• Ariel Green

The Relationship Between Climate and Racial Justice with Raya Salter

Updated: Sep 13, 2020

The Relationship Between Climate and Racial Justice with Raya Salter, Energy & Climate Justice Lawyer



Today's featured sustainable brown girl is Raya Salter, an energy and climate justice lawyer. Raya is a member of the New York State Climate Action Council, the body that is developing the plan to implement the United States' leading climate law. She is also the Policy Organizer for New York Renews and editor of "Energy Justice."



Episode Summary

In this episode, we'll learn about how Raya got her start in the climate justice field and what it means to be a climate justice lawyer. Raya will discuss why racial justice plays a crucial role in sustainability and why we need to center the voices of BIPoC. She’ll also share ways we can all make a difference in the movement.



Episode Outline

[01:26] Introducing Raya

[02:11] How Raya became interested in climate activism

[03:26] The intersection of race and climate justice

[04:29] How Americans are experiencing climate racism now

[05:44] How we can counteract climate change through policy

[07:55] Why policy makers are not advocating to protect our environment

[09:15] Being Black in the field of energy and utilities

[12:31] Passing the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act in New York

[15:47] The response to New York Renews from policy makers

[17:29] What we can do to push our policy makers towards climate justice

[19:55] Climate change and intergenerational justice

[26:00] The narrative shift we need in climate justice

[29:40] One easy thing you can do to be more sustainable



Connect with Raya

Visit Raya's website: https://www.rayasalter.com/

Follow Raya on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/greengirlmagic/

Visit Raya’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/EarthtoRaya

Subscribe to Raya's YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCevZdlV8TTnNTnxGNwEmeeA

Subscribe to Raya's ASMR YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCkWMO64iyRbXQCq5fT4BlBw



Links

Black Lives Matter: https://blacklivesmatter.com/defundthepolice/

The Jemez Principles (organizer's bible): https://www.ejnet.org/ej/jemez.pdf

Listen to Finding Our Way Podcast: https://linktr.ee/findingourwaypod



LISTEN HERE: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google Play

Transcription


Ariel:

Hello and welcome back to The Sustainable Brown Girl Podcast. This show exists to connect black, brown and indigenous women who are interested in sustainability. Our goal is to inspire, encourage and educate each other. From gardening to thrifting, to minimalism, to veganism and everywhere in between. We're all on a journey to taking care of our bodies and our planet. I'm your host, Ariel Green.


On this podcast, we talk a lot about making individual lifestyle changes to be more sustainable, such as quitting plastic, thrifting, changing our beauty routines and while that's great, and we should all do what we can to reduce our environmental impact, sometimes I feel like it's not enough. The things that are going to make the biggest difference are going to require policy changes within the government, because as we all know, corporations are the biggest contributors to climate change, not individuals. So I'm so excited for today's episode. Today's featured Sustainable Brown Girl is Raya Salter, an energy and climate justice lawyer. Raya is a member of the New York state climate action council, the body that is developing the plan to implement the United States leading climate law. She is also the policy organizer for New York Renews and editor of Energy Justice. In this episode we'll learn about how Raya got her start in the climate justice field, as well as how racism and climate justice are intertwined and we'll learn how we can all make a difference in the movement.


Thanks so much for joining us today Raya.


Raya:

Thank you!


Ariel:

Let's just start at the beginning. Tell us about your sustainable journey and how you became interested in climate activism.


Raya:

Well, thank you so much and I also want to say that was so exciting to be introduced as a "Sustainable Brown Girl". I am [inaudible 02:24] Thank you so much. I guess I'll say I've always been someone who considered myself to be an activist for racial justice, for social justice and as I went to law school and started learning about infrastructure and learning about climate change, I knew that I had to get involved in climate justice because of the threat that climate crisis poses to black and brown people specifically, as a real threat to everything that we are and ever have been, which even eclipses when I had this realization that of everything that we have been through as a people, as Black American, slavery and all that we have been through, what the climate crisis represents to me it's even more than what we've already come out of and that's not acceptable and that is why I realized I had to focus on this.


