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May 14, 2023 • Annie Cao
We recently had the honor of interviewing Diandra Esparza, a Mexicana environmentalist. Diandra started off with a background in fashion before switching gears as one of the co-founders for Intersectional Environmentalist, where she now works as executive director. In this interview, Diandra discusses the challenges and triumphs in building IE over the last few years, the importance of mental health and rest, embracing her cultural identity in connection to her sustainability journey, and more.
My name is Diandra Marizet Esparza and I’m a daughter, sister, tía, poeta, and Mexicana environmentalist from Texas. I used my background in hosting wine and documentary nights at my matchbox apartment in New York to help co-found Intersectional Environmentalist, where I currently serve as the executive director.
I lived in New York City for 5 years, where I worked on a buying team in the apparel space. As I navigated the early stages of my sustainability journey, I was simultaneously uncovering all that was hidden beneath the fashion industry. From toxins poisoning people’s water and soil systems to exploited workers facing abuse and dangerous working conditions, my aspirational view of fashion quickly shifted.
I also began to see how trends were often created from cultural exploitation. What appeared to be an artistic industry on the surface was, at scale, reducing the cultural significance of textiles to trends on a runway to create a market of demand. And this led to questions like:
“How can we make the demand greater?” “How can we produce more to meet demand?” “How can we lower costs for the most profit?” “Who can we find who will do this work for the lowest price?”
Because designers lacked representation in the space, garments often lost their authenticity and cultural significance. And so, what seemed like an innocent play on another's culture actually had severe consequences for the people they thought they were admiring.
The fashion industry was the first industry that helped me see how connected our economic, social, political, and environmental systems are. And with that, I also saw just how quickly they can be leveraged to create intentional and unintentional inequities. It helped me see with clearer eyes how we ended up in a world where people sell plastic versions of their heritage at markets because that’s all they can afford, while those who our systems were designed to support receive this diluted form of satisfaction that ultimately rids the world of authenticity.
The biggest challenge for IE is wanting so badly to dismantle systems of oppression while having to operate within them. It’s frustrating to navigate the tense landscape of funding environmental justice efforts because the pot is so embarrassingly small while the pot for more mainstream white-led organizations is so incredibly large.
My biggest takeaway from building IE over the past few years is that scarcity mindsets have been designed to keep us focused on who is getting support within our spaces versus who isn’t. But instead, we should be focusing on how little funding from environmental and education spaces is being distributed to grassroots efforts in the first place.
Because our society's perception of credibility is largely based on white supremacist values, it’s difficult to get your foot in the door. And for that reason, I’m so grateful that the IE community grew organically in 2020. Without so many people supporting what we had to say and what we wanted to build, I am very confident that the 2020 landscape of environmentalism would not have welcomed us.
Once your foot is in the door, new problems begin. As a new nonprofit, your small team is held to the same standards as other organizations that have 4-5 people under the same departments you run by yourself. In the same time you’ve spent struggling to hit inbox zero, their grant teams have sourced and applied to about 10 grants from foundations where they already have pre-existing relationships. More well-established nonprofits end up with a monopoly on available funding because their teams are better equipped to disengage from the grassroots work to build those relationships, learn the art of grant writing, do research, apply to the grants, send follow ups, and so on.
My favorite part of building IE has been finding every tiny systemic way possible to dismantle from within. This can look like creating smoother relations between well-established entities and grassroots efforts in hopes of a future where the ongoing distribution of wealth isn’t a revolution, but just a best practice.
To challenge even the simplest of norms, I’ve had to tell partners that smaller and newer grassroots efforts are going to get bogged down by the standard gargantuan legal documents that have to be reviewed by lawyers we often can’t afford. I’ve also had to tell them that these efforts will put small teams in binds because they have to dedicate entire payrolls on collaborative projects that will be paid out 60-90 days later — which is how long accounting teams usually take for vendor verifications and payment processing. Not to mention that plenty of contractors demand deposits upfront and final payments within 15 days, but the power dynamic leaves small environmental justice efforts chasing invoices for months.
One last example is grant applications. We’ve had partners come to IE with hopes of co-hosting grant efforts, but when partners are set on lengthy grant applications and rigorous requirements, we’re just feeding into the same system that suggests only the “best” deserve funding — best being defined by the white supremacist origins of philanthropy that keep feeding the most well-resourced and perpetuating scarcity for those who aren’t.
There’s a lot of negative things to be said for navigating the systems we’ve been given. But I’m grateful for all the opportunities I’ve been given to challenge, poke, and prod so that the next generation can instill stronger values into the systems we live in.
My sustainability journey flourished when I started appreciating how the development of culture is like a love language, a blueprint, or a guide for how people can live in reciprocity with the lands we come from. We all have foods, music, symbols, and arts that ultimately come from the lands that inspired how we’ve existed. Culture is the ultimate expression of a people’s environmentalism.
