Among a flotilla of colorful “kayaktivists,” four women continued protesting long after the “Shell No!” signs disappeared from Bellingham Bay.
Afrin Sopariwala, Sarra Tekola, Yin Yu and Zarna Joshi banded together to form “Women of Color Speak Out” after experiencing racism and ignorance while protesting Arctic drilling, climate change, patriarchy, colonialism and more.
Now, they travel around the Pacific Northwest to bring issues of environmental justice to light through their lens as women of color.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”
Sopariwala, Tekola, Yu and Joshi came to speak at Western on Tuesday, Feb. 2. Audience members filled nearly all of the 445 seats in Arntzen Hall 100.
The presentation, dubbed “The Systems of Oppression and Climate Change,” delved into the relationship between climate change and the people of color who are disproportionately impacted by its effects.
“People are reaching out to us because they see, they realize and they recognize there is such a need for women of color and for women from frontline communities to speak on these issues because our voices are the voices that no one is hearing,” Joshi said.
Tekola discussed the need for people to look further into water pollutants on reservations and inner city, black neighborhoods rather than just the broader issues like solar panels and bicycles.
Joshi explained the group’s successes working in solidarity with a diverse groups of people, including indigenous people, against Royal Dutch Shell’s drilling plans in the Arctic. She said the victory in September, 2015, when Shell announced its plans to abandon Arctic drilling, was unreal.
“We formed this group, and through the very formation of this group, having the courage to speak out, actually going to town hall and inviting the press was actually fed into the consciousness of the wider movement that this is necessary,” Joshi said.
Galen Herz, a member of WWU Students for Renewable Energy, helped organize this event with the help of students involved in the Associated Students Social Issues Resources Center, Environmental Center, Women’s Center, Ethnic Student Center and Western Sustainability.
Herz saw the Women of Color Speak Out in Seattle this past summer, and thought Western’s campus would be receptive to their message, he said.
“I would hope Western students understand the root causes of climate change, and how climate change is an issue of racial justice,” Herz said.
Herz hopes attendees will apply the presentation’s concept of banding together to address the deeper cause of climate change as a community, he said.
“Everybody who leaves this event is committed to dismantling the systems of oppression and building a just world,” he said.
As the movement pushes forward, the activists are looking to expand and diversify the environmental movement in 2016.
“I want new people and more people of color to come into this space to work on these issues but I also want the mainstream environmental groups to work on issues that affect our communities and people of color,” Tekola said.