Ariel

Yeah, definitely. How would you say that race and climate justice are intertwined?


Raya:

Racial justice is climate justice and anybody who claims to be a climate activist and they're not a racial or social justice activist, doesn't understand what climate justice is. Climate justice principle is, those who have caused climate crisis are going to experience it later in the least. Those who have done the least to cause climate crisis are going to experience its impacts first and worst, and that is us. We know this now, we understand through COVID in particular, how health disparities and the proximity to pollution, emissions, coal pollutants and other poisons increase vulnerabilities, this has laid the spare. Climate justice is racial justice and anyone who says it isn't doesn't know what climate justice.


Ariel:

Yeah. What are some ways that people in America are experiencing climate racism right now?


Raya:

That is an excellent question and there are so many metes and bounds to what... We talk about climate racism that we could be talking about because we can talk about environmental justice, the legacy impacts of energy and other systems that have a disproportionate impact on black and indigenous people and other people of color. Something I like to focus on, I'm going to maybe take a slightly different [inaudible 05:08] Right now, the failure to prepare for climate crisis and the failure to address climate crisis, even though we know it is here and it has this disproportionate impact, to me it's what I'm most focused on right now. So everybody, you're in Houston, you're in Puerto Rico, you're in Hawaii, you're in New York, we're about to experience this terrible hurricane season. We are left bare and unprepared as these...and it's negligence in my view and that to me is something I'm focused on now,


Ariel:

What are some policies that should be implemented? First and foremost, what are the types of policies that are most needed to help counteract climate change?


Raya:

Clearly, this is as we know, this is an intersectional issue so it is and it's the biggest existential issue of our time. So it involves the energy system, which is electricity and power but also transportation, also agriculture and we have to do work on sustainability as well, in terms of waste et cetera. There's a lot, but I can tell you from my perspective, the things that I would like to see to start and one of them is, throughout the country, throughout the world and I have advocated for them as well, we have these renewable portfolio standards, right? These goals that we set in New York, 100% renewable energy by 2040, 100% net zero of all carbon from all human caused sources by 2050 [inaudible 06:50] plastic, California, Hawaii, we need to have the same dedication to resilience.


Raya:

We need to be looking at resilience and climate justice in terms of the particulars of how we need to prepare and what needs to be done, has to be elevated at least to the level of climate standards. That's just one of the things, another piece that...and I'll stop, but another piece, because I'm an energy and utilities lawyer, it's just the low hanging fruit at this point, which is actually shoring up all of our critical facilities and our critical neighborhood assets with clean and resilient local power. Because, what happens when we lose electricity in the context of these extreme weather events is not okay, so there's a lot of things we need to do. We need to reform, there's insurance, there's so much we need to do, but those are just sort of the tip of the icebergs that I'll mention.


Ariel:

Wow! Yeah. I agree that there's so much to do and it's like, where do you even start? When I'm watching the news, I see people like Bernie Sanders and AOC who were advocating for the green new deal, but so many other policymakers just aren't coming along with it. Why do you think that is?


Raya:

Very unfortunately, climate has become a political issue and it's [inaudible 08:24 ] it's a political issue, of course. This seems to have just really increased in the past 5 to 10 years. Things have gotten so bad that wearing a mask in this pandemic is a political issue. The distortion that I believe and is caused by racism and white supremacy that works against basic self-interest, that to me is absolutely one of the root causes of why we have these schisms in our body politic about these issues that we should be united on, it's wildly unfortunate. There are probably a lot of deeper reasons and a political scientist will tell you more, but that's my [inaudible 9:10]


Ariel:

Yeah, I agree. Let's back up a little bit. You may have answered this earlier, but how did you get started with the energy and justice department and what does it mean to be an energy and climate justice lawyer?


