Afternoon Coffee: Racial Justice & Environmentalism With Teju Adisa-FarrarBy Geana Sieburger |
Hi there! It’s me, Geana. I started Afternoon Coffee on Instagram during the beginning of the pandemic as a way to stay connected and to share some really fun recipes with you. Since then, we've taken some bigger topics head on.
This new series goes deep fast. It’s a crash course into several topics that have always been important to me, and are becoming even more important as my knowledge around these intersections grow.
It is through these full-hearted conversations and a quieting of our self-judgement that we make progress–side by side–marginalized, less-marginalized and non-marginalized communities as one.
With gratitude for Teju and our communities, let’s jump in to the first conversation in this series.
What is the intersection of environmentalism and racial justice?
This topic has been coming up a lot this year, especially in the past few months with the Black Lives Matter uprisings and protests. As an environmentalist, I've noticed the way that the community has come out and shared their support for Black Lives Matter. But I don't think there's an understanding of how deeply Black injustices connect to the degradation of the environment. In this country specifically and in the America’s more generally, there was a system of plantation slavery where enslaved Africans were brought over to the US and other parts of the Americas to work on plantations and forced to support monocultural mass production of crops. Cotton being one of the most well known, but also hemp, flax and other crops that we still use for fiber and for food. So the soil became eroded because of over tillage. There was mass deforestation caused by the need for plantations to have clear land, which contributed to the change in the climate. Also, there was violence and oppression to Black people who were working in this whole system. So as the environment was exploited by these unsustainable agricultural practices, so were Black people degraded and exploited by these same practices that fueled the US economy, and much of the economy in the Americas. A lot of the systems of slavery have continued on and transformed into the prison industrial-complex and policing. And this legacy continues. There's still relationships between the way that Black people were oppressed, and the way the land was oppressed from the beginning of this country, by the European settler that came to this land. So I think it is important to look at this history of violence towards the earth as also being violence towards Black people. And so as we talk about sustainability, as we talk about regenerating the environment, we need to also talk about these relationships of race and policing.
I thought of nature and green spaces as a very Black-thing. And in the US, in some communities, there's this idea that nature is not a “Black thing,” or not something that Black people do.
I wonder how often people connect how Black Americans experience nature today to the history of their ancestors as enslaved agricultural workers? It’s a trauma that has stayed with them and has been passed on. When I hear this, it immediately makes sense and feels very real.
I also think about economic access when a variety of people are busy working just to put food on the table and don't consciously think about this. Will you speak to this a little bit?
I think what you said earlier about the trauma carried through generations makes it so that many Black communities have a very fraught and complicated relationship with the environment. Not all black people relate to nature and environment in the same way. The relationship to the earth of people in the South is different from those of us who grew up on the West Coast or Northeast. A lot of our grandparents emigrated from the South to the Northeast, the Midwest and the West for economic opportunities. So there is a sort of displacement of Black people from the land. But what that means is that there are some pathologies or some recurrent structures that are engrained in Black communities, especially having to do with safety, like being sometimes scared of dark forests because that's where enslaved Africans ran to hide. So there's this sort of fear of natural spaces that can be present in these sort of pathologies.
Also, this idea that being in nature is a luxury. It requires free time. It requires access. And so if you live in a very urbanized environment that's not connected to safe green spaces, then you're not going to be inclined to spend time there. I also notice that when I'm going for hikes or I’m on trails, that I am one of the few Black people because I have the time and access to nature, and also because I grew up having a lot of time spent in nature. My mother is Jamaican and so I spent a lot of time in Jamaica growing up. So I thought of nature and green spaces as a very Black-thing. And in the US, in some communities, there's this idea that nature is not a “Black thing,” or not something that Black people do. This sort of overshadows the deep connections that our ancestors and grandparents had with the land in the South, as well as the indigenous Africans who had a lot of strong relationships with the land and agriculture.
I think that there is a stereotype that people who look like me are not environmentalists or “outdoorsy.” I think that attitude doesn't acknowledge the history, the legacy, and the varying relationships to nature that we have. But I often do get strange looks on hikes, especially when I'm by myself. And it’s because of this myth - that nature is not for us, or that we don't care about protecting nature. Environmental organizations green groups are especially at fault for this thinking, that animals and the wilderness are not interesting to people of color. And that is just not true.
And so when you bring racial justice into the conversation about environmentalism, people who identify as White feel that they’re being told they are the cause of something. While whiteness, and settler-ancestry, is the cause of a lot of environmental injustices, it doesn't mean that that guilt is on you.
What is the problem with environmentalism when voices like yours as a Black environmentalist are so few? And, how does the larger environmental movement receive/accept your perspectives?
