Intersectionality at What Next? Climate Change

Zena Edwards

“Last month saw the latest meeting for the What Next? Climate Change group, chaired hosted by Baroness Lola Young at the House of Commons, who is leading Julie’s Bicycle’s thinking on diversity. The subgroup, which is convened by Julie’s Bicycle as part of the wider What Next movement, came together to focus specifically on diversifying the climate movement, after the group selected this topic.

“Following the traditional What Next? format, we heard from three speakers covering different dimensions of diversity in the climate conversation. Farah Ahmed from Julie’s Bicycle, spoke on her understanding of climate change through the experiences of extreme weather impacts in her family home in Pakistan and the symbiotic relationship between climate and social justice; Gavin Porter, an artist based in Wales discussed the disconnect between class and the environment, and showed a short film he has made exploring the subject. Poet Zena Edwards, a seasoned climate activist, artist and thinker who has worked with Voices That Shake!, gave a powerful critique of the current situation and the imperative of hearing from people of colour. She showed a film she has made on the subject and wrote a poem during the discussion.

“The conversation that followed reiterated the need for a broader range of voices and perspectives. Resources were shared and there was a strong consensus for a follow up. If you would like to be sent this email, or are interested in joining the group, please contact georgia@juliesbicycle.com.”

Extract from Farah’s presentation at What Next? Climate Change.

I’ve been asked to talk about how I started on my journey in the creative climate space, but in all honesty, it was entirely accidental. I’ve always been surrounded by political activism and some of that was about the environment, but not explicitly. I learned the language of socialism, politics and intersectionality, but not of climate change.

This year, the southern Pakistani town Nawabshah recorded the hottest ever temperature for April, at 50.2C. In 2015 1,200 people died in a heatwave in Lahore. When I think about climate change and its impacts, I think of my family in the beautiful, lush valleys of Kashmir, simultaneously threatened by flooding and water shortages – who within a generation will not be able to live in their own homes because of the sweltering heat. On a more micro level, I used to live in a freezing, damp flat on New Cross Road in South London where I had to wash my front door every month because it would turn from white to black due to petrol fumes. I routinely contracted severe lung infections.

My journey towards climate activism has always been steeped in a very intimate, lived experience of its impacts – even when I didn’t realise it. When I started at Julie’s Bicycle, what really became clear to me was not how much I didn’t know, but the fact that I’d been speaking a different language to explain the same thing. Even as a politically engaged teenager I didn’t know that ‘environmentalism’ concerned me because ‘environmentalists’ didn’t reflect me; this is partly because culture didn’t reflect me either. Culture is such a powerful communicator when it is really wielded to inspire. The political, cultural and literal environmental climate has changed a lot since my teenage years, and so has our understanding of how culture can shape the narrative of climate change. What I still don’t see is art telling stories like mine.

Art and artists have to be a part of the discussion around the climate crisis, because they can help to actively, creatively shape an alternative image of the world we want to live in. But real, authentic change has to embrace and centre alternative voices instead of constantly shouting into an echo chamber… or we run the risk of creating a new system which is actually more of the same.

It’s important to talk about the fact that organisations led by people of colour, womxn, LGBTQ+ activists, and other marginalised groups are at the forefront of the charge for climate justice. Environmental activism is the most dangerous form of activism globally, but it is the people with the least financial and cultural capital and least people willing to join arms with them who bear the brunt of that violence.

How do we counter that in the movement that we are trying to build?

Support new talent. It sounds obvious, but it isn’t always the case. Inclusive hiring and programming practices have to be happening back of house as well as front of house, and at all levels. Just as important is giving people space to fail, learn, grow, and to make the connections that are most pertinent to their own lives.

Consider your biases and assumptions. We all know about the gender pay gap, but the ethnicity pay gap in the UK is far bigger and there are few people of colour, LGBTQ+, or disabled people in institutional leadership positions. It’s very easy to feel like those groups are not interested in climate change, but erasure of marginalised groups in the cultural imagination does not erase the fact that they are leading the way in climate activism.

Be purposeful. Could organisations programming for Season For Change, for example, consider organising creative workshops with local community groups about air pollution, local waste services, or food insecurity? The links between social and climate justice issues have to be made explicit. It is too urgent a crisis to shy away from its truths, and no single issue can be solved without recognising its connection to others.

Consider what you want your diversity objectives to achieve. If it is a box ticking exercise it will be clearly inauthentic. Is it to offer a seat at the table? Be honest about whose table that is and whose unheard history that table is built on. (In my ideal world we’d smash this conceptual table altogether and sit on the grass with the wildlife.) Consider who is centred through your programming; your language and your systems; who is your benchmark; and whether you are bringing people into your world or accompanying them with humility.

Reach out to new networks. (And don’t leave this to the unpaid, unsupported work of the black person in the team.) There’s so much inspiring, challenging work happening; marginalised groups are taking charge, creating their own spaces and reaching out to audiences that never knew they could be part of the arts or climate activism. Fund them. Throw your weight behind them, give them a venue and a voice, and not the small room at the awkward time slot. Your actions speak volumes about your values and priorities.

Make your language accessible. This needs to be part and parcel of any other accessibility considerations. Beyond that, interrogate the language you use when you talk about climate change. When we talk about a future ‘tipping point’ for the planet of 2 degrees of warming, let’s understand who that tipping point is for, and let’s be clear and realistic about what 2 degrees actually means for many of the world’s poorest. Let’s stop perpetuating the illusion that we in the Global North are the standard bearer for civilisation, and start following the lead of communities who have been forced to adapt to a new reality for decades – pushing for more robust policy, investment in innovation, thoughtful connection with the natural world , and reducing consumption. These are communities that we have a lot to learn from.

Stop being surprised that racism/ableism/sexism/homophobia/classism exists. Listen to and trust what we at the sharp end have been telling you. It isn’t confined to bigots who live ‘somewhere else’. Racism happens in liberal, creative institutions and every single artist of colour that I’ve ever spoken with can attest to that. I don’t need you to be shocked and upset on my behalf. I need you to provide a place where I can feel heard. The best will in the world is nothing if it isn’t backed up by trust and authentic, self-aware structures of support.


Watch Gavin Porter’s film series #whogivesaFaboutpolarbears?

Watch ‘Blindspot’ by Zena Edwards

Image: Zena Edwards (c) James Allan Photography