Wawa is fighting for an environmental future that works for planet and people
Updated: Jul 1
When you first meet Wanjiku “Wawa” Gatheru, you may notice her gentle nature, her soft yet firm voice and a type of authenticity that radiates beyond her physical self. But by the time your conversation is over, you will be blown away by her fierce passion and incredible knowledge of environmentalism and activism.
She is an impressive 22-year-old woman, to say the least. She is poised and ready to tackle our world’s toughest issues — and she is already taking charge.
In 2020, Wawa made history as the first Black person to receive the Rhodes, Truman, and Udall scholarships — some of the most prestigious and competitive academic programs in the world — to pursue an education around environmental justice.
Yet, if you had met Wawa just a few years ago, she would’ve told you the word “environmentalist” didn’t apply to her.
“Hindsight is twenty-twenty. I have always cared about clean air and water, the environment and animals,” said Gatheru. “Even though I grew up gardening, I felt environmentalism was a top-shelf issue that only really wealthy people could engage in. It wasn’t accessible to me and my family.”
Growing up as a young Black woman in rural Connecticut, not many people of color were represented in environmental jobs. In fact, there still aren’t — these communities account for 36 percent of the US population, but their representation in the green workforce is only between 12-16 percent.
But Wawa is determined to change that. Through her education and activism, she is leading the way and providing a platform to share and elevate the environmental narratives of Black, Indigenous and people of color.
AN UNEXPECTED LESSON
While she is now a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford studying environmental governance, it was a high school teacher who introduced her to what would become a life-changing lesson.
That influential teacher was none other than Mrs. Rose — a fitting name for someone who teaches environmental science. Wawa took the class simply to fill a hole in her schedule, but it was Mrs. Rose who added another unexpected element and incorporated activism into the curriculum. The same class also led Wawa to watch a TED Talk by Peggy Shepard about environmental justice.
“It was the missing puzzle piece for me. It was within that course I learned what social justice is, and how closely aligned it is with environmental work,” she said. “I learned about the long history of the people of color working to ensure our environments and communities are liveable and healthy, and also about sacrifice zones and environmental degradation.”
Sacrifice zones are areas that bear the burden of economic disinvestment and experience environmental destruction due to disproportionate levels of chemical waste and toxins. These pollutants contaminate the surrounding water, air and soil causing health-related problems for its residents, who are typically low-income minorities already facing major social issues and injustices.
While her high school education connected these not-so-imaginary dots, it was her college experience that solidified her activist spirit. Throughout her studies, rarely did her professors look like her and rarely did the literature represents a complete history from the perspective of Blacks and Indigenous communities that are deeply impacted by environmental degradation.
“The only times that these cultures are mentioned in history books is when they are being studied and those narratives are rarely written by Indigenous communities themselves,” Gatheru shared, adding that even the vocabulary developed around “wilderness” and “nature” were crafted to accommodate some white supremacy and exclude others — especially poor people and people of color.
For Wawa, this intersection between environmentalism and social justice is what motivates her to further her education, and work to uplift these shared and lesser-known — yet critically important — stories.
“I’m motivated to support these cultures by creating a space that uniquely allows us to share our experiences, while also prioritizing and uplifting our vast knowledge systems,” she explained. “The most vulnerable communities are simultaneously those least represented in the environmental space from activism to the work sphere.”
GIVING A VOICE TO THE VOICELESS
While her scholar-standing and educational background is impressive, what matters more to this dynamic and steadfast woman is to use her abilities and her own personal story to fight for the greater good.
“My community is one of the many that haven’t historically been provided that opportunity of equal access to the environmental decision-making power that impacts life experiences,” she said. “Those who have been historically categorised and distinguished as victims are actually the same people who already have a lot of the solutions because they had to create those solutions in order to live.”
Throughout the past year, Wawa began to share her personal narrative by writing first-person accounts and articles for major publications including Glamour and Vice magazines. As her voice began to grow, people everywhere applauded and cried out in support of this universal story.
“People all over the country and even the world reached out and told me it was the first story they have seen of someone who has their exact narrative,” Gatheru recalled. “It was clear to me that there is a particular need within the community, especially for Black youth.”
This dialogue led Wawa to create the platform, BlackGirlEnvironmentalist, a safe space for all Black girls, women and non-binary environmentalists to showcase their participation in this defining movement. One quick look, and you’ll see the many faces of new and notable names of activists in the racial and environmental spaces.
“I believe in the power of storytelling and I am doing what I can to make the environmental movement one made in the image of all us,” she said. “I want to help provide a platform for frontline people, activists and communities and provide them with an opportunity to talk about the work they are doing.”
But while her account is growing by the day — with more than 15,000 followers at the time this article was written — Wawa isn’t stopping there. Next month, the world will celebrate Plastic-Free July, a global movement to help others envision a world free of plastic and inspire them to act.
For Wawa, it is a chance to elevate environmental justice and emphasize that like the planet, people should not be thrown away. They should be listened to, heard and asked for ideas and solutions to the largest problem our Earth is facing — climate change.
PLASTIC FREE JULY CAMPAIGN
As part of this movement, Mananalu is thrilled to partner with this fearless young woman to develop a series of Instagram Live interviews called “Making Waves W/Wawa Gatheru,” which features the stories, voices and opportunities from various communities who have been hit the hardest.
“It’s a really exciting collaboration,” Wawa explained. “It is an important story to share, because low-income, small island nations and Indigenous communities are experiencing the worst impacts of plastic pollution and physical waste.”
But Wawa wants to remind everyone that you can still become part of the environmental movement no matter your background. Simply using your time to learn and read is great — but she recommends diversifying the voices and organizations you learn from so you can have a more inclusive perspective.
“We need a library of diverse perspectives so we can equip our present and our future to have a fair and just climate outlook,” she said. “Something that works for people and the planet.”