Raya:

I am glad that you asked that because the truth is, and I want everybody who cares about this in particular, and if you are somebody and I encourage, you reach out to your girl, if you're somebody in particular for energy and utilities say, you're interested in frankly accounting, engineering, law, technology and you're interested in the energy and utilities field, I certainly encourage you to get engaged. And there is an incredible...I don't even like to say the word diversity anymore. There is an anti-blackness in this field as there are in many fields and it is very... so I want folks to be eyes-open about energy, environmentalism in general, in terms of careers, because there is an anti-blackness and lack of representation problem. I'm going to say that it can be challenging because, I am so proud that when I hear you say I'm an energy justice lawyer, I'm a climate justice lawyer, I am so proud that we've pushed so far, that that's a thing. And that's literally what it's taken in my estimation, getting in this field and just continuing and I feel like most of us do, let's be honest. We care about justice because this is our lived experience, this is our personal family struggle. [inaudible 10:58] don't understand what it means to come out with even a high school diploma, college diploma, a PhD, it is a world. We are the hope and the dream of the slave, what it took to get just one of us educated in this country.


Ariel:

Yes.


Raya:

We walk forward and we get in these corporations and we try and make our work relevant to the justice issues we care about and I feel like that's what I had to do and the more that I can reach out to other people, to people like yourself, the more we can build our power, the more we build this movement, the more it becomes a thing, the more the funders say, "Oh! If we're going to make an attorney position at wherever, earth justice, it should be focused on justice issues. I guess that's what I would say. We need to continue to... just like black lives matter had to be said until it could... Finally, it's said, right? It's a thing. Nobody doesn't think that's a thing. That's what we have to do together. I don't mean that to be discouraging, I want to encourage people, but I do feel like that's what I had to do and we had to do to make this a thing and that's what our forebears, civil rights folks, whoever, that's what they had to do too.


Ariel:

Absolutely. Yeah. Like you said, just having more people of color and just infiltrate everything.


Raya:

You're right!


Ariel:

All right. So let's talk about your role at New York Renews and what's going on with New York State in regards to climate justice.


Raya:

Well, good news! In that, New York State last year passed the climate leadership and community protection act, the nation's most ambitious climate law and the only law that has real climate justice provisions in it. And I like to tell people that this was powered by activists. A lot of things came together to get this law together, to get it signed by the governor. Obviously, the governor had to want it and he did, so he signed it. But activists rose up and got these justice provisions in this law. That's why I like talking about it, because I want you and your friends to do this and [inaudible 13:19]. It matters what happens in the states, because this is when the federal government starts paying attention, which they're not right now and hopefully they will. They're going to look to these state examples, which has already started happening and I'll get to that in a second.


What did New York do? So, first of all, first in the nation in terms of 100% net zero carbon emissions from all sectors of the economy, there's no state who has a goal like that. And our 2040 renewable electricity goal is actually, intentionally beating out California and Hawaii so it's also the number one goal, there's a piece of that going on that was purposeful. But what it also has, is some key provisions. There are enough of them that I can't go through all of them right now, but the ones that I'll raise is that, a goal of 40% and no less than 35% of all the state's climate investments, all of them; jobs, job training, infrastructure, energy, must benefit "disadvantaged communities".


There's some legal parsing I could do there, but for the top level, we are supposed to be reinvesting and redirecting these funds, which means billions of dollars into disadvantaged communities, which are climate and environmental justice communities, which are black and indigenous and brown communities, and also prioritizing emissions reductions in these same communities. I'll stop because I won't make this a legal treatise about the whole law, but there's good stuff in there and that New York Renews powered, we're the activists that came up and said, this law must have this and now we're running around in these public service commission dockets and where these different agencies are meeting and saying, "Hey, you have to make sure that this 35% happens and that these emissions reductions are prioritized and there's no harm to disadvantaged communities because we have to make it real. Oh! Last thing. The Joe Biden plan and their environmental justice plan, specifically called out the New York state law and also adopted that same provision about the investment mandate. So that's [inaudible 15:42]


Ariel:

Wow! That's awesome. So how has the response been to New York Renews from most of the policymakers?


