It’s not often that a life-changing revelation arrives via email. But that’s what happened to me in February when I received the results of a genetic test I ordered to track my ancestry. When I opened the message, I discovered that, based on my DNA, my forbears likely came from Cameroon, Congo, Nigeria, Benin, and Togo, as well as Ireland and Great Britain. I was stunned by the power of this revelation. Like most Black Americans, my family has never known the geography of where we came from—our ancient history was lost to slavery.
Now I know that my ancestors likely fished along the West African Coast; that they probably spoke Ibo or Yoruba as they ate Suya. This has special significance for me as I embark in my new role as executive director of Green For All, an organization dedicated to fighting pollution and poverty. The results of my DNA test underscore what I have known all along—that the environment has long been a part of who we are and everything we do.
It’s a mistake to think of the natural world as something “out there” that we can choose to either ignore or protect. It’s not. We can try to disregard the environment, but when we breathe polluted air from coal plants, we will still get asthma. We will still get cancer. When industries contaminate our water—like they did for hundreds of thousands of West Virginians recently—we get sick. And when we drink clean water, or eat wholesome, healthy food from the soil, it nourishes us. Because we are the environment.
I started off knowing that intuitively. Growing up in Los Angeles, I climbed trees and played in the dirt. I ate fresh berries from my grandmother’s garden. And like a disproportionate number of African-American kids, I struggled with asthma, probably due to pollution from the airport and oil fields near my neighborhood. I was hospitalized for the first time with an asthma attack when I was 6 years old. It was hard, not being able to Double Dutch or play tag during recess—my inhaler followed me everywhere.
But I knew from a young age that I wanted to protect the natural world. As a little girl, I watched Captain Planet and his crew of black, Asian, and Latino Planeteers, and I believed they were what the environmental movement really looked like. I quickly discovered how wrong I was. When I looked around, the heads of the big green organizations were mostly white men. In college, I spent four years on a state sustainability council for students, and I was consistently the only person of color in the room. I was Black, I was green, and I was alone—or felt like it, anyway. There was a dissonance.
But that dissonance shouldn’t exist. For thousands of years, the environment has been a part of everything we do. My ancestors in Congo grew their own food. They practiced ritual and ceremony on sacred land. They wove themselves into the fabric of the ecosystem as full participants. It didn’t occur to them to think of the natural world as something separate, a wilderness “out there.”
That’s still true for us today. The berries from my grandmother’s garden are part of the environment. So is the pollution that gave me asthma.
One of the very first things my family taught me was to respect life. To respect animals, plants and people. That’s a fundamental tenet of environmentalism—and respecting people is key. It can’t be overlooked.
It means we have to do more than protect forests. We have to safeguard our kids from toxic pollution and ensure that our communities aren’t torn apart by disasters. We have to make sure that our neighbors aren’t struggling to find a job or get enough to eat.
That’s why the work that Green For All does is so important. It’s not just about lifting up the voices of people of color and low-income folks, who are hit first and worst by pollution and climate change. The work we do to create solutions—to expand jobs in clean energy and make sure disadvantaged communities have a shot at them, to encourage neighbors to come together to plant gardens, and to promote healthy, sustainable lifestyles—this work is a reminder that we are inescapably connected to our air and water, and to each other.
Today, hundreds of years removed from our ancestors, the challenges we face are enormous: Unchecked pollution. Climbing poverty. Unacceptable levels of joblessness—especially in Black communities, where the unemployment rate is nearly double the national average. But the opportunity is enormous, too. We have a chance right now to begin to create the kind of world we want our kids and grandkids to inherit. It’s time to think bigger about the problems we face—and the solutions. We can do more than just mend what’s broken; we can build something better.
That’s why our response to climate change has to take the long view. The solution doesn’t stop at cutting greenhouse gases and creating emergency response plans for storms and severe weather. We also need to cultivate economic health and support strong social fabric in the neighborhoods that are hit hardest. We need to set up our communities to leap forward into a healthier future after a hurricane, or a blizzard, or a flood—not just bounce back to where they were before.
In the face of all the trouble we find ourselves in—our growing economic divide, increasing political strife, and the immense threat that climate change poses—we can still create something better. We can be good ancestors to the generations to come.
You don’t have to call yourself an environmentalist to be a part of it. All you need to do is recognize that each of us is tightly bound to the air, water, and soil around us—just as our ancestors were, thousands of years before, in West Africa, Europe, or whichever corner of the world your people came from.
Nikki Silvestri is Green For All’s executive director.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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