Melisa Tang learned from her tia, or aunt, how to eat radish leaves. The green leafy part of the bright-red vegetable is not usually included in radishes sold in grocery stores, though they are perfectly edible. Tang learned this from her tiawho in turn learned it from a grandma, or poh-poh, in East Vancouver. This got Tang thinking about food waste and environmental sustainability.
“We talk about food waste and how much is wasted, but when we are looking at our actual [cultural] practice, it’s something that we’ve always done — we’ve always eaten the whole vegetable,” she said.
“A lot of the issues that are so big have such small starts.”
Tang shared this story as part of Shades of Sustainability, a project that aims to change the conversation about sustainability and climate change by focusing on the experiences of racialized people in Vancouver.
The project came about following conversations between Tang and a group of friends about the lack of visibility of Black, Indigenous and other racialized people in environmental spaces and communities organizing around climate change, explains Jestinne Punzalan, another member of Shades of Sustainability.
“We saw… the lack of BIPOC voices in the environmental movement and climate movement in general,” Punzalan said.
They founded Shades of Sustainability in the hopes of addressing those gaps and creating more spaces for open dialogue about environmental practices among BIPOC people.
A place to belong
The feeling of exclusion from environmentalist spaces is not unique to Tang and Punzalan. Desiree Gabriel shares it too. Like many young people, Gabriel looked for a place to belong while trying to figure out what she wanted to do with her life. Though she was passionate about environmental and food justice issues, she did not find her place in environmental activism until she got involved with environmental justice communities.
“In the traditional environmental movement, where BIPOC and other equity-seeking groups aren’t welcomed, or there aren’t spaces created for folks like that, I found myself there and I felt miserable,” Gabriel said. “I felt belittled and I felt like my ideas weren’t being acknowledged or recognized. But once I started working in spaces where folks really cared to center equity-seeking communities, that’s where I fit.”
Environmental justice is a form of environmental activism that advocates for the protection of the Earth and communities as opposed to just the environment. The United States Environmental Protection Agency defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.”
Dayna Scott, a professor of environmental justice and law at York University, said that for years the environmental movement has been focused on environmental protection, but not as much on people and fairness.
“It’s fair to say today we’re not interested in environmental protection if it’s divorced from equity or fairness and that is where the environmental justice movement is so important,” Scott said.
Today, Desiree Gabriel is the program manager at Embark Sustainability Society, an independent student-led organization at Simon Fraser University where she organizes programs and events such as community kitchens and career nights with people working in climate activism to help students learn about different aspects of climate equity, which involves helping people and communities most affected by climate crises to adapt to the impacts.
“Embark Sustainability has those two really distinct priority areas of climate equity and food justice where I was able to connect all of my interests and also feel like I was part of a safe environment, but also creating a safe environment for students to grow their passions in a way that I was able to do as well,” she said.
Creating safe spaces for BIPOC people in the environmental movement is also important to Shades of Sustainability because they found it rare to find people who looked like them in places where sustainability conversations were happening. The project wants to highlight that there are multiple ways to be environmentally friendly and that these can include traditional ethnocultural practices.
“A lot of the practices that we had growing up or for my family, were not really considered [in] the mainstream sustainability practices,” Punzalan said. “The stories we’ve heard within our families, within our communities are very relatable, but it’s just not spoken as much about within the mainstream [sustainability] community.”
Things are changing gradually. Last year, for the first time, the government of Canada voted to collect data on environmental racism in communities.
People are starting to recognize how environmentalism and racial equity connect with each other. In 2020, amidst the calls for social justice after the death of George Floyd, environmentalist Leah Thomas coined the term “intersectional environmentalism.” Thomas explains that it is a way to describe “an inclusive approach to environmentalism that advocates for the protection of both people and the planet.”
On May 28, 2020, Thomas posted a graphic on Instagram that read “Environmentalists for Black Lives Matter” in multiple colors along with a definition of the term “intersectional environmentalism” and the “intersectional environmentalist pledge.” Within days, the graphic went viral, leading to the creation of the Intersectional Environmentalist, a new organization and social media platform that educates people about diversity, equity and inclusion in environmentalism.
In her book The Intersectional Environmentalistpublished earlier this year, Thomas recalls how as an undergraduate environmental science student she found that “social issues were perpetually separated from environmentalism, sustainability and conservation.”
Like Gabriel, Tang and Punzalan, she also describes being dismissed when she raised issues related to environmental injustice in predominantly white environmentalist spaces. By the time of posting her graphic on Instagram in 2020, she had reached her breaking point.
“I needed to immediately depart environmental spaces that ignored the urgent need for social justice reform,” she wrote.
“Advocating for the human rights of my people, and so many other oppressed identities worldwide, simply cannot be optional.”
Letting people speak for themselves
The exclusion of Black, Indigenous and other racialized people from climate conversations has been a “missed opportunity,” said Kevin Huang. He is the co-founder and executive director of Hua Foundation, a Vancouver non-profit that works with young people on racial equity and justice issues. Huang has been working on issues of food justice and environmental sustainability since 2009.
“When we’re thinking more specifically around climate emergency, a lot of plans and ideas tend to be focused around this eurocentric… colonial framework,” he said. “But without addressing that a lot of different non-eurocentric cultures, including Indigenous cultures, might have vital frameworks, vital structures that could actually contribute a lot towards addressing our climate emergency strategy.”
To address environmental problems fairly, governments and policy-makers need to listen to communities that are most affected, said York University’s Dayna Scott. Her research focuses on Indigenous jurisdiction over lands and resources, how pollution affects marginalized communities and vulnerable populations, gender and environmental health, and the justice dimensions of the transition to a greener economy.
“Policy-makers need to do a better job of listening to community, and do a better job of implementing the demands that are emanating from those communities,” she said. “The people who have the most experience — lived experience — should be the ones who are guiding the way forward.”
Gabriel agrees. Through events hosted by Embark Sustainability, students can learn from other students who have experienced the direct effects of climate change. At one of the events, a student from Somalia shared how climate change has impacted their family and country.
“That lens was extremely enriching for folks who maybe don’t have that same experience or understanding of a Black student perspective,” Gabriel said.
She added that everyone should have access to these stories to understand how food systems and food security can be culturally sensitive and relevant to diverse communities.
“That’s only possible if we let diverse communities speak on behalf of themselves and their communities,” she said.
For Shades of Sustainability’s Melisa Tang, it’s important to note that there are many ways of engaging with climate justice issues — and those are as diverse as the people part of the movement.
“There’s not one way to be part of the environmental movement,” she said. There’s many ways. And you’re one of them.”