My Reasons for Leaving PUSH Buffalo

This a copy of what I sent to PUSH Buffalo in lieu of my exit interview with names omitted:

I worked at People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH) Buffalo from April 2020 until July 16, 2021 operating as the Climate Justice Organizer. PUSH is a nonprofit that claims to be a social justice organization that believes in a Just Transition and the Jemez Principles. Here are some of the reasons why I left:

Lack of Training & Direction

When I was hired onto the Organizing Team at PUSH Buffalo, the Director of Organizing role was vacant, resulting in little guidance for my position. In the meantime the Deputy Director of PUSH, was the one guiding our work. When I was brought on I received no formal instruction on how to do my job, with a clear understanding I had no organizing experience when they brought me on. The interim Housing Justice Organizer, was kind enough to give me a presentation, Organizing 101, so I could understand more of what I should be doing besides watching Zoom meetings. My first work training, Midwest Academy, took place in January 2021 about 9 months into my position. [Name Removed] was hired as my direct supervisor, officially the Organizing Director, hired in March of 2021 just shy of my one year mark at PUSH. [Name Removed] off the bat got us into a Base Building Bootcamp.

Lack of Communication and Respect for Employees

Around June 2nd, only a few months into my time at PUSH, the Deputy Director who was acting as my direct supervisor, went on paternity leave. During his time out one of the founders, [Name Removed] as well as [Deputy Director of Administration] from finance, met with us weekly. The Organizing Team was to be the guinea pig for Participatory Budgeting at PUSH. I was told to make an excel spreadsheet sheet with everything I wanted to do for the year, along with estimated costs, and come up with a ballpark figure. When I went to finance for help with the ballpark figures I was told by [Name Removed] the staff accountant that “Organizing never knows what’s going on.” Again this was my first experience with a budgeting process and I was given no examples or clear deadlines. The only time I was able to get effective help from [Staff Accountant] was after [Finance Controller] joined us on a phone call.

The entire Organizing team was struggling through the budgeting process. The Organizing Team at the time consisted of myself as Climate Justice Organizer, [Name Removed] as the Street Team Manager, [Name Removed] as Data and Logistics Organizer (a title that was changed to coordinator without her consent), [Name Removed] as Tenant Advocate, [Name Removed] as Interim Housing Justice Organizer Part Time, and last but not least [Name Removed] as the head of the GSNC. [Deputy Director of Movement Building] returned near the end of the budgeting period. I ended up breaking down and leaving a Zoom meeting related to the budgeting process because I felt like I couldn’t meet standards because none were being given. I even emailed [Deputy Director of Movement Building] about how it was affecting me on July 17th 2020. 

My suggestions would all be used for the next group. The Organizing Team felt like this process omitted a lot of what grants pay for what parts of our work, how much they are, which also would help us think on what work we should plan for. To this day I know money from Citizen Action and NY RENEWs pay for my salary, I’m not sure from where else or how much. Since they didn’t even teach us in depth about the budgeting process we were in the dark. One of the Organizing Team members asked to be at the board meeting where the final budget was presented and they were told no. We as a team had a conversation and came to an agreement. We would like to be able to see the final numbers being used for our work so we can better navigate what we do since we operate on a lot of specific grants. I remember the day we sent it because I had taken off, but logged into my email to cosign it with my team as we all agreed.

At some point I received some calls from senior management that I very anxiously declined. The following week we were supposed to report to School 77 for an Organizing Retreat. This retreat was canceled after close of business that day along with the Midwest Academy training we were originally supposed to receive in August of 2020 not January of 2021. Even the weekly one to ones we each had scheduled for that week with [Deputy Director of Movement Building] were canceled.  When I was working again I talked to [Executive Director] on the phone and she asked why we would do something like that. The lack of information we were being given and solidarity was apparently not the right answer.

That week [Executive Director] joined us in our Admin meeting along with [Deputy Director of Administration]. We were working virtually and [Executive Director] demanded all cameras be on. She proceeded to talk at us despite [Executive Director]’s request for answers, [Deputy Director of Administration] stayed silent the entire meeting and then left when [Executive Director of Administration] left. Senior management was being short with us but not taking in why.

