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Mar 06, 2023 • Annie Cao
Recently, we had the amazing opportunity to collaborate with Arielle King, a Black environmental educator and content creator. She's also been named as a "climate creator to watch" by Pique Action and the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. In our interview, we discussed environmental and social justice as well as King’s life experiences, career milestones, and personal accomplishments.
My passion for environmental and social justice derives from my lived experience. While I grew up in an environmentally overburdened neighborhood, I had wonderful mentors and experiences that helped me cultivate a love, appreciation, and desire to protect this planet and all of its inhabitants. My lived experience helped me understand that not all people experience nature the same way. Additionally, the legacy of systemic racism in law and policy has hindered equal protection and enforcement of all laws, including environmental laws.
The environmental justice movement stems from the Civil Rights movement in the United States, and the movement has always advocated for racial justice, voting rights, true democracy, food justice, labor rights, and so much more. As such, environmental and social justice are inextricably linked, and we cannot achieve environmental and climate justice without racial and social justice. Some of the most impactful environmental and social justice initiatives often start at the local level. Community care and collective awareness are crucial parts of both social justice and environmentalism.
My blackness, my womanhood, and my environmentalism are all connected. My identity serves as a reminder to ensure that my environmental and climate justice advocacy is always inclusive and intersectional. Power, privilege, greed, and the exploitation of Black and brown communities are the main drivers of the climate crisis, so we cannot achieve climate justice without first acknowledging existing and past harm, advocating for social justice as part of climate solutions, and prioritizing those most at risk during decision-making."
I grew up in the South End neighborhood of Albany, New York. This neighborhood has the highest asthma rates in the city and the highest levels of particulate matter in the air due to the high concentration of polluting facilities. Up until December of last year, the neighborhood was also a food desert. Amidst these experiences, my parents supported my love for plants. Together, we created a flower garden and a vegetable garden when I was in second grade.
Growing up, I was always thinking about solutions to problems I noticed. In fourth grade, I organized a clothing apparel drive and then donated over 1,000 hats, gloves, and scarves to the eight public elementary schools in the city — a program the city has since institutionalized as an annual coat drive. In elementary school, I advocated for relief efforts after historic weather events, like the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia and the 2008 earthquake in Haiti. Additionally, I advocated for my elementary school to start celebrating Earth Day by planting trees and shrubs that now line the building.
I also had a mentor named Brother Yusuf Burgess, who worked for the state's Department of Environmental Conservation and helped me develop a love and appreciation for the outdoors. Through his mentorship, I learned how to kayak and fish and I spent a week on the Hudson River with the Clearwater program. I also attended an overnight environmental studies camp in the Catskill Mountains, among other experiences.
During my sophomore year of high school, I was in my school's first-ever Advanced Placement Environmental Science (APES) class, which opened my eyes to the symbiotic relationship between people and the planet. That ended up being my last year of high school. When I started college, I majored in environmental and sustainability studies with a concentration in political ecology.
While working on research for my senior thesis on the Flint Water Crisis, which included an analysis of environmental racism in the United States, I learned about the history of the environmental justice movement. This was the first time I learned about environmental leaders and scholars of color in an academic setting. This knowledge and the legacy of environmental warriors who looked just like me propelled me through my Master's in Environmental Law and Policy and my law degree, which was focused on environmental justice and civil rights law.
I believe that it is my duty to use the knowledge I have gained to continue educating all people about environmental justice and help lead communities closer toward self-determination."
As a Black woman in the environmental academic space, I was familiar with being the "only one" in my environmental studies classrooms by the time I started my master's and law degree programs.
During undergrad, I remember sitting through a full class discussion where my professor and fellow students compared the cruelty inflicted upon animals for meat production to the enslavement and brutal torture of Africans brought to the Americas. I frequently look back on that experience and think about how powerless I felt at that moment. I was 16, and it was my first year of college. I was one of two Black students in the class and felt I had nowhere to go to voice my concerns and complaints about the course material. That moment helped me realize just how essential an intersectional lens and historical context are in environmental curriculum.
During my time in law school, I became the first Black student member of the board of trustees, and advocated to make sure I wasn’t the last. I co-founded an organization called the Environmental Justice Law Society, which is aimed at helping build capacity for action within the Vermont Law School (VLS) community, as well as nationally and internationally to further the Environmental Justice movement. I advocated for, and was a member of, the first cohort of the environmental justice clinic. During this time, I learned just how far we still have to go to ensure that all people have equal protection and consideration under environmental laws. Nevertheless, doing work that made an impact while I was still in school inspired me.
