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Zero Hour Story: Athena, Activist for Environmental Justice

Photo of Athena

Athena is pursuing her Master of Science in Public Policy & Management, at Carnegie Mellon University. She currently resides in D.C. as part of her second-year program. In addition to going to school full time, she is also the Communications Coordinator for WE ACT For Environmental Justice (WE ACT), an environmental justice nonprofit that empowers and organizes low-income, people of color to build healthy communities in Northern Manhattan. When she’s not working or studying, you can find Athena eating, working out (so she can eat more), and spending time with friends.

What does ‘sustainability’ mean to you?
For me, sustainability means doing what I can to keep the natural state of the Earth in balance. This includes actions such as composting and conserving to ensure there are enough resources for future generations.

How do you incorporate sustainability into your life?
I always take public transportation to work, which is easier now that I live in DC. I bring my own lunch packed in Tupperware and use a reusable mug. I’m also lucky to work in an office that composts, recycles, and provides silverware for employees.

Why have you decided to dedicate your life to the protection of the environment?
For as long as I can remember, I have always cared about the environment. Growing up Persian, nature is a huge part of our culture. The Persian New Year starts on the first day of spring to symbolize ‘new beginnings.’ During this time, our house is filled with flowers, such as the Hyacinth. About 13 days after the new year, we celebrate with friends and family by getting out of the house and being in nature. Nature has always been a huge part of my life. Before I could even speak, my parents and uncle would take me hiking and camping. My grandpa also exposed me to nature through his interest and knowledge of plants. He could name any flower. He had a farm and taught me how to garden at a young age. In elementary school, I always created art projects relating back to earth, such as using construction paper to create the earth in 1st grade or creating a recycling poster for my classroom in 4th grade.

You are very educated and up to date with environmental issues. How has that affected your perspective and action?
My life is dedicated to environmental issues and I try to raise awareness of environmental injustices as much as possible. I tend to forget that people are often unaware of policies and activities happening at the federal, state, or even local level. It’s important to have conversations with people and discuss current events that affect them and the environment. For example, many people don’t know about the proposed EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) budget cuts. The EPA is already working with a tiny budget, and with a task as important as protecting human health and the environment, they need the proper resources to do it. We can’t advocate against unjust policies or activities until we are aware of them first.

“I feel positive about the new generation and am excited for their involvement in the issues they care about. Since the [2016] election, more women and POC are running for office and that’s empowering to see.”

Is there an environmental issue you want our readers to know more about?
Overall, environmental justice issues don’t get enough coverage. People of color (POC) and lower income communities are more likely to be affected by climate change. Take, for example, the recent hurricanes. Communities of color were hit first and worst. Often times, they don’t have the resources (such as time or money) to recover from these events. In addition, racism, although not overt, still affects them. Decisions are made without their input, leading to issues like the Flint, Michigan water crisis. It’s extremely important to put the very people who are affected in every step of the decision-making process. Policymakers should be translating documents and offering opportunities for meaningful community input.

Tell us more about your work. How do you hope to combat issues that affect communities of color?
I currently work for WE ACT, an environmental justice nonprofit based in New York City. The Executive Director of my organization founded the nonprofit when she realized a sewage plant in her community was negatively affecting the community’s health, a majority of whom are low income and people of color. They went on to fight for other causes including the new bus depot that brought additional toxic emissions into the air. They filed a lawsuit for the civil rights violation –– and they won! That’s one example of why we need to raise awareness of organizations like WE ACT who empower and advocate for environmental justice issues. This situation is not uncommon and happens all over the United States.

As a POC, have you noticed any injustices in the environmental space?
Professionals in the environmental field are primarily white and male, especially at higher level positions. They are unaware of what environmental justice is and do not understand the importance of incorporating community input into environmental policy decision making. Some organizations do emphasize the importance of diversity, but I find it is only on a superficial level. To put it simply, many do not know how to work with people from different backgrounds. I think reports like Green 2.0 will bring diversity to staff, and as a result, more inclusive policies. However, organizational change is necessary to retain these new staff members.

We think our readers would love to get involved. Any environmental nonprofits you recommend looking into?
The New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance is an alliance of New Jersey organizations working to build healthy communities across their state. They are trying to pass an ordinance regarding cumulative impacts, which is the result of a combination of pollution.  There’s also the East Michigan Environmental Action Council, a nonprofit that was recently concerned with the number of incinerators concentrated in their community. There are so many in California as well – California Environmental Justice Alliance, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, Asian Pacific Environmental Network and Pacoima Beautiful just to name a few. I would suggest looking for some in your community – they do not always have environmental justice in their title but are still doing important work.

How do you hope to implement change after you graduate from Carnegie Mellon University?
I realize my strengths lie in education and outreach. Ideally, I would like to conduct my own research on how policy decisions affect lower income and communities of color. Using my data visualization skills, I would create reports and fact sheets that share my findings. For example, I would really like to look into Superfund sites (land contaminated by hazardous waste) and where they are located. It would be interesting to see how many are located in communities of color. There are many toxic sites in communities of color that are not yet listed in the National Priority List (contaminated sites that have been chosen by the EPA to be cleaned up) that should be.

“I hope the people who don’t prioritize the environment begin to realize how essential it is to your everyday life. It’s not just about the birds and public lands; it’s also about the air you breathe, the water you drink, and the food you eat.”

Are you hopeful about the future of our planet?
Yes. I think it’s a little scary having Trump in office, especially with cabinet members who deny climate change, but I know there are compassionate people in the world who care about the environment. I feel positive about the new generation and am excited for their involvement in the issues they care about. Since the [2016] election, more women and POC are running for office and that’s empowering to see. In general, women and POC tend to vote in favor of environmental legislation. Additionally, mayors across the US are beginning to step up. The last presidential election has people fired up and ready to get involved. Positive changes are definitely happening.

Do you have any advice for someone who doesn’t think they can make a difference?
It depends on what you think “making a difference” means. Change doesn’t mean you have to alter every little thing you do. You can start with small steps, like sending a letter or calling your members of Congress, volunteering once a week for a cause you care about or joining an environmental organization. When I was an undergrad entering the Office of Sustainability at the University of California, Riverside, I used to feel overwhelmed because I felt bad for simply writing on paper or taking the elevator instead of the stairs. The pressure was so much that I had quit. I realized that I needed to relax and that I couldn’t do this on my own. Don’t overburden yourself, but keep making small changes. It will become easier as you go along. If you want to make a bigger impact, encourage companies to divest from fossil fuels. Those actions will make a bigger difference than what I do at home, but that’s not to say small behavioral changes won’t make a difference. I suggest following campaigns like The Last Plastic Straw Movement.

Any last words?
I hope the people who don’t prioritize the environment begin to realize how essential it is to your everyday life. It’s not just about the birds and public lands; it’s also about the air you breathe, the water you drink, and the food you eat. If you care about people, then you would care about your actions and how they affect others. Communities of color are the most affected by pollution in their air, water, and soil. It’s important to learn more about environmental issues and how it affects not just our everyday lives but others as well.

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Read more about our Zero Hour Story: What’s It All About series.

*This interview was modified for the purpose of the series.

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