Welcome to Day Two of our Earth Week series!
I absolutely loved chatting with Daphne, and was so inspired by her leadership. In today’s discussion, you’ll learn more about how necessary it is to center disabled voices in the climate justice movement, the harm of ableist environmental justice initiatives, and the power in trusting your voice.
Nicole and Sydney
Donate to Open Doors NYC, a network of artists, activists and advocates motivated by community building, gun violence prevention and disability rights.
Read more about the intersection of disability and environmental justice.
What was like the earliest time in your life that you remember getting involved in this work, your first memory, your first step in?
My first memory is from when I was in high school. I was becoming increasingly more ill and my disability was progressing. Each winter I would get pneumonia and eventually I was diagnosed with reactive airway disease. So, the pollution and the air quality around me impacted my health. During that time, I was part of a pre-professional program for young people interested in working in the healthcare field. That was the first time that I learned about public health. That program was centered in Washington Heights, New York City, which is a predominantly Hispanic, Black, and Brown community that has one of the highest levels of asthma amongst young people per capita. I actually did a research project about why this community has some of the highest rates of childhood asthma. And that’s when I realized, wait, this is a climate crisis.
How did you gain the confidence of stepping into this and becoming a speaker and an organizer? What was that process like for you?
The beginning years of my work definitely stemmed from a lot of anger where I was like, “why doesn’t anyone care about the issues that are impacting us?” So I sent that anger into action. I was like, “I’m not going to wait anymore for someone to listen. I’m not going to beg our elected officials to listen. I’m going to make them listen to us”. So I started organizing within my community. It was hard, because many people in my community have that immigrant mentality, which is like, “you don’t want to get noticed, you should just be grateful for what you have. Even though there are things that are impacting you, you don’t really do anything about it.” So I had to convince my community that their voices matter and that it’s okay to speak up and be heard.
And I knew that I had the ability to change that dynamic. During elementary and middle school, I went to school with my peers. But for high school, I went to a predominantly white institution with a lot of access to resources. And I noticed that for the students there, speaking up was a very natural thing. They didn’t even think twice about it. When something was wrong, they went to the principal and administration and did something about it. I realized, “if they’re doing that, I can do that too. And I can do that in my community. “
So in the summer of 2019, I ran to be part of the county committee of Assembly District 70, Election District 80 in West Harlem. We’re the community advocates that bridge the gap between citizens and representatives. I won my election. I won my election through the power of community. I was the first disabled Latina person to ever hold this position. It showed me that community is unstoppable.
That’s incredible. Congratulations! Tell me more about the intersection of disability and environmental justice. How did we get to a place where environmental justice is so rooted in ableism?
In essence, I think it’s because society tries to teach us that the voices of disabled people don’t matter. I also think that ignoring the voices of disabled people makes it easy to create solutions for the climate crisis that society can say benefits everyone and makes people feel like heroes. But in reality, they ignore a large part of the population.
We face a two-fold challenge in creating equitable voices of disabled people in the climate movement. First, we have to let people know that we exist. Once we get past that hurdle, then we can express that we’re also facing some of the biggest impacts of the climate crisis. This complexity makes it incredibly difficult for our voices to be heard. There’s so much that gets missed: like how natural disasters disproportionately affect us, and how we’re forgotten about in evacuation planning.
The climate crisis also exacerbates disability. We have communities that face issues like heat intolerance and communities that face weakened respiratory systems like myself. The changes in the seasons and air quality can aggravate disabilities and even cause more, growing the disability community.
Also, there’s a habit of villainizing disability within the climate movement when we look at things like the movement to ban plastic straws.
First of all, if you think that the fate of our earth rests on using straws or not, you’re missing the whole thing. You’re missing everything. Secondly, to villainize people with disabilities is to completely erase the accommodations and the needs that we require to survive. The things that we’re asking for aren’t luxuries. They’re essential for our survival.
Also, when we talk about villainizing people with disabilities for how much plastic we use. Well, we didn’t create the healthcare system. When people require feeding tubes and ports, we need those things to be sterile. And unfortunately, that means that those things are going to be single-use items. We don’t control that. We’re literally just trying to survive. So villainizing those things is incredibly ableist and it misses the entire point of environmental justice.
