Embracing Intersections in Environmentalism
Updated: Mar 8
An interview with Olivia Sweeney, a Black and Green Ambassador, sustainability consultant, and engineer by Elizabeth Harris.
Olivia Sweeney is a lifelong environmentalist, perhaps even before she knew it. Her passion for the environment and sustainability influenced much of her life from becoming a vegetarian to choosing to study chemical engineering and even working at Lush for a few years. When I think of Olivia, sustainability advocate and engineer are some of the first things that come to mind, but she’s way more than that.
She’s a dancer, a musician, a vegetarian, an adventurer, a cool person, a Brit, a rebel, a Black woman, an avid fanfiction reader, a period drama lover, a multicultural individual, a theatre lover, and the list goes on and on. She’s at the intersection of so many things which have influenced her life and environmentalism journey.
Just before the pandemic, Olivia moved to Bristol to work at a sustainable waste consultancy. During the early months of the world settling into a new normal, she took the extra time to join Black and Green ambassadors, an intersectional environmentalist group. Given Olivia's experience with sustainability, environmentalism, and her own intersections, I thought she would be a perfect person to speak with about what it means to be an environmentalist, and that’s what we did.
Intersectional environmentalism is something that’s come into the forefront this past year. What is intersectional environmentalism?
It’s about how different people interact with the environment in different ways, and how they take space in nature differently. It gives space to the fact that everyone is different and celebrates the different things that are brought to the table.
Intersectionality is like a Venn diagram. If all the different parts of your being are little circles, the intersection is where all those circles overlap and make you unique. When thinking of the environment it is how all those different layers make your experience and your connection or sense of belonging to your environment different, it will also influence how you engage with the environmental movement changes.
It’s one of those complicated things because it's big and it's unique to everyone. Nobody has that same amalgamation of different circles. Some of my intersections are the black community and environmentalism, and my experiences of these shape my understanding, and what I think the future should look like.
And now Olivia, you’re doing intersectional, community, environmentalism work with Black and Green Ambassadors in Bristol. Can you tell us more about that?
I’ve been a Black and Green ambassador since October 2020. I stumbled across it when I was on furlough because I felt I wasn’t doing anything and now I work 6 days a week. Be careful for what you wish for!
It’s a National Lottery Funded project. It’s a collaboration between Bristol Green Capital Partnership which is a network of organisations that have pledged to work towards a sustainable city and Ujima radio, which is a local radio station. Our mission is to “Lead, connect, and celebrate diverse community action.” It’s all about allowing people who don’t see themselves as an environmentalist or don’t want to see themselves as an environmentalist to take up the space.
We give a platform through the radio. We talk and work with the black and brown community in Bristol to talk about climate change, what are people care about right now, what people are already doing, and what people hope to do or see change in their local area. It's about allowing everyone to be part of building whatever this great green future is.
There's a term coined by a professor (Julian Agenyman) called Just Transitions or Just Sustainability. Yes, we all want to live in a green future where we have minimal impact on the planet. But if we don’t consider all the inequalities that we suffer from now, we’re just going to be exactly where we are today but with a solar panel and an electric car. That’s not what I want. We deserve better, and the first part of achieving that is allowing everyone to have a voice and platform.
Bristol is a very diverse place but it's also a very ghettoized place. So, we, as Black and Green Ambassadors are trying to bridge the communication and cultural gap between the black and brown community of Bristol and the City Council, the traditional environmental sector, and businesses. We're trying to bridge that gap from a bottom-up approach. Whatever we do, we want it to be community-driven.
Another element is also going into the Environmental sector and talking about experiences, diversity, and inclusion. I think the environmental sector is the second least diverse sector in the UK, bested only by farming. We're working on making them be more accessible to more people.
It seems that intersectional environmentalism and climate justice touch more than the environment, like culture as well.
Well, firstly on a big scale, I think intersectional environmentalism and climate justice look have a lot in common. It's the idea that different people are affected by things in different ways because of what they look like or who they are, and as a result of this have varying levels of power to influence change. I would say intersectional environmentalism is acknowledging this and listening/learning about the differences, climate justice takes this further and requires action.
Then there’s the cultural aspect. There are things that are always called green and sustainable and others are not. I think that’s very much about who's doing it.
It could be things like the word "veganism." It seems to be everywhere at the moment. But plant-based diets have been part of cultures around the world for hundreds if not thousands of years (Ital - Jamacain just one example) Now all of sudden, it is cooperated by this green movement and framed in a different way. The local communities that have been doing it for decades and centuries are not acknowledged or celebrated for the fact that they’ve been living these sustainable diets forever. This excludes people, intersectional environmentalism is about inclusion.
I have spoken a lot about culture, but that is just one part of it. Black and Brown communities suffer disproportionately from the impacts of climate change. One focus for me at the moment is climate justice through air pollution. Air Quality has been at the forefront in Bristol and the UK recently. Just before Christmas after years of fighting ‘air pollution’ was listed as a cause of death on an 8-year-old girl's death certificate. This was a landmark moment, and has brought Air Pollution to people's attention, but also highlighted the role social and racial justice plays in this.
