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Rashad Barber – Conversations on Climate Justice

Rashad Barber is a community organizer with Seattle Black Book Club and Got Green. 

How are you involved in the Climate Justice movement and what got you started?

I volunteer with Got Green. I am part of their young leaders in the green movement and the climate justice committee. Got Green has really created a community with other folks of color who’re interested in climate justice issues and our environment.

Previously, a lot of my focus was on social, economic justice and systemic change. I’ve always been interested in our environment, and I’ve known about the crisis we’re in because we’re using up our resources and polluting at a rate is unsustainable. But I didn’t feel like I had access when I was younger, I always saw the environmental movement as either very white or very bureaucratic.

After being within the Climate Justice movement via Got Green, I learned about the disparities, particularly around environmental racism and that had a deep impact on me as a black person. So often we see racism in how we’re treated in school, in the workplace, our interactions with police, in housing and so many other areas but I don’t think a lot of attention is given to our environment.

I grew up in proximity to a coal power plant in Denver, Colorado – Arapahoe coal power plant was one of many. I lived there with my mom and younger siblings. I learned recently that 68% of African Americans live within a 30-mile radius of a coal power plant, which is the closest proximity you can live next to a coal power plant to receive all the harmful health effects, everything from respiratory issues to heart issues. There is some correlation, because both my mom and two younger sisters have asthma. When i first learned about that statistic, it really stopped me. I had to take a moment to see that so often we see the bottom effects of oppression. It is the women, my mom and two younger sisters that ended up with asthma which automatically means that your life expectancy and quality of life goes down. It really hurt me a lot to watch my mom struggle with that. She had many asthma attacks and still struggles at times to breathe, something so essential to life itself. And we didn’t think of it being connected to living close to the coal plant.

If your environment is all you know, you don’t think otherwise. My dad lived in the suburbs and nobody in my dad’s side of the family had asthma, and in the suburbs it wasn’t discussed in the same way. But in the inner city it’s a common experience for many people living in America, black people in particular, are just at a higher disproportionate rate of living next to unhealthy environments — whether it’s being closer to highways and coal plants.

How is the climate crisis related to racism?

There’s this study done, where they found that if there’s one indicator to tie where people’s proximity to environmentally hazardous locations, more than wealth it was race. They found that race was a common theme that played out so many times when people were having to deal with the runoff pollution of industry or being close to highways, or just industrial areas. Race was the single most common indicator that played out, so we see that race heavily influence climate justice.

Climate justice and environmental justice are not just about being honest about the ecological and environmental crisis we’re in, but it is inclusive to all other aspects of justice, social and economic justice. If people don’t have the same opportunity for work, housing, higher education, we cannot move toward climate justice. And not only that, those that are least implicated in the environmental crisis are the most impacted. Because of that, our communities have had to find resilient ways to deal with climate change. For example, many black people do not come from historical wealth and we can trace that back to centuries. Without the same access to wealth and the opportunities for wealth, we find ways to reuse, recycle, to not waste food, not over-consume and this has been so common in our culture. And now it’s become a thing — this shared economy. This is something that people of color and low income communities have been doing for a long time. There are a lot of opportunities and solutions that can be gained by learning from people that are most impacted and have found more sustainable and resilient ways of living and managing our lives.

Considering the crisis is urgent, what are the ways in which you think it needs to be tackled?

The crisis is so severe, it’s unprecedented — we’re looking at the 6th mass extinction. With the gravity of the situation, I think all hands on deck are necessary.  But more importantly, we need to look at how we got here. We knew that it started with the industrial revolution, which was funded by slavery and colonialism, of taking from one’s lands and extracting resources. We see so many of our oppressive systems played out through that history, the building of capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy. This is all throughout our history of domineering not just other people and cultures, but of our environment itself, of the earth we live on, and not giving recognition to the life this earth has provided.

Now, we’re consuming so much at such a rate that we need drastic culture shifts. It’s going to be collective effort and action. We’re going to need leadership from those that are most impacted. Things are starting to change — we had the Paris talks where many world leaders came to grapple with the crisis, we have sustainable businesses, we have new majors in college, sustainable management, it’s becoming a thing. But we have to be careful about these buzzwords and trends coming out that aren’t addressing the history of how we’ got there.

Because that can perpetuate the same root causes.

Big Industry is starting to say we need to transition. A transition is inevitable, but what is not inevitable is that it is a Just Transition. If the same industries and companies that got us in the climate crisis are the ones that try to develop ‘solutions’ to profit off the transition, those are false solutions.

What we need to do is get a really good understanding of the current playing field we’re in, and look out for the false solutions. We need communities to define for themselves what the real solutions are. So many communities being most impacted, already have the solutions. So it’s learning from them and making sure they’re at the center of deciding how the transition will come is critical.

As for tactics, because of the crisis we’re in, because we’re still using fossil fuels I think direct action is necessary, to first shut down the fossil fuel empire. Popular education groups out there like Women of Color Speak Out are doing the important work — we need to make sure everyone in our community is being brought along to the transition. We need to think about whose voices are going to be leading this transition. I think policy is necessary: we cap carbon to actually reduce pollution, and the redistribution, when money comes in, needs to move towards communities that have traditionally been left out of our social economic system.

What are the challenges and experiences of organizing in this community?

I’ve enjoyed being around this community of people of color, so our voices are the ones being represented when talking about solutions in dealing with climate.

I think the work is there’s so much work to be done, but there are so few resources, so a lot of us still have to sustain ourselves. Being able to really give the amount of time that is required to do this work is limited.

Doing this work has been such an honor and a humbling experience, being around so many ideas that come from communities of color. I’ve learned a lot because of the study the Climate Justice committee did in South Seattle to see how people are understanding climate change, and what their thoughts are for solutions and how do we address it. It’s been an amazing experience of growth to do all of this.