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.’