Lauren Ritchie, a young climate justice advocate, talks about the dichotomy between her experiences with the ravages of growing climate change in the Bahamas and her life today as a student at Columbia University in New York. She will reflect on what shaped her perspective on the climate justice movement and the need for intersectionality within it.
LAUREN RITCHIE: Hi, MAKER community. Thank you very much for inviting me here today. When I was 15, I saw my home, Grand Bahama Island, ravaged by Hurricane Matthew. Three years later, before we had a chance to fully assess the past damage and begin to rebuild, Hurricane Dorian once again tore our community apart.
I quickly realized that while most privileged people around the world viewed the existential threat posed by the ongoing climate emergency as a distant warning that can easily be ignored or perhaps just a rumor of impending doom, for those of us who live in my community in the Bahamas, the climate emergency is already here.
When I moved to New York City in 2018, I experienced this dissonance firsthand. After spending my formative years watching my beloved island crumble around me, I discovered that the faces at the forefront of the climate crisis were nothing like those suffering back home. Instead, I found out that the environmental movement posters consisted of scientists, academics, and middle-aged white women on Instagram roaming farmers markets with smiles on their faces and tote bags. all elegant draped over their shoulders.
In my classes at Columbia University, I once again looked Hurricane Dorian in the face. Only this time, I no longer had the shared experiences of my community to support me. As my teacher put greedy hands around the classroom, each offering solutions to the environmental problems facing the Bahamas, the detached and jargon-riddled comments from my American classmates echoed in my ears, leaving me alone. feel exposed and alienated.
In their voyeuristic frenzy, they let loose statistics, climate adaptation policies, and economic plans, but none of them stopped to consider the trauma suffered by those who fell victim to the wrath of Dorian. In their learned sensitivity, they did not take into account the complex nature of the crisis beyond their research case study.
It’s okay, I reasoned. They just don’t understand. They never supported their best friend and her family in homelessness when their home was irreparably flooded. They were never a toddler alone on the top floor of a swing apartment building, praying that the infrastructure could weather the storm. They don’t know any better. But when was it my responsibility as the only Bahamian in the classroom to teach them?
As a young Caribbean woman now existing in the ivory tower of higher education, I often feel like a bridge connecting my past and present in hopes of creating a better future. I have a strong sense of duty to ensure that my community’s experiences are incorporated into the institutions with the most power to bring about change and that intersectionality, inclusiveness and nuance are prioritized in action climate for years to come.
As someone who has observed the evolution of society so rapidly and so remarkably in my lifetime, I have the courage to spearhead any changes I wish to see. I founded The Eco Justice Project in 2020 to fill the void I noticed in climate education for young people and to raise awareness about climate change in an engaging, modern and above all accessible way.
That same year, I also created Columbia Climate Conversations, a series of panels at my university to engage the undergraduate community with perspectives from women climate scientists and environmental activists of color, and the podcast “Black Girl Blueprint,” one of the first long platforms of its kind, to share experiences and showcase the achievements of black girls of generation Z. This is how I chose to leave my mark, to be part of the leadership of the next wave of climate advocacy that places women of color at the forefront of a movement that has historically and continues to tell us that our experiences and stories don’t matter.
And don’t get me wrong. It’s not an easy job for any of us, especially as a black woman in predominantly white environments, a full-time student with higher education aspirations. And of course, we cannot forget the global pandemic that is overwhelming us all. The question that remains then is: how to stay motivated? How can we continue to strive to create a better world despite all the obstacles placed in our way? In short, how to continue?
As aspiring agents of change, resistance is our area of expertise. However, we often don’t think of listening to our body and mind as a form of resistance per se. We get into the habit of commodifying ourselves in order to be as productive as possible as we aim higher, dream bigger, and push harder because we’re desperate to believe our efforts are making a difference.
We are terrified of what the state of the world would become if we stop to catch our breath, so we forget the communities that brought us to this job in the first place, and protecting the planet starts with protecting ourselves first – same.
In other words, be kind to yourself. And note that even in this world that seems so fast-paced and demanding most of the time, all the incremental impacts you can make to advance your cause, whatever it is, is still worth celebrating. Empowering women is one of the most powerful forces imaginable, an energy created among like-minded women with a common belief, purpose and understanding that goes beyond what we think we are. And it shows us how much more we can become.