Wawa Gatheru

Wawa Gatheru

Black Girl Environmentalist founder Wawa Gatheru on the future – of the planet and the climate movement

The 25-year-old opens up about the intersectionality of the climate crisis and what it takes to break down barriers.

When I ask Wawa Gatheru if she feels hopeful about the future, she tells me she’s a “stubborn optimist” and insists that there really aren’t other options – after all, what’s the point in pessimism? 

“As a Black woman in the United States, I do not trust our institutions to care for me. So, I have to be optimistic about the care that I can have for my fellow neighbour, and the care that I can help perpetuate, and the care that I can have for myself – and dare to have for myself – to build a better world.” 

Gatheru is a climate activist and founder of Black Girl Environmentalist, a national organisation in the US dedicated to expanding pathways and increasing retention for Black girls, women, and gender-expansive people in the climate movement. The optimism and defiance that she describes has been built into the work that Wawa has been doing since she was about 15 years old. 

The child of Kenyan immigrants, Gatheru says she grew up in Connecticut with a deep connection to the land. As a high school student, she was forced to take an environmental science class (mostly because she had done poorly in chemistry and needed another option) and she says that what she learned in that space changed her life. She recalls that her teacher dedicated time to making her class understand the tenets of climate and environmental justice, including a human rights framework that clarified that every person’s right to a clean and healthy environment, clean air, and clean water. 

“It was in that class that I was really able to connect the dots with how the climate crisis wasn’t this far-off issue… but it was a crisis that was up close and personal. As well as a crisis that was disproportionately impacting communities of colour, low-income folks, and particularly Black communities across the diaspora.” 

After being given the language to understand and pursue climate justice work, Gatheru quickly realised that she wanted to dedicate her life to climate activism and helping to build resilience in her own community. At the University of Connecticut, she rallied for the institution to become the first public university in the US to implement a general education requirement for environmental literacy, as well as conducting key research on food insecurity among students (that study was later cited in the creation of both state and federal legislation). 

Despite having a wildly impressive resumé at such a young age (Gatheru is in her mid-20s), she also acknowledges the privilege of being forefronted as a voice within the climate action movement. During her university years, Gatheru became the first (and currently only) Black person in history to receive the Rhodes, Truman, and Udall Scholarships and she says she has to reckon with the privilege that having this kind of institutional esteem attached to her name affords her, particularly when it comes to getting booked for speaking gigs around the country.

“If folks have access or a degree from a university that is known around the world, then they’re more likely to be seen as an expert versus someone that may have just the same amount of expertise or even more from lived experience and may not be understood or validated as a leader,” she reflects. 

While Gatheru acknowledges ongoing issues with diversity in the climate movement (the climate movement has historically been overwhelmed by white and middle-class voices leading the charge), she also says that she wants the conversation to move beyond “representation for representation’s sake”. 

“I think we need to have an analysis around whether or not it’s even folks of colour in the Global North that get more airtime versus folks that are in the Global South. There are conversations around how things like education, privilege, or even pretty privilege play a role… Is it folks that have lighter skin or are seen as conventionally attractive that are more likely to get the mic?” 

Gatheru says that she’s constantly having these conversations with youth climate activists behind the scenes. She also asserts that for those, like her, who do get passed the microphone, it is important to assess whether you’re always the right person for the job and to “lift as we climb”. As for the success of the Black Girl Environmentalist movement, Gatheru says that it is constantly expanding and it has grown an impressive community of Black climate activists from around the world who are all experts and leaders in their field. 

Reflecting on her years in climate activism so far, Gatheru says that she feels incredibly lucky to be surrounded by people who are organising and making huge positive impacts in the world – in fact, it’s the sort of stuff that really bolsters her optimism about the future of the planet. “I don’t think we have to be passive recipients of the way that the world is as it is. All of these systems were built, which means that new ones can be built as well.” 

Gatheru also notes that there is something inherently special about the way that Gen Z views the world that has equipped them to take on tasks as daunting as global climate action. 

“As a generation, we don’t take a lot of shit,” she laughs. “We’re pushing back against the norms in the workplace, we’re pushing back against the norms around what the future can be. People aren’t taking what has been given to them as a requirement for how they have to live their lives… and I think that attitude and mindset is a world-building tactic.”