“I do not believe climate change is a social justice issue. I know it is a social justice issue.” These are the words of 19-year-old climate justice activist Elsa Mengistu, an Ethiopian-born North Carolina native. Mengistu acts as a strong voice in the fight against climate change and environmental racism.
Young activists have quickly and powerfully shifted the narrative on climate change. They’ve emphasized the urgency of the matter, and have committed their time and energy to organizations that amplify their voices. Similarly, Mengistu has quite an impressive track record. A passionate organizer and activist, Mengistu has served as a leader and inspiration for Ocean Heroes Bootcamp, BlackGirlEnvironmentalist, Generation Green, and Power Shift 2021, just to name a few.
In addition, at 17, was the former Director of Operations and Logistics for the youth-led grassroots climate group, Zero Hour. Mengistu also currently serves on the Youth Advisory Board for Young Voices for the Planet. Last year, Mengistu was even featured on Grist’s Top 50 Fixers for her climate activism. Now, she’s a freshman at Howard University, where she continues to fight for a greener future.
I had the opportunity to speak with Mengistu to learn more about her work, her thoughts on environmental racism, and what continues to drive her.
Edited for length and clarity.
EMILY DAO: What inspired you to work in climate activism?
ELSA MENGISTU: I was tired of seeing climate conversations only centered around data. They weren’t centered nearly enough around the people whose lives reflect that data…the ones who will be impacted. Since then, I’ve worked to uplift and center youth voices in this movement. As of now, I work to change the perception of environmentalism by connecting Black issues to the environment and vice versa.
When it comes to climate activism, who would you say are your main role models?
They’re not people I see speaking at events or that have large platforms. They’re people advocating for their communities. I draw inspiration and admiration from people who are doing work with their already vulnerable communities. People who are in the streets protecting life, who are in the streets protecting environments that go beyond the physical. Therefore, my role models are not people who are already placed on pedestals. They’re the people who are around me already.
Last year, you were a key panelist at Ocean Heroes Bootcamp’s Environmental Racism conversation. Could you share your perspective on this topic and give a brief overview of what this discussion looked like?
Environmental racism is something that goes beyond the physical definition of the environment. I think when having these discussions, we need to use the environmental justice definition of the environment. It includes the complex interaction between physical, geographical, biological, social, cultural, and political conditions that surround an individual or organism which determines its form and survival. With that definition, we have to come to the conclusion that our environment includes our schools, neighborhoods, places of worship, places we play, etc. If we do not acknowledge the fact that environmental racism and our environment go beyond the physical, we really don’t get a whole picture of what environmental racism really is.
So, there is an interconnectedness between every sphere of life and every single environment. If your environment is a food apartheid. Or heavily policed. If your environment does not have access to the outdoors. Or is without clean air. That’s all connected. Those are forms of oppression based on our environments. They’re all environments that impact our health and well being.
Intersectionality is the concept that oppression operates on many levels based on our identities. We need to look beyond what we typically consider an environment. Any environment can be poisoned—they already are.
Another organization you’re involved in, Generation Green, focuses on environmental justice. This organization ties into problems of environmental racism and climate inequality directly hurting Black, POC, and low-income communities. If this issue is hurting so many communities, why don’t you think more people don’t know about “environmental racism”?
I think environmental racism has been erased from discussions. It’s just like how Black communities, Indigenous communities, and communities of color have been largely left out and ignored in discussions surrounding our environments and climate. Communities dealing with environmental racism and degradation know. They know it’s because of their zip code, ethnicity, skin tone, and income level. We already know that; we live through that.
However, the conversation surrounding environmental racism has definitely changed. So, as the climate crisis begins to stare us back in the face, there’s less wiggle room for avoiding the truth. The truth of who climate crisis and environmental racism disproportionately impact.
Time is running out and the bandwidth for not acknowledging something like environmental racism is running out too.
Do you believe climate change is a social justice issue? If so, explain.
I do not believe climate justice is a social justice issue. I know for a fact it is a social justice issue. There’s not a singular issue on this Earth that not interconnected with every other issue on this Earth.
To understand that climate change is something that challenges the very fabric and core of the way that we live is to understand how we live is what got us here. And that includes the systems we live in. If we can understand that climate crisis means that we are, for the very first time, on the brink of human extinction. And on the brink of destroying the world that we live in. In other words, it means we have to be cognizant of and recognize how we have gotten here.
So, how have we gotten here?
The science and data will tell us what got us here. However, it won’t tell us how. Social systems and ills are the reason that we are in this place at all. Climate change impacts every single part of imaginable life possible. For example, whether it’s women’s rights across the world or access to clean air and water—every single one of these issues is already interconnected.
When we add a factor as large as climate change, it’s undeniable that it won’t just impact already existing problems. It will exacerbate them. Everything we are dealing with now is the result of corrupt systems that have led to climate disaster.
So, you were on Grist’s Top 50 Fixers list in 2019. How did it feel to be recognized for your work in activism?
Being recognized for my work and labor is nice. However, the community I’ve been able to build has been even more rewarding. The opportunity to have platforms to talk about my ideas, connect the issues that I care about to other important ones, and reach out to other youth and Black girls have been amazing.
I think my role in this movement is to show how interconnected and large this crisis is. It’s also to uplift and build with and for Black women and femmes. Everything at my disposal is used to advance this movement and Black women and femmes.
Another organization you work heavily with is BlackGirlEnvironmentalist. What do you hope comes out of this organization?
I want Black girls and femmes in this movement to be given the same levels of support and opportunities as others. There’s so much that we’re still learning to navigate. This platform for Black girls and femmes to come together and have a strong community is something I want to help build up.
I want to see amazing opportunities, highlights, spaces to grow and learn. I want it to be something all Black girls in this space are given. All of our work should be amplified and supported. There’s too much greatness for it to not be.
When it comes to climate activism, it’s easy to grow disenchanted as a teenager. How do you stay motivated?
It’s really difficult being a teenager and battling against what feels like a world that is decaying. However, it did help me re-evaluate how I organize, what I was organizing for, and what my relationship with work looked like.
I think I’ve built healthier habits to stay connected, motivated, and not drained. A lot of that is just listening to yourself and your body. The most radical thing we can do is to not only sustain ourselves but to make sure we’re taking care of ourselves. After all, if we cannot sustain ourselves and our communities, how can we even afford to sustain movements? So, taking time for myself, investing in myself, investing in healthy systems for the places I work. Taking care of myself, of my mind. Those are things that keep me in this.
So to wrap things up, what is it that drives you?
Working from a place of love for my community drives me. Everything I do is for us. The people I work with, the amazing black girls and femmes who are doing spectacular work is what drives me. My people motivate me. My commitment to Black girls, to the Earth. The healing is what drives me.
As long as I am in tune with myself, my body, my vision, and my people, my work will reflect that and keep me connected.