How I Found Hope in the Face of the Climate Crisis

I have to confess, my path into the environmental justice movement was neither traditional nor intentional. Prior to college I had minimal experience or knowledge about the environmental world – I hadn’t even taken an environmental science class. What I did find in high school was a passion for political science, and so I knew that I was interested in studying politics in college. However, perhaps like many parents, my mom encouraged me to seek a collegiate foundation based in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) because not only would that make me competitive in the jobs market – but it would give me a more comprehensive understanding of the way the world works.

I was seeking an intersection which would both satisfy my passion for social studies, while also allowing me to follow my moms advice. It was on a whim that a friend of mine at the time, seeking a similar path to mine, told me about UConn’s Environmental Studies major. It was relatively new at the time, I think only 2-3 years old, and was exactly what I was looking for. It combined courses like Geography: Climate, Weather, and the Environment (math based), with courses like Sociology: Sustainable Societies (social studies based). It was a perfect match!

I also decided to pick up a minor in political science, which would become my favorite part of my studies. Getting involved with UConn’s African American Cultural Center along with the wake of Trump’s election (2016) encouraged me to seek a deeper understanding of my heritage and culture. This lead me to take classes centered around Black Political Thought. A great turning point for me during my college experience was taking Critical Race Theory with my beloved professor Derefe Chevannes. The class taught me a lot about the construction and evolution of race, as well as important contexts about this country that my middle and high schools’ social studies classes failed to provide me. I found that critical race theory was the core of understanding why systems in this country are the way they are, and could be applied to quite literally everything.

But they certainly could be applied to my environmental studies. Which is where my passion for Environmental Justice comes into the story. Now entering into my junior and senior year in college, I really started to seek out ways to highlight environmental justice as a passion and focus for my studies. However, I ran into a problem – there were no environmental justice courses offered at my university. This fact highlighted what I would soon find out to be a huge gap in the mainstream environmental movement. Throughout my four years of college I was doing internships where they were seeking to connect with diverse people and engage them in this work – yet my studies were not providing me with an understanding for why they were not there in the first place. 

Frustrated by this reality, I began trying to find ways to build an understanding of environmental justice into my college experience. As a part of a delegation from Uconn’s Office of Sustainability I ventured to Bonn Germany to attend the COP23 conference in 2017. It was there that I saw passionate women activists from all over the diaspora sharing their stories of environmental injustices happening in their countries, and how they were actively fighting to change things. I saw first-hand the power and transformations that can happen when people are confident and empowered to bring about change.

I also took several art classes along side of my political science and environmental studies courses – including a drawing class, and a digital media and design class where I got a taste of using art and design to express these issues. Finally in my senior year, I had the opportunity to chair my Undergraduate Student Government’s Sustainability Subcommittee. As a mart of UConn’s Environmental Metanoia going on at the time, the committee decided organized an environmental justice art show in collaboration with our University’s five cultural centers. It was here that I found a deeper connection and engagement with my studies. Reading Black environmental poetry, working with students in other cultural centers to explore their own unique perspectives on climate change and the environment which we did not learn about in our studies. The art show created a place for artists and observers to process these difficult topics and realities, heal from them, and build community.

Finding justice in my studies was critical for me in finding hope and positivity in the face of climate change. Mary Annaise Heglar wrote an amazing blog post titled “Home is Always Worth It” which I think speaks to this issue of hope well. Here she discusses her first encounter with what she calls, the “Doomer Dude”. We’ve all encountered his rhetoric at some point I’m sure- it sounds like something along the lines of, “There’s really no point anymore, humans are done for!” This is dangerous rhetoric to subscribe to and spew. On the flip side, Heglar also discusses that forcing people to be hopeful isn’t the way either, and it can be just as harmful as telling people there’s nothing worth fighting for. “Both smack of the privilege wrought from the deluded belief that this world has ever been perfect and that, therefore, an imperfect version of it is not worth saving, or fighting for,” Heglar wrote.

Where do I stand on hope? Historically my community has looked death and surmise in the face before, and continues to do so without giving up. That is that, giving up has simply never been a privilege that we’ve had. Black people and Black struggles are what connects me to this movement and keeps me inspired and motivated to continue on – despite the fact that I don’t have any clue what the outcome will be. 

“Even if I can only save a sliver of what is precious to me, that will be my sliver and I will cherish it. If I can salvage just one blade of grass, I will do it. I will make a world out of it. And I will live in it and for it.”

– Mary Heglar

My current life project now is working for the Connecticut Roundtable on Climate and Jobs. I started as their Communications Coordinator – managing all of the organization’s communications, including it’s new website and social media platforms, as well as coordinating information sharing with our partner organizations. More recently my role has expanded to field organizer —- charged with organizing community groups. Projects include the city of New London, CT and the newly developing offshore wind industry – ensuring that the new European company, Orsted and the State pier where much of the construction will be held, is held accountable to the community there.

My journey has brought me to my current vision- a future that holds a radicalized environmental movement. One that has difficult conversations about power, one that ensures that there are diverse bodies in the room with diverse problems and ways of thinking about the natural world. Racial Justice is environmental justice, Labor Justice is environmental justice, food justice is environmental justice, and so on. We can no longer settle for a colorblind movement but one that gets comfortable with the word BLACK, and the phrase BLACK LIVES MATTER, and issues of RACIST WHITE CAPITALISM, and REPARATIONS, and COMMUNITY CONTROL. So I will leave you with this: I encourage you to find a struggle for justice that resonates with you and let that be your guide towards a more sustainable world. I will continue to work for an environmental movement which is which is unconditionally open to all people and issues and ideas.

Aisha K. Staggers
Author: Aisha K. Staggers

Provider of "proactive and strategic communications" with a solid background in print and digital journalism. Communications Director of Connecticut Roundtable on Climate and Jobs.