'Climate Change Is Racial Injustice': Students Speak Their Truth In Winning Podcast

Jun 17, 2020
Originally published on June 18, 2020 2:58 pm

The club was supposed to meet once a week. But for many of the members of Men in Color, Wednesday afternoons turned into Monday afternoons and Thursdays too.

"After school, we were always in Mr. C's room," says Jaheim Birch-Gentles, a recent graduate of the High School for Innovation in Advertising and Media in the Canarsie neighborhood of Brooklyn. He's referring to one of the club's advisors, Mischaël Cetoute. The club served as a safe space for students to talk through issues and ideas.

Those afternoon meetings gave rise to the Flossy Podcast, where the students tackle big social issues mixed in with their lived experiences.

Their episode about climate change and environmental racism is one of this year's grand-prize winners in the NPR Student Podcast Challenge. It was created by Jaheim and fellow club members Joshua Bovell, Brianna Johnson, Jamar Thompson, Kamari Murdock, Isaiah Dupuy, with theme music produced by club member Ieszan McKinney.

The episode begins with the idea that, "climate change Is racial injustice," and focuses on the idea that pollution and the environment impact communities differently — even within Brooklyn.

"For people growing up in Canarsie, we don't really realize we're living in these areas," says Joshua Bovell in the podcast. "But then you go somewhere else, like Mill Basin, and you're like, 'Why is this so different than where I live?' "

They visited a Climate Change March in Manhattan, where they saw mostly white people demonstrating. And in their podcast they wonder, aloud, Why?

From left: Jamar Thompson, 17; Jaheim Birch-Gentles, 17; Brianna Johnson, 18, in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Kholood Eid for NPR

They discuss the obvious barriers: Time. Location. Education. And then they bring in their own experiences, with climate events they've experienced, such as hurricanes, and the fact that their school sits near a landfill.

Environmental racism, explains Birch-Gentles in an interview, is "something that we can actually see and taste." He points to the situation with the school's drinking fountains: "People would drink from the water fountain and afterward they really wouldn't feel good," he says. It turns out, the school had lead in its pipes. Lead is actually a common problem in schools, especially in Brooklyn's aging buildings, where about 80 percent of public schools had a faucet or fixture leaching lead, according to a 2017 report.

The students cited in their reporting research that shows climate change, including rising temperatures in cities and poor air quality, disproportionately affects non-white neighborhoods. Black communities face dangerously high levels of pollution and are more likely to live near landfills and industrial plants that pollute water and air and erode quality of life, according to a 2018 report from the Environmental Protection Agency.

From left: Ieszan McKinney, 18; Joshua Bovell, 18; Kamari Murdock, 18, in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Kholood Eid for NPR

For co-host Jamar Thompson, the topic is not only urgent and relevant, it's also related to what's happening now with protests and Black Lives Matter. "Racism is like a tree," he says, "and police brutality and environmental racism are just a couple of branches off that giant tree."

Young people's voices often get left out of these conversations, says Thompson, and adults need to do a lot more listening.

"They feel as though, because we are young, we don't know what we're talking about when we speak about certain things. And I feel like that isn't true," he adds. " I don't speak about things I don't know about."

When he does know something, Thompson says, or when he sees something that isn't right, he speaks up about it. That's his message for young people especially now.

The Flossy Podcast wouldn't have been possible if the club hadn't decided to build a recording studio at the school, with help from several adults. It took about two years, a big grant, and lots of hard work.

When the students pitched the idea, "I was like, 'OK, let's make that happen,' " recalls Cetoute, a restorative justice coordinator from the Center for Court Innovation who helped oversee the club. "I promise you that it was the most frustrating process in the world. But when they finally get that support, they win something. And that completely changes, for the rest of their life I think, how much they will believe in the power of their voice."

Being OK with the way they sounded was a journey, says Birch-Gentles. "When I heard how everybody else hears me, it was completely different from what I hear."

But with each episode, he says, his confidence grew. "It forced me to get comfortable because this is how I sound and it's not changing."

He ended up writing his college essay about the experience.

When he first started podcasting, "I just viewed myself as a kid from the neighborhood of Canarsie, and I'm speaking about what I've seen and my experiences."

Birch-Gentles didn't think of himself as an activist then, and even now, he resists the term.

Jamar Thompson agrees. He sees himself in much simpler terms: "I'm a person who spoke his truth and I spoke about what I felt. That's kind of more of what I am."

Truth tellers. Sharing their experiences and their opinions and inspiring other young people to do the same.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here are a few things on the minds of young people right now - school closures, the pandemic, climate change, Black Lives Matter. We heard about all those things in this year's NPR Student Podcast Challenge. More than 2,000 podcasts came in from around the country. And today, we hear from one of our grand prizewinners.

Students from Brooklyn in New York City looked around their neighborhood and saw that things are very different there from where other Americans live, and they asked why. Elissa Nadworny of the NPR education team has their story.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: This is how the winning podcast starts.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE FLOSSY PODCAST: CLIMATE CHANGE & ENVIRONMENTAL RACISM")

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Climate change is racial injustice.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JAHEIM BIRCH GENTLES: Welcome to "The Flossy Podcast." My name's Jaheim.

ISAIAH: My name's Isaiah.

JAMAR THOMPSON: My name is Jamar.

BRIANNA JOHNSON: My name is Brianna.

JOSH: Josh.

KAMARI: Kamari.

THOMPSON: And today, we're talking about climate change.

NADWORNY: "The Flossy Podcast," a creation of six seniors at the High School for Innovation in Advertising and Media in the Canarsie neighborhood of Brooklyn. They made the podcast as part of a program called Men in Color, an after-school group where they talk about issues and ideas. Each episode they worked on tackles a topic they feel passionate about.