Raya:

You know, what is special about New York Renews, we are a coalition and it's so interesting, we are a coalition of over 200 groups, but we really are a coalition. We're run as a coalition and the ideas that we're accountable to under the Jemez Principles of organizing, which I would encourage folks to look at, maybe we can even link to them in the show notes.


Ariel:

Sure.


Raya:

We are, I mean, we aspire, but we are accountable to grassroots based building organizations. We are unique in that, we have this policy power, but we have grassroots power and we show up and show out. It's been frustrating right now because of this pandemic , it's made some of our typical gatherings, as we all know hasn’t stopped people, but, it's more challenging to get out there in the streets. But, I think that if there's a certain amount of accountability that we're able to apply to our policymakers, a certain amount in terms of, they listen because we can show up and show out as we've learned, showing up and showing out is critical.


Ariel:

Absolutely. So as a person that lives in Georgia, which is extremely red state, where there's climate deniers and whatnot, I feel like it's difficult or just impossible even, to even make a difference with the elected officials in my state. What is something that I could do and other people can do to help push their policymakers into the right direction with climate change?


Raya:

Well, I hear you and feel you, because I know in and again, it's a big, big issue. But yeah, Georgia power is not an easy entity. There are people who do this advocacy. What I always say though is, do our best to get in community, however we can, at this time. And if you like, I can dig up...because there are certainly folks in your area who are doing the energy and utilities work and are doing this advocacy who you can get in community with. But even beyond that, even if it is Twitter, look up #energytwitter, #blacktwitter, #climatetwitter, follow the people who are in this movement. Folks like Dr. Bob Bullard, father of environmental justice is on Twitter. A lot of people are on Twitter as are some of the folks at the public service commission or I think it's, I forgot the name of the commission in Georgia, I've seen some threads. Folks are on Twitter. Social media in this age of pandemic really is, I think something that's valuable, as it is some of these zoom calls. So I would say, get in community is the first thing I would say and building our own power. We've seen how coming together around these issues in an intersectional way has moved the dial on things that never seemed touchable. In New York, we passed a slate of police reform measures that you couldn't even talk about.


Ariel:

Wow! Yeah.


Raya:

Part of it too, is pushing for that and building bridges, intersectionally and pushing for accountability. So if we've got this racial justice piece, get in community with those of us who care about the sustainability, be it zero waste, be it energy and we formed our own little committee. Black Lives Matter is taking an intersectional climate lens with their work. I've been on calls with them. We have to build this in our own movements for ourselves and changes narrative.


Ariel:

Okay. Wow! I didn't know that Black Lives Matter was doing climate things too. That's awesome. Yeah. I mean, it's still important.


Raya:

As you hear me say, I say this all the time about building our power, young people and black and indigenous people of color and all brown people, we need to step forward and not ask for permission in this space. We need to center ourselves. We need to reclaim and redirect these narratives for ourselves. And I want to encourage, especially young folks to do that and not feel that they need to ask permission. And it's hard because, sometimes people are looking at you, "do you even know what you're talking about?" So what? This is a movement that belongs to the young, however, I do ask that people try and be smart, get in community, learn up on things, figure out who are the folks who come before you on these issues and support them try and touch base with the movement itself and understand what's going on there because, these are the shoulders that we are standing on. People like Peggy Shepard who started, WE ACT for Environmental Justice, Dr. Bob Bullard on and on. There are other folks all throughout this country and this nation and the colonies, et cetera.


Stand up and don't ask for permission, all youth activists, black and brown activists on this topic and think about what it means to do this work intergenerationally. Think about those who have come before. Think about who is in the space already, who has been erased because experts whose voices are trying to be elevated and haven't been because of racism, as you go forward with all of your great social media abilities and success.


Ariel:

Yeah, it is. Especially like you said, in this day and age where we do have social media and it's so easy to have your voice heard far and wide we just need to use that platform in the best ways possible.


