As a Climate Justice Organizer, I get to tell my story of self often, it only makes sense that I start with my story here as well. My name is Kelly Camacho, and I am a cis woman (she/her/hers), born in Buffalo, NY in the 90s. I grew up the youngest of 3 children in a Puerto Rican household. The rest of my family was born and raised in NYC, only moving to Buffalo a few years before I was born. I was raised on the east side of Buffalo, known for being segregated; the east side has been a predominantly low-income Black neighborhood plagued by a history of redlining, a lack of funding, and environmental racism.
Growing up, one of my favorite things to do was walk about 4 blocks from my childhood home to the local branch of the public library on Westminster Ave, right next door to the neighborhood public school, Westminster Public School #68 where I attended kindergarten. The Westminster Branch of the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library (B&ECPL) was the place where my brother used to do Battle of the Books, a summer reading and trivia competition for kids, a place where I held my first snake, and was even where I got my very first library card. Before I was able to age into Battle of the Books, my local branch closed down. Due to low academic performance, Westminster Public School would become Westminster Charter school and expand their space to incorporate the bones of my library. My parents sent me to a nearby Catholic school, St. Aloysius Gonzaga School, for some of my elementary years in hopes of a better education. By 4th grade I would have to change schools again and take an almost hour long bus ride to a better performing charter school in South Buffalo, known for being a low income white area.
During my time attending South Buffalo Charter School, I rode the bus with what seemed like all of the other children of color that were at the school, before we unboarded and were diluted by the general population of the school. I was quiet and liked to read, so I was made fun of regularly. I performed well in school, in part because during that time my mom was on the road to becoming a teacher so she made sure we did our homework and studied. Unlike most of my peers I had a father in my household, a privilege that granted additional stability, allowing me to succeed even more in academics. By the time I was picking out high schools to apply to, I was looking at the top schools, and one of my teachers told my mom and I to take the gamble and try to get into City Honors, the top performing public high school in our area and a top ranked high school in the US. City Honors isn’t a public school that you can just apply to, applicants are also required to take an entrance exam whose score determines if you earn a spot. Most of the kids in my grade didn’t bother applying because of the grade requirements, the few that I knew who applied were all white women, and after the test my friend told me she stopped taking the test halfway through out of boredom.
I qualified for City Honors, but there weren’t enough seats, so I attended the Da Vinci high school orientation with my best friend and signed up to play volleyball. Then I got a letter from City Honors saying there was a spot, while I was already set up to start at Da Vinci, this was an opportunity my Mom wasn’t going to let me pass up. I went to City Honors without even getting to go to an orientation and no friends to pull me out of my comfort zone and into activities. The culture at City Honors is centered on mostly rich white kids who have been at City Honors since 5th grade and went to Olmsted, a high performing public middle school before that. It is a well known rumor in Buffalo that a large portion of those kids aren’t even Buffalo residents but rather come from the surrounding suburbs. I was an outsider by education, race, and class. I was given the “you only got in because you are xyz” speech from one of my classmates as a freshman even though I took the same test and passed, and the same speech from one of my close friends when we were getting into colleges. It is common for the achievements of People of Color to be delegitimized when getting into competitive spaces like higher education because of race. As if most schools aren’t dominated by white people at times unqualified ones, look up legacy admissions.
One part of City Honors’ program that profoundly changed me was the internship component of the International Baccalaureate Program (IB), for seniors after the IB exams are over. As a senior I didn’t drive, so my parents drove me to make sure I was getting to school safely each day. I got dropped off before most teachers arrived at school by my mom on her way to teach and picked up by my father in a big white box truck that contained all his tools for maintenance work. So for my internship I needed something accessible, a concern not held by my peers of means. For my internship, I got the privilege of working in the City Honors community garden known as Pelion Garden under Caesandra Seawell.
Caesandra changed my life because she was representative of something I had never seen at City Honors before; she was a powerful, smart, experienced, low income woman of color that genuinely cared about me. She didn’t care about what people thought. She didn’t care about getting dirty. Her goal was to get folks to come together trying things they had never done before from tasting edible flowers to getting elbows deep in manure. Caesandra is someone I am so grateful for and we maintain a relationship to this day. She made the outdoors a part of my community and I wasn’t ready to let that go.
I went to college looking for a way to find a career working outdoors. It took me a few tries but I found the Environmental Studies Interdisciplinary program at the University at Buffalo. I loved my major. If you are familiar with the program, you probably know Sandy Geffner, the iconic advisor and founder of Earth Spirit. I loved that I got to take classes like Wilderness where I learned to make fires, identify plants, and go for hikes. It was almost everything I wanted. I noticed fairly quickly that, like most of my past experiences, I was one of the few people of color in my major and of that small group there were no men of color at all.
It wouldn’t have been as bad if the program wasn’t absolutely tone deaf to our lack of diversity. All the professors were white. I learned about tragedies like Love Canal over and over again, but specific examples of environmental racism were rarely discussed, the only exception being an Environmental Sociology class I took, which -you guessed it- was taught by yet another white woman.
In my least favorite class of my major, Sustainability 101. I had two white female teachers, one of whom was a thin white woman with curly blond hair who regularly threw microaggressions my way. In college I lived with my parents and we were all raising my nieces together. One time my youngest niece was sick and needed to go to the hospital so my Mom took her. My father’s schedule as a plumber is on call so it was always unpredictable. I had quizzes that day so my niece went to school with me. In her class my teacher shamed me for having to bring my niece to class instead of her being in school. The kicker is she is a mother. I think about that moment more than I probably should. For such a small moment in my life it stuck with me because it was the first time someone had ever embarrassed me in front of my niece. I doubt she even remembers, but raising children in this society and never once struggling to get your child to school is a privilege, a class privilege not all people have. If systematic racism wasn’t enough my program had a healthy dose of classism as well.
I left college thinking I would become a park ranger. After some real world experience interning for the forest service I realized that I needed more. I wanted to build a bridge that connects the natural world to all people regardless of class, race, sexuality, ability, or identity. It is only when all people have a more connected relationship with the environment that we will get people to care about it enough to protect it and that’s something that I am committed to working towards everyday. While this is nowhere near my entire story I hope this helps you understand where I am coming from as I work and continue to write about environmental issues.