For One Female Leader, Climate Policy Is Also a Social Justice Issue

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When it comes to making a global impact, most people think of environmentalism as its own category. But being an environmentalist can involve doing something as big as raising awareness about melting ice caps to doing something as small as recycling. Climate policy leaders are continuing to find new ways we can keep our environment healthy.

One of those leaders is Chicago-based environmentalist Rhiana Gunn-Wright, 32. Gunn-Wright is the director of climate policy at the Roosevelt Institute. She has broken barriers in the world of urban environmentalism by showing just how entwined climate policy and social justice really are. We spoke to Gunn-Wright to learn more about how she’s striving to build programs and policies for a greener world, and how she suggests readers can make a difference on a local level in their own cities.

"I remember leaving the city to go to boarding school in rural Illinois, and my asthma seemed to ‘clear up.’ But asthma doesn’t just ‘go away,’ it is completely dependent on your surroundings."

From a very young age, Gunn-Wright recognized the correlations between her city’s environmental health and the health of her community. “A lot of my work with the Green New Deal has been looking back and thinking about things I thought were normal, and [realizing] that they weren’t,” she tells CircleAround. 

“Pollution levels in Chicago are really high, and my neighborhood of Englewood was one of the areas [where that was the case].” She recalls that one to two-thirds of the kids on her block had asthma, some at a level so bad, they had to miss school. “I remember leaving the city to go to boarding school in rural Illinois, and my asthma seemed to ‘clear up.’ But asthma doesn’t just ‘go away,’ it is completely dependent on your surroundings.”

A Yale University graduate and Rhodes Scholar, her work studying social policy helped define a career that would lead her to become one of the most sought-after environmental policy leaders of her generation. It helped her land a role as policy director for Abdul El-Sayed’s bid for governor of Michigan in 2018, and a place as policy director for the New Consensus, a program developed by U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. 

While working with the Detroit Health Department, she saw firsthand how environmentalism is directly tied to social policies. “We were dealing with a situation where local communities had their water shut off, and as a result, there was a spread of norovirus and gastrointestinal diseases. The water was shut off because these communities couldn’t pay their water bill, because they didn't have access to adequate jobs, and they didn’t have access to jobs because they didn’t have access to adequate education.”

Most of Gunn-Wright’s work is rooted in welfare and poverty, as well as urban planning, and she makes the point that “environmentalism is inherently political.” In that respect, she offers some ways people can create actionable change within their communities, at every level: 

1Observe What’s Happening in Your Neighborhood

You can see firsthand the impact of climate change in your area. “Are trees around you blooming earlier, or not changing colors?” asks Gunn-Wright. “Notice your garden, if your plants are growing slower or quicker than usual. All of that is affected by global, as well as local, environmental issues.”

Charting temperatures in your neighborhood are also an indicator of where environmental issues may lie. “A lot of people of color often live in areas that are urban heat islands, with less green space, and where the temperature is often two to three degrees higher than other parts of a city,” she adds. 

Once you’ve taken a look at this kind of data, you can begin to seek out problem areas and work with your community to develop solutions to combat them on a local level.

2Elevate Your Environmental Education

Gunn-Wright suggests podcasts as a great place to start your research. “You can learn a more true history about the climate issues you care about, from experts that have been researching and studying these topics from a journalistic perspective.”

Some of her favorite podcasts include Important Not Important, which spotlights people who do environmental work from all sorts of backgrounds. “It helps me learn how to do work where I might not have seen a path before,” she describes. Gunn-Wright also recommends Hot Take, and Mothers of Invention, two female-led podcasts that address climate and social issues in each episode.

3Get Involved With Leaders in the Field

Nationwide organizations, such as Sierra Club branches, and GreenPeace, can be really useful depending on how broad you want to be. But Gunn-Wright says it’s also fine to be motivated by a particular part of the environmental crisis. “You can say, ‘This thing moves me the most, and this is what I want to work on,' " and find a group that already exists with the same goal. “I always point people to local organizations, because often they have been fighting about specific issues for a long time.” You can learn a lot from activists and be part of something bigger than yourself by taking part in movements already set into motion. 

4Recognize That Climate Is Not a Race-Less Issue

Most people define environmental change in a technical sense, but Gunn-Wright points out what most people don’t want to admit: that “climate is not a race-less issue.” 

She emphasizes that “If you’re really committed to climate, really do look for organizations led by people of color, especially women of color, because if you’re trying to fix climate without fixing race, it’s not real … those areas are the most impacted, and those citizens are thinking of solutions that will better the lives of people in a way that can be more just than thoughtful.”

5Expand Your Definition of “Environment.”

“If you are trying to make a person healthier, it’s not enough to provide them care, it’s not enough to give them more ‘opportunities,’ " Gunn-Wright tells CircleAround. Your environment is not just plants or trees — it’s about the quality of your air, your water, and more, which often comes back to the quality of the laws, how you are policed, what the schools are like, etc.

“I think of climate the way I think of protest, and there are a few ways to change things. One way is through direct, obvious full-frontal attack, like a hurricane, or a wildfire, where response is reactive to bigger issues. But another way to look at it is changing the conditions that enable that ‘problem’ to exist. Change the conditions, and you play a role in changing the future of your environment.” 

Tags: Social Justice

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Written By

Katka Lapelosová

Katka is a writer from New York City, currently living in Belgrade, Serbia. See Full Bio

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