POC Have A Rich History With The Environment And This Multimedia Organization Is Reclaiming Our Leadership Narrative Through Visibility

There is this platform floating around in the atmosphere called Brown Environmentalist (BE Media Collective). They work to redefine the environmental and outdoor narrative and provides a platform to empower BIPOC by creating and amplifying our narratives. It’s an organization that's entirely run by BIPOC, which is incredibly important for their mission. Check out this incredible interview with founder Michael Estrada! 

 

Why did you start Brown Environmentalist?

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At its core, BE recognizes the importance of platforms and visuals. That’s why we’re a multimedia group and platform — we not only have the capacity and skill set to produce a video or an article, but we’re also folx who have the relevant background and lived experiences to do so. We tend to go heavily in on visuals, however, because we recognize the impact and significance that art and media can have within any movement -- and especially so within the environmental justice space. We need to take control of our visual and written narratives -- it’s about how we retell our pasts, how we see ourselves, and how future generations will manifest.

The work is ongoing, as are the goals. We aim to diversify representation in environmental spaces, we aim to further justice and policy in our role as educators, artists, and journalists (and all things in between).

I wanted to create a space for media and the stories of POC in the environment, especially and specifically as told by POC themselves. BE was a sort of instinct that had been building up for me after being in the “environmental field” since graduating from UCLA in 2012. When I was teaching students of color about environmental issues, I found there wasn’t a consolidated platform for POC in the environment, and my students (not unlike myself growing up) didn’t see the relevance of environment in their daily lives even though it is so so relevant. I tried to focus my teaching not so much on the fact that I needed to teach certain things, but more so that it was important for my students to understand different things they saw in their community and how it played into a greater whole. It’s an issue of representation and also how we define “environment” — the word is traditionally too limiting and needs to encompass a wider breadth of issues.

We aim to complement other efforts in highlighting our work, pleasure, pain, pathmaking in the outdoors historically and today.

 

You started the IG feed @brownenvironmentalist … when and why and how does it compliment the overall goal of BE?

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WHY: it was the most direct outlet to release thoughts, projects, and future plans. There were tons of ideas and content floating around; we just needed the platform to start making it a reality. A year or two ago the thought was that it would be a blog titled “Just Another Brown Environmentalist” with the point being that there’s tons of brown and black “environmentalists” or BIPOC who care about the environment: the mainstream just didn’t choose to acknowledge our presence and worth. The IG account was a bit more refined in its purpose and goals: focus on visuals and influence the collective imagination.

WHEN: VISUALS. I’m a visual person. I wanted to see it. Often times my ideas stay hidden in my head or on my hard drive, but 2016-2017 proved illuminating in the sense that I wasn’t doing anyone any good (including myself) by keeping it to myself, ha. I mainly did so because I wanted the purpose of the work/the greater mission to be highlighted and not necessarily myself. BE allowed that to thrive and allowed me to approach this work in an honest way - separate and bigger than myself.

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So…IG wise, the feed provided a visual way to show folks what the goal of BE is and to build momentum for the platform (while being hella accessible for so many people to engage, share, and be a part of it). There’s plenty of white folks telling environmental stories, but where were the POC creators? Ultimately it should be able to be taken over by anyone and never be about the founder (me) — this feature notwithstanding, ha. While I understand the importance of highlighting the folks behind the movement, the movement is ultimately the goal, able to be taken up by the next person. The strongest movements throughout history go beyond a single person or even a group of people -- they can continue on because the movement is decentralized and adaptable; BE was a way to focus on that without needing a specific figure attached to it. (Also I’m very much a student of Adrienne Marie Brown’s work and the concept of decentralization was foundational for me).

HOW: Visuals! “We’re in a war of public imagination” — if we can’t see it, or see examples of it, or envision it or imagine it, then we can’t build toward this greater future we all want, right? Instagram can be a beautiful platform because its key component is the visual and it can reach folx immediately. BE’s foundational goal is to redefine the narrative of BIPOC in the environment, and empower BIPOC as well.

 

Do you think there is a disconnect with POC and the outdoors/nature? Why or why not?

Not at all. Globally speaking, BIPOC are the most connected to the outdoors/nature/environment — the disconnect rather comes from the mainstream environmental movement in the United States and in certain countries that only value a certain very privileged way of interacting with the outdoors. Hiking, backpacking, going to a National Park, etc. These are seen as THE outdoor activities. As the ONLY way to experience the outdoors or the only way to name an experience in the outdoors. (There’s also the history of how the National Parks were formed and are in actuality stolen lands.)