Exactly: if we’re trying to save the planet and its people but villainize part of the population in the process, we’re doing the opposite of environmental justice work.
Yeah. It fosters otherness. But by othering people, we create a polarization because, at the end of the day, we are all one human race, living on one planet. We all have to work together to make sure that this one home we have survives.
The systems that be, and the systems of oppression that have led us to experience ableism are the same systems of oppression that created the climate crisis. So if you’re trying to look at those issues in silos, you’re doing something wrong because those issues are correlated. Disability justice is all justice, and all justice is disability justice.
I imagine this work can be draining. How do you resource yourself as you hold this space?
It’s definitely hard because some of the conversations require me to bear the truth of my experience in order to get people to listen to me. That can be very emotionally tolling and exhausting. But I think it’s incredibly important for expanding equity and justice within the disabled community. Also, the way I hold space is simply by demanding that space. I will be at these tables where these pivotal, global conversations are happening. I’m constantly seeing campaigns and things that don’t include disabled voices. And I’m not afraid to call those people out. I think that we live in this weird society where we see things that are wrong, but we don’t say anything because that’s the status quo, and we’re afraid of the backlash. But look, what does any of that backlash matter when, like, you don’t have a planet? It literally makes no sense.
Thank you for that. What do you hope Earth Day looks like in 20 years?
I hope that in 20 years, Earth Day is a sort of birthday celebration for how clean and prosperous our Earth is, instead of how the Earth is dying. In 20 years if we don’t do something, there will probably only be one-half of the Earth left, so I hope it’s a celebration of life. I hope that everyone has learned how to create a more symbiotic relationship with the earth instead of only taking from it.
Can you tell me a bit more about the organization you want us to support and why you chose it?
Yes! The organization is called Open Doors NYC. It’s an amazing nursing home nonprofit based on Roosevelt Island. Many of its inhabitants are people with disabilities, but specifically survivors of gun violence. They use spoken word to talk about their experience and to dismantle the notion that just because you’re disabled doesn’t mean that your voice isn’t powerful. They’re working on a film right now to talk about their experience of what it was like to be in a nursing home during the pandemic.
One of their members created the online hashtag #nursinghomelivesmater, which became a huge movement. And I think it encompasses so much of what I said, subverting the norms of systems of oppression and saying, “nope, we’re here, we’re loud, we’re proud, and our stories matter.” They need as much support and help as possible.
Many people are going to be looking at this world and looking for ways to change it. What would be your advice?
First, you’re never too young to get started. The status quo tells us many things about young people – that you have to wait to be a certain age to do X, Y, Z. That’s completely irrelevant and completely false. You’re ready when your spirit and your soul say that you’re ready.
The best way to get started is by asking a question: what makes you tick? What makes you upset about the systems that be? What makes you upset about your community? Are there things you see in your community and your ecosystem that you can say to yourself “this could be better” or “it doesn’t have to be this way”.
I promise that even if other people aren’t speaking about it, they’re feeling the same things that you’re feeling. They’re just waiting on one person to ask them how they feel – and that one person can be you. You can start a revolution. Words are the building blocks for revolutions. Words can make anything happen. I believe in the power of conversation and community to empower you to do that. And I believe in you. I don’t have to know you to know that you have power. So I believe in you. I believe in your cause. And I believe in the power of your voice to get things done and make the change.
Please let me know when you decide to write a book! Last question: what is bringing you joy right now?
This weekend is my first weekend off in eight weeks! I’m carving out a self-care weekend, and I’m super excited about it. I’m going to brunch with my family! I’m also really excited because I’ve been working on my branding, and it looks so pretty. I’m so excited to share with the world. The people on the team I have been working with are some of the most amazing people, and that brings me immense joy.
Daphne Frias is a 23-year-old youth activist. She is unapologetically Latina. Having Cerebral Palsy, and using a wheelchair she is fiercely proud to be a loud champion for the disabled community. She got her start shortly after the Parkland shooting by busing 100+ students from her college campus to the nearest March For Our Lives (MFOL) event. In August of 2019, she was appointed as the NY State Director for March For Our Lives. Learn more on her website and follow her on Instagram @frias_daphne.
What current environmental justice initiatives are happening in your community right now? How many of them are ableist?
How can you ensure your work is inclusive to people with and without disabilities?