Noticing Effects of Climate Change in My Community Brought Me to Environmental Justice Work

by Kiana Pilson, BlackOak intern

I’ve recently realized that environmental justice (E.J.) intersects with many aspects of my life – from my passions, to my communities, and my work. This is true for many of us. Oftentimes environmental injustice feels inescapable. When I reflect on my relationship to my hometown, the Black community, and my faith, I see the need for environmental justice everywhere. This need is what inspires my work with BlackOak.

I grew up in Panama City, which is located in Northwest Florida along the Gulf of Mexico and sits on the native land of the Mvskoke (Muscogee / Creek) peoples. During my second year away at college (in 2018), Panama City was hit by Hurricane Michael, the most powerful storm to make ground in that region since 1992. I watched from afar as the needs of my city went unmet for months, school buildings I used to walk past declared condemned, and people I knew and loved displaced from their homes. This is the reality for many communities left behind after natural disasters. While Panama City was rebuilding, I knew something was deeply wrong but I did not yet have the language to describe it.

A neighborhood in Panama City after Hurricane Michael. The Atlantic (Oct. 12, 2018)

As I continued with my studies, I became very involved with a Christian campus ministry that would host justice programs within the context of Charlottesville and Richmond. During these programs, we would work at local non-profits and learn from individuals who have dedicated their lives to seeking environmental and social justice for their communities. I learned that environmental injustice in this country is deeply tied to a legacy of racism and colonization. For the first time, I recognized environmental justice as a movement created by and for marginalized people. I began to understand E.J. as more than recycling and going green: it was about supporting the Black communities that had shaped me.

I also valued that I gained this insight within a context of faith. For one, I developed a new perspective of Earth as a divinely created place worth honoring, rather than just a resource that I could utilize. This helped me to rethink how I saw my place in the world and the pride I had relating to the environment. Learning about E.J. within my faith practice also began to validate my experiences as a Black woman in the Christian spaces I’d inhabited. For instance, Western Christianity often claims to “transcend” race, which erases the experiences, contributions, and trauma of people of color. But approaching the Christian community with an environmental justice framework allowed me to acknowledge the ways that Western Christians have sought to silence and erase the histories of Black people.

Environmental justice taught me to draw  intersections between the different communities I inhabited, especially those which once seemed disconnected.This gave me the motivation to find ways I could actively work towards environmental justice in my hometown. I did this by working with Rebuild Bay County Inc, a disaster recovery organization in Panama City that seeks to support families impacted by Hurricane Michael. Typically this looks like connecting individuals with the resources they need to restore what they’ve lost from the hurricane. However, the organization had to expand their services in 2020 as the community began to experience the consequences of the pandemic. Coming on as an intern that summer, I worked with the Rebuild Bay to host county-wide food distributions and organize a system to provide groceries for senior citizens who could not safely leave their homes. Working with this organization reinforced that environmental injustices do not happen in a vacuum. E.J. work is about advocating for the most disadvantaged when their political systems have failed them. It’s about giving back to the communities who have suffered grave losses and creating the infrastructure for those communities to prosper.

All of these experiences have brought me to BlackOak Collective, which I proudly work with today. I am grateful for this team of inspiring young Black leaders that understand environmental justice cannot take place without Black leadership and advocacy. I started this work because of the communities I inhabit, and they are what propels me to continue. I would encourage us all to reflect on the ways that environmental justice intersects with our lives. Hopefully as you  make these connections, you’ll  also feel  empowered  to make a difference.


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