I think one thing that is missing a bit in the mainstream environmentalism movement is this reality about interconnected systems of injustice. So a lot of those in the mainstream environmental movement talk about things that happen as separate from others. For example, "saving the whales" is its own cause. It’s not related to poor fishing communities, for example. And so when we think about environmentalism, the only way to regenerate in the earth and the environment, is if we transform all of the systems of injustice that are connected to ecological and environmental injustice. And so you can't talk about maintaining what we call public monuments or national parks and not address the fossil fuel industry and pollution in urban communities because we all breathe the same air. Even if it takes a little bit longer to get to you, eventually that pollution that you're trying to keep out of natural space will circumvent all of the earth. Because the earth is bound up in systems. And so I think the reason why we need voices like mine is because I can't think about the environment, or the environmental movement, without thinking about the injustices that are consequences of environmental exploitation, such as prisons, such as gentrification; all of these are environmental issues. And so when I'm thinking of divesting from the fossil fuel industry, I also know that that's connected to divesting from the prison industry. A lot of the companies invested in fossil fuels are also invested in private prisons. And so as I'm thinking about the environmental movement, my voice is going to be less elevated because it's trying to connect things that some people don't want to talk about, and still feel very guilty about. And so when you bring racial justice into the conversation about environmentalism, people who identify as White feel that they’re being told they are the cause of something. While whiteness, and settler-ancestry, is the cause of a lot of environmental injustices, it doesn't mean that that guilt is on you. So I would just encourage environmentalists, especially those who identify as white or privileged in some way, to think about how we can understand a collective accountability rather than feeling guilty so we can really get to the root cause of environmental issues.
I think one of the ways it’s really important to do better is to connect the dots between these injustices. If we could also consume fiber in a more sustainable way, then we're further shifting the system towards things that are regenerative, rather than things that are wasteful.
That is a huge part of making change. All the barriers that are so intimately personal and wrapped up in guilt and fears about how we will be perceived can get in the way–massively in the way. You spoke to this a little bit, but do you have any specific suggestions on how we can do better? Maybe as consumers isn't really the answer, but I'll put that out there. But, how can we do better as individuals, and then as a community if we can all do the work and all work together?
I think one of the ways it’s really important to do better is to connect the dots between these injustices. I love how on the GDS website, in the "about us" section, you talk about wanting your clothes to be produced the way you want your food to be produced with good materials. Relating the food farming system to the fiber farming system, is a great way to think about how to consume better and more holistically. Not just in the way we eat, which feels most immediate, but also the fact that we use fiber on a regular basis in cloth and clothing and other goods. If we could also consume fiber in a more sustainable way, then we're further shifting the system towards things that are regenerative, rather than things that are wasteful.
I think that's one way, connecting the dots between injustices. And also educating yourself about the way these systems are connected so you could find different individual ways to change your own behavior, which hopefully is also working to make more structural changes to policy and advocacy.
I would also say trying our best, which is hard because we don't even know how large corporations are, to boycott corporations that are using unsustainable practices. And learning about what so many of us don’t know. Nestle is a chocolate brand, but they are also stealing water from the Six Nations Reservation in Canada. So when we know that about Nestlé, although we think it's a harmless candy company, they also have their own exploitative, degradative environmental practices. So thinking about ways to boycott those products, when possible, and raising awareness about the different ways that corporations are exploiting people and the environment that we may not know about (because, of course, the corporations are not going to advertise that).
And the last thing I’ll add is to just have conversations with people you meet, with your family and your community around these types of issues. I think you do that through your business and through these conversations. I encourage people have these conversations more because a lot of people just don't know the way that certain structures work and what they can do to resist them.
There is so much we don't know. I feel so strongly that knowledge, just being curious, is the first step. Holding tight when we feel like what we're hearing something that doesn't feel good. I don’t feel hopeful everyday, but these conversations, this flow of knowledge that is often not heard, gives me hope. I think that that's a key part to change.
I'd love to end by asking you how you got here? Why did you create a business that’s based in sustainable products? What was your process to learning and educating yourself to start your company?
It's hard to separate how my business started from my personal upbringing and where I'm from. I'm from Brazil and I lived there for almost a decade before I came to this country. I lived there long enough to see how people lived in community in a way that was healthier, and truly more sustainable, not necessarily in the environmental sense, though it was as well. Nothing went to waste and so much was reused. There was value in every material. But also in the way commerce worked. We had neighborhood bakers. We were buying a lot of our clothes in stores, but a lot of it was still made by local seamstresses.
Many years later out of art college, I was a working as a textile buyer. I was working at a desk in downtown San Francisco, part of my life I really loved. And then another part of me felt like it was dying just a little bit. I felt my purpose was not fully realized, I felt like I was not doing much service to myself, working, living my life that way or serving my community in any way. Then I started small, at the farmer's market. In that journey, I learned so much more just by doing it and by being true to my values, which are clear to me. I couldn't put words to them necessarily in the beginning, but I could feel them. It was always about being part of a community and serving that community. I wanted to make the best product that I could. And all of that, to me, always meant reducing harm as much as possible. These days, there are all sorts of other words that we use to describe that like sustainability and ethical labor. But to me, it is really about health and care, really caring for your community and to me, there's no other way to do it.
Ultimately, the products I've developed are things that just came out of my own life that I was having fun with. I love the intersection of food and design. I love the connection between my products where they're all agricultural products. They're "mundane" products and I believe in them wholeheartedly. I think that these everyday products can be powerful in that they bring meaning to people’s everyday activities.
I’ll leave it at that. That was a long answer.
I think that's a great answer and probably a lot of people come to the conversation about environmental justice first through individual action. Then realize that individual actions are not enough. That it takes collective consciousness to develop and change society. It's really important that we put our stories in the center of these conversations to realize the ways that we have privilege, the ways that we can make change, and where that fits in the larger movements for justice and alternatives in society.
Thank you for sharing your story. I appreciate it.
Thank you for asking.
I look forward to the other conversations you have with the other guests and hopefully the GDS community can continue these conversations in some way.
I hope so, too. That's the goal. Thank you so much Teju.