Rev. Mariama White-Hammond (Full Interview)

Episode Summary

The Reverend Mariama White-Hammond is the pastor of New Roots AME Church in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, and serves in leadership positions with a number of environmental and social justice organizations, among them the Green Justice Coalition. Previously the Executive Director of Project HIP-HOP, the Reverend White-Hammond focuses on the intersection of the climate crisis with other social justice issues, especially where climate change will contribute to problems afflicting vulnerable minority communities.

Episode Notes

TILclimate interim host Aaron Krol recorded this interview with the Reverend Mariama White-Hammond for the podcast episode “TIL what I can do.” The interview was wide-ranging and covered many topics that did not make it into the final episode, including how community advocacy groups adjust to taking on climate issues, the impact Hurricane Katrina had on the Reverend’s thinking about the environment, and why individual actions to reduce our own carbon footprints are inextricably linked to larger social and political goals. We at TILclimate found the interview so thought-provoking that we decided to share the full audio here.

The Reverend Mariama White-Hammond is the pastor of New Roots AME Church in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, and serves in leadership positions with a number of environmental and social justice organizations, among them the Green Justice Coalition. Previously the Executive Director of Project HIP-HOP, the Reverend White-Hammond focuses on the intersection of the climate crisis with other social justice issues, especially where climate change will contribute to problems afflicting vulnerable minority communities.

To listen to the TILclimate podcast, visit: www.tilclimate.mit.edu.


Special thanks to Tom Kiley and MIT Open Learning.
Produced by the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Episode Transcription

Aaron Krol: [00:00:00] Hi everyone, this is Aaron Krol from the Today I Learned Climate podcast brought to you by the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative. On a recent episode, I talked to Rev. Mariama White-Hammond of the new roots AME church right here in Boston. As always at TILclimate, we recorded a much longer interview with the reverend than we had time to air on this show. But with this interview it was particularly hard for us to choose our favorite parts, so for the first time, we’ve decided to share the whole unedited conversation for those of you who’d like to hear more. Here Rev. White-Hammond talks about why the church has a big responsibility to take on climate change, how small personal sacrifices do make a difference, and why climate is just one of three interconnected crises that we need to address together, right now. You might also learn a little bit about how we put together the podcast. Oh, and I apologize for some technical issues with the sound quality.

So thanks so much for joining us. What’s your name and where do you work? 

Rev. White-Hammond: [00:01:04] Yeah, I'm Reverend Mariama White-Hammond. I'm the pastor of New Root's AME church in Dorchester and I'm also a fellow with the Green Justice Coalition, which is a statewide organization of Environmental Justice Group.

Aaron Krol: [00:01:19] A lot of your organizing has been based on the premise that the climate crisis is inseparable from other problems in society. Why can't we just look at climate change and solve it in isolation?

Rev. White-Hammond: [00:01:32] I see that there's people that really clear on this idea that we have 12 years to solve climate ... But I would say that there's three crises that all are simmering and already causing challenges and will only get worse. So yeah, the climate crisis is very real. People are facing the effects right now all around the world, but so is the rise of economic inequality and that's always been happening. But I think you see places where like the United States where economic inequality is growing as opposed to moving in the opposite direction like it had been for for awhile. And then I think there's a third piece that's really happening, which is that even as the world is more connected in many ways, you know, I can give you time now, probably reach out and find somebody in Bangladesh. The reality is that more and more of us feel disconnected and lonely.

And that's most true I think in the, you know, what we would traditionally call the developed world. But I think that that's a dynamic that's happening all around the world as some traditional community systems are not as strong as they once used to be and people are feeling disconnected. So when you ask why people, you know, pick up a gun and go into their classroom, or you wonder why people are taking the streets against clim- you know, what would seem like good, how climate policies, if you only look at climate and do not pay attention to these other two crises, there's a potential that they will overwhelm our world and create a meltdown. Not simply because the planet is falling apart, but because people can't afford to see themselves or because people feel like nobody cares about them. So I think they got to look at all three because they're all pretty urgent and we don't know which one will blow up first. So we should try to come up with solutions that address them all.

Aaron Krol: [00:03:29] Alright. So it can be hard to wrap your mind around even the scale of climate change on its own, let alone the way it's sort of wrapped in with these other massive problems. Could you give me a specific example from your own work of a social justice problem here in Boston that needs to be addressed in the context of climate change?

