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In This for My People: Nia Robinson on Race, the Environment, and Climate Change


Imagine 2050 Staff • Apr 07, 2012

Cross-posted from PopDev, a progressive think tank & activist organization bringing a global feminist analysis to the intersecting spheres of reproductive freedom, environmental justice, international development, and peace.

“Race is the number one determining factor for whether or not you live in a community with a toxic facility,“ said femme-tellectual Climate Justice Goddess Nia Robinson, facilitating a teach-in about race and the environment at Mount Holyoke College this March.

“I grew up in the shadow of a toxic incinerator,” Nia once told the author of Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, “in a city with one of the highest pediatric lead poisoning rates and an extremely high asthma rate. Nature is great, but that’s not why I’m in this. I’m in this for my people.”

From guest lecturing in classes to speaking about human rights, race, and the environment on a Five College climate panel; facilitating discussions for local students, activists and community members, and radio interviews, Nia offered her critical perspective on some of the biggest challenges facing our world to the Pioneer Valley this March as the first of four Five College Social Justice Policy Practitioners in Residence.  

Nia, who currently serves as the Environmental Justice representative for SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective and formerly directed the Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative, has spent a significant portion of her life educating folks about the ways women, children, and people of color are disproportionately affected by the climate crisis, and amplifying the voices of low-income communities, people of color and indigenous peoples in national and international climate policy debates.

“I’m from originally from Detroit, Michigan. Detroit is an amazing city. It’s also a city riddled with environmental, economic and racial problems,” says Nia, who was raised by two parents who were, “in their own ways, politicized. My mother was a staunch Pan Africanist and studied under the great Kwame Ture. My father grew up in Jim Crow Mississippi. He worked with the Freedom Riders and to ensure that African Americans had the right to vote.”

“Ever since I was a little girl I had some desire to know or understand more about the environment. From everything that I saw, including publications like Ranger Rick, something about the environment seemed distant, unattainable– something that didn’t belong to me. I would ask my mom, ‘how come there are no black kids in [the Ranger Rick] magazine?’ The idea that environmental work, passion and caring for the environment was not something that black people did, started early.”

What Counts as “The Environment?”

“To me it was Detroit, my city, my grandma’s house, and an island park in the city where our dad used to take us during the summertime. My environment was just as important and needed just as much protection as a national park and the Great Lakes in Michigan. For a long time in this country, conversation around the environment has only been about the natural world and has not considered what toxics are doing to the most marginalized communities.”

Nia’s budding consciousness around environmental racism (racial discrimination that plays out through environmental policy and practices) was further deepened by a family trip outside of the country when she was a little girl.

“I had wanted to go to Disney land, but my mother said,  “No. We’re not supporting Disney. She took us to Jamaica. We went to the beach, where I made friends with a girl from the area. The girl said she hadn’t been to the beach in 2 years. I didn’t understand.

“‘How come this thing that she lives so close to wasn’t accessible to her?’ I wondered. The beach had been privatized. This started to bring up the question: Who does nature belong to? Who gets to see it? Who gets to touch it, feel it? What does [being cut off from it] do to your psyche and your spirit?

“Nature is supposed to be something for the common good, not something [you’re barred from] accessing because you aren’t a tourist and aren’t bringing money into the country–something you’re barred from accessing because you’re poor and black.”

Continue reading this article here.

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