1. How does your current work tackle climate injustice?
With the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, we are working on various environmental justice initiatives at the local, state and federal levels. I'll give some highlights. Locally, in New York City, we are working hard to implement the Renewable Rikers initiative. We are in coalition with amazing grassroots organizers and advocacy groups accountable to environmental justice communities. We were able to get a commitment from the city to shut down Rikers Island prison in the next five years and transform it into a renewable energy hub. We are currently in the implementation phase, which is typically the most overlooked part of policy. At the state level, the outgoing governor of New York signed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, or CLCPA, into law, being one of the most aggressive pieces of climate policy ever. We are also in the implementation phase; but we have a lot of work to do. It's extremely germane from a federal or national standpoint, because the CLCPA influenced so much federal policy. It influenced candidates’ presidential platforms, and it has influenced President Joe Biden's climate platform. Yet there are a lot of unknowns for disadvantaged communities that still have to be sorted out. As you can imagine, that's a Sisyphean task. At the federal level, everything is happening. The assault on voting rights, for example, has massive implications for climate justice. There's an axiomatic nexus between voting, protecting and expanding democracy, and climate justice. Then of course, we have this infrastructure package where we're trying to ensure that frontline environmental justice communities are front and center, and not getting shortchanged.
2. How do you reflect on your work as policy coordinator for the Climate Justice Alliance?
They were an incredible two-and-a-half years of my life. I was working with my mentors, my heroes, people who I consider family, and some of the greatest organizers and thinkers in the world. My role there was assisting with building our policy team and kicking doors down to give CJA [Climate Justice Alliance] a presence in the halls of power, at all levels of government, especially federal. Then, I was really focusing on the work that I was doing with the Green New Deal network at the time, in part leading to the development and introduction to transform, heal, invest, and repair vibrant economies with the Thrive Act. The work that they do, and the way they get us to rethink the concept of climate justice, is so imperative. I know we're gonna talk a bit more about root causes of the climate crisis, and you'll find no better experts in the world than the 70 plus members of the CJS.
3. What do you think are the possibilities for this moment? Where do you think all of this is headed?
There's so much riding on this historical moment. We got gerrymandered redistricting and white supremacy hegemony that basically undo fair and democratic election processes. What's possible is really going to depend on us. It's great that we have some friends and more access to federal branches of government than we've had in some time. I don't necessarily expect that they will be able to do everything. I mean, unless they really are serious about hyper-capitalism and entering on a roadway to social democratic ideas. That's just not how the system works. So it's really going to be dependent on us. For instance, how many people are educated about NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act]? If not enough people are, that's not the federal government’s responsibility, it’s ours.
You mentioned the Green New Deal. There are parts of Detroit, and New York, where Alexandra Ocasio Cortez is from, where we have no idea how to speak to them. It hasn't reached them. We still haven't fully specified what a Green New Deal could mean for these communities. You have Biden saying he supports the Green New Deal, but he also supports fracking, nuclear and carbon capture. What's possible is going to depend on how much we control the narrative. The mainstream message is that White men are the only ones holding the solutions, when we know fully well that solutions are coming out of Sunset Park, Brooklyn, Richmond, California with Dora Robertson and Urban Tilth, and what they're doing around food sovereignty. They're coming out of the Jackson, Mississippi’s Environmental Justice Coalition that is building a Just Transition oriented to food sovereignty and energy democracy. Those are the solutions we need to scale out. And unfortunately we're seeing too many people talking about climate change in isolation from justice issues, pushing what I like to call the “green unicorn” approach. The greenwashing has no shame anymore…we're up against social systems approaching maximum entropy, and the calamities that come with that, which includes us becoming even more bifurcated.
Right now, we can't afford any more division. We are divided by politics, a global pandemic, and a global climate crisis now, so it's on us to fix this. It's time. Our organizations have to be organizations, not flags. It's time for a serious conversation with labor, to articulate to them what a Just Transition would look like. Now is the time and Big Labor has a chance to be on the right side of all of this. For the question regarding possibilities right now, we can't do this without labor. We can't be at odds with our own working people.
4. What does the path to climate justice look like? And from your experience with climate mitigation and climate strategies, what do you believe are the greatest barriers?
During my time with the Climate Justice Alliance, I was honored to be one of the lead authors of a toolkit that was produced called A People’s Orientation to a Toward Regenerative Economy. We developed the Five Points of Intervention, each represented by a different symbol. The first symbol is narrative, represented by underground seeds and roots of everything that's going to come out of the ground. Water illustrates the grassroots organizing and base-building the movement as the pathway to climate justice. If the narrative is not controlled by the people, and we're not speaking for ourselves, then the organizing is going to be tainted with bad water that feeds bad seeds. In our approach, the plant refers to policy development; the flora we harvest reflects implementation of policy; and the farmers and stewards of landscape symbolize direct action.
