In this series of interviews our volunteer interviewer and writer Louise Turner has been speaking with leading voices in climate activism, discussing why climate justice is a feminist issue.
For this third part in the blog series, Louise Turner, Wen volunteer interviewed Guppi Bola, a climate organiser with Wretched of The Earth and co-founder of Working On Our Power, a leadership programme for trans, non-binary and women of colour. She was a recent panellist at Wen’s forum event in Manchester ‘Why’s Climate Justice a Feminist Issue’. I spoke to Guppi to find out more about the work she does and her views on the issue of climate justice and feminism.
How did you become involved in the work you do today?
I come from an academic public health background. I started university at medical school but quickly realised I wasn’t that interested in making people healthy once they got ill. What interested me instead was how we keep society healthy in the first place.
While at university, I co-founded one of the first climate and health campaigns, called Healthy Planet, in 2005. I got really involved in the UK Climate Coalition and in broader environmental justice campaigning through the UN climate talks in 2008-2009.
What drives me in my work is health and health inequalities — disparities in health outcomes that are unfair and avoidable. I am also interested in the impacts of the climate crisis on existing structural inequalities, for which I draw on my own personal experience of gender and racial injustice.
“What drives me in my work is health and health inequalities…”
You cofounded Working On Our Power, a leadership programme for trans, non-binary and women of colour working on social change. What does the programme involve, and why did you create it?
There is a real disparity in the way resources are distributed within the movement. That’s obviously a product of entrenched structural inequality that is reflected in our social set up. So, I try to approach all my projects through a reparative justice lens — moving resources from a place of excess towards historically under-resourced communities.
In my four years of working with European social movements around systems change, I noticed that there was no room for conversations about race and gender. The only conversation that was happening was around how to create a more sustainable economy based on the metrics of carbon emissions. For me, this conversation is redundant when we’re not thinking about the root causes of the climate crisis which are driven by patriarchal and white supremacist mindsets. I became exhausted in the process of addressing this problem, thinking; I don’t care if we live in a more sustainable world if you’re still going to be a d*** to me.
Working On Our Power began as a partnership with a really wonderful woman called Jamie Shearah-Udeh, a fellow activist. We created a space that prioritised people of colour in Europe, one where we can fully be ourselves without having to justify our experience in the face of whiteness or maleness. We also wanted to address levels of privilege — recognising that they exist and understanding how they play out, so that we can bring about healing and transformation for our communities.
The project challenges funders, who claim that “there are no people of colour organising for systems change”, and NGOs that run programmes where the token person of colour often has to spend their entire time on the training trying to explain their lived experience.
“Climate justice is about much more than how we stop burning coal, oil and gas.”
How do you think movements look with trans, non-binary and women of colour and their perspectives at the forefront?
Wonderful and creative ideas and visions have emerged for new and more representative ways of co-existing with each other and with nature.
Mainstream NGOs and environmental movements tend to be white-dominant and middle-class, with change happening in a very one-dimensional way. On the other hand, marginalised communities; queer-led and people-of-colour-led groups are really living and practicing the kind of existence that we need to see. It’s in the way that we organise together, the culture we create, the way we build trust, our visionary approach, and how we speak about controversial issues to bring about change. It is a joy to be part of a group of people that can exhibit what working together really is and show how things can be done differently.
My experience of being in spaces that are queer /people-of-colour-led is that they disrupt what we have been told is natural, and remind us that much of what we have been think we know is actually socially constructed. For example, the binary construction of gender, the construction of heteronormativity and how that plays out within a family — smash that. The construct of who is able to participate in society and who isn’t because of which bodies are designed to function for economic production – smash that.
“We should be able to self-identify and self-determine in ways beyond gender binary identities.”
Can you tell us more about Wretched of the Earth?
Wretched of the Earth started in 2015. I wasn’t part of the movement back then, but one of the main functions of the collective was to have the impact of colonial history — and its role in creating the environmental crisis — recognised in the mainstream movement.
It’s Global South-led, which I think is essential for a group operating in London. What we are trying to do is elevate the power and leadership of people of colour within the environmental movement, particularly those who are in close relationship to communities in the Global South.
We have three goals this year: First, we want to continue to explore how we can eliminate colonial practices within our organising space. We aim to document the ways in which we organise, the culture we’re trying to build, and the internal dynamics and evolution of our group.
Second, we want to increase the power of our movement. That includes building relationships with other people of colour both in the UK and the Global South. We want to set up the infrastructure for a network that doesn’t rely on us being the connecting point. We also want to show the breadth and diversity of people of colour in the UK working on environmental justice.
