When Cherrie Lam was in elementary school in Vancouver about a decade ago, her teacher began to speak about the urgency of global warming. He suggested that she and her fellow classmates tell their parents to buy hybrid cars as a feasible climate solution.
“I remember feeling very, oh my goodness, it’s super urgent, I have to go tell my parents! And I would tell my parents and they would say, What are you talking about? Hybrid cars are incredibly expensive! and it never resonated with them.”
Lam, who immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong with her parents at the age of two, began to engage on this topic of environmental action with other racialized communities in Vancouver and found that they echoed the same sentiments.
“I’m from Peru, my parents are Chinese, sustainability has never been part of our talk…it’s almost like a taboo topic to talk about with my family.” says Melisa Tang.
Tang and Lam not only felt this sense of distance from their families, but also the mainstream environmental movement in Canada: nobody who participated in sustainable action looked like them.
However, across the world, racialized communities are often most susceptible to the impacts of a changing climate. African countries such as Kenya, Zambia, and Madagascar were last year due to drought; extreme weather in the Caribbean has in the past five years; and small island states such as the island of Tuvalu in Oceania as a result of rising sea levels.
This led them to co-found Shades of Sustainability: a Vancouver-based group of youth who identify as BIPOC – Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour – working to engage their communities in environmental action.
Through their digital storytelling dialogue, Shades of Sustainability engages other BIPOC youth to see how they, too, are a part of climate action, even if they are removed from the front lines or not represented in popular sustainability culture.
The platform aims to validate the knowledge, experiences, and past practices of BIPOC communities in Canada which have not been historically seen as sustainable practices and climate solutions.
“My parents, back home, they went to markets and everything was wrapped in newspaper, everything was zero waste, and them telling these stories…clicked for me that none of this is new to them. It just doesn’t resonate with them because nowadays it’s so consumerized in ways that don’t resonate with where they came from, or are communicated in their language, or don’t fit in their traditions and cultures.” Lam emphasizes.
Shades of Sustainability consults with local organizations such as , a non-profit organization based in Vancouver’s Chinatown, to unpack what it means to be racialized youth in the climate action movement. Through consulting with the Hua Foundation, Tang noted that sometimes, these conversations of rejection to mainstream climate solutions can turn into conversations of racism.
“For example, a community, they don’t recycle plastic, but it’s a racialized community, so the conversation doesn’t turn into a How do we engage them? but into a Oh no, you folks are not sustainable and don’t care about this!”
Through Shades of Sustainability, Lam and Tang decided to hold a dinner dialogue series to create space for BIPOC youth to chat about some of the common themes and challenges they’ve encountered in the sustainability community.
Shades of Sustainability was initially supported by a hosted by , a national non-profit working to engage youth in Canadian democracy. Although the program has officially completed, Lang and Tam plan to continue to engage local BIPOC through Shades of Sustainability, particularly in upcoming community dinner dialogues on more focused topics such as fast fashion and waste management from BIPOC perspectives.
For Tang, inclusivity of BIPOC communities is absolutely necessary moving forward in today’s climate emergency.
“It’s a climate crisis and we all are living through this. We can’t marginalize folks. It’s really about making folks realize that you can be part of the movement, even though you previously didn’t realize that or somebody might have told you you’re not doing anything about it."