Raya:

That's right! And it's interesting. This is something I've noticed because there are so many people like yourself who are, grabbing ahold of these platforms and getting audiences and getting words out. A lot of times, some of the grassroots groups that do this work, even New York Renews, we may or may not even know how to do that or we may be fledgling. Part of it, is that we don't get funded. Groups like Sierra Club or NRDC or Environmental Defense Fund, both of which I used to work for, have yearly budgets of $250 million and $135 million respectively. and New York Renews has barely a million dollars and that's huge.


Ariel:

Wow!


Raya:

There's a reason why this narrative is told a certain way, because we aren't able to tell it and center ourselves. Just be cognizant, our wonderful influencers of the activists who are trying to get these messages out. And so, like I said, I'm not saying ask permission and I'm not saying don't do it because I don't care who tells you not to do it. I don't care if the icon of the icons floats down from a dream and says, “stop advocating for that, I'm the one that you don't know what you're talking about". No! I don't care who tells you, you still do it. But, be mindful of these dynamics and what's happening because, there's a reason why this narrative isn't told in a way that centers us because we do not... Sierra Club will get...and this is not to pick on Sierra club who has a lot of fantastic individuals in it, many of who are people of color who are striving mightily to get this done. But they may get $5 million, $10 million to do an ad campaign. Okay.


Ariel:

Wow!


Raya:

And so that's how they'll do and they've done great work beyond coal. They have shut coal plants down.


Ariel:

Okay!


Raya:

You know, so yes! Fantastic! But, has WE ACT for Environmental Justice ever gotten a $5 million grant, much less $5 million just a message to black people and indigenous people about environmental harm in community? No. Have they been able to flood the airwaves and flood billboards with these messages? Nope. So there's a reason why these narratives are told the way they're told and a lot of it comes back to money.


Ariel:

Yeah.


Raya:

It's not your responsibility as an influencer, but it's important to know that that there's an infrastructure here but, we have to change his game, right?


Ariel:

Yes, absolutely. And it really does feel like it is changing like you said, within the past, 5 or 10 years, even in the past three or four years, we've seen a lot of people of color who are trying to become policymakers and younger people who are more interested in it and I think that that's definitely paving the way for the younger generations to also get involved.


Raya:

That is right and here's the thing too. That's why this intergenerational piece is so important because there's always been this focus in nonprofits, on the youth, rightly. Where are the pathways to sustaining careers? Do you see what I'm saying? Very rarely do you see... it's always like, "Oh, we're going to give you an internship and we're doing you a favor because we're giving you an internship at XYZ company. Meanwhile, they're not doing you a favor, plus what is happening to make sure that you have a lasting career; positive, impactful career in this area and there are many of us like, say myself, who's been in this game for a minute who are out here wanting to also have impact and pave this road and make sure that you get a long run stretch down it.


The other thing that I will also say that's real important is a focus on resilience. It's hurricane season, COVID is upon us of course, when the Katrina hits, we saw what happened when Katrina hit. For the New York area, it was hurricane Sandy. Right now, we've got storms landing in Hawaii and Texas, it changes everything we're not ready and we need to and it also shifts conversation. We have to be ready for both demanding accountability in what we need and also not letting our narratives once again, get lifted when these disasters strike because they are coming,


Ariel:

Yes, they are. And the hurricane, I think it was a Dorian last year that was in The Bahamas and just sat there. You remember that? It just sat there for a day and you can see how climate change is already taking effect before our eyes. In the past 5 or 10 years you just see how much they're getting worse and it's scary.


Raya:

It's very scary and because it used to be...and this has happened in the science. It used to be, say 10 years ago, or even 15, we can't say with any confidence that any particular weather event is the outcome of climate change. That's not true anymore.


Ariel:

No.


Raya:

The science has moved. We know in particular, as I was living in Hawaii, which is another frontline place. We know that the warming temperatures, the factors that contribute to why the islands are in peril for hurricanes in ways they didn't used to be, we know [inaudible 27:59] climate change and this is coming for us. It's coming for our Caribbean, it's coming for our coastal communities, it's coming for our people, our children, our future, it wants to erase our culture, everything. And that's why this narrative, we have to snatch it because we care about this. We're the ones who tell the entire world, that's our history, in this country, that's what we've done, us, the displaced Africans. We've inspired entire world to care about justice. And this narrative belongs to us and that's what we need to continue because it's coming for us.


