Some of you may recognize me from my work with the coalition that successfully advocated for legislation to address Philadelphia’s plastic litter crisis. During the hearing in front of city council I spoke about the fact that people living in low income and “underserved” communities often care deeply about the environment; I know that people from the ‘hood care about the environment because I’m one of those people. What we need are the tools and resources to manifest environmental justice, and an end to the exploitation that often turns our communities into sacrifice zones.

My environmental justice story and journey began here, in a redlined, neglected and heavily policed section of Philadelphia known as the “Black Bottom”/Mantua. Environmental Justice is not theoretical for me. As someone who was born and raised in what is now referred to as a “frontline community,” I am intimately familiar with the urgent need to manifest a new and better world. Knowing the challenges facing those living with the most exposure to social, political and environmental harms on an intellectual level is one thing; it’s quite another to feel it in your bones. Our proximity to these issues informs our strategies, tactics, rhetoric and orientation to systems of power. 

The formation of my unique perspective and my journey towards a focus on environmental justice was developed in childhood in my grandmothers garden where I spent many pleasant hours observing nature through the wonder of a child’s eyes. The garden was a refuge from the complications of inner city life, as was nearby Fairmount Park, the largest inner city park in the country. These experiences instilled within me an appreciation of Nature that endures to this day. It was around that time that I formed an embryonic awareness of Nature as a healing and nourishing force, contrary to mainstream depictions of it in popular media as something scary that needed to be controlled and managed.  

My interest in the natural world never left me but was put on the back burner for a while during my 20’s as I began working for LGBTQIA+ rights at the Attic Youth Center, protesting against the Iraq War, volunteering with local Food Not Bombs chapters, organizing with local community spaces, and supporting various local movements for social and economic justice. An opportunity to give direct, on-land support to Indigenous people resisting relocation in the southwest developed and sharpened my perspective even further. 

Pictured left to right: Lyncia, Jody, Toby and Lin. I met them at an action camp in 2012, and they were the ones who ushered me into the world of Indigenous solidarity work.

I have been educating audiences of all ages and backgrounds on environmental justice issues fairly regularly over the past twelve years. Here I am with an Indigenous colleague giving a presentation on anti-colonialism and decolonization at the 2013 Power Shift conference in Pittsburgh.

My theory and practice of Environmental Justice includes a keen awareness that we can no longer accept an economic and social system that reproduces persistent negative outcomes for both human society and the ecology we all depend upon for our survival. I was happy to share this perspective on the Zero Waste and Capitalism panel at the 2019 Students for Zero Waste conference, hosted by UPenn.

Climate change will have disproportionate impacts on low income, resource starved front line communities. Vulnerable & historically disenfranchised people who had little to no part in creating the crisis are nevertheless positioned to face the worst impacts. We’ve already seen this with Hurricane Katrina and other more recent disasters like the mishandling of the response to COVID-19. At this point, after decades of delay and the ethos of “sit tight and assess,” climate change and its related impacts cannot be “stopped.” However, mitigation of some kind always remains a possibility. We must do all we can to protect and empower communities on the front lines of climate change and environmental crises, and this includes making sure communities have the resources they need to adapt and thrive.

Environmental Justice themes can be quite serious because often these issues are literally a matter of life or death. We must find creative and engaging ways to relay a sense of urgency to the public.

Those of us interested in manifesting Environmental Justice and equity have plenty of inspirational figures to learn from.

The importance of creating opportunities for youth access, training and involvement in Environmental Justice organizing work can’t be overstated. Here I am with some of the youth from Mural Arts’ Trash Academy (Breyani, Merletta and Breyon).

Protecting vulnerable communities from COVID-19 is an aspect of Environmental Justice as well. Vaccines and masks save lives.

We can’t be afraid to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty! Urban gardeners need all the support they can get; providing healthy food and green spaces are crucial aspects of environmental justice.

Grassroots media & social media are powerful tools for Environmental Justice education and organizing.

My most recent work has centered on creative methodologies and project coordination with Mural Arts Philadelphia, the largest public arts organization in the country. In coalition with other local organizations, our Trash Academy project helped bring to fruition Philadelphia’s plastic bag ban, a big win for communities disproportionately burdened with the blight of waste, litter and illegal dumping. 

We can’t forget to have fun!