And so if you’re an environmentalist by these standards, or someone who interacts with nature or cares about it, then the message is that you must also do these specific things to fit the model. Put simply, that’s BS.

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The real disconnect lies in that bipoc are not seen as the leaders of the environment when we have been, always, “even before these terms came into existence and were framed within the scope of whiteness” (to paraphrase Amirio Freeman there). It’s the impetus behind things like “Been Outside” or Aquí Estamos (We are Here) — narratives that empower and say, “actually we’ve been here, we’ve been outside in nature, and we’re actually doing the most for nature”.

Often the “disconnect” we hear about now is rooted in the history of the United States, and due to structural inequities and embedded racism.

 

POC have a rich history with Nature that is very rarely shared in traditional educational spaces — why do you think that is?

Unfortunately but also logically speaking, the history of POC with nature (specifically) doesn’t exist in a vacuum outside of the rest of POC history and its “management”, where we’ve been purposefully erased and continue to be purposefully erased. It isn’t shared because it would also mean admitting to the steep racism embedded in the US’s environmental movement, or even admitting what “America’s Best Idea” really means. What are National Parks, really? Stolen land first and foremost. Stolen so that they could be “preserved” and kept only for the affluent and white, and furthermore at once also denying that they were being preserved just fine by indigenous communities beforehand and didn’t need an imposed colonizer framework. So yes, it’s very rarely shared and in many cases when it is it’s either 1. shared from a white perspective/lens still or 2. doesn’t come from a holistic, POC-led narrative. Or what I like to call “impacted storytelling”: it should be the folx who are most affected by an issue that should be the ones leading the discussion and the storytelling behind it.

BE wants to dismantle all of this. We’ve been here. We’ve BEEN HERE. Been. And we will continue to be.

 

Who are your favorite POC (past or present) who are doing or have done amazing environmental work?

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Olivia LaPierre

Easily 3 come to mind for peers. Olivia LaPierre, Amirio Freeman, Sue Pierre, names that y’all might already know. There’s also José Gonzalez, my mentor and friend. There’s my ma, my grandma and great grandmama. There’s Pinar (@queerquechua) and there’s folks like Berta Caceres, Arundhati Roy, Dorceta Taylor. The crazy thing is that there are so many inspirational folks already doing the work, and for many of us we are where we are because of these leaders before us.

There’s ALL the folks who are doing this work. One key thought leader is Adrienne Marie Brown. Her work is so influential in the breakdown of how we move in this space and interact with one another. If you haven’t read her work, you’re missing out.

The list goes on, but I encourage folks to make the effort to search for these folks. Even the ones off of IG and social media who are doing so much incredible work or have done it. Do your own homework too. I try my best to keep up with it all but a community like MelaninASS or BE helps.

 

What role especially do you think BIWOC play in protecting the earth?

Lol BIWOC do the absolute most in everything, and protecting the earth is just one thing in y’alls arsenal. But if we’re being specific, it’s been well documented that BIWOC face the worst of any environmental degradation or disaster. But it should also be just as well-documented that BIWOC do the MOST in protecting their communities and environment. BE started with this because it was my own personal defining moment when I made this realization for myself. Tree hugger narrative? WOC. Environmental activists fighting for their communities at the risk of their own well-being? WOC.

 Photo courtesy of BE

Photo courtesy of BE

Recently I’ve been playing with this analogy in my head that WOC are the keystone community of our time. In ecologist terminology, a keystone or indicator species (or “bioindicator”) of an ecosystem is a species that clearly indicates the health of the habitat or community in which it lives; in essence helping reveal to an ecologist whether an environment is in a healthy state or not. I’d argue that WOC are our keystone species: we can see how well society is doing based off how WOC are being treated, from environmentalism (and justice) to equality in the workforce. (Drawing from ecofeminism theory, too).

WOC are the most affected by environmental injustices and degradation, and also do the most when it comes to protecting the environment. The focus on WOC is the most fitting. If y’all ain’t discussing how an issue affects the most marginalized then what are you doing? If you aren’t empowering WOC then what are you doing?

This is where broadening the definition of environment and what it encompasses is so important. Often in white-dominated spaces, environmentalism translates to conservation and/or preservation. Though important, it’s also too limited and misguided. Environment encompasses people -- so if an environmental organization doesn’t address how their issue of choice touches people (and especially the most marginalized) then it is failing. If it doesn’t actively work toward correcting institutionalized injustices and inequality, then it is failing.