By Laila Walker and Bryan Benavides
My name is Laila Walker. I am a summer intern at The Watershed Project, and I attend El Cerrito High School as a rising senior. I’m interested in environmental justice, and as a black young woman of color, intersectionality is so important to me because it protects me and my family.
Intersectionality is the practice of unconditional inclusivity. It describes an interconnected system between different groups of people based on their race, class, gender identity, culture, and other social identities. The word itself was coined by Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, a black feminist who created the term to address the lack of inclusivity among many American feminist movements.
Since its inception, the word is meant to represent, to advocate for marginalized groups of people where an important discussion is happening, but others are being left out; it promotes activism within activism. The practice of intersectionality becomes morally compulsory whenever an organization discusses an issue that affects different groups of people. I’ve seen intersectionality fail when women’s suffrage groups in the early 1900s refused to advocate for the voting rights of women of color; I’ve seen it fail when people speak about voter suppression but exclude convicted felons from the conversation; I’ve seen it fail when people preach about environmental conservation but do not address the invasion and blatant disrespect of sacred indigenous land. In response to these failures, other organizations have been formed to pick up the slack, but they have hardly any traction because they are overshadowed by their predecessor. This is why intersectionality is so important so the voices of everyone involved make it to the mainstream media, so everyone is treated with the same amount of respect, receiving the same amount of attention.
When discussing environmental conservation it is also important to address the problems of poorer communities that suffer from environmental racism, causing them to have to breathe in harmful fumes from refineries (Richmond, California), drink unclean water (Flint, Michigan), and live among toxic waste (Warren County, North Carolina) because of their lack of representation where it matters, and how the value of a human life is based off of the color of their skin and their ability to make money. By excluding these groups and many others from the conversation of environmental justice, their issues do not make it to mainstream media, and thus the problem does not improve or it may worsen. Without practicing intersectionality, many social issues get no attention, and as a result there is no outrage, outrage that would contribute to the improvement of the living conditions in these communities. Marginalized groups are overlooked, and the discussion of environmental conservation whilst excluding different groups of people becomes counterproductive.
To discuss a social issue and not practice intersectionality is another act of silencing and oppression. It is especially important when addressing climate change and practicing environmental conservation.
My name is Bryan Benavides, I’m a summer intern for The Watershed Project, I’m a senior at Richmond High School, I like gardening, spending quality time with my family and watching greys anatomy. Intersectionality is important to me because it lets me see the perspective of different communities and allows me to help those who can’t get heard get heard.
What does intersectionality mean for you?
Intersectionality to me means to let the voices of different communities who have been marginalized and been silenced get their voices heard. To see and hear different communities and their struggles. To analyze and come up with ways to let oppressed communities have a chance to speak up. Intersectionality to me means to give everyone a voice.
What are two parts of your identity that intersect?
Identifying as male and while identifying as Mexican are two parts of my identity that intersect. Although I have the privileges and advantages that come with being a male in this society, I also have to struggle with the oppression and obstacles that come with being Mexican in a country where my community is seen and labeled as illegal and dangerous.
Laila shares examples of what happens when intersectionality isn’t considered in decision making (voting rights for women of color, voting rights for criminalized folks and land acknowledgment for indigenous peoples), how have you personally experienced a lack of intersectionality or how have you witnessed others around you experience this?
Yes, unfortunately, intersectionality is left out and not practiced a lot when it comes to having conversations about healthier food systems. For example, Richmond, San Pablo, and other cities that are made up of low-income and POC families are in the middle of a food desert because communities who are dealing with poverty and who are low income are not included in those meetings and conversations that are made to establish healthier food distributors and systems. Even at this time, I still see the difference in grocery stores and other food distributions between cities made up of POC living paycheck by paycheck and cities made up of white people.
How does acknowledging our intersecting identities as individuals help us better understand and support each other?
Analyzing and reflecting on our privileges and oppressions help us understand how we can use our privileges to help different communities who unfortunately lack that privilege and prevent the oppressions that we have fought against. This being said, knowing our strengths and weaknesses allows us to have a better understanding of how we can help other communities.
Laila writes about environmental justice – how does this relate to The Watershed Project and why is it important that we acknowledge intersectionality?
Environmental Justice relates a lot to TWP more importantly because they are focused on creating an environment where no one is marginalized, oppressed and silenced. This isn’t possible if intersectionality isn’t used when deciding on projects, events, or any type of plan making. Intersectionality gives The Watershed Project a chance to see what they need to do for different communities to make this new safe and healthy environment.
How does intersectionality help organizations understand the communities they serve?
Intersectionality gives organizations points of views from different communities that are being impacted by them. By using intersectionality, they’re given the opportunity to evaluate what aid needs to be improved and how. Also by practicing intersectionality, all these organizations are able to analyze all the different types of communities that they’re helping and by knowing that they could have a better understanding of what each community needs from them.