Rev. White-Hammond: [00:03:49] So let's look at like for instance an issue of transportation. So I have lived in Boston, you know, all my life except for, you know, when I was in school and you know, I've seen so many people pushed out of the neighborhoods that I have grown up in. Where I live right now, I've seen people, my neighbors, this place last year for my next door to me. I mean the people are moving further out and their jobs are still here, but now they're commuting long distances. Right? And of course that's leading to more pollution. It also means more time in the car. It means friends that used to drop their kids off at places right down the street are now dropping them off at one place and then commuting to another place and then rushing to try back to pick them up. All those things lead to more emissions, right?

And then we're talking about a policy where we're going to, you know, charge people more to drive the car. But we aren't necessarily always talking about what we're going to do and how we're going to replace to the, make sure that they have really great transportation or how we make sure that people don't have to live miles away from their jobs because they can't afford to live close by. The reality is for real working families, the idea of not being able to find good childcare for their kids, close by to them and be, and not being able to, you know, be close to family members and then getting in a car and stuff spewing emissions. Like, that's how people are living in their real life and if you think that you're going to get of course a just to look at the emissions from your car and make different decisions without understanding why they're having to drive an hour.

Women actually agree. We'd much rather live closer to where they, they work. It can feel to those folks like you're being punitive because you're not being real about the conditions of their lives. So yeah, it is. I'm actually asking people to look at more, but I actually think if we look at it in a more expansive way, it'd actually be more real and resonate with real people's lives and allow us to come up with solutions that maybe allow that same parent to work from home, not have to take their child to daycare all the time when reality is they'd much rather not be spewing emissions and not be spending an hour and a half in the car everyday.

But if you only look at it from an emissions perspective? Then you miss out on the other two quality of life issues that are very, very real. We got our last few questions about maybe we should be really paying attention to gentrification and why some people are being pushed out away from the communities that they know and love because other people are sort of building luxury condos. So I think when you try to look at climate without singles, other realities, you miss the reality of people's lives.

You missed the reality of what's going on in the world and then you actually probably come up with worse solutions that people are likely to not support.

Aaron Krol: [00:06:45] On that same note through the Green Justice Coalition, you work with some member organizations there that don't necessarily have their roots in environmental issues. Are there times it takes a big perspective shift for community service and advocacy groups to put their work in this con- climate context or do you find it's a natural fit with what they're already doing?

Rev. White-Hammond: [00:07:06] Well, I would say they have a natural fit to looking at multiple issues at the same time. I think most of the groups and the Green Justice Coalition are serving low income communities, communities of color, and so they actually naturally look at the intersections of these realities based on the lives of the people that they work with. Where you're going to have more attention is when they walk into rooms where people are looking at a narrow flight and going, "Well, the climate crisis is so huge. We don't have time to think about ways even when we don't have the time to think about poverty. And you know, our push split would be for the climate crisis is so huge, you should not try to create solutions for it that actually put on a train wreck with other really important issues that affect people's lives. You should find ways to pull the two together.

Aaron Krol: [00:07:53] I also want to pick up on that note. Certainly mo- most of your work has taken place in these communities of color and you do run into that stereotype that people of color are either not interested in stewardship of the environment or they should be adopting the perspective of the traditional environmentalist movement. That sort of, you know, puts these environmentalist issues sort of in their own plane. Is that an obstacle to finding allies in climate action, in your work? And, and maybe more importantly, is that changing lately?

Rev. White-Hammond: [00:08:25] You know, I think a lot of people say it's hard and I find it not quite as hard as people imagined because I frame it from the perspective of where my, how my folks are living. I feel like they connect very easily. I think the problem is, and one of the things I think is, you know, I always find maybe not quite so funny, but you know, you'll find people coming into my neighborhood telling people about how they should change. When the very folks that are coming in there, their carbon footprint is significantly higher than the people that they're talking to. They're the ones going on vacation to Costa Rica or safari in Tanzania and blowing out of the water, all of the emissions compared to the other folks who are actually taking the bus because they have to. But the reality is even if you're driving a Prius, your emissions are still higher than the person that's taking the bus every day.

So I think one of the things is that, that the environmental community needs to be a little bit more humble and a little bit more honest with itself about the way that it interacts with, with the communities that I work in. But I actually, you know, I think one of my gifts is communication. And so I just say it how I see it and I found it really easy to make connections with people. Yeah. There are some hard things like, you know, at my church I'm trying to get more people to think about a plant based diet. That's not an easy sell sometimes, but I will admit that one of my church members who often, or is the person that more most likely to be bring red meat, last, last potluck, she brought buffalo cauliflower. Some of those folks who knew her assumed it was chicken ate it.

