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Convocation Review: Peggy Shepard centers equity in discussion of climate crisis

On Friday, January 31, environmental health activist Peggy Shepard gave a convocation talk entitled “A Community Perspective on Environmental and Climate Justice.” She began by addressing the audience as fellow climate activists, posing the question, “how do we move from challenge to opportunity?” Her answer was climate justice.

Throughout her talk, Shepard drew on her experience as co-founder and executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, an organization based in West Harlem, NY that mobilizes low-income and/or people of color to stand up against environmental racism in their communities. She emphasized that human health and safety is at the center of the climate crisis, speaking of climate refugees who have fled their homes after natural disasters, then have not gotten the right to return home. She told the audience that “climate justice is not just a cool phrase”; it comes from putting the people most impacted by the climate crisis front and center, rather than following the status quo of the major “green groups” who historically have not included their voices at all.

The solution, Shepard said, is to act locally, addressing the disparities in environmental health within the country. She argued that environmental activists must take a “no community left behind” approach.

“The crisis is urgent,” she said, “ yet the urgency cannot let us displace or abandon fundamental principles of democracy and justice. Unless equity is a central component of our climate agenda, the inequality of the carbon economy will be replicated in the new one.” To conclude her talk, Shepard laid out strategies to effectively enact climate justice, including teaching and engaging students about climate change in all schools, as well as coming together to take collective action and form more resilient communities.

Some of the most engaging moments of the talk came from student questions. Shepard answered a question about translating the needs of local communities into policy by speaking about WE ACT’s work empowering people to lobby at the state level, stressing that environmental leaders want to hear from their communities. In response to a question about opposition or skepticism among people she works to include, she highlighted that environmental solutions based entirely around carbon reduction make people feel like climate action doesn’t affect their lives, so instead, she messages about the human and community health elements that people care more about. And when asked how WE ACT retains Black and brown people’s participation, she challenged the public perception that people of color don’t care about climate, contending that they actually care more than white people. She spoke of how WE ACT’s mission is about engaging and supporting people, rather than telling them what to do. “They don’t need to be led,” she said. “They need to get training to be able to tell their story.”

Shepard provided a much-needed perspective on climate activism and a perfect prelude to Climate Action Week 2020 with its theme of environmental justice. I, for one, am glad that she came to Carleton and told her own story.

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