How one young activist wants to topple the 'many barriers' BIPOC communities face in accessing outdoor recreation

Kamilah Newton
·5 min read
Nyaruot Nguany, cofounder of the Maine Environmental Changemakers Network. (Illustration by Nathalie Cruz for Yahoo Life)
Nyaruot Nguany, cofounder of the Maine Environmental Changemakers Network. (Illustration by Nathalie Cruz for Yahoo Life)

In honor of Earth Day 2021, Yahoo Life is profiling some of the many advocates leading the charge to save the planet today: young BIPOC (Black, indigenous, people of color) activists fighting for climate justice through an intersectional lens.

Nyaruot Nguany, 28

Born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and raised in Portland, Maine, Nyaruot (Nay-root), through collaborating with the Maine Environmental Education Association, helped form the Maine Environmental Changemakers Network, intersecting environmental justice with social justice. Today she's working towards her Wilderness First Responder certification and Maine Guide license.

What propelled you into this line of activism?

My mom is from Ethiopia and my dad is from Sudan and they were both farmers at one point in their lives. We had a garden… growing our own food. That was just a normal, natural part of what I thought was just growing up and eating food — knowing where your food comes from. I thought it was pretty average — and for a lot of people who come from those regions it is — but when you come to America ... you may not have access to farmland or a yard where you can grow food. That was the beginning stages of how I got into environmentalism.

I'd worked on the Small Axe Farm in Vermont because … I [already] knew how to garden and it seemed like an easy direction, but what I found was that this is actually not accessible to a lot of people. The folks that owned the farm made it a point to make the food accessible to people who don’t have access to clean food by giving their surplus away. For me, a lightbulb went off and I started investigating from there.

Why do you think the Earth’s coming demise is such an easy thing for people to remain in denial about?

I think people’s hope blinds them of facing the undeniable truth that our climate is changing, and not in a good way. I also think that people don’t know that they have the resources and power to make real change.

Why have you chosen to laser focus your activism on the food and agriculture aspect of climate-change activism?

I'm…really interested in trying to fill the gaps between barriers to food. I currently volunteer at the local teen center and I work in the kitchen where we are able to provide healthy meals for homeless teens, which is amazing.

But I think the direction that I'm going in right now is in outdoor recreation. I still recognize that we have all these national parks that you have to pay to go in. To work as a camp counselor, you have to have a Wilderness first-aid training, and that’s like $1,000. If you want to be a kayak guide, you have to take a bunch of certifications and that’s also a lot of money — even more if you want to do it on your own. There's just so many barriers for BIPOC communities to be able to access outdoor recreation. My mission right now is to first attain those certifications myself and ... either create a program or tag along to something that already exists — then create some stepping stones towards filling that gap within the industry.

How is environmental activism intersectional — and why should it be seen through that lens?

I grew up in Maine, which is extremely white, and I never really saw myself working in the environmental field for the simple fact that I never saw anyone that looked like me in the field. So I just thought it was out of my reach. Even when it comes to outdoor recreation, my parents couldn’t afford to get me all of the gear I needed to participate in those activities, so I just thought that it wasn’t for me. And still while forming the Environmental Changemakers ... I have also seen how extremely white and gate-kept the sector is.

When you think about the effects of climate change, the people who are going to be affected the most are those marginalized groups. I understood that as an individual — as someone who grew up in a low-income household in a low income-neighborhood. [In some neighborhoods], you could walk down the street and see these beautiful, well-kept parks and gardens, and then you’d come to my neighborhood and they weren't so much. I saw how disproportionate the access to clean greenspaces was within my upbringing.

Younger generations — especially Gen Z, but also millennials like yourself — are now in the position of having to now clean up the mess of previous generations. How do you manage any anger or resentment over being put in that position?

Anger doesn’t solve problems, certainly not the big issues we’re facing in regards to climate change. Ultimately, it’s going to take everyone working towards a unified goal — saving the planet for future generations — in order to make big changes. I also acknowledge that as a young person, living through this time period, my access to information is unlike generations behind me.

What’s your trick when it comes to getting people to listen to your message and to understand how crucial it is for the future?

When talking about climate change and issues regarding the environment I try to make the narrative personal. People understand and empathize a lot more when the message they’re hearing is relatable.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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