The third objective relates to reparations. We want to put forth a proposal of what reparations would look like in the context of environmental justice, similar to what movements like Black Lives Matter, for example, are doing in the US and that historically movements across the globe have been doing for many many years.. We want to shine a light on the current reparations movement in the UK and really build on it at the political level. We want to see reparative justice supported on an NGO platform or embedded in grassroots movements that are working on climate change.
Can you say any more on reparative justice and how that could play out in the UK on a practical level?
I remember Caroline Lucas speaking at Glastonbury about the Green New Deal. She hinted that the GND needed to be international and how we needed to think about climate reparations. However, there is very little understanding about what that actually looks like.
A body of work already exists, a lot of it created by the UK’s Afro-Caribbean communities. For those interested, Afrikan Emancipation Day of Reparations is celebrated on August 1.
There are many exciting ideas around reparations at a policy level, for example addressing injustice related to tax havens, trade policies, subsidies and intellectual property rights.
Land and land ownership in the UK is another area. So many first- or second-generation migrants of colour in the UK have been displaced from their ancestral land because of colonialism. In addition, a lot of land in the UK is privately held, with much wealth stemming from slavery or other forms of colonial activity. Research has yet to look at what that means for migrant communities’ access to land in particular. It’s an important issue within white British communities, but there is something quite fundamental about land justice for people of colour.
What I think is missing is our lived history, something I would like to see explored in places like National Trust properties, or broader conversations of land justice within the UK environmental movement. Pay attention to the group Land in Our Names who are amazing and doing this work.
How can the environmental movement move away from universalising accounts of the climate crisis – notions that it affects us all equally?
The movement presents itself as a group that is apolitical; it shies away from naming the system at play, and when we do this we opt out of the responsibility of addressing the intersecting systems of oppression that are upholding that system, what bell hooks refers to as white supremacist, imperial, capitalist patriarch. As a scientist, I completely value objective evidence within a political argument. But I think that there is something that is lost by not being able to articulate your analysis, and thus your vision for what you are trying to change.
XR [Extinction Rebellion] has basically created the notion that we are just now in a climate emergency, when this emergency has existed for hundreds of years in many communities. They have also let the debate about suitable responses be determined by people in power or by white majority groups who suddenly understand that climate change is happening and have become very self-centred in how they respond to it.
If a mainstream group doesn’t give a platform to the most marginalised in society, we get to a place that is even more disempowering and oppressive to marginalised communities because the response to the crisis will not recognise us and our lived experience.
It is crucial to hear the voices of marginalised communities: their history and their relationship with their ancestors; the importance of land and natural resources in their lived existence, and how it relates to their culture and their upbringing; and migration status, the impacts of borders. Without these voices, we will end up creating something that is maybe a little bit less bad in terms of natural disasters but is so much worse in the context of human rights and people’s lived experiences.
You were a panellist at the Wen Forum on why climate justice is a feminist issue. Can you revisit the insights you feel feminism can bring to climate justice?
The reason why it is really important to consider patriarchy in the context of climate change is because it was one of the essential pillars of the development of a capitalist system. Patriarchy, white supremacy, ableism and other systems of oppression are all crucial to the maintenance of a capitalist economy.
Wen Forum – Why’s Climate Justice a Feminist Issue, Manchester, 11/03/2020
We need to create an economy that is more regenerative and just, not one based on extractivism. Without eliminating patriarchy, we will never have a fair society. We need to embrace the idea that we should be able to self-identify and self-determine in ways beyond a gender binary identity.
“I don’t care if we’re going to live in a more sustainable world if you’re still going to be a d*** to me.”
What do you think justice means in the context of this debate…What does a climate-just future look like to you?
For me, climate justice is understanding that our environment is being affected by a system that the majority of the people have little control or ownership of. We need to move to a system, an economy or a political context where we have ownership over those decisions and over how we self-determine in that space.
This approach recognises that historically marginalised communities, such as Indigenous Peoples, and forcibly displaced people, have had to live within a system that has been inherently hostile to them, and yet they’re still surviving and still thriving.
A rights-based approach to climate change is necessary for us to transition out of a fossil-fuels-based, extractive economy.
Climate justice is about much more than how we stop burning coal, oil and gas. It’s something more fundamental about how we engage with the land. That’s maybe the most central feature of climate justice organising.
Thanks so much for speaking with me Guppi.