Meet Wanjiku “Wawa” Gatheru, The Founder Of Black Girl Environmentalist

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Meet Wanjiku "Wawa" Gatheru, The Founder Of Black Girl Environmentalist

Today is World Environmental Education Day, which has been celebrated every year on January 26 since its inception in 1972. This year, ESSENCE is profiling Wanjiku “Wawa” Gatheru, an Oxford University Rhodes Scholar and the founder of Black Girl Environmentalist.

Despite the fact that many Black women “historically…were explorers and caretakers of the earth, and many still are today,” that’s oftentimes not the image most minds conjure when asked to picture an environmentalist.

But as Gatheru told ESSENCE, “Changing the narrative requires us to reposition it. The mainstream environmental space continues to struggle with valuing Black voices and expertise,” which is ironic considering that “the grassroots, environmental justice movement was led by Black and Indigenous matriarchs that have led countless social movements.”

For instance, “Ella Baker integrated environmental racism as a core focus of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in the 60s. A Hymn to the Evening by Phillis Wheatley is one of the earliest examples of American Nature Writing. The Green New Deal was [co-authored] by a Black woman, Rhiana Gunn-Wright,” Gatheru noted.

“We are here. We’ve always been here. It’s a matter of us creating spaces for us to listen and learn from one another and using our collective power to advocate for a just climate future that allows us not only to survive, but thrive,” Gatheru added.

This is what compelled Gatheru to start Black Girl Environmentalist in 2021 as a national group “dedicated to addressing the pathway and retention issue in the climate movement for Black girls, women and gender-expansive people.” The organization is committed to increasing the recruitment and retention for Black women and girls in the environmental sector.

“I started Black Girl Environmentalist so that young Black girls and Black gender expansive individuals had a space for them, by them in the climate space,” declared Gatheru. “The climate space is notoriously white and Black youth are quite literally at the sidelines. Black Girl Environmentalist inherently validates our existence and unique expertise as leaders in the climate movement. Our programming works to empower the next generation of climate leaders of color through community empowerment, green workforce development, and narrative change – all created by the very demographic we seek to serve.”

“While it took me a while to identify with the term ‘environmentalist’, I’ve always been one,” Gatheru stated. “Being an environmentalist comes down to values. Do you care about clean air? Clean water? Access to healthy, culturally competent food?”

“Most people would say yes. From a values perspective, most people are environmentalists. However, for most of my life, the term sat in an ivory tower of privilege, wealth, and whiteness,” says Gatheru.

Unfortunately, “the environmentalism I knew of– and what was represented in media– involved activities, brands, and places out of touch for me.” Fortunately, “things changed when I took an environmental science class at 15 years old, when I learned about environmental justice.”

If Gatheru was to teach her own master class, she wants to ensure that people understand that “the environment does not only include woods-and-water conceptions. [It] is also the places we eat, sleep, pray, and play in. Our bodies are also a part of the environment. I am a huge advocate of self-preservation as being environmental action. If we are burnt out, how can we feed back into our collective ecosystems? How can we save our planet if we can’t save ourselves? As folks celebrate World Environmental Education Day, remember that our bodies are also integral parts of our collective ecosystems that deserve and require care.”

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