We're like, wait, what is this? And then admitted it was actually pretty good. Good. Even though they thought it was buffalo chicken because it came from her, they said, "Oh wow, this tastes pretty good." So I think the reality is like, you know, yes it is true. When you look at the environmental movement, it is old, overwhelmingly white. But that's not because you can't get people of color to connect with it.

And people are willing to make daily choices that are different. You know, we joke all the time. We come from a people that know how to make a dollar out of 15 cents we recycled before it was a slogan out of necessity. And so I just think if you can help people to connect with the ways that they've already been engaged, I think they're more than willing to go deeper. There's a really good interesting survey from Yale that says that actually black Americans have that ... Some of the highest rates are concerned about climate change. So yes, there are some times in which, you know, you wouldn't see it based on with how the movement looks. But at my experiences, when you really dig in and get into communities, people are not that hard to reach. And they're not as resistant as you would think, given what the standard with them around this is.

Aaron Krol: [00:11:15] All right. And as you bring up there, you speak to climate change, both as an organizer and as a minister, why is the church a good place to engage and excite people on climate issues?

Rev. White-Hammond: [00:11:24] I mean, I think the church has to be engaged because I do, I think that there's a lot of ways that the church has talked about these issues in the past that have encouraged people to not have a right relationship with the earth. I think, you know, if you go back, it's why I think, you know, church should be engaged around slavery. I think that the church should be around most social issues because a lot of times our theology has been used in a way that has allowed some of these things to happen. But I also think that from me, climate is not an issue. It is, you know, that you sort of, "Oh, I'm, you know, I'm involved on that. It's an issue I care about." It's really we are in a moment as humans we're making some existential decisions about whether or not we're going to survive.

I mean it's just that simple. It's ... It- every bit of life, every facet of our being should be reflecting on this in the moment. And the church obviously should. But the church is also a space where we asked the big question, "Who do I want to be? Who do I feel called to be? What is my responsibility to the next generation?" These are the questions that religion and faith traditions has asked. So how could we not talk about climate if it is such an existential threat?

So when people go, "Oh wow, that's so interesting." And I'm like, "You know my, I think about everything." And so climate makes a lot of sense. I think we also try because the ... Our beginning story of Christians is based on the creation and based on, you know, God's relationship with the earth and with us, if you're starting at the beginning, you start from that question of, "How is that supposed to be? And how we got to where we are now. So for me it feels like a no brainer. I know that it's somewhat unique, but I don't think we have a Sunday in which the environment and our relationship with nature and this massive transition of society in our values that we're called to in this moment doesn't come up.

Aaron Krol: [00:13:32] So how should people who want to do more on climate change think about their involvement in organizations like their churches that aren't traditionally environmental groups and that may not be in embracing this sort of call to change in the same way AME a New Roots is?

Rev. White-Hammond: [00:13:51] Yeah. So I think, you know, there is a tendency, I think a lot of people tend to go, "Okay, I'm going to work on environmental issue and I should join an environmental organization." I'm not saying that's bad. I'm also remember some environmental organizations. I think that's great, but what we really need and ... To effectively address address climate change is to have people talking about climate in every place and space where they are. So if you want to sign up for an environmental organization, do it. I do it. But what I think is even more important is how are you bringing climate change into every aspect of your life? If you're a childcare provider, what are you thinking about? How are you thinking about educating the next generation about climate change? If you are a bus driver, how are you thinking about making public transit work in such a way that more people are engaged in it?

If you're a member of a synagogue, what are you doing to engage the other members of the synagogue both in terms of greening your, your actual facility, but also integrating into the fullness of the beauty of your tradition so the people make the connection? I don't think everybody needs to leave what they're doing and stop what they're doing and work on climate change exclusively. I think what they need to do is integrate a response to climate change and a shift in the way we think about our lives and about our relationship to the planet and to everything else that they're already doing. I think if we see that happening that's going to build the kind of movement and the kind of momentum we need for real change.

Aaron Krol: [00:15:27] And could you perhaps give me a specific example of how that's played out in either Bethel AME or a New Roots AME where the church has as an organization sort of changed its practice or its perspective?

