Why Climate Activists Need to Be Anti-Racist Activists

Whose apocalypse do you care about?

I was originally supposed to write this blog post about why we need the climate movement to get huge, and discuss Harvard researcher Erica Chenoweth’s discoveries about how relatively small proportions of the population are needed to overthrow tyrannical governments. This is all still true and important; I highly suggest you watch her TED talk here.*

However, today I have something even more pressing to discuss. I want to talk about why all climate activists should become anti-racist activists. If you are a white activist and recent events have stirred you to start down the path of anti-racist practice, welcome, this post is for you. 

For those of you who are people of color: Our hearts are breaking for you. If you have a story about what’s going on you’d like to share, we’d love to amplify your voice. Simply email info@chesapeakeclimate.org and we’ll work with you on this. 

I’d like to first acknowledge that I benefit from white privilege and it’s important to put my words here in that context. That isn’t to say I haven’t experienced challenges, and I have other parts of myself that are not fully liberated in this country (notably, I’m a woman, queer and neurodivergent). Many of my family members have experienced poverty for generations and still continue to experience it today. But yet even with all of that being true, I still very much benefit from a history of white supremacy. And *all* of the challenges I face are made easier for having white skin. This is a foundational principle of intersectionality (a term coined by a black woman): no struggle is faced in a vacuum That is why we will never truly win on a single issue that is “good for everyone” without specifically addressing how racism undermines our movements. We’ve seen this time and time again throughout history, from black suffragists excluded from the women’s movement, to 53% of white women voting for Trump in 2016.

Francis Elen Watkins Harper, an intellectual and poet who spoke out about exclusionary practices in the women’s suffrage movement

Anti-racist practice is the constant examination of the way that race interplays with every aspect of life, and at every stage demanding differently. Scholar Ibram Kendi compares racism to the cancer he lives with; unexamined, it metastasizes through the whole body. The treatment is to remove tumors (racist policies) and medicate the entire system (commit to anti-racist education). 

How do we move forward from here?

So if you are white, how do you go about educating yourself and others about race?

Step one: Always trust black and brown people’s authority on this subject first.

Seriously, don’t just take my word for it. No matter how woke you get, or how much you are connected to black people in your personal life, if you are white you will not understand what it is to personally be subject to racism and wake up black every day (this poem by Candace Williams helped me to understand this emotionally). Black and brown people have been doing this work intergenerationally. Another analogy here – doing anti-racist work is like doing calculus in a burning building, where people of color are the experts and white people have not started learning basic addition. If you’re just coming into this understanding, there is a lot of learning and listening to do. This means frequently passing up the microphone, and committing deeply to self-work.

Now, important caveat here: You should absolutely read resources authored by people of color and listen when they are speaking, but do your best not to come with too many questions to individual people of color. A constant state of rehashing basic principles and convincing people of your humanity is exhausting. Research shows that this is the number one reason for burn out among anti-racist acitivists of color (more tips for avoiding this contained in the link).

This is one of many reasons step two is very important: White people need to talk to other white people about anti-racism.

To Kendi’s point, these ideas need to permeate the whole system. If you are a white person, you have access to white spaces and ears that black and brown people do not. Be that person and bring up this issue everywhere you go, from the policy table to the dinner table. As you progress on your journey, you will also learn how to speak to other white people at different levels of understanding (back to that calculus analogy – this is like forming a study group). You have the opportunity to leverage your relationships and position strategically. While big visible protests can be really important, we would not need them if we committed to doing this work full time. This is -really- hard. I’m certainly not an expert, but groups like Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) work on this effort constantly.

Whiteness in the climate movement

Now with all of that given, let’s talk for a moment about whiteness in the climate movement specifically. First, let’s establish that if you truly care about the principle of a stable climate, you should absolutely care about racial justice. Think of all the grief and post apocalyptic imagery that we understand so well in the climate movement. Do those images involve terror, conflict, lack of access to safe water and food? We have seen constantly in the news that many people in this country are already living that reality for being black. Native activists have also written about already living in a post-apocalyptic world. So the apocalypse is already here, it just might not have touched you yet. And climate change will absolutely make all of these problems worse for people already facing extreme living conditions. 

