Nourbese Flint, Policy Director of Black Women for Wellness, speaks about the Green New Deal, the power of Sci-Fi, and why Black History and Women’s History matters for the environmental movement.
This interview is in conversation with Devin Murphy, CLCV’s Digital Communications and Technology Manager. Like it? Share it on Facebook or Twitter.
Black environmentalists continue to pave the way for climate justice. These leaders - from distinguished agricultural researcher George Washington Carver to Lisa Jackson, the first African-American (and one of the first women) to lead the Environmental Protection Agency - deserve to be celebrated. Paying homage to these foreleaders is the first step; acknowledging today’s activists who continue these critical efforts is just as important. We sat down with Nourbese Flint, a self-proclaimed proud Black woman, to highlight her important work at Black Women for Wellness, an organization at the intersections of reproductive justice and environmental health and “committed to healing, supporting, and educating Black women and girls through health education, empowerment, and advocacy”.
Throughout her work as Director of Policy, Flint has honed a sophisticated, inclusive approach to resolving issues of climate justice. What follows is a discussion of her personal background, the environmental activism of hair stylists, and her thoughts on where the environmental movement should go from here.
DM: Hi Nourbese, it’s great to chat with you today. We’ve know each other for a few years. I would love to know something that maybe, I don't know about you. Tell me about yourself, the community you come from, and the work that you're doing.
NF: I would say that I am native Los Angeles, a Black Angeleno, which I think is important as there are so little of us. People ask ‘where are you from?’, and I say, I am really from Los Angeles, born and raised, and my community is Los Angeles. And I was raised in a part of Los Angeles that was diverse but didn't have that many black folks, but it was a hippie town, and I appreciate that hippy town so much because they were very supportive of a revolutionary spirit as well as my mother who is supportive and have has a revolutionary spirit. Outside of that I would say to know me is to know the things about me that makes me, me and that is that I'm a super nerd. I love Sci-Fi, and I’m a big Star Trek fan. I love comic books. I can , talk about DC and marvel for hours. I'm also into graphic design and other things like that. One of the reasons why I uplift Star Trek and my sci-fi-ness is because I do think that it gives me a perspective on my social justice work. I say this in a sense of one of things that I loved about Sci-Fi Phi particularly Star Trek is that it showed Black people in the future. It showed Black people in the future in a way that we weren't servants. It seemed to [in Star Trek] have solved most of the racism, most of the institutionalized sexism. We can have this future where we exist. Where we don't deal with a lot of ‘isms’ that will be have now, right? People were not beefing with each other. There is no homophobia and there’s no xenophobia. The conversations are about humanity. I think of that in the sense of , how do we create a future that's like that, right? Where everybody can be the best that they can be and we have a level playing field. Leveled it in a way that doesn't bring everybody down but brings everybody up to their best potential. And that's why I really appreciate this kind science fiction because it gives you space to be imaginative, innovative, to dream about the possibilities. And I bring that to my work.
DM: Yeah. That’s great. So you mentioned your work and the uniqueness around being not only a Star Trek super fan, but also you obviously mentioned the uniqueness of being a Black Angeleno. So tell me a little bit about that and tell me what that means to you. I would love for you to tell me about Black Women for Wellness and how it’s connected to that uniqueness for you as a Black Angeleno.
NF: I had a unique experience growing up. We have this kind of interesting melting pot in Los Angeles, but it's very different than other places. In Chicago, where my mom grew up, it was another melting pot, but it was a different mix of folks. In New York, different mix of folks. With Los Angeles, it has a uniqueness with the sun and the beach that has this kind of cool vibe and feels progressive, but with this undercurrent of politeness that also has a lot of anti-Blackness. We only make up 9% of the population. Even though California has a huge Black population, we are the fifth largest in the country. - When you think of Black folks gathering, you don't think of a place like California. And so it’s always just kind of a space in which Black folks, at least for me, feels like we're trying to get seen and heard and noticed and always having to re-affirm why we matter. There's such a rich history of what Black folks have contributed to Los Angeles. There has been a deep history of social justice work also in Los Angeles from folks both past and present. This is important in the roots of our work.
DM: How does that tie into your work at Black Women for Wellness?
