A Black Woman’s Story:
Why lived experience and cultural identity are critical elements in every advocate’s professional development. #ChangeFromWithin
I’ve been pretty political my entire life. My father taught me the true history of Christopher Columbus in the 6th grade, and by the 7th grade, my mom exposed me to DemocracyNow! (DN!) I remember the story of Stanley “Tookie” Williams as the first narrative that moved me. Tookie co-founded the Crips and became an anti-gang advocate who focused on redemption for folks of all backgrounds. I had heard his story from his own words two weeks before he was scheduled to be executed and then listened to the DemocracyNow! broadcast the morning after his murder. I had planned to walk into my middle school that day and say his name before the morning prayer (#catholicschoolthings), but when I arrived I lacked the courage and feared the administration would react negatively to my stance. From previous encounters of me sharing my opinion in school, I subconsciously knew the faculty had digested me as the loud, problematic, and rebellious Black girl. My decision to stay silent that morning is, 13 years later, a major reason why I’m at Greenlining.
No field or tool is perfect for wielding change, but every experience you have is essential for your toolbox.
My path has not been straightforward. I got kicked out of my Catholic school at 14 and completed high school at a military boarding school in New Mexico. I went to a community college for about three years (shout out to Pasadena City College and Santa Barbara City College) before transferring to UC Santa Barbara in 2014. I changed majors twice during college but eventually completed a B.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies with concentrations in Black Studies, Anthropology, and Environmental Science.
My first job post-graduate was as an environmental justice community organizer in deep East Oakland. I didn’t even complete my full year before I realized that this route, community organizing, might not be the best fit for me. The nonprofit industrial complex is so draining and although the work is important, it just didn’t feel like I was making as big an impact as I wanted too. So I went home.
I moved back in with mom, got a job waitressing, and spent time hanging out with my Abuela. I dealt with feelings of worthlessness because the “American” trajectory goes: college, a good job, and never moving back in with your parents. But in the end, it allowed me to release myself from the confines of that socially acceptable trajectory. It also checked the “progressive/academic superiority” I had digested while in college. Moving home and working as a community organizer made me realize that if theory or programs are inaccessible to those they are supposed to serve, they ultimately just serve the elite. Reflecting, my time immediately after college really leveled me up and it granted me space to imagine what I wanted to do. So after several months home, I applied for an internship with DemocracyNow!
Moving to New York City and working with an organization I had looked up to for so long was the biggest self-confidence boost I could have asked for. Although I loved my daily tasks, I soon realized the media world didn’t feel like the right fit either. Reporting horrific stories of exploitation and abuse with no tools to combat the oppression felt both meaningful and useless. Understanding that it was important for me to feel like I was problem-solving the issues DemocracyNow! Reports on, I followed a friends suggestion and applied to The Greenlining Institute’s Policy Fellowship Program.
I’ll be honest: I had no clue about the policy field but something in my spirit knew it would provide me with key learnings. Adjusting to Greenlining was difficult and it took me a while to exercise my voice at decision-making tables. Apart from mundane struggles like purchasing a business casual wardrobe to feel like I fit in with folks at the table, the slowness of policy was also very frustrating. The constraints problem solvers have to consider, like political will and a budget, are limiting and nonsensical. The ecological collapse we are experiencing will not wait for policymakers, government agencies, or investors. Low-income communities of color in California and across the globe have experienced, are experiencing, and will experience differential and exacerbated impacts of climate change.
As a member of the Environmental Equity team, I have had the opportunity to better understand how to use policy and navigate the overall landscape of the climate field in California. While I now know our state is making an effort to mitigate climate change, I’m also keenly aware that it’s nowhere near the “unprecedented scale or rate” the IPCC Global Warming of 1.5 degrees report calls for. Better understanding the slowness of political change and the quickness of environmental collapse birthed my #ChangeFromWithin.
In the end, it’s your toolbox that will inform what you can offer the collective and we – justice-seeking and loving people – need every single tool under the sun to eradicate white supremacy and capitalism.
No field or tool is perfect for wielding change, but every experience you have is essential for your toolbox. In the end, it’s your toolbox that will inform what you can offer the collective and we – justice-seeking and loving people – need every single tool under the sun to eradicate white supremacy and capitalism. My time at GLI solidified what I felt after hearing Tookie’s story 13 years ago. Our collective voice is the kryptonite of white supremacist capitalism. I’m grateful for the diversification of my toolbox this program has provided me. While college opened my eyes to what I need to rebel against, the Leadership Academy sharpened my tongue and mind in service to climate justice.
Nia Mitchell is Greenlining’s Environmental Equity Fellow. Follow her on Twitter.