Geoff Holland – Your book, Engage, Connect, Protect offers a powerful message to young people of color. Can you summarize that message?
Angelou Ezeilo – Engage, Connect, Protect: Empowering Diverse Youth as Environmental Stewards covers several areas. I thought it was important to share my story as a young African-American woman who’s a social entrepreneur working on an environmental issue. And I wanted to show the trajectory of how I started being passionate about something, and the different obstacles that I encountered to get to the point of actually founding an organization. Lastly, I wanted to debunk the myth and the stereotype that people of color are not interested in the environment. I wanted to shine a light on how people of color are unrecognized in the environmental sector. The book discusses the importance of environmental stories being inclusive of people of color, and how that impacts children of color seeing themselves being represented in the environmental space: careers, magazines, or simply “being” outdoors. I felt there needed to be a major mindset shift around who could recreate and even work in the environmental sector. Growing up, I did not initially pursue a career as an environmentalist or conservationist or anything to do with the natural world, because I didn’t think that it was a career that I could pursue because of the way that I looked. As such, my book is about making sure every single black or brown young person understands that not only are they needed in this environmental field, but it’ll bring them joy as well as a fulfilling career. I saw it important to provide resources for mainstream organizations, and universities so that they could stop saying “We would love to include more young people of color, but don’t know where to find them”.
I wanted my book to be a solution. Amongst many things, ECP is a compilation of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Tribal Colleges, and Hispanic-serving institutions that have disciplines in natural resources or environmental science. ECP also provides a comprehensive list of organizations that are connecting youth from diverse backgrounds while connecting them to the outdoors. The goal here is for mainstream organizations to partner with these organizations that are effectively engaging diverse young people.
GH – Please talk about your long-standing commitment to environmental stewardship. What lessons in your early life encouraged you to make that commitment?
AE – My commitment to environmental stewardship came from the fact that I grew up very close to the land. My parents owned 54 acres of land in upstate New York. Every summer, we would travel there and spend weeks at our humble house – I loved it. Our house was surrounded by all this forested land, it was magical for me. I also had a grandmother who had a green thumb; she had a small garden in front of our home in Jersey City, NJ. My grandma taught me all about soil, plants, and vegetables grown in our garden. We both loved that garden; I was her deputy. I grew up with this love and connection to the natural world, and parks. As I got older, even though everyone around me saw that I had this connection to the outdoors I wasn’t encouraged to pursue a career in that field. Later, I learned it was because of the way that my family looked – we were black. Consequently, they didn’t feel it was necessarily safe, or a viable career option for me. So, my commitment was seeded with my grandmother’s garden and was nourished in the forest surrounding our home in upstate New York. My passion for environmental stewardship grew to activism as I began to see a cultural divide in which communities of color were not being engaged in environmental matters, i.e. policy, laws, and advocacy. On a larger scale, they weren’t at the table. This observation led me to land conservation work for the State of New Jersey Department of Agriculture and the Trust for Public Land. My life purpose became connecting youth and marginalized people – often people of color – to the environmental sector.
GH – In a just world, equal human rights must apply to all people, regardless of race, gender identity, or national origin. What are the human responsibilities that go with those rights?
AE – I’m still focused on equity and equal access to rights for all. I’m living in Africa now, where I don’t see equal access to basic things, fundamental things like drinkable water, health care, and quality education. These are things every person should have equal access to. However, because I’ve lived in the United States as well, I see that there is so much that’s taken for granted, and there’s a responsibility that comes with these rights that we have. That means making sure there is accountability for your consumption. Understanding the correlation between what you are doing/using and its impact on the planet and its resources is key. We should all be engaging in a regenerative and circular economy. There are many things humans should be doing to care for the natural world we all depend on for our habitat: food, breathable air, and a livable planet.
GH – Historian Yuval Harari has said the superpower of our species is not in ‘individual genius’, it is our ability to cooperate in large quantities. How does that wisdom apply to your message to young audiences?
