The Gift that Keeps on Giving

When I first came to the University of Colorado at Boulder, it was 2004 and I was dead set on becoming a history professor and convinced I would change the world. In an attempt to find myself and a place where I belonged, I put myself out there attending campus events and bouncing between student groups.  I likened myself to a farmer- scattering seeds for the first harvest, unclear as to which seeds I should plant, where to plant them and unsure if any would bear fruit. Nonetheless, I was a hard worker, idealistic and convinced that with the right community, something would surely take root. However and despite my fiery nature, I realized early on that the hardest part of college wasn’t the tests or papers, but finding myself on a campus of over 30,000 students.

I remember the day that changed everything. I was in the Duane Physics building for my macro biology class, when a spirited young woman approached me afterwards to introduce herself.  Her name was Sarah and she worked as a volunteer coordinator for the Environmental Center. After a brief conversation, she came right out and asked if I knew about the Environmental Center and hinted that they were looking for an environmental justice coordinator.  Long story short, I applied for the job and joined the Environmental Center Staff in the Winter of 2007. Within a few weeks, Sarah had me pouring over replays of Majora Carter and Van Jones podcasts. And like the farmer who is thankful for the rain, I watched as a series of unforgettable relationships and invaluable experiences watered the seeds I had planted two years earlier.

Over the next year and a half working at the Environmental Center, I learned more about the environment and who I really wanted to be than at any other time in my life. I poured over Bioneers replays, read magazines, journeyed to my first farmers market, learned about composting, and found a community I belonged to. I started hiking, biking and recycling. I took better care of myself, added powerful concepts such as social uplift, sustainability and intentional living to my vocabulary.  I spearheaded an environmental justice roundtable and worked alongside inspiring students to organize concerts on climate justice, teach-ins on climate change and participated in the Bioneers conference. During this time I also volunteered at the Recycling Center and with Wildlands Restoration where I discovered my lifelong passion for conservation and waste management. By now, the seeds I planted earlier had taken root and begun sprouting.  I was no longer the naive farmer. My soil was rich with new skills and powerful relationships. Most importantly, I had a rhythm, a calling, and I was more alive than I had ever been in my entire life.

College went by fast. By the time I graduated, I focused my studies on environmental history and planned to go to graduate school after joining the work force. Compliments of the environmental center job posting board, I landed the most amazing internship as a Naturalist with the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies where I spent 4 months in the mountains leading interpretive tours and taking care of a gold eagle and red tailed hawk. But after my internship ended, I felt trapped by the economy and wasn’t sure what to do with my passion for environmentalism. So I did what many eager college graduates did during the recession- I scattered a couple more seeds out there and applied for jobs that would provide me invaluable work experience.

A few months later I started working for Hewlett-Packard and moved to Arkansas. While it wasn’t part of the plan, corporate America was where I discovered my knack for community organizing, interest in corporate social responsibility and learned the ins and outs of business.  Five years after leaving the environmental center, I still found myself coordinating Earth Day Events for Hewlett-Packard. Even after I was promoted to the field and moved to Texas, I found myself pitching technology reclamation and data center efficiency services to my clients. But working in sales was stressful, and I was alone again in a corporation of over 300,000 employees.  And even though the harvest I worked so hard for in college was growing a deep roots system founded in years of deploying data center services and managing a multi-million dollar pipeline, the plants that sprouted while working for the Environmental Center stalled.  So while working in IT I pursued my Masters in Sustainability at the University of Texas at Arlington, and later quit my sales job to move to Washington, D.C. with nothing but my savings and commitment to re-assert myself in the environmental field.

It’s been over 10 years since I worked at the Environmental Center and I am still reaping the benefits of my work as environmental justice coordinator. When I first moved to DC, the skills gained doing volunteer work and organizing environmental justice campaigns landed me a job with American Rivers managing the National River Cleanup. In fact, Sarah provided the winning reference that landed me the job. I was later offered a job as Civic Engagement Manager for a company called Justice & Sustainability Associates, where my time served on the Environmental Justice Steering Committee and volunteer work at Bioneers gave me the skills needed to run large scale civic engagement programs with diverse community stakeholders. I even briefly worked with a recycling and waste management company dedicated to helping clients increase their landfill diversion rate and was able to tell my clients I worked on projects such as Recycle Mania and know how to coordinate a zero waste event.

Now I work for the DC Office of Planning where I work to support place based community planning initiatives that support revitalization, community building, historic preservation and sustainability.  And while many things have changed, a lot is the same. While I no longer feel the calling to change the world, I know instead, that my personal mission is to be of service to it. I also have the pleasure of being part of an office that cultivates my passion for social uplift and sustainability and provides me countless opportunities to take on new challenges and gain yet another set of valuable skills.

