"This movement has a fundamental role": Environmental advocate talks intersection of race, environment


Wanjiku "Wawa" Gatheru ’20 (CAHNR) in the Student Union on April 9, 2019.

contibuted photo / UConn

WESTPORT — Wanjiku Gatheru, a recent graduate of University of Connecticut, knows the environmental movement has an integral role in a just future — but it first must take an intersectional approach.

While environmental advocacy has a long history, it has often excluded the most vulnerable, she said, answering questions in a virtual forum hosted by the Westport Library on Wednesday.

“I know what the environmental movement can be, or rather what it should be,” said Gatheru, the first Black person to receive the Rhodes, Truman and Udall scholarships. “I believe that this movement has a fundamental role to play in crafting a just future, particularly in an age where we have an impending climate crisis and as people continue to suffer at the hands of capitalism and impending and current poverty.”

But she said at a young age she felt conflicted on how the movement was portrayed. What was often left out of the history of environmental advocacy was the subjugation and oppression that allowed for it to progress early on.

“The environmental movement has not been a fundamentally anti-racist one, and arguably still isn’t,” Gatheru said.

She cited the removal of indigenous people from their land to allow for national parks to be erected, as well as segregationist laws and policies that kept people of color from experiencing green spaces as examples of topics not often covered.

Gatheru said conversations regarding poverty and racism were also not often held in the environmental spaces she encountered.

“I kept wondering why have environmental problems traditionally adhered to woods and water views while seemingly ignoring the importance of neighborhoods and cities — places where you find a lot of people of color,” she said.

She said she spent her undergraduate career searching for her face in the textbooks used in her classrooms, but instead often saw her classmates’ interests magnified while hers was left in the dust.

“We rarely talked about environmental justice,” Gatheru said, adding it took taking electives outside of her department to see the conversation addressed.

She also discussed how research showed that despite increasing racial diversity in the country, the racial composition of environmental organizations and agencies had not broken the 12 to 16 percent “green ceiling” that has been in place for decades.

Drawing inspiration from human rights activists like Ella Baker and Martin Luther King Jr., Gatheru said she became passionate about seeing the movement become more inclusive. This in turn led her to the environmental justice movement, which was created in response to the mainstream national environmental movement of the 1970s.

She said the environmental justice movement first emerged in response to the 1982 dumping of PCB toxins in the predominantly Black community of Warren County, North Carolina.

Harold Bailey, chair of TEAM Westport, said the discussion was similar to the two conflicting concepts seen in the country: anti-racism versus racism.

“We’re all at this inflection point,” he said. “A number of the problems talked about are the problems of going in and doing the internal work that we all have to do around race and the country.”

Bailey said a large problem in confronting racism is an issue of parallel organizations — such as churches or faith groups that have been historically segregated — trying to figure out how to work together. He added honest discussions were needed.

“Otherwise you literally end up talking past each other,” Bailey said.

Gatheru said the environmental justice movement looks to help create an inclusive approach to tackling environmental issues. She added a more inclusive approach to environmental research will help address the environment’s impact on under-served communities.

“There has to be an acknowledgment that history has erased others and the fact we prop up a select few — all of whom typically are white men — does let us know there are other histories that have been erased,” she said. “I believe the environmental justice movement seeks to address this, and the environmental justice movement has a history of doing so.”