AE – I’m such a fan of Yuval Harari and his book, Sapiens. I do believe collective action is really our superpower. I spoke earlier about the importance of interconnections. I think that’s what young people understand. They understand the intersectionality of causes and issues. With many youth-led movements, you will notice that they’re not just focusing on one issue; rarely is the cause just environmental, there is almost always an added layer of race and/or gender. Young people don’t have tunnel vision; they see all these causes as being connected in some way or another. Through the interconnectedness of these causes, they’re connecting with many people, and many groups on many issues all over the world. That’s where a lot of their success comes from, working in teams, collectively. They know that if numbers are power, the more people that they can bring into these movements and into these causes, the greater results will be achieved.
GH – People around the world are connected as never before by social media. Can you talk about the promise and the risks that go with that?
AE – Social media is so incredibly powerful. It allows us to share ideas all over the world. I just finished talking about young people and how they have sparked so many movements and furthered social causes, well… the way they can communicate globally is through social media. There’s a lot of power in social media because it is this portal that allows people to share ideas, thoughts, and solutions in a matter of seconds. However, the danger that we’re now seeing is the ability to spread false information. It’s not always facts that are in the social media, there’s a need to control the delusions that often plague social media. You have to be mature enough to sift through information that’s presented to you through social media to understand what’s true, and what’s not. The main thing that I struggle with regarding social media is how it reduces one’s connection to the natural world. As an environmentalist who loves to be outside and understands the importance of connecting to soil and just touching grass; social media often absorbs the space to move away from devices. In Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods, he speaks of this very thing – how the outdoors is being replaced by devices. I related to his theory that going outside to play decades ago meant something completely different than it does today. When I was growing up, the outdoors was all my friends and I needed to have fun. Today, playing outdoors doesn’t seem to suffice for most children. In fact, a device is often needed. Social media is not going anywhere so we must figure out a way to coexist so that the negative components do not overtake the positive ones.
GH – You are working with young people in West Africa. What do you tell them about their place in the world and the power of a cross-cultural shared commitment?
AE – I tell them they don’t have a specific place; they belong to any place they want to be. In fact, at Ashoka, we’re inspiring these young people to be changemakers. Regardless of their social status, gender, age, religion, or tribe, we have started a bold movement that promotes everyone, every child being a changemaker. This endeavor comes with the job of changing mindsets and working with strategic partners to provide young people with the tools and access they need to be the change they want to see in their communities – their world. When young people have the agency to see their power, they understand change is possible regardless of their circumstances or where they are in the world. In our rapidly changing world, we must hear the voices of environmental changemakers from the global south. I am currently working on a project to bring young climate activists from the global south together with those in the global north for dialogue and opportunity to cocreate and innovate solutions to climate issues impacting young people across the globe. These voices bring unique perspectives and ideas that are often overlooked in global dialogues. Africa is the youngest continent and is on the frontlines of climate change. African youth must have a commitment to managing resources wisely, to sustainable agriculture, and to moderating catastrophic weather events – their future depends on it. Bringing youth together who are committed to solutions is where my interest lies.
GH – You have expressed support for an emerging cultural beacon called the Earth System Treaty. Can you summarize that treaty, then talk about why you encourage all the world’s people to sign up their names to it?
AE– Yes, we need a global system that all nations can participate in and that addresses a warming planet, food scarcity, and nuclear waste. The Earth System Treaty addresses the existential threats that put all of our human lives in jeopardy. We need a worthy movement that everyone can sign and understand the importance of getting these existential threats under control. Our world needs an international plan to act collectively and urgently.
GH – What is the best human future you see for our planet’s people to succeed and come together behind an Earth System Treaty?
AE – A future where our planet’s people can succeed emphasizes sustainability, collective action, and innovation. In this future, individuals and communities will prioritize the well-being of humans and the planet, recognizing that they are interconnected and dependent on each other. Education and awareness would play a crucial role in this future, people would be encouraged to understand the importance of environmental conservation and take individual actions to reduce their ecological footprint. Lastly, youth, women, and stakeholders from marginalized communities across the globe would be actively engaged and in leadership roles within the treaty- this will ensure success!
Angelou Ezeilo received her Juris Doctorate in Law from the University of Florida. She founded the Greening Youth Foundation, an international non-profit focused on underserved youth in the outdoors and conservation. Angelou now works in many parts of Africa as a leader of Ashoka International.
The MAHB Dialogues are a monthly Q&A blog series focused on the need to embrace our common planetary citizenship. Each of these Q&As will feature a distinguished author, scientist, or leader offering perspective on how to take care of the only planetary home we have.