“A lot of the mainstream groups don’t always realize it,” climate justice activist Sarra Tekola says on the phone. “They don’t really connect that it is the same people who were colonized before that are now dying in the destructive behavior that is destroying the earth. And it is the former colonizer nations that are responsible for this.”
Tekola isn’t afraid of challenging her sometimes largely white audiences with concepts such as colonialism, racism and exclusion in the mainstream environmentalist movement.
It’s a reason why she and fellow activists Yin Yu, Zarna Joshi and Afrin Sopariwala, have formed Women of Color Speak Out. The Seattle-area group reaches out to different audiences and throws the spotlight on the gap between mainstream environmentalism and its understanding of how communities of color and women are affected by climate change.
Their audiences have been diverse — from ticket-payers at Seattle’s Town Hall to the people at the Washington Corrections Center for Women.
The group explores root causes of climate change, tokenism, implicit biases against people of color and their personal experience in activism.
At a Town Hall event last month, Tekola told the audience that despite women and people of color bearing the brunt of the impacts of climate change, mainstream environmentalism often doesn’t give them space for their voices to be heard.
“[A] lot of times their voices are silenced,” Tekola said. “They are told they are not experts; they are not invited to the table.”
When they are allowed to speak, their perspective is challenged, she said.
Joshi agreed. “Those who are the most impacted, their voices are the most important,” she said.
The quartet thought it would be powerful to create a space where marginalized voices can be heard.
At their event at Town Hall, Joshi told the audience that colonialism, capitalism, racism and patriarchy are root causes of climate change.
“My grandfather was 15 years old when he shared a jail cell with Gandhi,” Joshi told the audience. “And the British Empire that was feeding itself on India’s blood….was created by a capitalist system. It was actually the East India Company which was a corporation that first came to India and began to sink its hooks of control and domination. It was a system of racism.”
The women, who are all involved in a number of activist groups, draw their passion for this cause from their different backgrounds.
Both Joshi and Sopariwala were born in the 1980s to Indian families. They both agreed their cultural background has a context that includes patriarchy and sexism but also a belief in a feminine divinity, spirituality, compassion and non-violent resistance. They said in separate interviews last week that their activism is informed by their personal experience and cultural heritage.
But that’s where their backgrounds in environmental activism diverge. Joshi, who was born in London, says she became politically conscious around 15 and started being active several years later as a college student in London.
Sopariwala, however, grew up in Bombay and didn’t become an activist until this year. Before this year, she says, she had “had no idea what activism was all about.”
Sopariwala came to the United States five years ago when she and her husband moved from India where “she had the best job in the world” working for Google. After moving the United States with her husband, she temporarily stopped her spiritual journey through yoga, which she had practiced for seven years.
“I got seduced and enamored by this American life style where you can have so many disposable things,” she said on the phone. “My husband was a white man who lived a privileged life.”
Additionally, she felt alone in a different culture despite having many good friends.
“Living in this very white circle I felt very isolated, especially after I got a divorce,” she said. “Even when I was married, I felt really lonely. I didn’t I feel I had relationships that were meaningful.”
Yu expressed similar sentiments. Her parents were farmers who came to the U.S. from Taiwan when she was 8 years old. Growing up, her parents encouraged her to completely assimilate.
“My mom didn’t teach me anything about our culture. The family wanted us to embrace the American culture,” Yu said on the phone. “We were not embedded in the Chinese community and then now I don’t feel like I belong to the American culture either.”
Yu still feels this sense of alienation in the mainstream environmentalist movement, which she says can exclude different viewpoints and can be judgmental of different choices.
Tekola, 21, is probably the most overworked activist of the four. When asked what causes and organizations she’s involved with, she provides a different list depending on the context. This is a randomly picked list: Got Green?, Black Lives Matter, Fossil Fuel Divestment UW, Greek System reform, Juvenile Prison Abolitionism.
Tekola, who has a penchant for data and analysis, is a Seattle native who has worked in several environmental labs. Her mother, an African American, is a union member, and her father is an Ethiopian expat.
To the audience at Town Hall, she described her luck growing up in a nurturing home and the co-op school she went to, where she was shielded from the vicissitudes of life as an African American. That ended when she transfered to a Christian private school in fifth grade.
In grade 5, Tekola called her teacher “a liar and a polar bear killer,” and was kicked out of class. The teacher had been telling the class it was God’s plan for people drill for oil in the arctic. This school didn’t allow for a lot of free thinking like her previous school did.
Tekola went to union protests with her mother when she could. Even so, it was not until the Occupy protests that she found her place in intersectional activism.
At every turn, Women of Color Speak Out discuss their strong immigrant connections and express their responsibility to speak out for and to their communities.
Joshi and Sopariwala address the issue of how climate change affects poor people most. Joshi specifically cites the recent heat wave in India which claimed 2,330 lives, many of which were the most vulnerable and poor people in the nation.
Similarly, drought, which has been blamed on El Nino, has now left 4.5 million vulnerable Ethiopians to the mercy of emergency food supplies.
Tekola says activists of color understand first-hand the connection between climate justice and justice for people of color.
“Not a lot of mainstream groups realize this,” she told me. “There’s been large amount of movements of people of color … drawing the lines, realizing that when we are fighting for Black Lives Matter or when we are fighting for immigration rights or fighting against prison … it relates to the environment.”
At the group’s recent event at the Backbone Campaign’s Action Camp, Tekola cited the example of the United Nations’ Sustainable Innovation Forum. She says the solutions they proposed are inadequate to solve climate issues for many countries in the global south.
“It means that Ethiopia and many countries in Africa — and low-lying countries — will be underwater and be drought-land and no longer be able to grow,” she said. “My people are still gonna die.”
She says those voices are excluded in Seattle as well as at the United Nations.
“For me, as a person of color and as a woman, because my people have been oppressed by the system, it helps me more readily reject these false solutions,” Tekola said.
Yu, Joshi and Sopariwala agree women more easily access their emotions and empathy to bring people together. Tekola, without denying or confirming gender stereotypes, cites data that women voters show a lot of interest in environmental policies in Washington state.
The four agree that mainstream environmentalism movements in Seattle, despite implicit bias and ignorance, have been open to their message.
Mainstream environmental groups are sometimes a little too excited when people of color come forward to volunteer.
“At first I didn’t realize it for a long time,” Tekola told the Town Hall audience. “I just thought everyone loved me and that’s why I was always in the front and they were always using my pictures.”
Tekola emphasized the importance of doing actual work within communities of color and avoiding tokenism.
“They tried to put this person of color’s face in front and show, ‘Oh look we’re not racist.’ Or make it look like they’re diverse,” she said. “The outreach work needs to be done, instead of just trying to tokenize.”
“It’s lazy,” she said.
Joshi says that’s why their group is necessary.
“When there are women of color who are speaking out, then I feel like that helps to inspire other women of color to speak out,” Joshi told me. “Ultimately, this is what it’s all about.”
This story was updated since its original publication.