Following the email we sent we faced clear retaliation, [Data Logistics Organizer] was forced to resign after being locked out of the programs that are required to do her job. [Tenant Advocate] was fired after 15 years as well as being the first PUSH Employee. If anything, as PUSH is a community lead organization, [Tenant Advocate] needed more support as an elder that is so active in our community not less. [Interim Housing Justice Organizer] would go on to be passed over as the Full Time Housing Justice Organizer despite doing the work in a part time capacity and ultimately asked not to come back to PUSH over a text message sent illuminating distrust for [Name Removed], our Deputy Director.

As for me, the first time I ever interacted with [Executive Director] directly was my one to one with her when I was on boarded, the second when she called me to ask me what the board email was about, the 3rd time when she scolded us, and the 4th time she spent about 40 minutes in depth explaining to me how the budgeting process at PUSH works. Then towards the very end of the meeting, [Executive Director] was explaining to me that it’s an at will state, more specifically that she could fire me for the color of my shirt, then she laughed, and said that’s not really what PUSH does. It was clear to me that I was on the receiving end of a thinly veiled threat. There was also mention of how my title may change because not just anyone can be an organizer, and it takes years to become an organizer. Despite that being what they hired me for. 

Lack of Investment into Current Staff

On April 22nd 2021, I asked [Name Removed] the Deputy Director for a raise after hitting my one year mark. I was told I would need to redirect my request to [New Organizing Director] who was still new at the time and wasn’t even involved in the yearly evaluation. I was also told by [Deputy Director of Movement Building and I quote “We are taking a look across the organization at this point around salaries because we have had some people and especially since we have been doing national searches in order to be competitive and to have people be apart of the organization we have had to like do salary enhancements for people who like [New Organizing Director] who is coming from Portland or like this other person who is coming from Atlanta like these are cost of living expenses and so [Executive Director] is asking for an entire proposal of us thinking and having conversations and department heads having conversations – so like your equity questions so is there like a single mom who needs a daycare subsidy that hasn’t fought for themselves. Are there people we feel need that boost right now?” This to me seems a lot more like we need to pay brand new employees more to get them here from other places than we need to pay the current Buffalo based staff. I have been time and time again a face for PUSH Buffalo on Facebook, the newsletter, etc. but I, a woman of color from Buffalo, wasn’t worth being invested in, that is a slap in the face especially when equity is cited as a reason why I wasn’t given a raise. 

PULL Buffalo

When PULL Buffalo first came online and the Facebook takeovers began we were all made aware it was something that was being monitored. As a PUSH employee I went on the site and looked it over. What rubbed me the wrong way with how this was handled is that PUSH never made an attempt to look into the content on the site and address the valid critiques. We claim to be a community led organization, but we ignored the gripes of the community in its entirety. There was time for [Executive Director] to discuss Cancel Culture but no time to say we as an organization are looking into the points made by this blog to see how we can improve. Then to add insult to injury, staff was asked to make donations to get senior management massages because of the stress of PULL Buffalo. The blog might be anonymous and it may be painful at times but there is no excuse for ignoring the concerns being brought forward. 

[New Organizing Director]

I was very excited to have [Name Removed] brought on as Director of Organizing, I thought I was finally going to become a powerful organizer because I finally had someone to help develop my skills. That excitement was short-lived. [Organizing Director] was a previous PUSH Board member who used to live in Buffalo and had to move back here from Portland for the Director of Organizing Position. [New Organizing Director] is out of touch with the Buffalo community and a performative white ally. I have felt micromanaged by her and had to deal with microaggressions as a brown woman. I brought up numerous times to [New Organizing Director] that I was feeling micromanaged and I know this is a feeling other staff had as well, but my concerns were brushed to the side. In the way of microaggressions one glaring example was the time I was told by [New Organizing Director], a white woman that I interrupt her too much. I was livid but I let her finish. I made it clear that I have felt talked to and not talked with, [New Organizing Director] would go on for chunks of time listing off things she needed to talk about with no room for me to respond. In trying to directly respond to items brought up so we could have a conversation I was told I interrupt too much. This is something that would never be said to a white man, I brought up how more space is made for white people to speak their mind but when I advocate for space for my thoughts I am interrupting and viewed as aggressive because I am a brown woman. This is not something I thought I would need to explain to the Director of Organizing at a social justice organization. My opinions on the cultural and class need for food at PUSH Buffalo events was also belittled and made to be an unimportant part of events.