The path to climate justice also has to include what intersectionality looks like in practice. I can just imagine my six year old, who's very inquisitive, being like, how do you do it? But that's the question right there: Daddy, how do you do intersectionality? And right now, I'd look at him and respond, Dude, don't ask such questions. What do you want to know? Here’s the iPad, go read, and go away. But that's basically what we've been doing as a movement: “Well, that's it for the Zoom call today, everybody. We'll see you next week for our meeting where we just exchange information, but don't actually come to a conclusion.” But I think that we also have to confront the issues from an intersectional perspective. We evoke that we want to transform the world, but in order to do that, we have to transform ourselves. We have to look for elements like humanity and solidarity that exist within our spaces, and have enough courage to really go after those elements. Let's just start there.
I started reading this book called Dapper Underground, which talks about how the more radical Black movements from the late 1950s, through the mid- 1970s, were collaborating with international groups in Bonaventure, Colombia, and of course, on the continent in Africa. There's no forcefield we can put around the United States, like, we're doing our part, and therefore, we're immune. It is a global struggle. That means that we have to look at the local inequalities that lead to and parallel global inequalities.
5. Patricia Hill Collins has the best work so far on intersectionality, particularly from a black feminist perspective. I think she's really good about providing examples and ways that you can build a political project around intersectionality. But generally, the climate justice movement is struggling with putting the concept of intersectionality into a popular discourse. How do you frame it so that people can visualize the commonality they may hold for people from very different walks of life?
My first book is coming out soon and it’s called Intersectionality: Missed Opportunities and New Possibilities. It is about bringing intersectionality to life. And the book is actually broken down into three parts: the polemic, the potential, and the process. We use real examples of intersectionality from Alabama, to Nebraska, to New York City, and the great work of the Climate Justice Alliance. I hope the book can accomplish this goal for the movement.
6. What are the greatest lessons you've learned from doing this work over the past 10 years?
We have a lot of work to do. People have asked, what will this work look like in 10 years? I don't want to be doing this for the next 10 years. No, no, we should all be out of business in 10 years, or we're not doing it right. I want to be going fishing with my kid and fighting with him about him touching my records.
I think that grassroots environmental justice organizations are doing all they can. They have bestowed upon the world these amazing references rooted in globally Indigenous wisdom. It's a matter of the larger climate justice movement. It’s about scaling up and scaling out those solutions, that wisdom, for energy, democracy, and a Just Transition. How do we generate and engender the political and social temerity and valor to help scale them up and out? Our communities shouldn't be sacrifice zones for your comfort. Can we just see each other's humanity? I love what Hop Hopkins said: you can't have climate change without sacrifice zones, you can't have sacrifice zones without systemic racism. Therefore, climate change is rooted in systemic racism. If we can't see each other's mutual humanity, then there's always going to be sacrifice zones. We should stop looking at the underserved communities that have been most impacted as waiting to be saved. Basic humanity is seeing that, opening up hearts and minds, so that we can finally open our eyes, and really see each other. I want us to look at each other. Then solutions will just start to proliferate. Adrienne Marie Brown, the Prophet says “critical connections must come before critical mass.” I've never disagreed with Adrienne Marie Brown yet.
7. What are your thoughts on the links between climate justice and voter suppression?
It's escalating. We need to stand with Indigenous sisters, brothers, non-gender conforming folk. Were you willing to go lock yourselves to the White House to send Obama a message about Keystone XL? Where the hell are you for voting rights? Nothing happens. Black, Brown, Indigenous, Asian, and poor White folk risked White supremacy and COVID-19 to go out and vote in droves to give the Democrats this slim majority. Then during Kwanzaa, Black people save the Democratic Party’s butts again and elect the first Jewish and Black men to the Georgia Senate at the same time. You're seeing as we've seen throughout history. The White backlash to eight years of reconstruction was reconstruction and Jim Crow. And you're seeing that now, in the climate community’s rhetoric. Y'all this is the one to put your bodies in the street for, this is the one to risk arrest for. I love what Senator Warnock said. He said that these new voter suppression laws are the Delta variants of Jim Crow.
We're either going to be saying what a difference a year makes, or what an indifference a year makes. And that's really going to determine how we show up for this issue. The climate community is failing. We have to do way, way, way better. We can't just put out statements about how we stand with Black lives and whatnot, and then a year later, just kind of let that fade into the annals of oblivion. This is it y'all. We are fighting again, for voting rights. For real. We just celebrated the 56th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. And somehow we are more imperiled with our democracy than we were in ‘65. Now, that's the bottom line. People are saying things like no climate, no deal. That's a cute slogan. How about like, no democracy? No climate justice. No democracy, no climate justice. Because we're not going to be able to go into the streets and do chants like, “this is what democracy looks like,” if it's gone. It's that simple. So this is the one that our head should literally be on fire. These days, we need a lot more Ida B. Wells and Kathleen Cleaver and Angela Davis.