Meanwhile, the environmental movement has centered white voices and priorities for decades and is overwhelmingly white. A 2014 study conducted by environmental expert Dorceta Taylor examined the composition of environmental groups and found what we can see anecdotally; through and through white faces dominate at events and on staff. This research also examined some of the reason that might be the case, including a lack of funding dedicated to this cause and a lack of transparency about the state of diversity in our movement (here at CCAN we are working on understanding the composition of our own base; you can take a survey here). Not understanding this has significantly cost progress, and as we move into a “majority minority” composition in this country, we will suffer for it if we don’t quickly adapt. Even more disturbing is the fact that white supremacist groups have begun co-opting environmentalist messaging. Allowing this to sit unexamined will become a truly deadly cancer indeed. We need to make sure that at every turn we are denouncing racist practices, in our spheres of influence and especially in ourselves. This is why it is so important to listen to POC community leaders and incorporate their policy demands into our climate policy. 

We always have the opportunity to do differently. We can each decide to change our own mindset and start learning that calculus with urgency. In addition to the many resources I have linked throughout this post, I have also linked below a compilation of resources I have found helpful. The best time to start is now; the building truly is on fire. I would be happy to study with you. 


**(also, please note that while Chenoweth’s research shows that non-violent movements are ultimately easier to carry out and are often more effective in the long run, she does not condemn rioting when there are no other options left. Many black scholars, including Martin Luther King, have written about why rioting occurs and should be understood in context)

During coronavirus, Flint residents still do not have access to clean water. Photo by Karla Ann Cote/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Worried about ICE actions? So am I

Climate Solidarity Means Immigrant Solidarity

I need to start by talking about my brothers.

I’m choosing not to broadcast their names, but they are 14 and 20 years old. They came to live with me and my mom when they were 5. I’m exceedingly proud of both of them. The accomplishments of the older brother are borderline obnoxious — a ranked chess player at 12, he went on to score in the top one percent of hispanics on the PSATs, become a star rugby player, and graduate with a 4.5 GPA. He now attends college on a prestigious full ride scholarship, still playing rugby, and still being a generally awkward dork. The younger (also a ranked chess player) just finished his first year at high school. Already he’s received an award for a research project on Alzheimers — though no matter what he accomplishes, I will always remember him as the little boy who woke me up nearly every night of senior year to get in my twin-sized bed and protect him from nightmares.

This is what I used to think about when seeing my brothers. But lately, I think about what would happen if they were at the wrong place at the wrong time. Both of them are half-Mexican and half-Salvadorian. They are also thankfully birthright citizens. But citizenship didn’t stop even a Marine Veteran from being erroneously detained, or more recently, a teenage boy named Francesco Galicia, who was held for 23 days.

Francesco’s story terrifies me. What could happen to other brown teenage boys who, frankly, act like teenage boys? What could happen to my brothers?

Over the last two weeks, we have seen horrifying escalation by Trump and ICE. There have been deeply disturbing images from the border showing blatant violence and neglect in concentration camps, as well as fines directed at immigrants to criminalize them further. Now, we are hearing that ICE wants to open a new detention center right in my home state of Maryland.

Please take one minute to sign the petition urging President Trump to CLOSE THE CAMPS!

Thankfully, immigrant communities and allies across the country are working overtime to protect families and fight back against encroaching facism. Nonprofits like CASA, RAICES, and Families Belong Together are working to warn people about raids and assist with legal proceedings. Faith communities across the country are acting as sanctuaries for families and individuals to hide in. Jewish allies especially have been putting bodies on the line with “Never Again” demonstrations and making explicitly clear the connections between these actions and Nazi Germany.

This week, I asked my mom to make my brothers carry their passports with them. I hope that if anything should happen, the passports will be enough to get them home safely. The way things are going, it feels like only a matter of time before that citizenship status becomes a question, especially as Trump’s administration has already made moves to this end.

