When I was a little girl growing up in Los Angeles, I would spend summer afternoons in the backyard of my grandmother's home in South L.A., on Harvard and Martin Luther King Boulevard. I remember picking fresh berries off the bushes in her garden, and waiting for her to wash them and stir them with some sugar for me. My first contact with the environment was through those berries -- through food -- and it was magic. Food was something my grandmother and mother nourished me with. It came straight from the earth, from soil. It represented love. And as a result, the first way I interacted with the natural world was through love.
But it wasn't all that simple. As a small child, I also developed asthma, probably as a result of the airport and oil fields near my home. I was hospitalized for the first time with an asthma attack when I was six years old. It was hard, not being able to double dutch or play tag during recess -- my inhaler followed me everywhere.
We shouldn't treat the natural world as though it is something "out there" that we can choose to either ignore or protect. It's not. We can try to ignore the environment, but when we breathe polluted air from coal plants, we will still get asthma. We will still get cancer. When industries contaminate our water, like they did for hundreds of thousands of West Virginians last month, we get sick. And when we drink clean water, or eat wholesome, healthy food from the soil, it nourishes us. Because we are the environment.
Like most kids, I started off knowing that intuitively. I climbed trees and played in the dirt. And I knew from a young age that I wanted to protect the natural world. As a little girl, I watched Captain Planet and his crew of black, Asian, and Latino Planeteers, and I believed they were what the environmental movement really looked like. I quickly discovered how wrong I was. When I looked around, the heads of the big green organizations were mostly white men. In college, I spent four years on a state sustainability council for students, and I was consistently the only person of color in the room. I was black, I was green, and I was alone -- or felt like it, anyway. There was a dissonance.
But that dissonance shouldn't exist. For thousands of years, the environment has been a part of everything we do. Many of our ancestral people grew our own food, practiced ritual and ceremony on sacred land, and wove themselves into the fabric of the ecosystem as full participants.
It didn't occur to us to think of it as something separate, a wilderness "out there."
That's still true today. The berries from my grandmother's garden are the environment; so is the pollution that gave me asthma. And as a child, one of the first things I was taught was to respect life. To respect animals, and plants, and people. That's a fundamental tenet of environmentalism -- and respecting people is a part that can't be overlooked. That means we have to do more than protect forests. We have to safeguard kids from toxic pollution and ensure that communities aren't torn apart by disasters. We have to make sure that our neighbors aren't struggling to find a job or get enough to eat.
That's why the work that Green For All does is so important. It's not just about lifting up the voices of people of color and low-income folks, who are hit first and worst by pollution and climate change. The work we do to create solutions -- to expand jobs in energy efficiency and make sure disadvantaged communities have a shot at them, to encourage neighbors to come together to plant gardens, and to promote healthy, sustainable lifestyles -- this work is a reminder that we are inescapably connected to our air and water, and to each other.
And that's important, because we don't just need to fight against all the things that are broken -- carbon pollution, fossil fuels, poverty, and waste. We also need to mend things. We need to build a world that really works; one that we feel good about passing along to our kids and grandkids.
When we talk about climate change at Green For All, it's not just about cutting greenhouse gases and creating emergency response plans for the storms and severe weather we're seeing more and more of. It's about cultivating economic health and supporting strong social fabric in the neighborhoods that are hit hardest. It's about setting up communities to leap forward into a healthier future after a hurricane, or a blizzard, or a flood -- not just bounce back to where they were before.
In the midst of all the trouble we find ourselves in -- our growing political strife, our widening economic divide, and the frightening pace at which climate change is unfolding -- we can still create something better. We can do it by reconnecting with the healing power of the environment; the power most of us experienced the first time we played in the dirt, climbed a tree, or ate good, wholesome food. We can do it by returning to love.
Follow Nikki Silvestri on Twitter: www.twitter.com/nikkicsilvestri