NF: On a few levels. Black Women for Wellness is a reproductive justice organization and it's very intentional about saying reproductive justice. It’s not reproductive health or reproductive right? A lot of times we hear people use those words interchangeably, but they actually mean something different. Reproductive justice was created by black women to use an intersectional approach and framework that's based in human rights to look at reproductive oppression. It’s significant because it's very different in the sense that it looks at whole selves. It doesn't stop at ‘what's covered by the Bikini or the swimsuits’ area It looks at the full person. It was created because Black women were fighting to be seen in both the feminist space and also the civil rights space. In the civil rights space we had to leave our women-ness behind and our gender. In the feminist space we had to leave our Blackness behind? Reproductive Justice is where those things converge where we put our gender, our race, and our class together for us to start looking at policies and structural institutions holistically. How do we solve things holistically? That's the framework that Black Women for Wellness uses. That's also how we got involved in some of our environmental work. We know there's an absolute link between what we drink, eat, where we live, play, and breathe for us to able to live our healthy full lives.
DM: Yes, I completely agree. So, can you tell me a little bit more about that then? Because I really love that this connects these issues around racism, sexism and classism, right? And identifying as a reproductive justice organization. People don't always think that reproductive justice organizations are environmental organizations or are a part of the larger environmental justice movement. Can you, first of all, elaborate on what role you play the environmental justice movement and then how that differs from traditional environmentalism or even how that differs from, reproductive rights as you mentioned the differences between those?
NF: We kind of happened into it. We rolled into it. One of my friends who works at Physicians for Social Responsibility flagged environmental toxins. We had been looking at this really terrible rates of cancer, low birth rates, very low birth rates, that Black women were experiencing and different structures that contribute to it. She also introduced us to the idea that the products we use in our hair and beauty regimen could also be impacting our health. And the hair industry is important aspect of black culture. We started looking at the products that we're putting in our hair and on our bodies and realized that Black women had some of the most toxic chemicals on the market. From there we expanded our work looking at how does that intersect with our health, our ability to reproduce or not, cancer rates and fibroids.,That got us into the door of environment. From that we also started looking at, 'well, if it's the stuff that we're using on our body, what about stuff that we're drinking? Is there something in our water? What about the stuff that we're breathing? How’s that contributing to it? So we started looking at chemicals in air, chemicals in water and how that also compiles. Because it's not just that, you know, Black folks are breathing bad air, particularly in Los Angeles, but it's that they’re breathing bad air, maybe drinking bad water, and then also using the most toxic chemical products on the market for our hair and beauty regime, and how those all can impact our, our space and our environment. Finally, we landed - and we're still expanding our environment work - but we're looking at particularly how do we also talk about fracking and oil in Los Angeles because we knew that our community, again, are impacted by them because that drilling happen to be a lot of times in communities of color and also how that compounds with all the other isms that we just talked about and particularly pumping chemicals into the ground and places where we eat, sleep, play and all these other things. That's kind of how we got into the environment space. Well, what makes us different? While the folks who are doing reproductive rights work are looking specifically at the laws that are like particularly attacking our reproduction or access to healthcare, access to abortion, access to birth control, access to medicine, it is focused just on that, right? Black Women for Wellness takes a perspective that we focus on all those things but expanded. So, what does that mean when you live in a space, and you’re thinking about starting your family, but you have brown water coming out of your sink. Do you feel that you can really have a choice of having a healthy family while you're in that space? What does it mean when you are trying to raise a family and there's lead paint in your walls and what does that mean for the development? Or there's lead in your water. So that's the unique space in which we come in to talk about this link and intersection between reproductive justice and environmental justice. It's not just about a right to access, right, which is super important and it's not just about lead in the water, it's where both of those things impact people's lives and the ability to live with dignity.
DM: Yeah, yes. You're giving me goosebumps right now. I'm absolutely enthralled by what you're saying and I really appreciate the fact that we’re talking about this. I want to expand on what you're talking about right now. What I'm hearing from you is how Black people and people of color specifically are impacted by climate change and environmental racism essentially. What we see is that it seems like people of color and Black people are not at the forefront of this movement and largely because of the movement's history. How do you think we take our stand in these places? What does it look like for Black people and people of color to reconcile and relate to the environmental movement as a whole?
NF: Right. I think personally that Black folk have been taking those stances. We just haven’t been getting noticed.
DM: Hmm. Interesting. Tell me more.
