] an issue at every level of this movement, from academia to grassroots organizing.

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How did you use this experience to inform the creation of Black Girl Environmentalist?

I wanted to create an organization and a supportive community where people can feel heard, seen, and where people can really build community within a movement that oftentimes doesn't feel as welcoming for us. So it was launched during the pandemic and because of that, we've been able to connect with folks from not only around the country, but around the world in hosting virtual community meetings, getting to know each other, connecting folks with different job opportunities, as well as launching one of the largest youth Black-led environmental campaigns in the past several years called Reclaiming Our Time, where we highlighted Black climate activists and organizers from around the world that are fighting the climate crisis in their own communities, but often aren't highlighted.

Why should the climate crisis be seen through this intersectional lens?

Around the world, women experience climate change disproportionately because our basic rights continue to be denied in varying forms all around the world. Studies show that our bodies are, our physical bodies are more adversely impacted by climate change. But then when you add on the historic and contemporary impacts of racism, colonialism, the patriarchy and put that in the pot, it just makes sense that our bodies are quite literally at the forefront of climate change. 

Unfortunately, because of the way that our voices are largely minimized in varying forms around the world, that means that we aren't represented in environmental decision-making. So, when you add the gender component, and then you add the component that in the United States, while we're 36 percent people of color according to the 2010 census, people of color only reach a 12 to 16 percent green ceiling in the environmental workforce. So based on race, we're not represented. When you add those two together, you find a very intersectional experience of the marginalization of our voices. So it's acutely understanding that intersection that we base our work off of and work with other people that understand how intersectionality has to be at the forefront of solving this issue.

Is representation within the mainstream movement improving?

Our entire goal, especially with creating an anti-racist movement, is a long term sustainable commitment. So in regards to short term responses, I can say that I've seen that, but it's very hard for me to distinguish short term responses versus virtue signaling. In order to distinguish that I need more years to witness that, and I also need to see commitments that go beyond responding to an event, speaking out for a couple months, and then, you know, going back to normal. I think if there's one thing that the pandemic has shown us is that going back to normal shouldn't be on the table. We're trying to create a new future. 

Is there any resentment toward older generations who have seemingly left the youth to deal with the climate crisis?

This movement is inherently intergenerational and we're fighting for a just future. We're not just fighting for future generations. We're fighting for generations that are still here and alive. Part of this was the fact that I think that the climate narrative is a bit antiquated, and yes, you could say that there are folks in previous generations that contributed to this narrative. But at this point when people ask me, "Are you worried about your future children and future generations?" Yes, I am. But I'm also worried about my parents, because there are people that are in my life now and people that I love now, and I know that when they get older and when their bodies become less mobile and something like hurricane Harvey that happened and I see all these photos of seniors with water up to their necks, and they're in wheelchairs, I think of my parents, I think of my family members. So I don't think that this intergenerational rift is compatible with this movement.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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