Get 'folks like me' engaged on climate, says Black Greenpeace USA head

by David Sherfinski | @dsherfinski | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 14 September 2021 10:30 GMT

Ebony Twilley Martin, recently named co-executive director of Greenpeace USA. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Handout by Tim Aubry/Greenpeace

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Ebony Twilley Martin, the environmental organization's first Black woman executive director, wants people of color more involved in the climate fight

* Twilley Martin named first Black executive director

* Says racial justice intertwined with climate change impact

* Calls for more aggressive action on fossil fuels

By David Sherfinski

WASHINGTON, Sept 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Minority communities in the United States are largely unified on the need to tackle climate change and should have a role in devising solutions, said Ebony Twilley Martin, Greenpeace USA's first Black executive director.

The appointment of Twilley Martin, a long-time green campaigner, as co-executive director at the group this month comes as the broader U.S. environmental movement faces criticism for being too white.

Twilley Martin got into environmental activism around 2008 after her son developed asthma when the two were living near a major highway in Maryland. His pediatrician cited environmental pollution as a key contributor to the condition.

She said beyond climate, other key issues like healthcare and voting rights are tied to racial justice in the United States.

"The science shows Black and brown communities are placed in those regions specifically where climate destruction is the worst," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, saying she hoped her appointment could help boost their involvement.

Q: How vital is it for the African-American community to have a prominent voice in the environmental justice movement?

A: A (recent) Yale study showed that Black and brown people are more aligned on the climate crisis than white people are.

What has happened, though, is the broader progressive movement hasn't exactly mirrored the diverse movement of environmental justice. And in this role, one of my goals is to sort of be that bridge that connects (them).

It's time that we created space for folks like me – folks who have lived experiences, folks who have been on the frontlines of these crises, folks that have solutions ... but haven't always been listened to.

Q: Why has it been an uphill climb to get minority groups more actively engaged on climate?

A: I would say we don't talk to folks. If you look at the number one reason, 'why haven't you become involved?', (the answer is), 'No one asked me to'. And we haven't always created space for people like me to have a seat at the table and to share in ideas.

You don't ask folks – you don't talk to people like me. So they don't know that they can have a role. And so what we want to do is also make ourselves more accessible.

So in this moment, Greenpeace is committed to creating a stronger, more formidable partnership with our allies and communities of color and organizations that are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color)-led.

Q: How do you help get the Black community’s concerns higher up on national and global agendas?

A: Another thing is bringing into legacy organizations such as ours more Black and brown leadership at the highest levels of the organization.

In our social media channels, in our outreach channels – who are we talking to?

Are we talking to the same folks or are we talking to people like me: the single mom at the time that had a kid, that wanted to know why he had asthma - what do I do? How do I change that for him? We've got to talk to folks in ways that they can understand.

Q: To what extent do you see room to further expand Greenpeace's reach beyond environmental issues?

A: We know that a healthy democracy is a precondition of a healthy and just environment. So we do have a democracy campaign and have increasingly been engaging in voter (rights), voter protection – also laws that protect public dissent and civil disobedience.

We've been partnering with organization and coalition partners across the movement, including Rev. Dr. (William) Barber, Movement for Black Lives, and ensuring that we're working together to protect our rights and to also advance solutions that will lead to a just and equitable future.

Q: How has the Biden administration done so far on environmental justice issues?

A: Although he's done the most (of) any president to advance climate solutions, he still hasn't done enough.

One of the ways that ... Congress can show us that they're serious about this is (ending) fossil fuel subsidies.

That $15 billion – imagine if we put that to clean, renewable energy, how many climate disasters and catastrophes are we avoiding? How many lives are we saving? Something as simple as that.

Q: What else beyond subsidies?

A: Declaring a climate emergency – also declaring a stop to, or end date to fossil fuel extraction and expansion.

These are ... very simple things. (We've) given everyone a cheat sheet – we just need them to be bold and courageous enough to pass the test.

Q: What about the Democratic majorities in Congress and what they've prioritized on climate issues?

A: The progressive caucus – we work closely with them – (is) making progress. But we're not there yet – we're nowhere near there yet.

They work for us. We have to let them know what we expect when we send them to office ... we can't pat anybody on the back anymore.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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(Reporting by David Sherfinski. Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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