NF: When I talk to the mothers that are cleaning up [their communities] or writing letters to the city council about how they're living next to an oil drilling location are the ones who are organizing themselves to talk about how climate change is impacting their lives or organizing around making community parks and creating community gardens. We do this work. We have been doing this work. Shout out to Tanya Fields. She's in New York. She was like, ‘my community is starving. Let me figure out how do something.’ So she started community gardens in the middle of Urban New York. I think it was Brooklyn, but it may be the Bronx. I don’t want to mess that up because it’s fighting words. Our communities have been taking the space a lot of and doing it intersectionally and thinking about all the different ways in which it can impact our lives, right. We just don't actually get the credit for that. One of the things that I am happy that CLCV does and what has been the conversation with a lot of environmental health organizations and with BWW is how do we be in community with folks in the work that they're already doing. How do we amplify that? How do we maybe want to tweak the genes and use our expertise to help in this section, but not tell people how to like, solve the issues that they have been where she know on our know the answers to in their communities for years and decades. I also think it's important for us to take a step back and let folks take space. One of the things that have been I think the most hurtful is seeing that you will see all these people do all this groundwork and a lot of the social justice spaces, as soon as there is a shine on it, then other folks would come in and take those spaces and not uplift the voices that have been putting in the grind work for years and decades with blood, sweat and tears and no money…I'll start with a little story. I remember the first day Mike called me and was like, ‘I'm from CLCV and we’re doing this program’. And I was just like, ‘Uh Huh.’ I essentially gave him a really hard time about environmental health organizations parachuting in and doing the work and then parachuting out, and explained that would not be the case. That was not the case. We’re very great partners now. I remembered that hesitation because so many people have come in, particularly for folks who want to work on the intersections, come in asking for help and support their issues and then they disappear when it comes to supporting the issues that we care about. What does it look like for environmental health folks to stand up for black lives? Right and talk about criminal justice issues. What does it look like for environmental health folks to stand up to racism, and structuralism, sexism, homophobia, and all those things, right? --with the same energy that they stand up for climate change because that's how you build trust with relationships. Right? That's where I think missing from our movement…building trust and relationship because a lot of times both come to us. But where are you when we need you to stand with us? How do we build those like stronger relationships that that means something so we can actually do the big movement work to get us to where we need to be.
DM: That is so important and so powerful to say out loud. Thank you so much for saying that and that's really one of the reasons why we're trying to even continue the relationship that. We're really wanting to front and center those type of relationships continually this year and next year just because we do have to, you know, we do have to fight for environmentalism just like we're fighting against homophobia. Just like we're fighting racism. Just like we're fighting sexism, right? Like these are, these are so intersectional. Whether you're San Francisco, Los Angeles, Central Valley, Fresno, these are impacting us. Now, you mentioned, you talked a little bit and I appreciate you mentioning Tanya Fields specifically. You also mentioned your mother early on in our interview. I want to talk more about paying homage. Who are our black leaders in the environmental movement, in the environmental, reproductive justice intersectional movement and the Environmental Justice Movement…who are the black leaders who have inspired you or continue to inspire you today?
NF: There’s a range of folks. Of course my mother. She started Black Women for Wellness and came from the second run of [reproductive justice] folks. So there was the first run of people who are slightly older than my mother and she came right under them. Also, my cousin who runs another reproductive justice organization in Georgia and in South Africa. I felt like I was like, I had no choice to be the RJ. It was as if this was made for me, and I appreciate this work so much. More leaders, I would say it's the Ella Bakers, the Fannie Lou Hamers, the folks who came out and gave a very intersectional space. I love how Fannie Lou Hamer also did EJ work as she was doing work around food justice, but also economic justice, as she was fighting for civil rights and voting rights, but also doing that as a Black woman. Those are the folks that I want to raise up. The Shirley Chisholms who are the ones who were bold and courageous. I have all her buttons and stickers and everything because how courageous is it to be Black woman to be the first one to run for President? To be the elected to Congress. She was instrumental and was unapologetic about being Black, bold and a woman. Some of us are still trying to figure out how to appreciate the boldness that she gave years and decades ago in the height of her presidential run and when she ran for office. Other folks, in terms of the EJ folks, Michelle Nicholas Mae Jamison. She is another year Black woman doing the work on the ground in the community, has all the degrees but still is doing the work on a day to day basis and doing the hard work of calling out racism and sexism. I appreciate those souls a lot because of they get a lot of crap. They don’t get invited back into spaces. People talk about them because they're the ones that bring up the uncomfortable conversations. But if no one brings it up, then no one is having those important conversations. Then finally, I also am again my roots are in the Sci-Fi, so the Octavia Butlers of the world, Michelle Nicholas, Mae Jamison.
DM: Gotcha. Okay. All right. You had to leave for that one cause I was like, okay, I'm going to do my research, but I appreciate you tell me that.
