At the height of the pandemic, Glenn Hall found himself strolling through Anacostia Park, thinking about stepping into a new career. The Southeast resident had recently graduated from Lincoln University with a degree in mass communications and planned to get a master’s in the same field.
But he said he didn’t feel like the job he had at that time truly allowed for personal and career growth. And walking among the trees and plants, he realized growing was exactly what he wanted to be doing.
“I really did a lot of soul searching like, ‘what do I enjoy the most?’ and knew the answer: the environment, gardening,” he said, noting that as a child, he had spent a lot of time in the garden with his grandmother.
“It was like a movie,” he said. “I’m having an epiphany right now walking through Anacostia Park: I love the environment. And I can see myself doing this in the future.”
Today, Hall continues to work toward earning a graduate degree in urban agriculture from UDC while working on urban farms and gardens with DC’s Department of Parks and Recreation.
He sees it as a way to both protect green spaces and address the dearth of healthy food in Wards 7 and 8.
“I want to see the future that we’re heading into be the best future for the environment and human health,” he said. “I really think that by going into urban ag, I can make a difference in the lives of the people around me.”
As a Black young professional, Hall isn’t alone in realizing early on that he wanted to work in environmental protection. A looming climate crisis and growing environmental justice movement have led more Black youth and young adults to add their voices to the fight and to choose related career paths.
“In a lot of spaces, when we talk about diversity, equity and inclusion, we often exclude young people,” said Zanagee Artis, co-founder of the youth climate justice advocacy group, This Is Zero Hour. “But young people will inherit this crisis.”
Artis and other Zero Hour co-founders started the organization and coordinated climate marches around the country while they were still in high school. On the day of the first annual youth climate march in 2018, pouring rain pelted the District.
Artis, who marched on that first day, described it as “like a monsoon.” Still, over a thousand people showed up.
“It was just incredible to see so many showing out for youth at a time when we were not being heard by our elected officials, when we were too young to even have our voices considered in a vote,” Artis said.
A recent graduate from Brown University, Artis now serves as a climate justice advisor with IKEA on the Ingka Group’s Youth Leaders Forum and continues to lead This is Zero Hour as its executive and policy director.
The movement that Artis helped found attracted Elsa Mengistu, then a high school junior and now a senior at Howard University. She, too, helped organize the first youth climate march and joined the crowd at the rainy event.
“I had never really seen people talk about climate change from a place of empathy or from a place of community,” Mengistu said. “These were college and high school kids who were trying to make this really big change on the national level, working to change the national conversation regarding climate change to center the voices of diverse and frontline youth. So I just got involved.”
These days, Mengistu’s focus is on Black environmentalism which she describes as working to “fuse together culture and Blackness with environmentalism and justice.”
Like Hall, she sees food justice issues, like the prevalence of fast food and the lack of full grocery stores in many Black neighborhoods, as part of a larger conversation about the environment.
“For me, it’s really important that we use a holistic definition of environment,” Mengistu said. “Opening up the definition of environments to include the spaces that we occupy, rather than just the green and the blue that we tend to see whenever we think about nature and the environment.”
Even so, many groups and companies focused on bringing people of color into historically non-inclusive outdoor recreation have sprung up in recent years including Outdoor Afro, Black Girls Hike, Brown Girls Climb and D.C.’s own Soul Trak.
Naadiya Hutchinson, a governmental affairs manager at the nonprofit We Act for Environmental Justice, said the prevalence of these organizations shows just how unfriendly these spaces can be for non-white people.
“Maybe it’s not that Black people don’t want to go on hikes – maybe it’s that you have to drive by multiple Confederate flags to get to the hike,” Hutchinson said. “It’s not resistance to being outdoors. It’s not resistance to being an environmentalist. I think it’s resistance to being in contact with both overt and covert racism.”
She said that’s why intentionally inclusive workspaces like We Act and Zero Hour are so important. While working on Capitol Hill for Rep. Donald McEachin, Hutchinson, who has a master’s in environmental health from Johns Hopkins, was asked to speak at an event. The person making the request told her outright that “it would look bad if it was two white men speaking about environmental justice.”
“It really hit me that [while] I was the only person with a degree specifically on environmental issues, I was being asked to speak because of my race,” she said.
Working on the Hill, she said she often counted as the only Black person in the room. Sometimes, she was asked to speak for all Black people, even on issues with which she had little expertise. Eventually, she left Congress for the nonprofit world.
“I realized that as a young, Black professional in the environmental movement, I needed community support in a way that I really struggled to get on Capitol Hill,” Hutchinson said. “We Act is so diverse as a workplace and that diversity is so needed.”
Even outside of organizations led by people of color, young activists are pushing back against the environmental movement’s lack of diversity.
Hall said Black success stories in agriculture and the environment inspire him to keep pushing here in D.C.
“I started doing a regenerative agriculture training at a Common Good City Farm and there aren’t that many Black people doing it,” he said. “And just seeing that, at times, I feel discouraged. But at the same time, it’s good to see the people that do look like me shine.”
“It’s sometimes an uphill battle, especially when you don’t have people that look like you rooting you on – but I’m ready for the battle,” Hall said.