An interview with Bartees Strange

The musician and environmental justice storyteller talks racial justice, accountability, and being Black in the climate movement — this week in EXXONKNEWS.

As readers of EXXONKNEWS are well aware, this newsletter is about holding Big Oil accountable for climate change. But our work seems part of a bigger narrative of American life: that those in power are so seldom held accountable for the atrocities they commit. Perhaps no example has been as raw and painful as the lack of accountability for police when they target, brutalize, and kill Black people. 

George Floyd’s killing at the hands of police reflects only one stone in America’s foundation of racism, white supremacy, and violence: from housing to incarceration, education to employment, fossil fuel pollution to the climate crisis. 

We can’t wait any longer to confront the connection between racial justice and climate accountability head on. Black and Brown communities are disproportionately hurt by pollution and an increasingly deadly climate crisis. Adding insult to injury, these same communities often wind up without representation within the climate movement itself. 

This week, I wanted to talk about all this and more with my friend and former co-worker, Bartees Cox, who works on climate and energy communications. Bartees is the Marketing and Communications Director at Groundswell, an organization that connects community-centered clean energy projects with economic empowerment. He is also a music producer and songwriter — a.k.a. Bartees Strange — and he recently dropped an album called Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy. (I highly, hiiighly recommend.) A couple of years ago, when he was working at climate communications nonprofit Climate Nexus, Bartees ran a bus tour through communities ravaged by pollution and climate change, telling their stories through a platform called Freedom to Breathe. Revisiting his work to lift up Black voices and experiences seemed particularly appropriate today.

Courtesy of Bao Ngo

Here’s our conversation:

First, tell me a little bit about what the Freedom to Breathe tour was and what inspired you to do something like this.

The Freedom to Breathe tour was an idea I came up with at a US Climate Action Network (USCAN) meeting, when I was new to the climate space. I had worked in technology policy, media justice, labor organizing and labor comms work. I’ve always been drawn to spaces where I didn’t feel like there was enough Black representation. At this first USCAN meeting, all the environmental justice leaders who were Black pulled all the Black people there aside for a meeting. We just had this grounding session where we were breaking down all of the things in the climate movement that ultimately need to change. Listening to it, I was like — I’m the only one at this table that is in a leadership position at an all-white organization with money. I can do something with it.  And I came up with this idea because I realized from working in these various movement spaces that all of the issues that we’re fighting for are interconnected. 

It’s very easy to separate those issues if you’re far away from them. If you’re in DC or New York doing environmental sustainability work, you can’t necessarily see how reproductive justice and climate and immigration intersect. But if you go to New Orleans, for example, it's clear as day. So the Freedom to Breathe tour was about that idea: let’s get in a bus and go across the country, stopping at as many cities as we can from Atlanta to San Francisco, to kind of show the larger climate community and the larger justice space that all of these issues are interconnected — and that the solutions are already on the table. These communities just don’t have the money to really make these things happen.

“Freedom to Breathe” referenced the freedom ride that people in the South took to raise the flag for civil rights. I look at environmental justice work and climate work as civil rights work. Our whole climate movement was founded on the backs of environmental justice workers, and most of those environmental justice folks were civil rights advocates. Some of the biggest strikes of the 50s and 60s were clean air clean water strikes, get your highway out of my Black neighborhood, sanitation worker strikes. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed before a sanitation worker strike, fighting for fair wages and a safe place to work that wasn’t polluted. The more that these things are siloed, the better chance we have of losing. And the solutions also have to be all-encompassing. The thinking behind that bus tour is definitely one of my favorite things I’ve done in my little baby career. 

I want to ask you more about the title, “Freedom to Breathe,” especially after last week —  we saw footage of yet another Black man, George Floyd, saying “I can’t breathe” as he was murdered by a police officer. That connection can’t be a coincidence — can you tell me how you’re thinking about it now?

I think when we did Freedom to Breathe it wasn’t long after Eric Garner had been killed — another Black person who was choked out by the police. The protests are about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, but it’s also about the fact that we have 45 million Americans that are on unemployment. People don’t have access to healthcare, good jobs, education, safe homes. So when I look at the protests, and energy equity and the climate movement and all of these other things, and how they’re connected — the connection is in this problem that people can’t succeed in this country the way it is. A huge chunk of the country — the majority of the country — is being choked out from a system that won’t let them breathe.