Rev. White-Hammond: [00:15:41] Yeah, so I think both in my time as a minister of Bethel AME, before I was commissioned to start New Roots, which is, you know, less than a year old. You know, we were constantly trying to think about how do we bring this idea of of environmental stewardship and relationship and advocacy for climate justice into the work. And so we did everything from looking at really concrete policies like banning styrofoam and making sure that people understood why, talking a little bit about the chemicals and styrofoam and where those chemicals end up and how it impacts communities and particularly communities of color who are more likely to live near trashed dumps. So those were very like concrete things there. We also mobilized people. We actually installed solar panels at Bethel and in the middle of our solar panel project, the State House passed the law that made it harder for our panel project to go through.

We fought through and made it happen anyway, but then we actually said to people, "We need to go up to the State House and tell our story. We need to make sure that people know that you all know that that policy almost killed our project." And we were able to engage our state senator who was already really great on this issue, but also state rep who had not been that engaged on this issue. He thought of something that like didn't really connect with his community as much, but hearing it from church members and that's the stuff, actually we did it with two other congregations hearing from us. We wanted to do this, we wanted to bring this benefit to our neighborhood and because of a decision that was made to state house, we lost the members of the project and our projects were scaled down. We could have been giving away free power to low income communities and we couldn't do it because of the way the State House regulations changed it.

So again, you do what you're called to do and when things come along, you speak up, you use your voice, but you also look at how in everything that we're doing, how are we being the best stewards? And again, like when we did that piece around styrofoam, you know, we had to talk to the hospitality committee. Have they become climate warriors? No, not necessarily. But do they have a better understanding of how the decisions that they're making that seem insignificant to them impacts the earth? Yeah, and I have not seen a styrofoam plate there since.

So those are I think a lot of ways. You will always have some people were super engaged and want to do a lot. The question is, can you have your work trickle down into people who maybe didn't care? Can you make them excited about it? Can you help them to see an impact that they wouldn't have seen naturally?

Aaron Krol: [00:18:12] What would you say to someone who does care about our climate and our planet, but doesn't think that anything they individually can do is going to make any difference?

Rev. White-Hammond: [00:18:23] I mean, I think that the reality is that that's like, you know ... When you asked this question about like, "What can I as one person do," you are faced with this reality that like both a lot of amazing impacts and made it by individuals and that there are real limitations to who we can be, what we can do as, as as human beings. And that's true of every sphere of our life. The reality is for me, I don't see it as an option not to try. Do I know that there's a various, a percent chance that this will all go terribly and we won't make it? Yes, I am aware of that. If I, you know, if you're a thinking person, you understand the risks that we're at at. And we don't get anywhere unless everybody starts to do what they need to do.

And for me, I, a lot of people will do this dichotomy of individual action versus collective action. We absolutely need both. We need every single person to be asking, "How do I shift how I live?" And we need policies and practices at, you know, the municipal, state, and federal and global level that change structures and system to make it easier for each and every one of us to make better decisions. I am frustrated when people say choosing one over the other because if you're not doing it in your own life, how do you go tell somebody else that they're supposed to make some big rapid change? Big costs that are going to be paid. There's some workers who were going to have to trained. There're communities that are going to have to figure out whole new industries. If you're not even willing to make small sacrifices in your own life, who are you to go ask them to make huge sacrifices?

So every one of us needs to be shifting, both personally and we need to be advocating for systemic change. The two work together. But again, for me it's not just about policies. This is about in case of shifts, a shift is who we are as people. That should test to permeate to every level of our being and our society. So there is no throwaway action. Of course, I pay attention to what I think is going make the most impact and reduce the most emissions and help the most people. We got to do that. We want to pay attention. You want to be smart, you want to be strategic, but to think that you can only push for systemic change and do nothing in your personal life or to think that like, "I'm just going to do something in my personal life and hope that everybody else does the same thing." That's not going to add up. We need both at the same time.

Aaron Krol: [00:21:02] Reverend do you have time for two more questions?

Rev. White-Hammond: [00:21:02] Sure.

Aaron Krol: [00:21:02] Great. I want to bring up a historic example of climate change making already chronic injustices, suddenly acute. You've spoken about Hurricane Katrina being a wake up call for you, all right?

Rev. White-Hammond: [00:21:11] Mm-hmm [affirmative]. Yeah.

Aaron Krol: [00:21:12] At that time in 2006, you were already a full-time cultural and political organizer. So what was it about Katrina that convinced you a piece of the puzzle was missing in your own work?

