Today we’re featuring Sydney’s interview with Anya Dillard, a 17-year-old activist, philanthropist, content creator, and the founder of The Next Gen Come Up. I loved reading the energy and passion in their conversation.
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What do you define as environmental justice and how did you get involved in the movement?
Before I became an activist, I was really into STEM and I was an animal nerd, so I grew up believing that I wanted to become a scientist, environmentalist, zoologist, or something of that nature. When I discovered that racism was such a huge issue in our country, I pivoted into humanities and journalism. The first protest I ever organized was the climate strike at my high school; I organized the walkout and it served as an easy bridge to environmental justice because I understood the whole mission behind the climate change awareness movement. At this same time, I was also dedicated to initializing my Black Lives Matter advocacy and still trying to get an understanding of who I was as a Black Lives Matter and women’s empowerment activist. That event had a lot to do with me just trying to find a middle ground. It was so early in my academic journey that I figured I can just jump in and offer my knowledge. With that being said, my STEM focus growing up helped me to understand the importance of climate change advocacy and that there are many racial and social factors that determine how people are affected by climate change.
You mentioned the climate strike that you organized through your school. Would you say that your education played a role in your environmental advocacy? I know that it isn’t very common for schools to talk about topics like environmental racism and environmental justice.
I didn’t start learning about environmental sciences in the sense of race until this year. Before, we would just learn about pollution and whatever, but we never got into that social dynamic. That I saw through reading the newspaper every other day or watching television and being self-educated. When I organized the climate strike, it was very spur of the moment. It was the day of the national climate strike where a bunch of people at schools and universities were walking out of their classes, so I was like “oh, my town is really diverse and my high school doesn’t play about social stuff, so they must be doing something”. I get to lunch and I’m like…what’s going on? Everyone was like “we’re not doing anything. There’s no walkout”, so I just walked out with a megaphone running around saying “we’re walking out for the climate strike”. I managed to get a couple hundred people to come out, but still… it boggles my mind that a school as politically and socially aware as mine wasn’t prioritizing climate change awareness. It was also crazy because I was the only main organizer that was a Black girl and I was also the only person who got detention for that protest. But, I just showed up and was like, I’ll take the detention and take one for the team.
When I was out there on the field giving a speech to the kids that were coming out, I said “two years ago, my freshman year, we had a massive March for Our Lives protest after the Parkland shooting and every single one of us came and sat on this field in the cold winter for it because we knew that it could directly affect us at any point in time.” With climate change, people have this idea where it’s like, “Oh, well we’re not seeing the immediate impact… We’re living in the suburbs, so it’s not like we have to deal with anything that’s directly a cause of climate change or pollution.” So they’re like, “Oh yeah it’s a problem, but … we’re good so we’re not going to immediately act on it”. This is the same thing with police brutality; a lot of the Black community can become victims of police brutality at any given time on any given day, but climate change does not pose an imminent threat to us in our mind because it’s like… “Ok, well evolution took a long time, erosion takes a long time, pollution and water contamination take a long time, so regardless of whether one of our family members just spontaneously ends up with cancer or we start wheezing one day and our doctor says “Oh yeah you have asthma”, we don’t even directly correlate that with the fact that we could be living in a polluted community. I definitely think that my education did not necessarily gear me toward environmental awareness, but it gave me a better idea of why there needs to be more attention drawn towards it.
So where do you think that education can start? In the classroom, do you believe that there should be courses on environmental issues, or do you think it’s just a matter of dedicating a month around Earth Day to special education about climate change? In other words, what do you see environmentalist education looking like?
There are so many things that I didn’t learn in my freshman through junior year of high school that I learned in my senior year and I’m like, why aren’t these classes mandatory? Environmental science is something that I’m taking now. We just finished talking about urbanization and how certain communities of color are commonly built around contaminated waste sites. We also studied how some communities don’t trust the census. Because of that, the government doesn’t allocate enough resources to these communities I feel that education starts with mandating those kinds of discussion courses that rely on sharing information about how certain industries profit off of spilling waste into impoverished communities.
I definitely think there should be more classes that everyone is forced to take. They don’t have to be rigorous classes; they could just be discussion classes where you cover one topic a day but still make sure that young people are aware that these problems aren’t going away. If anything, these problems are worsening.
I like your emphasis on how important it is for the youth to get involved in environmental justice. What do you think would have been beneficial for older generations to do in terms of environmental justice? Do you think that we can make up for some of the mistakes they made, or do you think that some of the damage is irreversible?
I think that a huge part of making up for the mistakes that past generations made is understanding that there is a knowledge gap. That gap in knowledge is something that adults like to fight Gen-Zers on because they’re like “well, y’all are young and you don’t know anything about life, so how can you teach us anything?” That’s a dangerous, ignorant perspective to have, because if you can’t learn something from another age group— especially when it comes to maintaining the health of our planet— then you’re not realizing that there are things that we noticed you didn’t do that you didn’t even notice you weren’t doing to make change. There are things that go back ages… even the fact that race trumps class in the whole environmental scenario. You could be a middle-class Black person living in a good neighborhood making a substantial salary and you’re still more likely to be affected by a pollutant waste site than a white person who makes significantly less money than you. For us to be able to pick apart these problems and reconstruct solutions, we have to admit “Ok, we didn’t do this, but how can we help y’all get it done or fix whatever happened because of the fact that we didn’t get whatever done”.
