'Climate Change Is Racial Injustice': Students Speak Their Truth In Winning Podcast

21 hours ago
Originally published on June 17, 2020 8:32 pm

The club was supposed to meet once a week. But for many of the members of Men in Color, Wednesday afternoons turned into Monday afternoons and Thursdays too.

"After school, we were always in Mr. C's room," says Jaheim Birch-Gentles, a recent graduate of the High School for Innovation in Advertising and Media in the Canarsie neighborhood of Brooklyn. He's referring to one of the club's advisors, Mischaël Cetoute. The club served as a safe space for students to talk through issues and ideas.

Those afternoon meetings gave rise to the Flossy Podcast, where the students tackle big social issues mixed in with their lived experiences.

Their episode about climate change and environmental racism is one of this year's grand-prize winners in the NPR Student Podcast Challenge. It was created by Jaheim and fellow club members Joshua Bovell, Brianna Johnson, Jamar Thompson, Kamari Murdock, Isaiah Dupuy, with theme music produced by club member Ieszan McKinney.

The episode begins with the idea that, "climate change Is racial injustice," and focuses on the idea that pollution and the environment impact communities differently — even within Brooklyn.

"For people growing up in Canarsie, we don't really realize we're living in these areas," says Joshua Bovell in the podcast. "But then you go somewhere else, like Mill Basin, and you're like, 'Why is this so different than where I live?' "

They visited a Climate Change March in Manhattan, where they saw mostly white people demonstrating. And in their podcast they wonder, aloud, Why?

From left: Jamar Thompson, 17; Jaheim Birch-Gentles, 17; Brianna Johnson, 18, in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Kholood Eid for NPR

They discuss the obvious barriers: Time. Location. Education. And then they bring in their own experiences, with climate events they've experienced, such as hurricanes, and the fact that their school sits near a landfill.

Environmental racism, explains Birch-Gentles in an interview, is "something that we can actually see and taste." He points to the situation with the school's drinking fountains: "People would drink from the water fountain and afterward they really wouldn't feel good," he says. It turns out, the school had lead in its pipes. Lead is actually a common problem in schools, especially in Brooklyn's aging buildings, where about 80 percent of public schools had a faucet or fixture leaching lead, according to a 2017 report.

The students cited in their reporting research that shows climate change, including rising temperatures in cities and poor air quality, disproportionately affects non-white neighborhoods. Black communities face dangerously high levels of pollution and are more likely to live near landfills and industrial plants that pollute water and air and erode quality of life, according to a 2018 report from the Environmental Protection Agency.

From left: Ieszan McKinney, 18; Joshua Bovell, 18; Kamari Murdock, 18, in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Kholood Eid for NPR

For co-host Jamar Thompson, the topic is not only urgent and relevant, it's also related to what's happening now with protests and Black Lives Matter. "Racism is like a tree," he says, "and police brutality and environmental racism are just a couple of branches off that giant tree."

Young people's voices often get left out of these conversations, says Thompson, and adults need to do a lot more listening.

"They feel as though, because we are young, we don't know what we're talking about when we speak about certain things. And I feel like that isn't true," he adds. " I don't speak about things I don't know about."

When he does know something, Thompson says, or when he sees something that isn't right, he speaks up about it. That's his message for young people especially now.

The Flossy Podcast wouldn't have been possible if the club hadn't decided to build a recording studio at the school, with help from several adults. It took about two years, a big grant, and lots of hard work.

When the students pitched the idea, "I was like, 'OK, let's make that happen,' " recalls Cetoute, a restorative justice coordinator at the school who helped oversee the club. "I promise you that it was the most frustrating process in the world. But when they finally get that support, they win something. And that completely changes, for the rest of their life I think, how much they will believe in the power of their voice."

Being OK with the way they sounded was a journey, says Birch-Gentles. "When I heard how everybody else hears me, it was completely different from what I hear."

But with each episode, he says, his confidence grew. "It forced me to get comfortable because this is how I sound and it's not changing."

He ended up writing his college essay about the experience.

When he first started podcasting, "I just viewed myself as a kid from the neighborhood of Canarsie, and I'm speaking about what I've seen and my experiences."

Birch-Gentles didn't think of himself as an activist then, and even now, he resists the term.

Jamar Thompson agrees. He sees himself in much simpler terms: "I'm a person who spoke his truth and I spoke about what I felt. That's kind of more of what I am."