I have also brought to light numerous concerns about the documenting one to ones with community members, as well as the intent of [New Organizing Director] to sit in on a one to one which goes against the entire concept. In the end all of my concerns were ignored and I was told these things were going to happen anyway. If multiple people on a team have the same concern about an idea maybe you shouldn’t go through with that idea.

It’s Not About the Work It’s About PUSH

Something that has become evident to me while working at PUSH is that PUSH has to be front and center in the work or else they don’t support the work. A few weeks ago when NY Renews went to Albany to demand we pass the CCIA, PUSH wasn’t going to lead any major aspects of the event as the Organizing Team was being put into training so I did not have the capacity to plan. I personally took a car full of folks to Albany and was even a speaker in front of The Business Council of NY. No other PUSH staff came except for the Street Team members I brought. 

When we held an action at Karen McMahon’s office, I spoke at that action as well, [Web Developer and Interaction Design Specialist] and [Lead Street Team Organizer] were able to join the action. The action was a success, but since it was a quick turn around action senior management didn’t feel we had communicated well enough and [Executive Director] even stated that there was a breakdown in communication and no specific person was at fault. However then PUSH told NY Renews that [Name Removed], a staff organizer at NY Renews and previous PUSH Climate Justice Organizer that [Name Removed] was purposefully excluding PUSH staff. An accusation that almost cost Buffalo positive community change because [Name Removed] wasn’t going to be allowed to organize in the Buffalo area because of it. It’s clear to me that this is motivated by a vendetta against [Name Removed] because I have witnessed [Executive Director] say before that we don’t work for [Name Removed], she works for us (PUSH) and that [Executive Director] pays [Name Removed]’s salary because she is on the NY Renews steering committee. 

Closing

For the sake of length I have not listed all of my reasons for leaving PUSH Buffalo but rather some highlights. These comments have been made from my perspective and experiences. I wrote these aware that I could be black listed in the Buffalo Organizing circle as PUSH has a very large reach, but I took the time to write them out any because I genuinely believe in the work that I have done, I believe in a Just Transition, and PUSH needs to do better or else PUSH is going to continue to be a part of the extractive non profit industrial complex like so many other major non profits. PUSH often uses Movement Generation’s quote “If we are not prepared to govern, we are not prepared to win.” I fear that PUSH Buffalo’s version of governing looks a lot like the extractive model we are already working from. 

-Kelly Camacho

The Environmental Equality Center

During my time at the University at Buffalo there was one teacher whose classes everyone wanted to get into. Ralph Critelli taught at a Kenmore School by day, and classes at UB by night. I took his History of the Environmental Movement at 7pm once a week during my senior year. The time was important because while most late night classes are ones that you would want to skip, Critelli’s wasn’t. Critelli  knew it was hard for us to be there so late so he would bring in a coffee maker and pastries every week. I even brought my dogs with me to class, but if UB finds themselves reading this blog Critelli never said I could bring them.

Critelli was all the things a teacher should be and even got me to watch The Dead Poet’s Society for the first time. Critelli wasn’t one to assign busy work, the things he had us put our energy into were designed to help change ourselves and the others around us. One of my presentations resulted in him recommending teaching to me as a career path, part of the reason I would go on to be a teacher’s aide for 2 years. Our final project he assigned flipped on a switch I didn’t know I had. The assignment was to present an idea to change the world, it could be a product, service, or organization and we didn’t have to limit our idea by financial constraints.

