Lauren Ritchie | 2021 MAKERS Conference Finale

Lauren Ritchie, a young climate justice advocate, talks about the dichotomy between her experiences with the ravages of climate change growing up in the Bahamas and her life today as a student at Columbia University in New York City. She will reflect on what has shaped her perspective on the climate justice movement and the need for intersectionality within it.

Video Transcript

LAUREN RITCHIE: Hi, MAKERS community. Thank you so much for having me here today. When I was 15, I witnessed my home, Grand Bahama Island, ravaged by Hurricane Matthew. Three years later, before we had the opportunity to fully assess the prior damage and begin to rebuild, Hurricane Dorian tore our community apart yet again.

I quickly came to realize that while most privileged people around the world contemplate the existential threat posed by the ongoing climate emergency as a distant warning that can easily be ignored or perhaps simply as a rumor of impending doom, for those of us living in my community in the Bahamas, the climate emergency is already here.

Upon moving to New York City in 2018, I experienced this dissonance firsthand. After spending my formative years watching my beloved island crumble around me, I came to find that the faces at the forefront of the climate crisis looked nothing like those suffering back home. Instead, I found that the poster children for the environmental movement consisted of esteemed scientists, academics, and middle-aged white women on Instagram wandering through farmers' markets with the grins plastered across their faces and stylish tote bags draped over their shoulders.

In my Columbia University courses, I stared Hurricane Dorian in the face once again. Only this time, I no longer had the shared experiences of my community to support me. As my professor fielded eager hands around the classroom each offering solutions to the environmental issues that the Bahamas faces, the detached, jargon-riddled comments of my American classmates rang in my ears, leaving me feeling exposed and alienated.

In their voyeuristic frenzy, they blurted statistics, climate adaptation policies and economic plans, but not one of them paused to consider the trauma endured by those who fell victim to Dorian's wrath. In their learned sensitivity, they failed to consider the complex nature of the crisis beyond their research case study.

It's OK, I reasoned. They just don't get it. They've never supported their best friend and her family through homelessness when their house was flooded beyond repair. They've never been a toddler alone on the highest floor of a swing apartment building praying that the infrastructure can withstand the storm. They just don't know any better. But at what point was it my responsibility as the only Bahamian in the room to teach them?

As a young woman from the Caribbean now existing within the ivory tower of higher education, I often feel like a bridge connecting my past and present in the hopes of creating a better future. I experience a strong sense of duty to ensure that the experiences of my community are integrated into the institutions with the most power to enact change and that intersectionality, inclusivity, and nuance are prioritized in climate action for years to come.

As someone who has observed society evolve so rapidly and remarkably during my lifetime, I'm emboldened to spearhead any changes that I want to see. I founded The Eco Justice Project in 2020 to fill the gap that I noticed in youth climate education and to spread awareness about climate change in a manner that was engaging, modern, and above all else accessible.

That same year, I also created Columbia Climate Conversations, a panel series at my university to engage the undergrad community with the perspectives of women climate scientists and environmental activists of color and the podcast "Black Girl Blueprint," one of the first long-form platforms of its kind, to share the experiences and highlight the accomplishments of Gen Z Black girls. This is how I choose to make my mark, to be a part of leading the next wave of climate advocacy which places women of color at the forefront of a movement which has historically and still continues to tell us that our experiences and our stories do not matter.

And don't get me wrong. It's not easy work for any of us, especially as a Black woman in predominantly white environments, a full-time college student with graduate school aspirations. And of course, we cannot forget the global pandemic moving over us all. The question that remains then is, how do we stay motivated? How do we keep striving to make a better world despite all the obstacles placed in our path? In short, how do we keep going?

As aspiring changemakers, resistance is our area of expertise. However, we often don't think about listening to our bodies and our minds as forms of resistance in and of itself. We get wrapped up in the habit of commodifying ourselves in order to be the most productive possible as we aim higher, dream bigger, and push ourselves harder because we're desperate to believe that our efforts are making a difference.

We're terrified of what the state of the world would become if we pause to catch our breath, so we forget the communities which brought us to this work in the first place, and that protecting the planet begins first and foremost with protecting ourselves.

In other words, be kind to yourself. And note that even in this world that feels so fast paced and demanding most of the time, any incremental impacts you can make to advance your cause, whatever that cause may be are still worthy of celebration. Empowerment amongst women is one of the strongest forces imaginable, an energy created amongst like-minded women with a common belief, objective, and understanding which reaches beyond what we think we are. And it shows us how much more we can become.