So what do you think are some of the steps youth can take to get involved in environmental justice? What do you advise them to do in terms of educating themselves and taking action?
There are so many great climate activists out there who are dedicated to going green or encouraging people to support causes like clean water and other great initiatives. There’s Little Miss Flint (Amariyanna Copeny), Ron Finley, and Leah Thomas; I personally follow them for knowledge and inspiration. I definitely think that young people should stay educated by following people like that, reading the news, and by googling “what’s happening to the environment? What can I do to donate? What causes are there? What initiatives can I start?” Even just making it a family tradition of planting a tree somewhere every year or encouraging your school to have a beautification day where you go out and raise a bunch of money to buy more flora for your campus are simple activities that can motivate you to be more aware of the environment and encourage other people to look at environmental justice and environmental racism as issues that need to be talked about today.
What was your earliest memory of environmental justice? It can either be something you did or something that someone else did that stood out to you.
My oldest memory is one time I went to New York with my dad when I was really little. He used to drive me up to see my grandma every weekend in Manhattan. We were driving and I remember seeing this factory with smoke coming out of big pillars. I said to him, “that looks nasty. It looks like really dirty air.” And he was like “yeah, dirt and soot get in the air after they manufacture certain things and a lot of that gets put back into the sky”. And I said to him, “well, we’re going towards it… people live there and there are apartments there.” When I heard dirty air, I was thinking “then why is anyone surrounding this; that isn’t healthy”. He explained that a lot of the time— because of low-income housing costs and how the government chooses to allocate resources— a lot of low-income housing is built around these places that the government doesn’t want to get rid of. Because of that, a lot of people do get sick. I remember him explaining that to me, and I knew it didn’t sound right. Obviously, as a child, you don’t understand the concept of racism and that some people just genuinely don’t care about other groups of people’s wellbeing. In this day and age, we see that with not just air, but water pollution as well.
Flint, Michigan is a textbook example of environmental injustice and environmental racism. There were hundreds of thousands of people that were drinking lead-poisoned water just because the government wanted to save some money. That’s insane to me. Just like how riverside towns in Louisiana and Detroit are constantly being compromised by big oil companies dumping all this waste in rivers and stuff like that. We see it every day, yet people choose to ignore them because they predominantly affect communities of color. Because people of color don’t have as much political influence, it’s easy for regulators, politicians, and administrators in these towns to ignore how these issues are affecting us— especially when it’s saving money for whoever the beneficiaries are.
How has your idea of advocacy changed over time?
Before I knew what activism was, I thought that advocates were politicians, but I learned that those are two extremely different things. True advocates are people that don’t care about semantics. They don’t really care about perception or optics. All they care about is bringing people to the table to address whatever the issue at hand is. There’s an art to being a politician. To be a politician in spirit is to be a campaign. You campaign and you say what you want people to receive in a positive light. Advocates who become politicians are the best politicians because being both of those things is what separates good leaders from power hungry people in the government. Learning that was one of the cornerstones of me understanding the differences between politics and advocacy and how they can both support one another.
What’s something you’ve learned on your environmental justice journey that you want readers to take away from this conversation?
I would say that racism and climate change have a lot in common. People love to debate both of their existences, people love to say how either does or doesn’t affect one group, when in reality it affects everyone in the long term. It’s interesting to think about it this way because when we think about racism, we think we’ll be good after we fix our law enforcement system and initiate a reparation system. But in reality, there are a lot of trickle-down effects of racism, and at least one of those falls under the umbrella of environmental change.
I encourage young people to always find these intersections between social issues. Because regardless of what social issue you’re passionate about, there are about 10 other causes that are affected by it. Understanding what’s really wrong in society has a lot to do with acknowledging that no issue or group of people is individual. We have to be diligent about how things that we disregard everyday are affecting people across the aisle, even when those people may not share our same experience.
What does the future of your environmental justice look like? What are your next steps of advocacy?
I really want to pursue the creative side of my talents and become an advocate to raise awareness for humanistic causes. The creative leg of my brain was founded on things like writing and film— especially when it comes to documentation. In the future, I want to produce documentaries that raise awareness about how anti-environmentalist industries affect indigenous communities and how certain things trickle down to Black communities. I especially want to explore how certain southern communities heavily saturated with Black and latino people have a lack of holistic health resources and how it heightens the level of health issues within our communities.
My mom has always said that I don’t have to completely abandon environmental science just because I want to be creative; there are a lot of things I can do to utilize my creativity to raise awareness about the issues I’m passionate about. I want to continue fundraising, having conversations like this with different media forms, and helping to spread knowledge surrounding environmental racism.
Anya Dillard is a 17-year-old activist, philanthropist, content creator, and the founder of The Next Gen Come Up − an organization that encourages youth to pursue activism, explore community service, and raise awareness through creativity. Anya is best known for helping to organize the largest Black Lives Matter protest and the first-ever public Juneteenth celebration in her town’s history, becoming the head of her schools first-ever all-female (all POC) student council cabinet, and for her features in The Washington Post, Elle, Seventeen, and Glamour for her extensive activism and philanthropist work. Anya has been a keynote speaker on forums hosted by Howard University, The Clinton Foundation, and the Conversationalist to name a few, and she has also served as a youth mentor for middle school and high school students in classrooms across the nation and in London.
What does the word “community” mean to you?
How has the fear of “doing the wrong thing” influenced how you support the social justice movements you care about? What may be a more helpful emotion to lead from?