Rev. White-Hammond: [00:21:23] I think before Hurricane Katrina, and I know, I mean I was in high school when the hole in the ozone layer was discovered or was, you know, sort of, most of us became aware of it. I was very active in that and I think it was also the 90s at the height of violence in Boston. And I got to a point where I was angry that people could care about polar bears and dolphins and not about young people who were dying a mile away from them. And so I took the mentality, I think that other people of color had sometime also taken, which is less ... Sort of, you know, upper-middle-class, well-meaning white people who hike, work on environmental issues because they don't have to work on criminal justice reform and their schools are not struggling. And there's a whole set of issues that our communities have to work on that many white environmentalists do not think to merit in their communities.

And so Katrina shifted my thinking because it helps me to see that the people I was already working on behalf of around criminal justice reform, around, you know, education reform, those folks would be the most deeply impacted by climate change. And I said, "If some of us are not at the table, what's going to happen in terms of the kinds of solutions that are developing? Will they be solutions that also help our communities?" Or it might be solutions that make our communities even more vulnerable than they already are. And so I think Katrina was what helped me to see the deep connections that already existed and that really have gotten worse over time. And so yeah, I kind of felt like if I care about this community, if I care about these issues, I also have to be weighing in on this massive shift.

So I think the other thing is, and that wasn't right away, I also started to see this as an opportunity. I mean we actually have to do a reboot of our society. And maybe in that reboot, we can make it better than it's already been. Maybe if we do a reboot, we can actually have some deep questions about how do we think resources should be distributed so that everybody is resilient. So you don't have some people living ... Some people you know right up next to the storm. So I think I went from being despondent and depressed, which I think probably is something that almost every climate activist has to go through when you really face the reality. I went from a low place to a place of greater hope than maybe I'd had it a long time. But we're facing a moment where massive change is required and if we're smart about it, and attended to it, and do it with open hearts, maybe we could actually create something that's better.

Not just how to protect people from things. But actually fashion a society that's a better. And I, for me that's a fatty looks like one where people are growing food in their backyard and kids know what it, what it is to pick a cherry tomato right after buying and pop it in their mouth. And their parents are actually power, not because they're working, but because they do a little work from home and alto are able to spend more time with their families and communities. Maybe partially because we're facing more stress or organized in such a way to take care of each other.

That's the kind of world I would want to live in. And it's unfortunate, but it might take some serious stress to get us there. I'm not looking forward to the reality that there will be some additional suffering and loss of life because of climate. But I am hopeful that humans will step up in ways maybe we've never seen before to take care of each other and build communities that are far more resilient than they would've been without this crisis.

Aaron Krol: [00:25:35] So the very scale of the transition is it can actually be a reason for optimism about the future. I also just want to ask is just finally, is there, is there also something in what's going on now on the ground in the climate movement that is also a source for optimism for you in, in just our ability to, to make the kinds of changes that are required?

Rev. White-Hammond: [00:26:03] So yeah, I think I've added two gatherings they went to recently that I just want to highlight that and both of them I found really exciting. I went to a group called neighbor to neighbor, which has been around, you know, I think since the 80s now and they worked on criminal justice reform and lots of other issues and are really getting much more serious about climate justice. And I have a room full of, you know, like 80 you know, low income folks, mostly people of color, mainly from immigrant communities talking about climate and just transition and this opportunity. And I was just, I mean it got to the point where some of us were like tearing up, recognizing that this deep existential threat may also be the thing that helps us move in some really powerful direction. And it was beautiful to see a group of people, including some really young folks from Lynn who are imagining what becomes possible when we bring people together, begin to traffic that, so I'm really excited.

They've already done really great work on other issues that I care about, but I was really excited to be like, "Hmm, what happens when a room like this, which is a very different room than what I'm used to seeing in environmental spaces, gets activated and done." So that was pretty exciting to me and I just got an email from one of them about something they're doing. So I'm really excited there.

I also am the board president for the New England Grassroots Environmental Fund. And our philanthropy has been shifting radically, particularly because we've decided that like, we, if we're going face this crisis together, we need to build a model of giving that matches that. And so we have a space where we get 80 people together to decide where we're going to give donate resources and how we're going to do that. And, and it's just amazing to see folks from some pretty different walks of life, negotiating, thinking through, working through how we're going to save ourselves. So I, I think what I'm most excited is about where I already see it happening. People who may not have been in conversation with each other, people would've usually not been in places of power facing this crisis. Try getting super creative, working together and seeing that we really do have a common destiny, which we've always had. But I think this climate crisis is bringing it out in a different way.

Aaron Krol: [00:28:32] All right, Reverend White-Hammond. Thank you so much for talking to us.

Rev. White-Hammond: [00:28:37] Thank you.