NF: She was about to quit Star Trek after the first season and MLK called her up and told her she needed to be there because this is the first time he saw a Black woman on television who was a Mammy. I think about how those views of Black women are so important because that also inspired Mae Jaimson to become the first black woman in Space. I am super appreciative of the folks that lead the way both in entertainment but also in science because it has broaden the possibilities of what my future could be, and I think it did for a lot of young Black girls.
DM: Beautiful. I really love your interest in Sci-Fi. I mean you probably have spoken with Andy as well, but he's a big star trek fan as well. I love it. Now I want to switch gears a bit, maybe. Let's talk a little bit more about the future. The Green New Deal. I know it's not Star Trek, but it is the future, right? It's a lot of what people are talking about. The national news is all about the Green New Deal and what our future will look like with it. Do you have any thoughts on the Green New Deal?
NF: This goes to the bigger conversation around climate change and Black folks. We did a focus groups with Black women in our neighborhoods to talk about where the environments fits as a priority. All of them said they care an extreme amount about the environment, they cared about having parks in their neighborhood and they know it is really important for them to solve climate change. The problem is that they felt like nobody was speaking to him. The environmental health conversation didn't think about Black folks when they were talking about their messaging. Then there was an assumption that Black folks don’t care about this issue, and we do. I took that information as a way to ask how do we better communicate in communities about how the Green New Deal and environmental policies and programs and regulations is an intersectional space that is involved with us. Because again, we've been doing the work on environmental justice work for a very long time. We might not have called it that. How do we do that? It is massively important for us to be thinking about how we change the reality of our existence right now. I would love if we can have a deep conversation on environmental justice. So while we're talking about how we get rid of fossil fuels, while we're talking about how to reduce carbon, or talking about how we promote more green jobs, we're also talking about how we're looking at racism and sexism and transphobia and homophobia in that space too. Because that also is just as important in looking at how to deconstruct some of these things because they're completely linked. Even the reasons of why we have some people in power right now who are causing and accelerating climate destruction is because of all of these ‘isms’ that have happened in our communities because we would have a different conversation about how do we solve climate issues if we had a more representative government, if we have more people we can trust in office, and if we had folks in our community who were able to think broadly and imaginative about how to solve this world’s issues. We also need to have this conversation with an idea of how we also solve these structural issues. DM: So true. We talk about a Green New Deal. We don't necessarily say what the Deal mean for truth and reconciliation. You’re so right. So what’s next for Black Women for Wellness in this fight?
NF: We've been working pretty diligently looking how to get buffer zones around the oil oxidation sites in communities. That has been a thorn in my side. They are so insidious. I was living around the corner from a site and didn't even know. I just thought they were doing construction the whole time there. We’re working on getting buffer zones, making sure that we are protecting communities while we figure out how to address our fossil fuel and gas industry. Of course we're continuing to work on environmental toxin in particular beauty and personal care products. We're working to get some disclosure which is our first step around fragrance. There’s a lot of chemicals hidden in fragrance and a lot of those chemicals are impacting our young people. There is a report that came out that showed that popular fragrances tons of chemicals. Our other environmental work includes imagining urban agriculture and community gardens. We’re also looking at how we transform the way we look at the food industry in our neighborhoods.
DM: That is great. You've given me so much today, and I just love it. I'm excited to see what's in store for both black women for wellness. I would love to just continue conversation around how we can better uplift your work together. I also just want to thank you Nourbese. I want to thank you for the conversation. I want to thank you for your hard work. I've known you for a while, but this interview has made me get to know you a lot more. Before we wrap up, I want to ask you one more thing: What do you think is one thing that's important for our members, legislators, and broader movement need to know or keep in mind as we keep fighting the fight and advancing the climate justice movement.
NF: One thing: I would say that social justice is not a spectator sport. We need to find every day ways that we can get ourselves involved. Whether that is by having conversations in your living room with your family or talking to elected officials about how important it is to be like I'm on the front lines of a progressive issues. We need to be all in this together. I know it sounds so corny, but we have to because that's the only way we're going to win. We need folks to get up off those couches and have those conversations. There are ways in which we can be creative and the ways we can engage folks. One example, I was talking to some doctors and encouraging them to urge people to vote while they are in the waiting room.
DM: Nourbese, thank you so much. Thank you for your time. Thank you for your efforts. Thank you for your energy. Thank you for being you. This has been a wonderful conversation. If there is anything we can do to uplift the work that you are doing with Black Women for Wellness, let us know. Again, thank you for your time, thank you so much.
NF: Thank you for having me.
DM: Of course! Looking forward to working together again soon.
NF: Ditto. Happy Black History Month!
DM: You as well!