GENTLES: When we all started the making of this podcast, I didn't view myself as an activist of any kind. I just viewed myself as a kid from the neighborhood of Canarsie, and I'm speaking about what I've seen and my experiences.

NADWORNY: That's Jaheim Birch Gentles, one of the founding members of the group. He was one of the students who a few years ago dreamt up a big idea for the program - build a recording studio in school.

MISCHAEL CETOUTE: And I was like, OK, let's make that happen.

NADWORNY: That's their teacher, Mischael Cetoute. It took two years and a big grant to make it happen.

CETOUTE: I promise you that it was the most frustrating process in the world. But when they finally get that support, they win something, and that completely changes for the rest of their life, I think, how much they will believe in the power of their voice.

NADWORNY: The winning podcast they made - it focuses on this idea that pollution and the environment impact communities differently.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE FLOSSY PODCAST: CLIMATE CHANGE & ENVIRONMENTAL RACISM")

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: People growing up in, like, Canarsie, you don't really realize that we're living in these areas. And then you go somewhere else, like Mill Basin or other neighborhoods, and you're like, why is it so much different than where I live?

NADWORNY: They start their reporting by taking listeners to a climate change march in New York. There, they interview other young people.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE FLOSSY PODCAST: CLIMATE CHANGE & ENVIRONMENTAL RACISM")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It's a major problem.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And if we don't fix it, we about to die.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I think it's an everybody issue because it's all our planet, so we need to stick up for our planet.

NADWORNY: Back in the studio, they debrief on what they saw - far more white people demonstrating than people of color. And they discuss how they've lived through climate events, like natural disasters. Here's Brianna Johnson, the only female host, talking about Hurricane Katrina.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE FLOSSY PODCAST: CLIMATE CHANGE & ENVIRONMENTAL RACISM")

JOHNSON: I remember seeing, like, a hole in the roof. The whole house is flooded. And then we had to, like, pack up the car and quickly drive away. But, like, as we're driving, I see, like, my toys floating in the water

NADWORNY: For Jaheim Birch Gentles, it was Superstorm Sandy, watching his house's gate wash down the street and listening to the eerie silence.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE FLOSSY PODCAST: CLIMATE CHANGE & ENVIRONMENTAL RACISM")

GENTLES: It was like a deafening calm. All you heard was the water and the wind.

NADWORNY: After the storm, his family lost power, and food was tight.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE FLOSSY PODCAST: CLIMATE CHANGE & ENVIRONMENTAL RACISM")

GENTLES: Like, we bought ice, made sure stuff in the freezer ain't spoiled 'cause, you know, we can't be throwing away money on anything.

NADWORNY: Climate change, rising temperatures in cities, poor air quality - it disproportionately affects people of color, and the students found the research to prove it.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE FLOSSY PODCAST: CLIMATE CHANGE & ENVIRONMENTAL RACISM")

GENTLES: In 2018, the EPA celebrated Black History Month by publishing a report that finds black communities face dangerously high levels of pollution. African Americans are more likely to live near landfills and industrial plants that pollute water and air, an inequal quality of life.

THOMPSON: That's wild.

NADWORNY: I talked with hosts Jaheim Birch Gentles and Jamar Thompson about making the podcast. They told me that when they started recording, a lot of them didn't like what they sounded like, especially Jaheim.

GENTLES: When I heard how everybody else hears me - right? - it was completely different from what I hear.

NADWORNY: His voice sounded weird to him.

GENTLES: I talk so fast that I would trip up on words, like I'm doing right now.

NADWORNY: Each episode the group recorded, Jaheim says he got more and more OK with the way he sounded.

GENTLES: And, like, it made me, like, really think about my voice. Like, yeah, it made me get comfortable. It forced me to get comfortable 'cause, like, this is how I sound. Like, this - it's not changing, so I just got comfortable with it.

NADWORNY: When he listens to the winning episode, he says now he's just focused in on the important content, climate change and the environment.

GENTLES: That's something that we can actually see and taste in this case.

NADWORNY: Jaheim points to the landfill in their neighborhood and the drinking fountains at school.

GENTLES: People would drink from the water fountain, and afterward, they would - they really wouldn't feel good. They'd be like, yo, like, why does the water taste like this? So it just doesn't taste - the water doesn't taste properly. And come to find out, we had lead in our pipes.

NADWORNY: Lead in the pipes - it's a common problem in schools, especially in Brooklyn, where about 80% of public schools have a faucet or a fixture leaching lead, according to a 2017 report. For Jamar Thompson, the topic is related to what we're seeing now with protests and the Black Lives Matter movement.

THOMPSON: Racism is like a tree, and police brutality and environmental racism is just a couple of branches off that giant tree.

NADWORNY: He told me with environmental racism, sometimes people don't even realize it's the reality because they're living it.

THOMPSON: Flint still doesn't have clean water. There are many black neighborhoods, even in New York, that have subpar water. And there are millions of black people all across the world that are poisoned by pollution.

NADWORNY: He says, often, young people's voices get left out of these conversations, and adults need to do a lot more listening.

THOMPSON: They feel as though because we are young, we don't know what we're talking about when we speak about certain things. And I feel like that isn't true because I am young, but I am also, like, well informed when I speak. I don't speak about things I don't know about.

NADWORNY: When he does know something or when he sees something that isn't right, he speaks up about it, and he says that's his message for other young people, especially now. I ask Jamar if he sees himself as an activist.

THOMPSON: And even now, I still don't consider myself to be an activist.

NADWORNY: He sees himself in far simpler terms, just...

THOMPSON: A person who, like, spoke his truth and I spoke about what I felt. That's kind of more what I am.

NADWORNY: Truth-tellers, sharing their experiences and their opinions and inspiring other young people to do the same.

Elissa Nadworny, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.