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We Can't Breathe – A Year in Race and the Environment

by Roger Griffith - It’s been quite a year for us all to reflect upon. We entered the year in the grips of an environmental pandemic and on New Year’s Day I was on a nature walk in California. I was contemplating the challenges of researching my forthcoming book ‘Reflections Across a New Black Atlantic.’ My most pressing

concerns at that time were the Trump machinations ahead of the 2020 US elections. His presidency failed to recognise environmental concerns of raging forest fires whilst also fuelling racial tensions. By the end of year however health, economic and race pandemics joined a daunting list of global crises.

Black Indigenous People of Colour (BIPOC) in the US have faced environmental racism for centuries. This can be traced back to the forced removal of Native Americans from their land and culture. In more recent times there has been, the Flint Michigan water disaster and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Cancer Alley in Louisiana where oil refineries have been built next to BIPOC communities have been directly attributable to higher rates of illness and death post Covid-19. Many of us have histories and heritage that are connected with the land and sustainable living. The profits that gave Britain an economic boost for centuries comes from enslaved free labour from the Caribbean. Practices such as using leftover food, making our own garments and religion-based plant-based diets have been utilised by communities of colour. Today continuing climate change catastrophises that directly impact these communities still demand our attention and action. The death of Ella Kiissi Debrahs in Lewisham, London from ‘asthma contributed to by exposure to excessive air pollution’ https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/17/ella-kissi-debrahs-mother-calls-for-clean-air-act-in-wake-of-landmark-ruling demonstrates that environmental racism affect us in the UK as well as across the African and Asian Diasporas.

High amongst the issues raised with me are issues of inclusion, representation and awareness. Black Asian and Ethnic Minority (BAME) communities have historically been under-served in local activism within the environmental movement and need to be addressed. 2021 will see the tenth anniversary of the Black and Green programme of environmental social activism from Ujima Radio. With former Director Paul Hassan, in 2011 we began engaging local people to become Green Citizen Journalists who documented high levels of air pollution from the M32 which divides Easton and St Pauls in Bristol. 2015 saw us engaged in Bristol’s European Green Capital year highlighted by the Black and Green initiative curated by Julz Davis.

In 2017 in partnership with Bristol Green Capital and Professor Rich Pancost of Cabot Institute and University of Bristol we launched the Black and Green Ambassadors featuring Jasmine Ketibuah-Foley and Zakiya McKenzie with great results with support from Up Our Street. Last year Ujima had a UWE Bristol Black and Green internship with Gnisha Bevan. All this serves as an impressive track record of community activism, research, leadership and media projects. The new 2020 Black and Green Ambassadors funded by National Lottery - Roy, Oliva and Asia, co-ordinated by Carlton Romaine - will continue to engage activists and challenge the myth that communities of colour are not interested in environmental issues.

Together with Gnisha Bevan we will be launching a new initiative to provide a supportive network, called the Black Seeds Network. We seek to meet the needs of environmentalists of colour. We will co-ordinate and showcase new talent and bridge the representation gap. We have tapped into a diverse wealth of highly skilled people working within the sector and will be promoting the next generation of leaders and other black-led groups such as Imalya and Black2Nature. Our activities will include skills development, networking, events, information-sharing, online seminars. We will develop talent, provide media and research opportunities and engage communities. We will also be working with the Black and Green Ambassadors to develop new and exciting regional, national and international links.

BAME communities have historically been under-served within local and national environmental movements for too long. Clean Air, drinkable water, ending food poverty, healthier and sustainable lifestyles are basic human rights that we can all make our global goals for 2021. ‘I Can’t Breathe’ was the final words of George Floyd. Let’s all work together to ensure We Can’t Breathe does not become our final epitaph.


Roger Griffith MBE is the CEO of Creative Connex, UWE Lecturer and Author of ‘My American Odyssey: From the Windrush to the White House’.

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