Ariel:

Yes. Thank you so much, Raya. It's so inspiring to hear you talk about this and it really makes me want to go out and talk to my policymakers and make some changes and form groups so that we can really go out there and make a difference.


Raya:

Yes. Intersectionally, let's talk to ourselves in and amongst ourselves and our movements.


Ariel:

Absolutely.


Raya:

And there's [inaudible 29:13] and I can send some links to the Black Lives Matter, I can send some follow up links and whatnot if you have them in your show notes.


Ariel:

Please


Raya:

Let's talk in and amongst ourselves about why this is important and build our own power in our own movements in an intersectional way. That's a really good place to start in addition to [inaudible 29:32] down these Babylon, sorry, these [inaudible 29:37] down.


Ariel:

So what is one that anyone can do to be more sustainable?


Raya:

You know, [inaudible 29:45] funny. My favorite thing is bottled water is trash. Bottled water is trash! It's usually one of the first things I say, because it's so true and there are real deep cultural and other issues of why we don't trust some of our tap water. And some of those are legitimate. But the whole thing behind bottled water in terms of what it's doing in terms of plastic waste and in terms of harming our water system when many of us be it, because for our own filtration or just from our tap can just drink it. And also you'll see on IG and YouTube, I make videos about this stuff too.


Ariel:

Oh, awesome.


Raya:

I have a "stop drink a bottle of water" video. That was my number one [inaudible 30:32]


Ariel:

Yes! I definitely agree. It's one of the easiest changes too that people can make.


Raya:

You get used to carrying a bottle around.[inaudible 30:42] I did a whole video on the Berkey water filtration system. You can have a sport bottle that you could literally dip your bottle in a stream on a jog and drink from that bottle and be fine and it's only [inaudible 31:00] bucks.


Ariel:

Wow!


Raya:

There's a lot of narrative shifted, I would say the water bottle. But before even that, it's just opening our eyes to the fact that this is our narrative, that this is real, that we have power in this space. And before Mr. Floyd was murdered, you would have probably heard me speaking in more and more muted tones, but he didn't die so that I couldn't say pro black, he didn't die so we couldn't say these things so I am being vocal about these things.


Ariel:

Yes. Thank you so much. I love it.


Raya:

You are so welcome.


Ariel:

Keep on keeping on sis! Keep on keeping on.


Raya:

10 years ago, I was in a big law firm in a suit with my hair ironed down to flatness, afraid to even let one little spring of curl go up much less say pro black.


Ariel:

I know we're going to put some links down below, but tell everyone where they can find you online.


Raya:

Oh yes. So my website is rayasalter.com. You can find me @greengirlmagic on Instagram. I'm earthtoraya on Twitter and Raya Salter on YouTube. Oh, actually! If you like ASMR, I have started an ASMR channel as well, which is Sweet Soul Whisperer and it's about energy and climate with the idea of, we can relax when we talk about these things.


Ariel:

Wow! Yes, I will be there. Who would have thought? I love it.


Raya:

My life isn't about building some curated, manicured career. We are try to do these things, we are try to do something.


Ariel:

Absolutely! Yeah. You're obviously out there doing things. I hope that you continue and keep changing people's minds and pushing these policies and inspiring other people to do the same.


Raya:

You too sis, you too.


Ariel:

Thanks so much for joining us.


Raya:

You are so welcome.


Ariel:

Thank you so much for listening to the sustainable Brown girl podcast. Be sure to subscribe and share it if you loved it and leave a review. You can find us on Instagram @sustainablebrowngirl and check out our Facebook community, we would love to have you there. Until next time, let's continue to make healthy choices for the health of our planet and the health of our bodies. Thanks for listening.