Faith leader and advocate discusses intersection between environmental and social justice

February 8, 2019

Environmental justice and social justice are inherently linked and interdependent, according to an ecological justice advocate who spoke on Monday in Rapaporte Treasure Hall as part of ’Deis IMPACT.

Reverend Mariama White-Hammond, a faith leader and climate justice activist, said that she saw a connection between caring for communities like the one she had grown up in and caring about environmental justice.

“There is a deep connection between what happens if our planetary resources can no longer sustain us, and the lives of the most marginalized people who struggle to sustain themselves in the economy as it is now,” she said.

After Hurricane Katrina, White-Hammond expressed that she was devastated to see how minorities were largely affected. “I watched the ferocity of the natural disaster, and then, I was probably even more disappointed by the unnatural disaster of racism and classism,” said White-Hammond. “People were calling folks refugees who grew up here. People were calling black people looking for food looters while white people looking for food were survivors.” White-Hammond said that there were many other examples of the storm disproportionately affecting some groups following Hurricane Katrina, such as prisoners being abandoned in a flooded jail in New Orleans, Louisiana.

White-Hammond said that anyone who cares about social justice should also care about environmental justice. After a natural disaster occurs, someone who cares about criminal justice, gender equality or affordable housing should care about the amount of prisons that don’t have plans, the amount of women that end up bearing the burden of reviving communities or the amount of people in affordable housing that are forced to relocate.

“There’s not a justice issue that I care about or one that you care about that will not be deeply impacted by climate change,” said White-Hammond.

A graduate of Stanford University ’01 and Boston University’s School of Divinity, White-Hammond is currently the pastor of New Work AME Church in Boston, a faith fellow for the Green Justice Coalition and Minister for Ecological Justice at Bethel AME Church. She said she relates her work as a faith leader with her work reaching out to marginalized members of society.

White-Hammond grew up in Roxbury, MA, during the height of the War on Drugs, which led to an increase in violence in her neighborhood during her upbringing. The disconnect that White-Hammond saw between the issues that were within her community and the priorities of the environmental movement initially made her move away from the movement. She said that she associated environmental advocacy with movements that the upper-middle class cared about like “saving the dolphins.” However, once White-Hammond began to see how environmental issues directly impacted her community, she began to take more of an interest.

“I started saying to myself, if I leave the work on this issue to people [who] have not demonstrated care for my community before, and if many of the people on the front line of this issue are people that look like me and live in neighborhoods like mine, how can I not be at the table, talking about moving this issue, because this is life or death,” said White-Hammond. “If we don’t get these relationships right, then quite frankly, I’m not sure we deserve to survive.”

White-Hammond spent 20 minutes of the event leading a game called “Four Corners” in which she would say a controversial statement and the audience would organize themselves into categories of strong agreement, agreement, disagreement, and strong disagreement. White-Hammond said that the purpose of the activity was to show that every conversation is nuanced and complicated, and that no one has all of the answers.

“The idea that everyone is broken in their own way really resonated with me and [White-Hammond] really embodied what ’deis IMPACT is meant for: to show and expose every different angle,” said Sabrina Chow ’21, the main student organizer for the event. “I really enjoyed that she provided an interactive aspect because she was able to formulate ways on the spot of getting people more involved and knowledgeable about environmental justice.”

White-Hammond said that it is important to explore different methods of approaching environmental issues because the obstacle is not convincing people that we have to change. “Mother Earth” is going to eventually convince everyone of climate change, according to White-Hammond. She said that there’s “no question” that at some point, every member of society is going to understand the importance of environmental protection, but the more important question is whether or not it will be too late.

Editor’s Note: Sabrina Chow is Opinions Editor of The Hoot and was not involved in the writing of this article.

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