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Exclusive – How Wawa Gatheru is closing the climate movement gaps

In 2021, the environmental justice activist founded Black Girl Environmentalist to centre Black girls, women, and gender-expansive people in the climate movement while shifting inequitable power structures that create barriers to access. We spoke to her about what this involves.

Wanjiku (Wawa) Gatheru has made it her mission to guarantee that the climate movement is relevant and accessible to all. As the daughter of Agĩkũyũ Kenyan immigrants, she was raised alongside a deep connection to the land and thus harnesses an innate ethic of reciprocity and care for the planet.

It wasn’t until high school, however, that she began to consider herself an “environmentalist.” ‘I was 15 years old,’ she says. ‘I stumbled into an extremely transformative environmental science class that ended up changing my life.’

This, she tells me, marked the first time that an educator had posed the crisis for what it is: ‘something inherently personal that has already impacted everyone.’

Up to that point, Wawa felt that conventional depictions of environmentalism were unrelated and disconnected from the issues closest to her heart.

‘Although Gen Z’s entire existence has played out against the backdrop of the crisis, it was a whisper amid the shouting of so many other things that I was experiencing,’ she says. ‘I was, as a result, very far removed from the challenges it presented.’

Laying the foundations for her to foster a better understanding of how the crisis was affecting not only her and her family, but marginalised people across the globe – predominantly within the African diaspora – Wawa explains that learning about those suffering on the frontlines who weren’t being resourced or empowered to pursue leadership in these spaces is what ignited her fervent passion for activism.


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‘I was starting to notice the gaps,’ she says, frustrated then (and still) by the evident lack of intersectionality in climate narratives.

‘An intersectional response to the crisis is imperative because it’s magnifying existing social dilemmas – it’s a threat-multiplier,’ says Wawa. ‘There is no solving this without an approach that recognises the crisis’ role in augmenting those problems.’

Yet, as she clarifies, Wawa didn’t have the ‘necessary tools’ to address this ten years ago when she made the conscious decision to get involved with advocacy.

Today’s reality paints a starkly different picture, however, because with a decade spent traversing the climate movement in a ‘ton of hats’ under her belt – from serving as a lead organiser in Connecticut’s first Youth Climate Lobby Day to being a delegate at the 2017 UN Climate Change discussions – Wawa is prepared to articulate the change she wants to see.

Specifically the recruitment and retention issue for Black girls, women, and gender-expansive people in the environmental field, which for her is top of the list.

‘This demographic has the lowest recruitment and retention rate in the climate movement than any other,’ she says. ‘Even when we get our foot in the door, we are the most likely to leave. This is a huge problem because it means this social arena – which is supposed to be a glimpse into the just future we’re building where all people have power, security, dignity, and prosperity – isn’t truly just for all.’

Fortunately, Wawa is committed to combatting this and is doing so with Black Girl Environmentalist, (BGE) the non-profit she founded in 2021 to realise the full, collective potential of Black girls, women, and gender-expansive people in climate leadership.

As outlined by the organisation’s about page, women experience climate change with notably disproportionate severity because enforced gender inequality makes them more susceptible to escalating environmental issues.

In particular, Black girls, women, and gender-expansive people bear an even heavier burden due to the historic and prevailing effects of colonialism, racism, and inequality.

On account of this proximity, they have a ‘unique role to play as indispensable actors in the climate movement,’ not to mention a longstanding track record of creating and sustaining viable solutions, yet they continue to be drastically underrepresented.

Through community engagement, green workforce development, and narrative change, BGE – with Wawa at the helm – is focused on rectifying this, offering Black girls, women, and gender-expansive people around the world the platform they rightly deserve to channel their voices and visions.

‘The idea for BGE had subconsciously been brewing in my mind since my first foray into the climate movement,’ says Wawa. ‘I felt as though the interests of BIPOC weren’t being centred in the very space we were putting our trust in, a feeling that grew as I expanded my involvement.’

Acutely aware of the importance of spotlighting BIPOC in politics, organising, and policy-making, prior to establishing BGE Wawa wrote a series of upfront op-eds expressing her despair towards the aspects of the climate movement that were making it increasingly difficult to participate.

In response, Black girls, women, and gender-expansive people ‘from every corner of the Earth’ reached out to her sharing similar experiences, proving to Wawa that something had to give.

‘While I felt seen, I was heartbroken because so many people resonated with the dynamics of what I was discussing, not just in the US, but across the globe,’ she says. ‘When I finished my degree, I was offered my dream job, but in my heart I knew that BGE could be an incubating space for prospective climate leaders of colour to flourish. That excited me so much more than any ‘dream job’ ever could.’

So, with BGE now a fully functional operation, what does Wawa believe its ethos – namely ensuring Black girls, women, and non-binary people are amplified within environmentalism – should look like?

‘What’s amazing is that BGE is working to honour everyone’s distinctive answer to that question,’ she says. ‘For me, it’s a space that strictly operates from an environmental justice grounding. One that acknowledges that all people warrant autonomy in the fight for a just future that allows us not only to survive but to thrive.’

This push for widespread autonomy is best exemplified by BGE’s hub programme, which encourages BGEs to unite on a hyper-local level, to ‘convene, collaborate, and calculate’ in their own contexts before taking their demands for liberation to greater heights.

‘When it comes to tackling the systemic issues that are at the root of the crisis including capitalism, white supremacy, and oppression, collective action is essential,’ says Wawa. ‘Change requires an abundance of perspectives. To confront the scope and scale of these existing social dilemmas, we must incorporate varied modes of thinking.’

This isn’t to say, Wawa stresses, that there shouldn’t be an emphasis on exploring how we can contribute as individuals, however.

‘We each have our own skills, our own talents, our own spears of influence,’ she says. ‘When we take the time to figure out what those are and then plug them into the movement, it will feed it from all angles.’

For Wawa, that skill, that talent, that spear of influence is storytelling.

‘Before we had the Internet, oral history is what we relied on to pass on information,’ she says. ‘It’s integral to my identity and is vital because it lets us write into existence the future we’re striving to build. What we’re witnessing is a once-in-a-species opportunity to restructure the world and it’s galvanising to be in the writers room as that happens.’

Besides using digital media to draw attention to pressing topics such as big oil’s misinformation agenda, greenwashing, or governments refusing to hold themselves accountable, Wawa’s expert storytelling efforts also extend to bringing environmental justice to the mainstream.


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With the goal of being an effective communicator that helps inspire a generation of ‘unlikely’ environmentalists, she produces content connecting climate with ‘untraditional’ spaces.

‘From major artists to major corporations, I’ve had all types of people reach out to me asking how to integrate Gen Z and the climate movement into how they cater to their audience,’ she says. ‘I’m teaching them the appropriate language to frame the crisis for what it is: a universal concern.’

This, of course, comprises ­reiterating the message that BIPOC’s voices and visions should be the ones guiding us forward.

‘Imparting that has made people uncomfortable, but I firmly stand by it,’ says Wawa. ‘It’s in our DNA to persevere because we’ve always had to. That perseverance is worthy of being centre stage because we don’t have a choice. Giving up and leaning into doomism is a privilege that we simply cannot afford, which is why so many of us try to stay as optimistic as we can.’

Rejecting climate doomism in favour of climate optimism is by no means a cop-out, however, nor does it imply that BIPOC are turning a blind eye to the sobering realities of the ever-worsening crisis.

As Wawa asserts, ‘it’s a brave stance that stems from a profound recognition that yes, lives have been lost, yes, ecosystems have been devastated, and yes, lands have been surrendered to the seas, but that we have to remain hopeful about the possibilities of what will ensue when we all say, “no more”.’