Maine Environmental Changemakers
BIPOC Voices | February 2, 2021 | Posted by Jill McLaughlin
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This month’s contributors are Amara Ifeji, Uma Mohamed, and Melissa Tian from Maine Environmental Changemakers – a youth-led intergenerational network that connects young Mainers passionate about the environment, social justice and/or conservation with each other, with mentors, and with the resources and training they need to actualize their ideas in their home communities.
Earth is dying. Each new day brings news of another natural disaster which devastates not only the planet itself, but also the people who inhabit it. The climate crisis is especially evident in the state of Maine where the Gulf of Maine warms 99% faster than all the world’s oceans. And yet, despite this overwhelming truth, climate change is still one of the most polarizing issues today, even in our own state. Why is this the case? The answer is quite simple: climate change has a single story rooted in science, graphs, and models. However, this is far from the most compelling means to impassion people about this issue. A key element is missing from this story and that is the structural inequities rooted in this country, which climate change only further exacerbates. We are the marginalized individuals whose climate stories are left out and these are the stories we offer up.
Food insecurity, environmental racism and water injustice were the topics that fueled me into becoming the amateur climate activist I am today. Growing up in Southern Maine, I was fortunate enough to spend time in organizations such as Cultivating Community and Maine Environmental Changemakers that educated me and helped me identify these injustices in my own community, while pushing me to connect the dots and research about water injustice in my home country. Without the impact of these organizations that worked to further the perspectives of Maine’s youth, I would have never had the tools or interest to even become a climate activist. Many of the organizations I have been a part of emphasized participation from BIPOC youth. This prioritization allowed many of us to feel welcome and valued in an area of social justice that is dominated by white people. The most memorable dialogues I’ve had on climate justice in these predominantly white spaces have been ones where BIPOC youth had to bring in our own experiences to help everyone, and especially our white counterparts, see the intersection between racial and climate issues.
Growing up in Maine as the daughter of two immigrants has tremendously shaped who I am today and how I view the world around me. For a long time when I was growing up, I felt this sense of duality within myself as an American-born child growing up in a Chinese household. I felt as if I was constantly facing decisions that tested who I really was, what side I belonged to. But I was always stuck somewhere in between. When I’d visit my extended family in China, my relatives would refer to my sister and me as the “American children.” But growing up in Maine, I always felt that subtle sense of awkwardness or disconnect with the peers around me. However, there is an undeniable bond between the concepts of environmental justice and racial justice, and learning about this intricate connection gave me clarity about my own identity. When I discovered the roots behind systemic racism in our country and the similarities with our environmental history I began to understand why I had such difficulty figuring out who I was and who I wanted to be. I also realized the need and importance for not just education but equitable education that all students could have access to. For the first time in my life, I was confident about my identity and that allowed me to pursue my passion for climate justice and climate education.
My love for the environment is embodied by a pastel blue dress I completely ruined while playing outside my church’s yard. Years later, at the age of 19, my fascination with the environment has only grown. On the other hand, especially growing up in the least diverse state in the country, another passion of mine has always been advocating for BIPOC individuals like myself. One passion fueled by my lived experiences facing racial injustice, the other stemmed from a connection to place with the natural world and no longer wanting to watch what I loved to suffer. I always thought these passions were completely distinct from one another and I never let my work in one inform my work in the other. This was all until I attended the Maine Environmental Changemakers Gathering. There, I learned my two passions were one in the same. The climate justice movement isn’t just about bringing awareness to the issue of climate change, it is also about shedding light on how marginalized individuals, particularly lower-income, BIPOC folx like myself, are disproportionately impacted. I made the link that my chronic asthma was caused by living 13 miles from a coal plant, like 1 in 3 other black folks do. Or my connection to nature was hard to foster due to fear of the outdoors by my parents and an inability to afford outdoor gear. In realizing these things, I didn’t just see myself as part of either movement; from that day onward, I was a climate justice activist.
Climate justice is racial justice is economic justice is LGBTQ+ justice is immigrant justice. All these issues are linked, tethered as one. The narrative of climate change must be shifted instead to one of climate justice, incorporating the stories and perspectives of marginalized individuals like ourselves as we, amongst many others, are the most impacted by these issues and our stories can and will no longer be silenced. Because, as civil rights activist Angela Davis once said, “I’m no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I’m changing the things I cannot accept.”
About the contributors:
Amara Ifeji shares her time as a student at Northeastern University and grassroots development coordinator with the Maine Environmental Education, where she advocates for intersectional climate justice solutions and equitable access to the outdoors. Amara also serves on the Nature-Based Education Consortium Climate Education and Municipal Advocacy Task Forces, TeachME Outside collaborative project, and co-chairs the NBEC Communications Task Force. For her work in promoting environmental education, she was awarded the Global North American Environmental Education 30 Under 30 International Award—one of only six people under 30 in the USA recognized for their leadership in environmental education in 2020.
Umulkair Mohamed will soon graduate from Deering High School. She spent her time as one of the presidents of Black Student Union and on a school board team to decolonize the social studies curriculum. She plans to study Computer Science and Arabic at Bowdoin College in the fall.
Melissa Tian is currently a first year student at Yale University where she is exploring the intersection of science and society. She is passionate about awareness for the current climate crisis and its effects on social injustice. She has been a part of the Maine Environmental Changemakers network since 2018 and has served as a youth community organizer.