Back in 2009 I was earning my Master’s in Environment and Sustainability (MES) degree in London, Ontario. Out of about 20 students, there were two Black people in the program, myself and an Ethiopian man. Though I learned a lot during my master’s program, it was an awkward year for me. I didn’t have time to adjust to the city and I didn’t fit into my class. Though I am very used to being the only person of color in most spaces that I enter, this time was different. I felt alone pretty much the entire time and I’m still not sure why.
It was in that context that I was delighted and proud to learn about two individuals doing impactful environmental work in the United States.
The first was Majora Carter, urban revitalization strategist and real estate developer. I first saw her in her TED talk, Greening the Ghetto, and I was amazed. She was a black woman environmentalist (with a nice set of locs!) making big (infrastructural) changes in her community that would impact social, mental and physical well-being. In her talk, she told the story of how she went from being led by her dog through another illegal dump in her neighborhood of South Bronx, New York, to leading the major transformation of the East River waterfront from sewage treatment plant grounds into a clean and beautiful park and walking trail.
Majora went on to found Sustainable South Bronx, a social enterprise that provides green job training and community greening programs in the South Bronx. Their mission is to improve the environmental and economic prospects of people living in the South Bronx. She also consults through her organization, the Majora Carter Group.
My next inspiration was Van Jones, lawyer, and environmental advocate. One of my classmates gave me DVDs with a bunch of talks on them and among these talks were a couple by Mr. Jones. I was like “Who is this smart and beautiful Black man talking about green collar jobs??!”
One of the organizations he founded, Green for All is all about building and promoting a green economy and making sure that Black People are part of it. One of the ways in which they do this is to push for policy and funding that will go towards green job training.
Van Jones has also founded and led several other organizations engaged in social and environmental justice including The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights which promotes criminal justice reform; Color of Change which works for racial fairness, and The Dream Corps which promotes innovative policy solutions. Today, in addition to working for social and environmental justice, he is a CNN political commentator.
Seeing and listening to Van Jones and Majora Carter (especially Majora) affirmed my decision to pursue studies in environmental sustainability. Though I didn’t feel I belonged in my class, my two mentors gave me a vision of who I could be and how I could contribute to the work and conversations of social justice through environmental work.