If you care about climate change, you should care about immigration and racialized xenophobia. The two are inextricably linked. Climate change is already forcing millions to leave their homes for safer ground. Over the next 30 years, — estimates range between 25 million and 1 billion people being displaced due to the impacts of climate change.

Please take one minute to sign the petition urging President Trump to CLOSE THE CAMPS!

It’s time for climate activists to show solidarity. Follow the Never Again Action page and the CASA Maryland page for upcoming events to get involved. You can also write a letter to the editor in response to Hogan’s silence on this issue.

As we move forward into the next decade of climate transformation, it is up to all of us to be watchful of fear and hatred that threatens families like mine.

-Emily Frias
Maryland Grassroots Coordinator
Chesapeake Climate Action Network

Photo at the top via Flickr user ep_jhu with a Creative Commons license

Reflections on Passing the Clean Energy Jobs Act

So much has happened in a few short months! Let me start at the beginning — right before this year’s legislative session.
At the beginning of the year, we were ready to ride the green climate wave to victory. Nearly a supermajority of legislators in both houses pledged their support of the Clean Energy Jobs Act during the electoral season prior to the start of session. An omnibus bill, the legislation was to include all of the following:

  • A doubling of our state’s renewable energy requirement to 50% by 2030 and a plan to reach 100% by 2040
  • A $7 million dollar grant fund for veterans, women, small business owners and people of color to enter the green energy economy
  • An additional $8 million in workforce development funds, including $1 million earmarked for investment in high schools
  • An end to incentives for trash incineration as a qualifying renewable source

With so much support behind us, it seemed like session would be smooth sailing. Full speed ahead, we started the first day of session with one of the biggest Annapolis rallies in the history of our organization.
We soon learned that we had extremely stormy weather on the horizon. Following the passage of stricter emission standards for incinerators in Baltimore City and on the heels of County Executive Mark Elrichs’ declaration that he would shut down the BRESCO incinerator, the incinerator lobby came out in force. The provision to remove subsidies from incineration was stripped out of the bill. Yet, with the support of clean energy champions like Delegates Mosby, Llewis, Charkoudian and an unlikely ally in Republican Senator Hough we   worked to introduce two stand-alone bills also removing incineration incentives.
In the weeks to follow, it became clear that the stand alone bills around incineration did not have the votes required to pass, and that the house was heavily divided on the issue. Meanwhile, the session clock kept ticking. But finally, a ray of hope broke through the clouds – the Senate passed their version of the bill with a bipartisan super majority, fully intact. However, due to the heavy delays, the bill ended up in the Rules committee, where many bills meet their end.
And then, more waiting. It felt like years that the fate of our energy future was held in limbo. It was only in the final week – , intense grassroots pressure, and the mounting climate and solar energy crisis on everyone’s mind- that House leadership made the decision to move the bill out of Rules and to the floor for a vote, without including the incineration provision. Finally, at 10 pm on the final day of session and after hours of floor debate, the Clean Energy Jobs Act reached final passage from the General Assembly.
Following our tumultuous session, we had a lot of discussion — with our community, and with ourselves. We knew the bill accomplished many things, but not everything we had worked so hard for. We wrote this summary of our perspective here, where we outlined the good and the bad about the very good but not perfect Clean Energy Jobs Act. Ultimately, we decided that because of the urgency of the climate crisis, and the benefits that the bill did provide, we would move forward with pursuing a signature from the Governor. This presented another challenge, as he had previously vetoed the Clean Energy Jobs Act of 2016.   We were joined in our efforts by the amazing father and son duo, Vinny and Jamie DeMarco, who had previously biked over 400 miles across the state after the last clean energy jobs legislation  was vetoed. They took to their bikes again and this time rode 150 miles, starting in Annapolis and making their first stop in Ellicott City.
After their ride, it was time again for even more waiting. On nearly the last possible day for action, Governor Hogan wrote a letter announcing he would not be vetoing the Clean Energy Jobs Act. We’d reached final safe harbor at last.
I and all of CCAN want to thank all of our supporters who stuck with us through this journey. To do that, we will be celebrating the passage of this bill with a party soon — details TBD. So get ready to celebrate and hang tight for more exciting updates about our next big move!