I started with what I wanted to see changed around me: I was on of the few People of Color in my major, community gardens can change lives but many people don’t have access to them, outdoor activities are inaccessible because of the cost of gear or entry, climate change will impact people of color first and worst, and black people keep getting the police called on them by white people for living their lives. The next step was creating a solution and thus the Environmental Equality Center was born. 

My idea for the Environmental Equality Center is to create a community for people historically left out of the environmental movement (Black, Ingigenous, People of Color, low income, LGBTQ+, women, etc.) to feel safe and comfortable in pursuing outdoor education and experiences. I call it the Environmental Equality Center, because I want everyone to be treated equally in outdoor spaces, but I don’t just want equality, I want the equity to get us there. There is a long history of violence against these marginalized groups when outdoors, as recently as September of 2020 Ahmaud Arbery was murdered by white men for jogging while Black. Not only do I want to help create a relationship for people with the outdoors, but I want to create a safe community for people to seek joy without fear.

It is harder for people without a direct relationship to the environment to care about the environment. The goal is to encourage more relationships with the outdoors so we can build more momentum around proactively fighting the Climate Crisis. Additionally, I want to help normalize praise for the work marginalized communities already do, sometimes without even knowing it to fight the crisis such as using public transport and repurposing items instead of throwing them away.

My long term goal is to have a physical location on the east side of Buffalo, ideally in 14215, where we can educate the public about the environment. Someday the site will have a community garden with a green house so we can be hands-on with plants all year round, educating on where food comes and making urban gardening more accessible. The center will have a community space where we can have presentations, a small scale library, some computers for public use, and a free thrift store. My short term goal while we are still developing is to offer free or low cost programming. Long term goals include securing funds to buy outdoor equipment that can be shared with the public to use for outdoor recreation. Maybe even some day sponsoring trips nationally and even internationally. 

For a few years I let my idea gather dust after a few shallow attempts failed. I graduated in the summer of 2018 and packed up my truck to head to Minnesota for an internship with the Forest Service through the Student Conservation Association. I was invigorated by being in the Bozeman Ranger District. I met some people there I think of everyday. Something less positive I think of often was the day I spent with about all 80 Forest Service employees and interns at a sexual harassment training. When it came time for folks to bring up any feedback they had for the Forest Service one white woman in her 20’s said it would be nice to see more diversity in leadership positions. This was fitting, looking around that room of the 80 people there 2 were brown women and I was one of them, and there were no black or asian people. 

The next person to take the mic said we needed to remember we want QUALIFIED people. The joy brought to me by the woman was quickly soured by this white man in his 40s. Not being a white man doesn’t make any of us less qualified to be here. All of our cultures have traditions that utilize the environments of our home places, that doesn’t die just because old white men were the spotlight of the environmental movement. This made me realize I had to work everyday to keep combating this way of thinking and developing more environmentalists of color and my idea had to become a reality.

This is a project that has become the product of my life experiences so far. As I work my day job I will continue to develop the Environmental Equality Center. So far I have managed to become a legal entity and am currently working on a business plan. If this is something that speaks to you please contact eecbuffalo@gmail.com. You can also follow us on Facebook as we develop.

Disruption Against Destruction

The protestors seen in my photos have been blurred out for safety and out of respect for their identities and work.

My Mom is usually pretty busy so I hope she doesn’t find the time to read this blog post specifically.

Today I participated in some actions to Stop Line 3. Leaving at 5am in the dark we drove about an hour to our destination. It was dark and cold, our masks would become wet with moisture from our mouths but then freeze up on our faces and eyelashes. We went to a location where Enbridge has an easement on a public road, behind door number one: a giant mud pool with giant machines putting a green (ironic?) pipeline in the ground. Behind door number 2: the other side of the road, bare land cleared of the trees there before with a pipeline laid to go into the ground next. 