Law students can often feel like they're powerless and don't have the ability to create meaningful change until they're done with their degree. The skills and experiences I acquired from my extracurricular activities in law school not only made my resume stand out, but helped contribute to positive change.
Within the first few months of co-founding the law society, we received a grant to host events on campus and the state at large. Not long after, state officials began attending our educational workshops and we received training from some of the most prestigious environmental legal practitioners in the country. Environmental justice lawyering prioritizes a community-centered approach, which I now take into everything that I do.
Since there are no federal environmental justice laws yet — though we are much closer now than when I was in law school — I was trained in techniques for working at the intersection of civil rights and environmental law since that's where most environmental justice lawyering occurs. In doing so, I learned valuable lessons about community engagement and incorporating community expertise into decision-making. Going to school in a rural area also allowed me to see firsthand the way that environmental injustices plague rural communities, which often looks different that what we think of occurring in cities.
I am a huge advocate of encouraging people to do their own research and identify how they relate to environmental justice and environmentalism in general. No one should just take my word for why they should care about protecting people and the planet.
I started an environmental justice resource list in a Google Doc in January 2022 when I was feeling extra restless one night. People frequently ask me about book recommendations, so I figured it would be easier to direct people to a compiled list of resources.
The three books I would recommend are As Long a Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice from Colonization to Standing Rock by Dina Gilio-Whitaker, A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and the Assault on the American Mind by Harriet A. Washington, and Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States by Carl A. Zimmering.
Bonus: For more uplifting but still very educational reads on environmental justice and climate action, I would recommend All We Can Save: Truth Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis edited by Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katherine K Wilkinson, Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, and Sacred Instructions by Sherri Mitchell.
In August of 2021, IE's media lead reached out to me on Instagram explaining that they were getting ready to start a podcast called The Joy Report and they wanted me to host it. When I was brought on, only the name and the fact that the podcast would be about positive climate news had been decided. After brainstorming potential episode topics and hiring a sound engineer, we asked the whole IE team for input about which topics should be prioritized during the first season.
Before the season began, I started running the organization's TikTok account, where I hosted a Black History Month series in February and a Woman's History Month series in March to highlight the contributions of lesser-known people in the climate and environmental movement.
We launched the podcast during Earth Month last year. The trailer episode came out on April 6th, and we put out one episode per week for the rest of the month, which was...a lot. At the time, I was working a full-time job remotely at an environmental nonprofit in DC while living in Montserrat, a island in the Caribbean. I was also helping with running a semester-long study abroad program there for my undergrad. The first two episodes were recorded in a studio in Montserrat, the second and third episodes were recorded in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and all the rest were recorded in DC once I returned home.
Throughout the season, which wrapped in December, we explored a really broad range of topics: joy in movement building, cannabis legalization and restorative justice, the cultural significance of plant-based diets for people of color globally, the landback movement and Aboriginal Australian land management practices, the intersection of labor movements and environmental justice (telling the origin story of the Amazon Labor Union), equity and diversity in the outdoors, and more. Each episode featured a story about a person or organization from an underrepresented community in the mainstream environmental movement contributing to climate solutions at every scale.
We also included a round of positive climate news stories that people should know about and suggested ways to learn more and get involved in relation to those topics. Working on season one was a labor of love that I will cherish forever.
In less than a year, The Joy Report became one of Spotify’s top 5% most shared podcasts, reached over 60 countries, received over 150 five-star ratings, and had over 27,000 listens.
Most notably to me, we received feedback from our community that multiple students were assigned to listen to episodes of the podcast for class assignments, which is one of the coolest things ever in my opinion.
These days, I primarily work with IE on a project basis and support the organization through speaking engagements. In April, I'll be at Ithaca College and SUNY Oneonta for Earth Week keynote speeches. If other institutions are interested in having myself and/or someone else from the IE team come to your school, please reach out. We love working with students and professors.
I joined the board for Our Climate in April and it's been a pretty great experience so far. I've had the privilege of supporting OC's Environmental Justice Initiatives Associate in updating the organization's Climate Justice Onboarding materials for all new staff, which has been a very enlightening experience. I love thinking about what information would be beneficial to share with someone who may have a strong background in environmentalism and sustainability, but might be unfamiliar with environmental and climate justice. I'm also supporting the planning and execution of receptions and events for the organization throughout the summer and fall of this year, which I'm very excited about.
