Climate Change and Community: An Interview with Reverend Mariama White-Hammond
Reverend Mariama White-Hammond is a pastor at the New Work AME Church in Boston. In addition to her role as a faith leader, she is also a climate and social justice advocate. Some of her distinctions include being a Faith Fellow with the Green Justice Coalition, being the formed Executive Director of Project HIP-HOP, and being a recipient of the Boston NAACP Image Award. ClimateX chats with Reverend Mariama about the intersectional nature of environmental and social justice issues, and how to engage both communities of faith, and the general public, in activist movements.
Mikaela: Tell me about your background. How did you get involved in the climate justice movement?
Rev. Mariama: I grew in a community where people said you shouldn’t waste. My mom said, if we didn’t finish our dinner, we had to eat it for breakfast. So in terms of the ideas of reducing, reusing, recycling, those were things I was taught growing up. In the nineties, when I was learning about environmental issues, it was also the height of gun violence in Boston. I felt the disconnect between protecting polar bears, and the death of people in my neighborhood.
So while I cared about environmental issues, I wasn’t super engaged because there is a way that environmental issues are framed in a privileged perspective, around saving pristine places and not thinking about the deeper connections surrounding human thriving and planet conservation. Sometimes the folks who lead environmental movements haven’t directly experienced their impacts. They tend to be more upper-middle class, white folks who have not experienced the same level of vulnerability.
A lot of issues I care about, such as incarceration and poverty, were deeply connected with climate change. And so my hope and desire in the work that I do is to help reframe environmental issues around really protecting people and the planet. My hope is that a lot of people who consider themselves to be traditional environmentalists would also want to work on both.
Mikaela: How do you see climate justice overlapping with other social justice issues?
Rev. Mariama: I think there’s a profound problem that we face as a human species; the wants of some have superseded the needs of many. That is true not just in terms of amphibians, who have seen their habitats completely decimated; that’s true for people who are asked to live on trash. So there’s a disregard for the sanctity of all forms of life, a lack of respect for the fact that every organism has a right to thrive. I do think the problem of climate change is the problem of human greed and disregard for other forms of life.
When I leave the house every morning, I take my water bottle and my cell phone. If I forget my water bottle, I tend to think, oh, I’ll figure it out. But if I leave my cell phone, I’ll go back home. But the reality is, my water is something I need to live, and my iPhone is not. We have built a world, in which we pollute water to make iPhones. And that’s a deeply sick society, that would sacrifice the thing it needs to live, for those that are not crucial. A lot of my work is asking what really matters, and how we put those things in the center of society and our structures.
Mikaela: What role do you see religious leaders and institutions having in climate justice?
Rev. Mariama: I’ve been to a number of interfaith dialogues, where faith leaders are talking about this. How do we include this more deeply in the work we do in our faith communities? There’s an organization called Green the Church, which is looking at these conversations within black churches. There is a religion and science cohort that has come together with Cardinal O’Malley here in Massachusetts. And with the Woods Hole Research center, we are beginning to create conversations between scientists and religious leaders.
Scientists have done a really good job of describing what is happening (with climate change), but the reason that some people are in denial is because the way it’s described is so overwhelming that they can’t process it. So what we bring as religious leaders is the ability to help people have a story that is both honest about where we are, but also provides hope, so that they don’t feel paralyzed and are able to do something about it. I have a lot of hope, and I recognize that there’s a whole lot more work to be done.
Mikaela: How would you describe your approach to climate justice and other forms of activism? Where do you see opportunities for collaboration?
Rev. Mariama: At the end of the day, we have disordered ways of thinking. For me, as a minister, I think a lot of that is spiritual. A lot of that is how do we help ourselves wake up every morning, prioritizing the things that matter most. Prioritizing the thriving of our children, over some people’s desire to get as many guns as they want. Prioritizing access to clean water over access to top of the line cars. If our priorities are right, we have everything we need. We have all of the intelligence, all of the resources we need to radically change our world.
For me, a lot of the connection is, if the root cause of some of these issues is the same, why should we being attacking them in such radically different ways? Are there ways we can think about improving education, and stopping climate change at the same time? Are there ways to reduce the number of people in prison, and create a new work force for wind turbines? By thinking of these things separately, we don’t consider resources that are available. We also don’t have the opportunity to create solutions that address multiple problems at the same time.
I talk a lot about Illinois, where they did an energy efficiency bill, and they trained people to do efficiency audits. The group they focused on was kids aging out of foster care. Why? Because those are the people that if they lack support and opportunity, are the most likely to end up in jail. So if we can train those young people to be part of a solution in their communities, they don’t have to be part of the problem. And so then you start having foster care advocates, prison reform advocates, and environmental advocates all showing up at the state house asking for the same thing.
Some of the most powerful innovations we see in science are amazing international collaborations. So why aren’t we doing that same thing with the social challenges that we face? Bringing together people collaboratively to re-imagine something that can solve multiple problems at the same time.
Mikaela: What advice would you give to someone hoping to get involved in the climate justice movement?
Rev. Mariama: The first thing that is good news is that there is no lack of work to be done. People don’t have to imagine one project or one purpose. One of the things to ask is what are your strengths? And what way can your strengths uniquely contribute to the movement? Where are there local opportunities to engage? And I think the other thing is: where is your heart and passion? When you find something that is a combination of your specific skill set, and your passion, when you have a passion, you’re going to stick to? it longer. Trying for something that hits all of those things is the sweet spot.
But the truth is, we are in so much trouble, we need to be doing so many things at the same time. I’m hoping that people who read this interview, they are starting to think about the ways they can help make a difference around the issue of climate; and transform the world into a place we can be more proud to be a part of. Not just avoiding disaster, but help us be a genuinely better people and planet.