Shades of sustainability – Towards climate justice for BIPOC communities


Photo by Ariella Horvath

COVID-19 has shifted the nature of the world as we once knew it. The upcoming Climate Change Reset: Learning from the Global Pandemic event series hosted by Simon Fraser University’s Faculty of Environment aims to facilitate a discussion on how emerging insights can be applied to climate change.

The June 10 panel, the fourth in the five-session series, is focused on Climate Justice and Vulnerable Communities: Investing in Resilience, and is a critical piece of this conversation. Featured presenters Jestinne Punzalan and Jocelle Refol are two of the seven founders of the Shades of Sustainability project. “Climate justice is acknowledging that we’re all interconnected and also acknowledging that each of us will experience the effects differently,” Refol notes.

Shades of Sustainability emerged from the RISE project, an initiative by Apathy is Boring, which brings together youth in different hubs across Canada to co-create community projects. “Shades of Sustainability aimed to center the voices of Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC), specifically youth 18–30, within the environmental movement,” Punzalan explains. Refol adds that the project’s mission grew out of gaps they identified in the Vancouver community.

Disproportionate effects of climate change

Clarifying that she is by no means an expert, Refol emphasizes that her personal experiences have highlighted that marginalized groups are the most impacted by climate change. “When we talk about the environmental movement, we talk about recycling or lowering your carbon footprint, but all the time the people who are out there literally protecting the land from harm are BIPOC folks, and specifically Indigenous folks in Canada. And that isn’t recognized enough,” she says. “That’s why climate justice is so important, because if we talk about the environment without acknowledging the disproportionate effects that it has on certain populations, then we’re not really solving the problem.”

Refol adds that while here the climate movement is focused on our location, we cannot forget that the entire world is being impacted: “And it’s always going to be the countries that are most vulnerable that are going to experience poor impacts.”

“For some people getting involved in environmental action is a choice, whereas for others, such as BIPOC folks, it isn’t,” she stresses.

Safe spaces within environmentalism

Lola Lita shares her sustainable practices. | Photo by Elysse C

In spite of the significant impacts of climate change on BIPOC communities, there is a lack of corresponding representation in the environmental movement. In order to address this, Shades of Sustainability created a dinner dialogue for BIPOC youth age 18-30 to come together to share their personal connections to, and experiences with, the climate movement. Punzalan highlights that as food is a celebrated cultural aspect in many BIPOC communities, it was an important part of the event. “It was really important to have a safe space for BIPOC youth to be in,” she says. “Especially in the environmental movement, it’s hard for a BIPOC person to figure out how they can get involved in an organization that represents their own values. The dinner dialogue was a way for them to reclaim their own identity and share and exchange knowledge about that too.”

Refol elaborates, explaining that participants also found it meaningful to hear other BIPOC youth share about the topics most important to them: “In a lot of panels and other events, they don’t see themselves in those who are speaking or attending. So it was super important to have that space and representation.”

Bridging the intergenerational gap

Refol explains that sustainability “could look and sound totally different” for people coming to Canada from other countries. This makes it challenging for youth who are passionate about climate change to have these conversations with their families. “We decided that we wanted to bridge that conversation in an intergenerational way by having people interview their families or elders about ways that they approach sustainability or being environmentally conscious, or how they interact with the environment, beyond what we know as here,” Refol says. “We had many submissions of folks celebrating intergenerational dialogue of their ancestors. For example, we had one submission about their grandmother’s sustainable practices of doing laundry by hand and hanging it to dry outside, and transforming week-old leftovers from the fridge by folding them into omelettes or fried rice. What Shades does, is celebrate those stories that have been passed on and present but not necessarily seen as sustainable in those communities.”

The Shades of Sustainability team! (From left to right: Neha, Trisha, Jocelle, Jestinne, Melisa, Cherrie). | Photo by Ariella Horvath

As well as facilitating intergenerational participation, the digital storytelling component of the project enables people to get involved beyond attending events – the sharing of stories online also builds a virtual community.

“Community care is so valuable,” Punzalan stresses. “When I met the other seven individuals in the project, I thought I was the only one who had these thoughts that BIPOC folks were not represented in the environmental movement. So when we agreed on the same values and beliefs, I felt so happy and a sense of belonging.”

For both Punzalan and Refol, the project has fostered a deeper appreciation of the importance of their cultural traditions and intergenerational story sharing. They encourage people who identify as BIPOC to submit a digital story on the Shades of Sustainability website. Others outside the BIPOC community can provide support through following the project on social media, and sharing with their networks. They are also open to potential collaboration with other relevant projects. “Everyone should always be learners and un-learners in this ongoing journey of environmental movement,” says Punzalan.

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