Folks gathered at the edge of the driveways going into the site just off the road chanting things like “Can’t drink oil, keep it in the soil”, “Indigenous Rights, not greedy whites”, “Tar sands, bloody hands”, “Protect the Sacred”, “Pipelines are leaky, Protect the Mississippi.” Relatively quickly the police showed up telling us if we went on the property we would be arrested for trespassing, a short man in a uniform with most of his face covered read a 2 page packet to us. Honestly it probably only needed half a page not a whole packet. Also who doesn’t print front and back? Are my taxes paying for this? Anyway that’s not why we are here. Between the road and the Enbridge No Trespassing sign was our safe zone. We were also told if we blocked the road we were going to be arrested. Someone went around writing the jail assistance number on our arms in sharpie. Safety was only about a yard and a half wide, but at least it spanned the entire road. Some people left but not before the cops took down all of our plates. Jokes on you, it’s a rental.  I stayed to express my nonviolent protest to the pipeline within legal limits.

While arrest was not my goal today some folks have the capacity to do it which is important as right now the ground thawing which makes construction possible. If we slow the pipeline process, we cost Enbridge money, the goal being to eventually make it fruitless for them to continue. One person spent over 2 hours under a machine in the morning, this morning was around 29 degrees Fahrenheit. He was arrested face first in the snow after leaving of his own accord.

There was also a woman who somehow secured herself to a machine halting the process. Once a “special team” had to come to remove her, who we believe is the sheriff became very short with us. More threats of arrest came, which makes me  wonder if he knows he drinks the same water as us, or does his pension include Fiji water?

We stayed for hours, but in one special moment we gathered in the best circle we could manage considering the Trespassing sign. We all saged and were led in a moment of grounding by an Indigenous woman. We kneeled and put our hands on the earth. It was cold and muddy but it felt good. One of my companions was shaking because of the cold. I put my hand on their back and the shaking ceased. We all pulsed with energy, later they told me putting my hand on them pushed the cold away. Does the Power of the People count as a renewable energy source? Following our grounding, I busted out what every good act of protest needs, water and snacks and for a while things were smooth.

What kind of story would this be if things stayed smooth? The special team showed up, and took out what looked like a blow torch and a generator to assist in the removal of the protestor on the machine. All day we had no problems from the police for walking across the easement driveway along the side of the road under the condition we do not block the easement driveway. Things changed when the sheriff told a specific organizer that he could not keep walking near him or across the easement, and if he kept up ‘his mouth’ he would be arrested. Important PSA: disrespecting the cops is still not a crime. We were then told that we could no longer pass the easement driveway or we would be arrested. The problem is half the group was on the other side of the easement watching the police try to remove the remaining protestor on the machine. Folks came back to our side and were not stopped or addressed by the police. We confirmed with the present legal observers and we came to the conclusion that being on public land isn’t illegal so acknowledging the risks we all crossed together to sing to the protester during the attempted removal.

After a song, the sheriff took out these big black thick zip ties. I wear glasses but I saw those things quick! My goal wasn’t to get arrested, my Dad would freak out, finding jobs would be harder. I just wanted fresh clean water. Communication about what to do broke out. We all started looping arms with our folks. Myself along with 2 elders and 2 young adults linked together approached the sheriff. We were willing to leave if they would let us even if we didn’t agree with their reasoning however we would have to cross the easement again. The troll under the bridge let us pass without answering a riddle. Most of the group followed hustling to our line of cars. We live to organize another day.

We got to our car and threw the cooler in the trunk. The sheriff and 2 officers came up to our car to start harassing the elders about not getting in the truck fast enough. One of our elders struggled to even hear their complaints. We got out of there going under the speed limit and over using all our signals. We weren’t followed. 

Coming back we all felt drained, we left so early that cooler snacks were the only thing we had eaten. We had to care for ourselves and rest for a while. Trying to help stop Line 3 has fulfilled my soul in a way that I have missed during the socially distanced time of COVID-19. I was drained but it felt right. Some people left, I didn’t get arrested but I could have been, and some were arrested. To me it’s all honorable work even getting arrested. All these folks are getting arrested for something they believe in. We all want clean water, so spend summers splashing around, to drink, to skate on, to fish in, the freedom to use the land, all things we could lose when we create pipelines. America is supposed to be for the People, so as the People when something is wrong we need to change the system to suit our needs not the other way around. Legality has never been morality, we make the laws by the morals we prioritize, however those change over time. Times have changed and now we know the harm that pipelines cause. Take action today. Donate to get supplies to Indigenous protestors on the frontlines here. Thank you to those who have already donated. Or help us spread the word and get people here for the spring!

