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Being a Black Environmentalist in White Environmentalism

As a young, black activist whose birth gender is female, I find it hard to find my place in the environmentalist movement. Not to say that the groups I’ve participated in have been anything else than supportive, but as someone who is disproportionately affected by climate change, it can be a bit hard for me to get that across to people in the environmental movement.

My name is Danielle Sipp, I’m a 17-year-old activist from Gary, Indiana whose main focus is environmental racism and the affects that that issue has had on residents here. I started all the way back in 2017 and throughout the past 4 years, I’ve been basically saying (and screaming) the same things. Things such as, “Climate change has been proven to disproportionally affect minorities and low income communities,” and “Gary, Indiana is a result of the negligence that is often shown towards communities of color.” I don’t usually say those exact lines, but they’re close enough. The problem, however, doesn’t lie in the repetition of those statements. The problem usually lies in the audience that those statements are said towards.

As we’ve learned over the past year, the environmentalist movement has racist origins. It has a history of ignoring minority voices and prioritizing those of older, white men. Lately, we’ve seen changes. We’ve seen organizations that were founded on those racist ideals, take accountability and promise to change. However, when the environmentalist movement as a whole has had issues with acknowledging minority voices, it doesn’t really matter to me that a small portion of organizations have taken accountability.

When I was 13, I had been asked to speak at an event in which I was to touch on environmental racism and how that’s impacted my school. I walked in and I was the only young black girl in the room. One out of 5 black people in the room. And there were a lot of people. When I was 15-ish, I had been asked to speak on a panel concerning environmental racism. I was the only young black girl in the room. That same year, I was asked to speak again. More specifically, about environmental racism. I was the only young black girl who was speaking. Notice the pattern?

So many times, I’ve found myself being the only black girl in the room, the only one speaking, or the only one that was asked. I love talking to people. I love using the knowledge I’ve gained as well as my experience to teach others what they may have not noticed or thought about, however, it is clear to me that the environmentalist movement has a way to go before it becomes minority friendly. The heads and officials of most influential environmental groups are white. In Indiana, the members of most environmental groups are white. And no, it isn’t as if non-white minorities aren’t interested. I’ve met plenty of young people who are. It just isn’t made accessible to them. Heck, the only reason I was able to get into the movement was through white, older activists who’d introduced me to it. There seems to be a gate to the environmental movement that can only be accessible to minorities that are hand-picked and this type of tokenism is especially dangerous as many who are in the movement seem to have rarely any idea nor interest on the disproportionate impact this is having on minorities. There are white allies that do, but a white ally cannot express to a crowd of white people how important addressing environmental racism is.

So, what do we do? Well, after addressing a problem we’d usually start with coming up with solutions. I have a couple.

First, get rid of the “Strong minority whose speaking up for themselves,” mentality. We are simply people expressing concern about the very real threat that human-imposed climate change will have on our communities. I’ve been in situations where people praise me for being strong and speaking up for myself just to realize they probably didn’t absorb a word I’d just spoken. Listen to minorities, just the same as you would a white person. Question us on our stances. This is the only way to grow your understanding.

Second, I want you to think of a black environmentalist. If you’ve thought of one, contact them. Set up a meeting with them and give them whatever platform you have in order to make sure their problems and concerns are addressed. If you can’t, find one. Denise Abdul-Rahman, staff member of the National NAACP Environmental Climate Justice Program (ECJP), is my new favorite black environmentalist.

Third, every time you encounter a new bill that involves the environment, I want you to also ask the question, “How will this affect minorities and low income communities?” Think about that question as you or your environmental group creates an action plan to combat or support this new bill.

Finally, demand more from the environmental groups you’re partaking in. It may be natural for you to see an all-white, well off group of environmentalists with a few minorities sprinkled in, but that isn’t representation. That’s tokenism.


Picture source: Julie Dermansky

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