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Eco Etiquette: Being Black In The Green World

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Send all your eco-inquiries to Jennifer Grayson at eco.etiquette@gmail.com. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

Hope you don't take offense, but why does it seem like all environmentalists are Prius-driving white yuppies? Aren't we going to have to move beyond that stereotype if we want to make a difference? And any advice for reaching out to folks in my own African American community?

-Jessica

No offense taken, Jessica. I may be a white tree-hugging girl from a bucolic town in Connecticut, but even I defy the stereotype you described: I don't drive a Prius (I walk and run errands locally), and no one would accuse me of being a yuppie (see my Organic on Food Stamps video). I have been called a hipster on occasion, but only when spotted in my husband's 1985 Mercedes 300D that can run on biodiesel...

Alright, so maybe I do fit the eco-cliché you just described. I agree that it's a problem; this failure of the green movement to reach a more multicultural audience. I've spoken at enough green events to know that too often, we're just preaching to the choir. And the choir likes to shop at Whole Foods and wear organic Lululemon.

There are certainly people of color doing brilliant work in the environmental realm, like Rebuild the Dream founder Van Jones, or Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who's put LA on track to slash CO2 emissions 35 percent by 2030.

But there aren't enough. Not when you consider how minorities are disproportionately affected by environmental degradation. African American children, for instance, have a 500 percent higher death rate (you read that right) as a result of asthma than white children. That's not surprising, considering that 68 percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant. Contrast that with 56 percent of whites.

Of course, I would never purport to know what it's like to be black in the green world, which is why to answer your question, I reached out to Brandon McEachern, a 28-year-old native of Greensboro, NC, who's bringing environmental awareness to "the young hip-hop generation" via his organic lifestyle group and blog Broccoli City.

Among his recent outreach efforts: the upcoming biodiesel-powered BUKU music festival in New Orleans; speaking engagements at schools like USC and Howard University; and a series of powerful call-to-action videos.

The exuberant McEachern and I spoke in LA earlier this week, where he was kind enough to school me in the how-to's of inner-city environmentalism.

Jennifer Grayson: It's clear you're doing something different in green, Brandon -- the name Broccoli City is an attention-getter. Where did it come from?

Brandon McEachern: Broccoli City is a term I've been using for as long I can remember. Let's say I saw some nice shoes: I'd be like, Ooh, that's Broccoli City; that's a pretty girl, that's Broccoli City.

JG: So nothing to do with green?

BM: Not at first. But after moving to LA for a production job, I started thinking about something else I could do -- I'm sure you know from living out here that everybody in LA has another hustle. At the time, everyone was starting T-shirt companies, so I started making T-shirts that said Broccoli City.

JG: I had friends with T-shirt companies!

BM: Well, I had an environmentalist friend in Atlanta, and she was like, When I think of Broccoli City, I think of either the environment or weed. And I was like...

JG: Hmm. Which one should I pick?

BM: ...[laughs] I'm going to go with the environment. The first thing I had noticed was how healthy people eat out here. So she started schooling me on the food I eat, saving energy, and I was like: Wow! I can't believe I don't know these things. A lot of people in my generation as far as the hip-hop realm don't know them, either. We decided to make the shirts organic and spread a positive message. It burst off from there.

JG: Why do you think the hip-hop generation isn't more environmentally aware?

BM: It's a problem of access. In LA, if you go to Santa Monica, you'll see the Euphoria [raw food] restaurants, Trader Joe's -- all these places you can get healthy food, that knowledge. But when you go to an all-African American or Hispanic neighborhood, you see liquor stores on every corner.

JG: Right. Not to mention the fast food chains that take food stamps...

BM: I have conversations with my big brother back in NC, saying, I don't want you feeding my nephews and nieces McDonald's. He says, Bro, I feel you, but it's right here. What am I supposed to do?...The price point is a hurdle we need to jump over as well. But at the end of the day, people in my community are also known for going out and spending X amount of money on Jordans.

JG: It's like what Mark Bittman says about people who claim they don't have time to cook, yet the average American spends an hour and a half a day watching television.

BM: One thing I know about my culture is we hate to be preached to. Don't you ever tell me what I can and what I cannot do. It's better just to ease [the green message] in there. And to ease it, you have to come to the people looking like the people. Let's take you for instance. If you were to go down to Crenshaw today and say Yo, all y'all need to be eatin' right, blazay blay blazay blooh...

JG: That totally sounds like me!

BM: ...You're probably going to get cussed out. Not because your message isn't great, but because you don't look like TaNeesha, you don't talk like Byron. I emphasize that with Broccoli City: We want to see somebody who looks and talks and and acts like us. Then it becomes cool.

JG: Makes total sense. So what's it been like for you with the green community at large?

BM: Going to green events, you know...you're like the black guy. I wouldn't necessarily say I'm the only African American there, but the only African American dressed the way I dress. They look at me like, Hey what are you doing here? Uh, just trying to learn what you guys are learning...

JG: And also, everyone there is already green.

BM: Our goal is to touch people who don't know about this lifestyle, right? That's why I wanted to see how I could mix the worlds. So we do a lot of events where we might have hip-hop acts, but then there's an organic food truck outside.

JG: Everyone loves a food truck! So how's the response been? Are the worlds mixing?

BM: The feedback has been ridiculous. I have people calling me saying, I was about to throw some trash out the window, but I thought that wouldn't be very Broccoli City of me, bro, so I recycled, my homey, I recycled. I'm out here tryin'. Oh man, I see people trying. And that's all you can ask for.

You can learn more about Brandon and his work at BroccoliCity.com.

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