Our Climate empowers young people to advocate for the science-based, equitable, and intersectional climate justice policies that build a thriving world. Through my membership on the board of Our Climate, I have also become a member of the Green Leadership Trust, a network of Black, Indigenous, and people of color who serve on U.S. nonprofit environmental boards. The Trust is is building a thriving environmental and conservation community in the United States. As a collective, the Trust envisions our movements embedding an environmental ethic and shifting practices and behaviors across sectors and institutions. We are working to win victories at all levels of policy and society.
At Black Girl Environmentalist, I've been helping with the relaunch for a few months now, and we've been pretty busy. First, our Reclaiming Our Time annual campaign started in February, where we pair Black women and non-binary environmental activists, scholars, and creators with prominent brands, organizations, and individuals willing to extend their platforms for day-long IG takeovers. These takeovers discuss the intersections of social justice and environmentalism, and highlight the work the environmentalists are doing on the ground.
Our first in-person event of the year will be held at the Climate Museum Pop-up in SoHo in collaboration with Black Girls in Art Spaces on February 25th. And we will soon be launching our Hub program, a volunteer-led initiative, to allow BGE to host in-person events in cities all over the country each month. We are also starting a book club, and there are a few other exciting events in the works.
2021 was an especially unique year of climate negotiations because of the overlay of COVID concerns. Many countries that were being impacted most severely by climate change and COVID-19 were red-listed from the UK, making it more difficult for representatives to attend the negotiations. That year, there was a record-breaking amount of oil and fossil fuel lobbyists in attendance — a record that was broken during COP27 the next year in Egypt. And it was recently announced that COP28 would be in one of the top oil-producing countries in the world and led by the CEO of Abu Dhabi National Oil Co. All of these actions seem quite contrary to the fossil fuel phase-out we need in order to have a livable planet.
Environmental racism is one of many mechanisms for perpetuating harm in Black communities. We fight for environmental justice because of the existence of systems like environmental racism, and there’s a long history of scientific and sociological study which proves that race is the single most significant indicator of whether someone will live near a toxic facility.
The term environmental racism was first introduced to the national lexicon in the early 80s during the Warren County Sit-In strike of 1982 in North Carolina. The six-week-long strike was a result of the state's approval of dumping 30,000 pounds of PCB-contaminated soil into an unlined landfill in a predominately Black and Indigenous community. Over 500 people were arrested and jailed for protesting, and sometimes even laying on the ground to prevent trucks from rolling in.
At the time, the Washington Post said this was the biggest civil rights movement since the 1960s. The term was coined by Ben Chavis and has four main parts:
Wow, this is a huge question. The most succinct answer I can provide to this is that the largest environmental issue facing Black and Indigenous communities is a lack of consideration in environmental decision-making, which has occurred in this country for centuries. There has been a legacy of exploitation and erasure of both of these communities in the environmental and conservation movement that has created many of the issues still faced today.
Developing many of our national parks has displaced thriving Indigenous communities and redlining allowed polluting facilities and highways to be constructed in low-income and Black and brown neighborhoods. And up until very recently, there were no environmental laws that required the acknowledgment or consideration of other polluting facilities during the permitting process for new polluting sites.
In the United States, race has been the most significant indicator of proximity to hazardous facilities and waste facilities since it was first examined in the 80s. This means that a reduction in waste and our reliance on plastic products will alleviate some of the burdens in already over-polluted Black and Indigenous communities.
Amplify BIPOC voices and let us tell our own stories. Hire more people of color, seek out creators and creative directors of color for partnerships and advertising, advertise in publications and locations that are popular in communities of color, and give back to local communities. Find ways to donate to BIPOC communities and seek input from community organizations.
The first thing I always recommend people do is to educate themselves. Learn about the instances of environmental injustice happening around you. Understand the ways the legacies of colonialism and systemic racism have hindered equal access, rights, and protection. Then find organizations already doing the work. We're living in such a powerful, digital age that we're no longer constrained to getting involved with organizations that are within our neighborhoods or even our states.
To learn more about Arielle and environmental justice, you can follow her on Instagram and TikTok. And don't forget to listen to The Joy Report on streaming platforms such as Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and more!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.