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Fighting for climate change is fighting for existence

The Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., speaking on Climate Day, calls on everyone—not just white men—to fight for climate justice, racial justice, immigrant rights and more.

Shara Rutberg

March 16, 2022

3 Min Read
Fighting for climate change is fighting for existence | Climate Day EW 2022 | Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr.

"This is the lunch counter movement of the 21st century," the Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr. told the crowd in his Climate Day keynote address, How Business Leaders Are Critical in Building a Transformative Movement for Climate Justice.

Peering from beneath the brim of a black ball cap emblazoned with Climate Change Is Real in white letters, the Hip Hop Caucus founder recalls how young African Americans organized lunch counter sit-ins to protest segregation in the early '60s.

Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., president and founder of Hip Hop Caucus

"They demanded change. And it worked," he said. "Our lunch counter movement of the 21st century is not just about equality; it's about existence."

Yearwood has been bridging the gap between communities of color and environmental issue advocacy for decades. The Hip Hop Caucus he founded in 2004 is a national, multi-issue, non-partisan, nonprofit empowering young people to take part in elections, policymaking and service projects. In 2018, he helped launch Think 100%, Hip Hop Caucus' award-winning climate communications and activism platform that advocated a shift to 100% renewable energy for all.

Rolling Stone called him a New Green Hero. The Obama White House called him a Champion of Change.

But the calls that drive Yearwood are those from young people who tell him they no longer want to have children because they are afraid of what the world holds for them, and calls telling him about "young activists who have killed themselves because they don't see any hope in this society."

Related:What brands need to know (and can do) to help climate justice and climate change

Yearwood finds hope in the power of connection—between people and between issues. When he began his work after Hurricane Katrina, leaders of traditional environmental organizations tried to keep him "in his own lane." He was told African Americans worked in the "environmental justice" lane while whites in the green movement "fought for the polar bears and the Arctic." His response was: "No."

"I said, 'I don't care if you're Republican, Democrat or whatever; Black or white or whatever; male or female or whatever. We're all in this together," Yearwood says.  

Seventeen years later, the climate movement is still too siloed, with a culture that is "predominantly white and very much not urban," Yearwood says. What business leaders are missing is the opportunity to see the connection between the green movement and other movements.

"Young people are saying climate justice is racial justice. And racial justice is climate justice. The two are intersectional," he says.

"The movement is no longer the same movement that was created in 1968 to 1972, when the Cuyahoga River was on fire and when we had smog in L.A.," he says.

Related:Fight climate change, food waste with data-driven solutions

"Today we don't want a movement that is, frankly, run by a bunch of men. We want a movement that is a black, indigenous, women of color, leaderful movement. We want a movement that connects the dots between climate justice and racial justice and queer justice and women's rights and immigration rights. We want a movement that appreciates and respects all people That's the movement today. That is happening," Yearwood says. "And if you don't know that, you are living 50 years behind the times."

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