Stop Line 3

Spoiler alert: Will discuss plot from Tank Girl, but it came out in 1995 so you had plenty of time to see it. 

Tank Girl started as a comic book drawn by Jamie Hewlett and written by Alan Martin that spotlights Tank Girl, her boyfriend Booga a mutant Kangaroo, and their adventures in drugs, sex, and violence. My first interaction with it’s content was from the movie Tank Girl, released in 1995 which just so happens to be the same year I was born (coincidence? I think not). It would become my favorite movie catapulting me into the comic book world. The film stars Lori Petty as Tank Girl and her life in a post-apocalyptic world in 2033 after a comet hit the earth causing a global drought. The main conflict in the film is over the availability of water. A single company Water & Power has all the water and operates on slave labor to get the water they don’t have. Tank Girl and her rag tag group of friends siphon water, leading to Tank Girl’s friends being murdered. Without getting too much into the plot Tank Girl ends up taking on this company and destroying it (teamed up with Ice Tea as a mutant kangaroo so it’s really worth watching). 

While Tank Girl has been an influential icon for me almost my whole life, for the first time in my life I realized she’s a Water Protector. A few weeks ago, I learned about Line 3. Line 3 is an old Canadian pipeline that transports tar sands from Canada to Wsiconcin. Tar sands look like the black top people use for driveways, but they can’t be transported through a pipeline as a solid, so it gets mixed with cancer causing chemicals and pushed through at a high pressure. The pipeline has had over 900 “structural anomalies” stated by Enbridge, the company responsible. Their plan to fix it consists of leaving this old pipeline exactly where it is contaminated and all, and carve out a new pathway for a brand new pipeline. 

If you thought it can’t get worse, it does, so buckle in. The brand new pipeline is not only outdated technology in a world that is switching to renewables, but the land it goes through in Minnesota is Ojibwe Treaty Territory, watersheds including going under the Mississippi River, and cutting through wild rice fields. The Ojibwe people have stepped up to fight against Line 3 to protect the water, the burden to fight for justice once again being placed on oppressed groups. Not only are Natives the most managed ethnic group in the US, but reservations are currently some of the most contaminated land in the US. Contaminating watersheds wouldn’t just affect Natives, it would affect everyone who depends on that water shed. That should sound scary but what makes it terrifying is that Line 3 will extend to Superior, Wisconsin, which is where Lake Superior is. The Great Lakes system is completely interconnected putting all these bodies of water at risk.

These companies just want more money, meanwhile we just want clean water. That’s why I’ve spent the last few weeks applying for a grant through my job. Recently the grant was approved so I along with a team of organizers and community leaders have spent the last 2 days traveling to Minnesota to join our Indigenous brothers and sisters in the fight against Line 3. Yesterday I got to stand by the Mississippi River for the first time as night was falling. Water is extremely powerful, I was surprised when I couldn’t hear it. The frozen top insulates the water and the sound. I was blown away by the quiet, seemingly silent to me but bursting with life inside and providing life to its surrounding. In the moment I couldn’t see myself anywhere else. We fight for the water because it gives life and we need it but also because it has its own identity and was here so much longer than we have been. 

Maybe it’s all the comic books I read or the movies I was raised on but I felt the call to step up as a Water Protector because it’s the right thing to do. Our Native community has asked for more boots on the ground because as the ground thaws for spring construction can move forward making every moment count. Every moment we cause the pipeline to delay is money we are costing Enbridge and money is the only language corporations speak. I urge anyone who can travel to come as well.

I will document my trip here in hopes of raising some awareness about what is happening at Line 3. I am currently fundraising money so supplies can be purchased for the Water Protectors Camp, if you are able please donate here, everything helps. There is a large need for mud boots in particular.

My Story of Self

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.