At 22 years old, Wesley Wiggins already spends a lot of time thinking about his own legacy. He is a seventh-generation Washingtonian from Douglass, a neighborhood in the southeast. Wiggins graduated from Princeton University in May 2021. Now he’s back in D.C. working with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Creating Resilient Water Utilities Initiative as a fellow with the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education. Earlier this fall, Wiggins led a presentation on climate resilience for individuals and communities as his final project through Black Millennials for Flint’s DC Environmental Griots program.
Kayla Benjamin: Tell me a little bit about your family and growing up here in the District.
Wesley Wiggins: My family has been in DC for a really long time. I can’t chart the journey exactly, but if I’m remembering correctly, from what my parents have told me, post-escaping slavery, this is kind of where my ancestors went, and planted their roots. And then we’ve been here ever since.
I live right in between Congress Heights metro and the Southern Avenue station. My mom, dad, and my three sisters lived basically in the same neighborhood our whole lives. There’s a community center near my house called THEARC, and I have a lot of fond memories there.
And I just got into a lot of D.C. programs growing up. And then by the time I got to high school, I was really into the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. I spent a lot of time volunteering there.
KB: What got you interested in the museum—were you into science before that?
WW: I think I’ve always had a fascination with science. I had a rock collection when I was younger; my parents got me a science kit. I was always a very curious child. And I think a lot of it was science fairs.
So by the time I got to high school at BASIS DC, a Public Charter School in northwest, I got the core sciences like biology, chemistry, physics. And I really gravitated towards biology and then really gravitated towards ecology. And then I learned about climate change.
KB: Did you know then that you wanted to keep going with the science stuff after high school?
WW: Yeah, I went to Princeton University, and I majored in geoscience and minored in environmental studies. I think the really interesting thing about my time at Princeton is that I wrote my college application essay about how much I wanted to do research. But like, when I started doing research my freshman year, I was like, ‘this isn’t everything.’ I started taking some classes in anthropology, and African American studies, which is how I kind of started incorporating environmental justice into a lot of my passion.
KB: How did you eventually land on climate resilience, or adapting to meet the demands of climate-related disasters, as something to focus on in your work?
WW: Actually, I was listening to the ‘How to Save a Planet’ podcast. And they had an episode on Hurricane Maria, and how the communities came together to prepare for climate change and to recover after that disaster. And I was so inspired by that kind of push to help ourselves and to build the systems to prepare for these effects.
KB: Do you kind of see the idea of climate resilience as kind of an extension of your own resilience in any way?
WW: Coming out of school in a pandemic, transitioning to the workforce in a pandemic I was experiencing burnout to a very intense degree. I think that was the first time that I thought, ‘I seriously need to reach out for help.’ And in March, I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder. In August, I was diagnosed with ADHD.
And it’s been a very enlightening kind of going through that process—because I’m a Christian reconnecting with God, and also seeing a psychiatrist and getting on medication. And things kind of started moving again in my mind.
Hearing about climate change every now and then is already a daunting experience, but working in the climate space—it can be so soul-crushing sometimes. But that all ties back into climate resilience. I started becoming a lot more solutions focused, because I think I had become so hyper-fixated on the problems and the worries that I was really struggling to see the solutions.
KB: What are you up to now?
WW: So I’m in the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education fellowship program, and they connect us with government agencies. So I’m with the EPA, in their Office of Groundwater and Drinking Water. And the goal of my program, which is called Creating Resilient Water Utilities, is to provide drinking water and wastewater facilities with tools, training, and technical assistance to help increase their resilience to climate change.
KB: And what’s next?
WW: You know, I’ve had this dream since I was a child to be Dr. Wiggins, but I’m not gonna lie and say that’s the only reason I’m applying to get my PhD.
It’s kind of about embracing that resilience that I have developed over time. And it is kind of about taking my younger self, the child in me, seriously, and knowing that this is something that I’ve always wanted to do.