Updated: Aug 8, 2021
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 supre