This realization has inspired me to embrace everyday reminders that are held in the stories of my people. Take butterflies for example: monarchs have historically come by the millions to Michoacán, Mexico. Our ancestors received their presence as a symbolic reminder to us every year that life and death are cyclical. Some even believe that monarch butterflies were spirits of the forest ushering our loved ones after death, or that they were our ancestors coming back to visit us.
Butterflies typically fly during the day and emerge from their cocoons at dawn. The Nahuatl word for cocoon ("cochipilotl") comes from piloa ("pending") and cochi ("sleeper"). It’s beautiful to see how language can create or emphasize the relationships butterflies hold around the constant and cyclical emergence of life. The name “cochipilotl” feels inherently hopeful to me and I think of that every time I see a butterfly now.
In the early days of my fashion career, my friends Ibada Wadud and Aditi Mayer helped me develop confidence in my feelings about the fashion industry. At the time, Ibada was developing her brand, Lulah, and showing me what solutions to economic injustice could look like. After learning about cultural appropriation in the industry, Aditi’s journalism emphasized the importance of heritage and what it looks like to engage fashion through a decolonial lens. Because people like them were paving these paths, I felt confident enough to quit my job and imagine something new.
Since entering the environmental justice space, I’ve been lucky enough to meet people who have been in this space way longer than I have. Receiving mentorship from people like Teresa Baker, founder of the Outdoor CEO Diversity Pledge through the In Solidarity Project, and José Gonzalez from Latino Outdoors added a soft layer of affirmation to my journey that has helped me and many others feel less alone.
Lastly, navigating this space so intimately with my IE co-directors, Leah Thomas and Kiana Kazemi, helped me personally grow my own capacity for love, patience, and gratitude. We’ve effectively made it our job to turn a lot of pain into joy, and it’s required more vulnerability than I think most are willing to engage. I’m incredibly proud of them both and couldn’t have supported IE the way I have without seeing them show up every day with a vision for the future.
For people of color, it’s so critical that we recalibrate the connections we’ve been given between productivity and self-worth in order to find peace, and ultimately rest. In a capitalist society, we learn that we may have valuable points of view, but if you can’t turn your wisdom or art into something that sells, you’re “going to get left behind.” I’ve watched this consume not only myself, but friends releasing work, starting businesses, keeping up with media algorithms, pandering to cancel culture, and limiting the value of beautiful things we love doing.
One can always feel the weight of our community being caught between the realities of capitalism and the power in daily reclamations of rest, and in this, the challenging landscape we’re given when pursuing mental health.
Because our education systems exclude mental health teachings, because our communities have so much internalized trauma but limited time and space to pursue healing (hello, time poverty), and because our generation is experiencing rougher economic circumstances than our parents did, pursuing mental health today is absolutely a radical act of resistance.
The reclamation of rest, or the ability to just hang out with friends peacefully on your couch, does often require a shift in mindset. I’ve found that when we strategize what success, boundaries, and values look like to us, we’re more capable of reclaiming how we show up for our work, art, community, and ourselves. Many of the ways I see resistance being played out can look like:
Forgive my overly operational hot take, but I hope the big takeaway from this is that reclamation of rest is not simply deciding to disassociate from our responsibilities — though that can be a healthy coping mechanism at times — but to find strategic ways to resist the urgent lifestyles we have around work.
1. I absolutely recommend Leah’s book, The Intersectional Environmentalist: How to Dismantle Systems of Oppression to Protect People + Planet. When deepening your environmental journey, it’s so important to learn early on that there are inextricable links between the systems people create and the systems that our planet organically generates. This body of work can shows someone who is in earlier part of their sustainability journey that we cannot save the planet without uplifting the voices of its people — especially those who most often go unheard. With so many incredible voices included in the space, it’s the perfect introduction, call to action, guide, and pledge to a holistic approach to environmentalism.
2. Another book I recommend is Required Reading by the NDN Collective. One of the most critical parts of how we shape environmentalism moving forward will be in how we support Indigenous communities. The book ends perfectly (spoiler, but not really) by saying that disaster is coming but Indigenous communities know the way forward. This book demystifies many concepts that are often held at an ambiguous angle by non-Indigenous led works. It explains what forward movement can look like in allyship, tangible investment, and decolonial climate solutions by addressing issues like #MMIW, what a just transition looks like from the Indigenous perspective, and the need for wealth distribution.
3. My last recommendation would be to research what grassroots efforts look like in your neighborhood. Environmental justice elders and mentors will play a pivotal role in ensuring that our current generation and the generations after us are well equipped with the history and first accounts needed to sustain the essence of local grassroots movements. We're talking about toxic chemicals, air pollution, police brutality, food deserts and more. The best way to show up in the movement is to deepen your understanding of the relationship between your local area to the issues that impact your local community most. It’s in those specificities that you’ll find how you can best engage, support, and find all the tiny ways to dismantle systems of oppression.