In Bristol, we have toxic air. The people that are having to live with the worst effects of this are contributing the least and have the least power to affect change and continue to be disenfranchised from that conversation.
It’s thinking about how all the different layers of who you are and how the world sees you and the power you have in the world affect your ability to engage with your environment and to be a part of the solution.
You’ve mentioned how the environmental sector is very monocultural and white. Why do you think that is and other groups haven’t been brought into the discussion?
I think there's this perception, particularly in the UK, that the environmental movement was born in the 60s and 70s, at least that was my perception for a very long time. And that conjures a very particular image of what someone who cares for the environment looks like. It’s dominated by this western perception.
Sustainability has become a luxury. You have to pay more for stuff that is greener. That is partly the reason I feel the environmental movement has become a very middle-class movement. Branding and advertising and the media then perpetuate this image, and it continues to become exclusionary.
I think everyone is doing something to help the environment. There's so much going out there that’s not using that word (environmentalism) because that word brings a very particular image. Environmentalism has been ‘tarnished’ in some ways as being a lefty thing and people of a certain economic status aren’t allowed to engage in it because they can’t afford to pay extra to have an electric car or extra to have sustainable clothes or extra to shop at their local farmers market. If I can’t pay my weekly bills, why should I engage in this alternate reality?
I think that’s one of the things that keep diverse communities (Black& Brown) outside the green movement. The mainstream live in the middle, and minoritised communities live outside of that. It is really hard to inspire people with another alternate reality when their everyday experience is already so different from the ‘norm’.
So a green future can feel even further away. If the mainstream doesn’t acknowledge that people are pushed out of this already. How can you expect people to believe in a utopia all the way on the other side?
How has your view of intersectionality and sustainability changed from doing Black and Green?
I think I’ve become more of a radical. I’ve become more revolutionary. It's been really energizing because I’m around an inspirational group of people all the time.
I’ve had a very white upbringing. From 16, I went to a really posh grammar school, then I went to Edinburgh University, I work in the Environmental sector, so my immediate surroundings aren’t always my cultural community. It’s just been really nice to be in a space where I don’t have to explain things or be worried about people understanding where I am coming from. It’s just been great to be around a more diverse group of people all the time, it is more relaxing and more stimulating at the same time!
The first time I really saw climate justice was when I was working at Lush. It had to do with land rights in South America. The African descendant community within South American had very little rights and fought for their land rights and justice. That was the first really clear case of how race and environment intersect and how issues of justice on both sides are really important.
It used to be a thing that was outside of the UK in my head. With Black and Green, I've learned that issues of climate justice are also happening here. There are issues here that are not just an issue of the environment. It brought clarity and it’s highlighted the big and small of it.
Black and Green Ambassadors has also made me think more locally and look at tangible activities. You can get carried away in the climate justice movement about saving the world and forget to save your city or your street.
I’ve always worked in the environmental sector so you can forget that it is not diverse and that you’re not hearing diverse thoughts. It’s not just about the Black community, it's about the diversity of thoughts and opinions and experiences in all capacities. When you are in a monoculture, it becomes like an echo chamber and you can forget there are other schools of thought. It's been really eye-opening and exciting to learn that there's so much else going on and there are so many other ways to approach things.
What advice do you have for people to be intersectional environmentalists?
It is about not seeing ‘environmentalism’ as this separate thing that happens outside of day-to-day life, it is about seeing it in everything, who we are, and what we do. It is about embracing every part of you and how that means your experiences of nature, of climate changes your understanding of solutions are different, appreciating that, and then listening and learning and collaborating with the person next to you who is unique.
Don’t get hung up on what is being called environmental and sustainable. Do what makes your immediate place, your immediate environment better. Understand what's unique about you and your lived experience. Don’t think that what has been touted as the green solution is the only way because there are a hell of a lot more ways out there.
Don’t be intimidated by environmentalism because it's big and there is a lot going on. Think about what you can do in your day-to-day. Think about what you can do in your street to make things better. Then talk to your next-door neighbor about it.
I’m going to go to recycling as an example because that’s the field I work in. Nobody puts things in the right recycling bin. That’s a problem with the system, but let’s not get into that. If you manage to learn the right way, that’s really great. So tell your mum, your dad, your next-door neighbor what bin they should be putting things in. They’re more likely to listen to you than they are to read a letter that comes through from the local council in the mail
When I was studying, I thought I was going to invent a new form of energy that was gonna just save the planet. It's going to be so good that everyone will be, "Damn! We need to do that!" But that’s not realistic expectations of how things are gonna go!
Don’t try to save the planet, try to make your footprint a little bit smaller or your place a little bit better. That will perpetuate.
Also, don’t listen to the haters!
Olivia is a sustainability consultant in Bristol and a Black and Green Ambassador.
Black and Green Ambassadors is a programme by Bristol Green Capital Partnerships. You can learn more about them at bristolgreencapital.org.