And like the seasoned farmer whose crops withstood famine and flood, the soil in my plot is now rich with experiences and my seeds have become fruit bearing trees. Now I do not worry if my crops will make it, or if I will have to start from scratch. Instead, I have learned to be thankful for the shade the trees provide me and grateful for the plentiful fruit that nourishes my passion for life daily. Most of all, I am thankful for the Environmental Center and the skills, people and experiences that have influenced the person I am more than any other organization I have ever had the pleasure of being a part of.  Like the tree with roots deep enough to weather any storm, bearing more fruit than any man, women or child could eat in a lifetime, the Environmental Center is the gift that keeps on giving- and I am eternally grateful.


The Problem with the Environmental Movement

Believe it or not, I wasn’t always an environmentalist. In fact, I didn’t know about composting or environmental justice until I was 19 years old.

Believe it or not, I wasn’t always an environmentalist. In fact, I didn’t know about composting or environmental justice until I was 19 years old. I often tell people with a precarious smile that it was my undergraduate studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder that turned me into the person I am today. But my journey to full-blown New Age hippy didn’t start with “save the whale” protests or “save the rainforest” campaigns. It began with environmental justice. 

This post is part of the series: Science and Democracy: Community Voices
Image: Letizia Tasselli/Flickr

When I attended CU in 2004, I was one of roughly 500 African-Americans on a campus of over 30,000 undergraduates.  I remember my freshman year clearly—thousands of students in UGG boots, velour sweat pants, aviator glasses and down jackets swept the campus. And then there was me—a bright-eyed, passionately optimistic 17-year-old, desperately searching for a store that sold Black hair products and mesmerized by the concept of “trust fund hippies” and their casual display of wealth.

Touting the line

I realized early on that the hardest thing about college wasn’t the homework, but the never-ending struggle to find where I belonged. I joined the Black Student Alliance to counteract the Young Republicans’ Affirmative Action Bake Sale and to celebrate Black History Month, but always felt like something was missing. Things really changed when I took a job as CU’s first Environmental Justice Outreach Coordinator, and was tasked with increasing underrepresented student participation in Environmental Center activities. Little did I know, this would be the single most rewarding experience of my entire life.

While working as Environmental Justice Coordinator, I had the privilege of working with a group of wicked smart peers that would become lifelong friends. I spearheaded a three-part Environmental Justice Roundtable entitled, “Privilege, Accountability and the CU Community.” I also organized concerts for the national Climate Change Teach In and discovered my passion for conservation, resource management and community building. Most importantly, I started eating better, exercising regularly and began exploring my spirituality more deeply.

I spent the next two years touting the line between the Black Student Alliance and the Environmental Center. Which means to say, I spent a lot of time hiking, biking, recycling, participating in protests and taking the bus down to Denver to buy Black hair products.

AGoggans pic

Finding the “us” in environmental justice

The more I learned about environmentalism, the more I understood why the Environmental Center needed an Environmental Justice Coordinator. Not only was I almost always the only African American at environmental events, even my understanding of environmentalism was closely rooted to climate change and pictures of polar bears standing on melting icebergs.

Later, a friend introduced me to Van Jones and Majora Carter, whose thoughts on the “Green Economy” and “Greening the Ghettos” radically changed the way I conceptualized environmentalism. Their work demonstrating how solar panel training and green roofs can combat incarceration rates, decrease unemployment and increase access to healthy food was a no-brainer to me. Not only did this realization solidify my identity as both an African-American and an environmentalist, I quickly shifted my conversations with students from polar bears to Eskimos and from recycling and organic food to job creation and sweat shop labor.

I realize now that environmental justice is part of a larger discussion on racism and that similar to how war, poverty and sexual violence are often perceived as affecting “others” who live “over there,” environmental justice is rarely discussed as an issue affecting the 7 billion of “us,” who live “here.” I think about it this way—similar to a drop of water being absorbed into the water table or captured as runoff by a reservoir, toxic waste dumped in underserved areas poses a threat to surrounding communities and to those hundreds of miles downstream. This becomes an environmental justice issue when those who can afford to live in gated communities have the resources to purchase bottled water or move, while those living in the ghetto lack cars to transport bottled water and face housing discrimination when searching for a new home. Thus begins the vicious cycle of environmental injustice that can be difficult to break.

Get comfortable being uncomfortable

So what’s my advice for scientists, politicians, environmentalists and activists looking to heal the wounds of environmental injustice? Quite frankly, get comfortable being uncomfortable! Engage in meaningful interaction outside of communities in which you self-identify and don’t be afraid if you lack the vocabulary to have politically correct conversations. In fact, that probably means you’re on the right track. Know that sustainable solutions are built in partnerships founded on respect, transparency and trust. Most importantly, understand the spectrum of privilege and where you fit in it.

Do this and the environmental movement will become what it should have been all along—a movement to create ecological, economic and social justice for all of us on Earth.