Learning from the Iceberg: Reflections on Black History Month and Ecological Justice

Black History Month has drawn to a close. My own tiny contribution to it has been a bout of tweeting. I run York St John’s ecological justice Twitter account (@YSJEcolJustice) and set myself the task of sharing the work of one ecological leader of Black or Global Majority origin each day during the month, under the hashtag #BGMEcoJusticeHeroes.

I aimed for a spread of sectors, ages and nationalities – from indigenous defenders of rainforest homelands, to community energy entrepreneurs, to campaigning journalists, to outdoor educators, to urban food growers, to youth climate justice protesters… I enjoyed taking the time to re-watch their TED talks, listen to their podcast interviews, and be once again humbled and inspired by their achievements. Their energy, their inventiveness, their refusal to wait around for the powerful to act, provided a welcome break from the general sense of gathering gloom.

However the task was, in one sense, a preposterous one. Because the fact is that by far the majority of the world’s ecological justice leaders and heroes are either from developing countries, or from the most disadvantaged communities of their nations, or both. This is, of course, because they live on the frontlines of ecological injustice. They experience environmental degradation directly through health effects, drought, flooding, poverty, forced migration, or hunger. They come to innovate or campaign partly because they see themselves as having no choice. These situations can bring leadership and selflessness to the fore.

Very few of this submerged iceberg of ecological justice heroes ever get to give TED talks. Most of them are probably more likely to describe themselves as ‘farmers’ or ‘teachers’, ‘parents’ or ‘students’, ‘pastors’, ‘doctors’, ‘community leaders’ or ‘businesspeople’ rather than as ecological heroes. For example, I know that hundreds or thousands of women of colour are developing inclusive, sustainable, community food growing projects within the UK alone – the skeleton of an alternative food system which will probably be needed to feed us all quite soon – but it’s shockingly hard to learn from them online. Yet they are the people who are making the most headway in preserving liveable ecological and human systems for their communities. They are several steps ahead of the rest of us in tackling the problems that are heading our way.

Artwork by Leah Penniman (Creative Commons)

Therefore, from an educator’s perspective, their stories, knowledge and innovations are the stuff on which 21st century curricula for all subjects should be built. The step change for me in accessing this knowledge has been podcasts: deeply researched, fascinating and inspiring, networking ecological justice heroes worldwide. Here are my top tips for anyone who wants to diversify their sources and courses:

  • Mothers of Invention (https://mothersofinvention.online) – my absolute favourite, digging deep into impactful feminist climate change solutions from (mostly) women from all over the world. It’s energising and hopeful, funny and hard-hitting, warm and challenging, all at the same time. Also see their ‘Climate Reframe’ project which amplifies BAME voices in all sectors from culture, to business, to media, in the UK climate justice movement: https://climatereframe.co.uk/
  • Black Nature Narratives (https://africanpodcasts.com/black-nature-narratives/) – psychotherapist Beth Collier interviews inspiring leaders giving Black perspectives on our relationship with nature.
  • Hot Take (https://www.hottakepod.com/) – takes a ‘feminist, race-forward lens to the biggest story of our time’ – climate change.

Please share your own hot takes with me via @YSJEcolJustice or c.heinemeyer@yorksj.ac.uk.

Dr Catherine Heinemeyer is Lecturer in Arts and Ecological Justice at York St John University.