What we saw on TV was a lynching of a man in front of the entire country. That knee on his neck was emblematic of the knee on the neck of poor people, and working people, and Black people in this country. They can’t live freely, they can’t breathe, and they’re afraid. That’s what this moment is all about.

I think as a nation we’re just beginning to come to grips with the fact that communities of color are paying for climate change in starkly unequal ways. What did you find during the tour that strikes you as still largely under the radar?

We could only tell the stories that we could finish on the bus tour. But the most painful issues in this country are ongoing and growing and multiplying. As an example — people know about Cancer Alley, but what people don’t understand about Louisiana is that not only are all these oil and fossil fuel refineries positioned along poor, Black communities polluting and killing them, damaging their water, destroying the community and destroying the land, but also, there’s no escape routes for these communities when disaster hits. These folks have been there for a long-ass time — we’re talking about like 60, 70, 80 year old Black people, who have lived here forever, they don’t have a lot of money, and a hurricane comes. There’s a deep need for resilience building in these communities. There were countless examples of that throughout the tour. 

The toughest part about the bus tour was leaving these cities and knowing I was going back to Brooklyn — I was like, I wish I could take you all with me, but that’s not really the answer. They should be able to stay in their homes and be safe, and that’s not the case.

Courtesy of Bao Ngo

After the murders of so many innocent Black people by police, people want to see officers held accountable, and rightly so. Is there a parallel to giant fossil fuel companies like Exxon or Chevron, who for decades have disproportionately and knowingly exposed Black people to deadly pollution and climate disasters? Why is accountability so important for these movements to proceed?

Accountability is the first step to fixing something, right? If you don’t come to an acknowledgement that “this is what happened, and this has been the lasting impact of it,” you can’t move forward. That’s what hasn’t happened in America. And you see that with the fossil fuel companies. They’re not just gonna do the right thing — they need to be drug through the mud, like anyone who’s done something wrong. You can’t expect a criminal to be like, “Oh, I’m good. I did some bad shit, but you don’t need to know about it. I’m just gonna do the right thing now.” That’s not how it works — you’ve gotta face the thing you did to move forward.

Speaking of which — the environmental movement has a reputation of being overwhelmingly white, and people of color have had to fight for space and for their voices to be heard. What are some things climate nonprofits and the climate movement as a whole can do to begin to dismantle their own internal white supremacy?

The first thing that every climate organization should do is look at who’s at the top. Do you have people of color on your board? It’s rare in the climate space, but I honestly don’t trust you if you say you’re here for climate and environmental justice, but if I look at your board it’s just all white people. I’ve been the only Black person so many times. It’s not uncommon, but it’s just a byproduct of this system we’ve built. That’s why we’ve not been successful — period. Having a bunch of Black and Brown people on your staff also doesn’t solve everything — making a workplace equitable is a journey. It’s constantly coming to grips with your privilege and finding ways to work around it and work through it. 

I’m from Mustang, a small town in Oklahoma. I was lucky to have people who thought I was talented say, “Hey, come work for me, I’m gonna find a way for you to get to D.C., I’m gonna find a way for you to get to New York, I’m gonna help you.” People need to understand that to get Black and Brown people out of Oklahoma, Louisiana, Texas, Indiana, some of these hard hit climate places, but places full of talented, diverse people, it takes work. It takes time, it takes money, it takes outreach. We don’t know to just apply. I didn’t know what a nonprofit was until I was 22 years old. It didn’t exist where I was from. I didn’t know that I would be valuable to this. So someone’s gotta bring it to us, and recruit us, and show us that this is a space that we can be successful in.

Also, I think right now we’re realizing that work from home is really doable.  Me being qualified to do this job shouldn’t depend on me being able to afford to move to Washington, D.C. We limit ourselves in the work we can do by not letting everyone in the door. 

Sorry Emily, I only have hot takes.

You really do. Last question: where should we go to listen to your music?

If you wanna buy it, you can buy it on Bandcamp, but stream me on Spotify, iTunes, whatever you want. I’m Bartees Strange.

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