Truth tellers. Sharing their experiences and their opinions and inspiring other young people to do the same.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

When slavery ended, the disenfranchisement of black Americans did not. Discrimination continued in jobs, housing, education. That's why we have staggering economic inequality in the U.S. So are the descendants of the enslaved owed reparations? Economist William Darity says yes. His new book is "From Here To Equality: Reparations For Black Americans In The Twenty-First Century." The book reminds us that slavery and emancipation weren't that long ago. We talked first about a 90-year-old woman in North Carolina who was getting a Civil War pension from the government until she died just a few weeks ago.

WILLIAM DARITY JR: The fact that somebody who was the child of a Civil War veteran was still receiving pension funds in 2020 is extremely striking. The individual that you're talking about is a woman who was white, whose father was white. And it's, again, suggestive of the ways in which there was a divergence in the rewards that the federal government gave by race to the folks who were descendants of the enslaved versus the folks who were the enslavers or folks who were complicit with the slavery process.

KING: I think a lot of us learn in school that emancipation happened, enslaved people were freed, and then they were able to go and make money just like everyone else in the United States of America, to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Your book does a fantastic job of detailing all of the ways in which that was untrue, the first being jobs. When enslaved people were emancipated, they couldn't just walk out into the world and demand payment for doing a job.

DARITY: No, they couldn't. And one of the reasons they could not was because of the institution of a series of laws that we now refer to as the Black Codes. And the Black Codes created restrictions on the authority that individual black folks had over their family life, but it also created restrictions on their employment opportunities and their capacity to exercise agency over the types of jobs that they took.

KING: There was a moment reading your book where I wondered, in all honesty, as you lay out the Black Codes, as you lay out the ways in which they were institutionalized, it seemed worth asking, you know, did the North even win the Civil War? I mean, one of the things that is so clear in your telling of this history is that, yes, emancipation happened, but the Southern states, the Confederacy, made lots and lots of demands, particularly around what would happen to black people and what would happen to their labor. And the North gave in.

DARITY: I think that's correct. The North did give in, and I think that the North gave in, in part, because the price for providing full citizenship to black Americans would have meant having a sustained and long-term division among white Americans because the price for achieving full citizenship for black Americans would have meant deconfederatization in full. And in turn, the North would've had to commit to having the Union Army play an extended role in the Southern part of the United States. And ultimately, it was not done.

KING: When did the Black Codes end?

DARITY: The practices associated with the Black Codes continue into the period of formal legal segregation. It's what we refer to as the Jim Crow period. And the laws that undergirded legal segregation in the United States, or American apartheid, really don't get overturned until the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

KING: And so when we look at these vast inequalities now between white wealth and black wealth, inequalities that extend to health outcomes, homeownership, education, the size of people's bank accounts, the neighborhoods that people live in, where do those gaps come from?

DARITY: I think it's a consequence of a host of social policies and practices that had been put in place in the aftermath of the Civil War. So the starting point is the failure to provide the formerly enslaved with the 40-acre land grants that they were promised. At the same time, substantial allocations of land were being made to white Americans. And then subsequently, over the course of the next 80 years or so, there was a series of white massacres that took place across the United States, where black communities that had begun to develop some degree of prosperity and independence were literally destroyed. And then in the 20th century, there was a sustained pattern of discrimination in access to homeownership on the part of blacks, starting with the existence of restrictive covenants, following through with redlining and the accompanying predatory lending practices that were associated with obtaining home mortgages. So we have a set of public policies that lie at the heart of the creation of this gaping wealth gap. And this means, in turn, that we need new public policy to reverse those conditions.

KING: Part of the promise of this book is that you will offer a road map to reparations. Put simply, who do you think should get reparations?

DARITY: We propose that there are two criteria for eligibility. The first is what we refer to as a lineage standard. An individual would have to demonstrate that they have at least one ancestor who was enslaved in the United States. And then the second is an identity standard. An individual would have to demonstrate that for at least 12 years before the enactment of a reparations program, the individual would've had to have self-identified as black, Negro or African American.

KING: And then would you make the argument that checks should be cut to individuals, to families, or should there be a large pool of money that could go toward supporting education, supporting homeownership?

DARITY: We feel strongly that direct payments must be a major component. We have talked about support for education, support for entrepreneurial activity, some resources that go to historically black colleges and universities. But the preponderance of the funds must go to individual recipients. And they must go in such a way that we, in fact, eliminate the racial wealth gap. That's the big objective of the reparations project.

KING: William Darity Jr. is the co-author of "From Here To Equality: Reparations For Black Americans In The Twenty-First Century." His co-author is A. Kirsten Mullen, also his wife. Thank you so much for being with us.

DARITY: Thank you so much.

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