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A gathering force

A gathering force

By Tamar Kupiec
Photos by Emma Vidmar

One woman’s practice of intersectional environmentalism means listening to voices that often go unheard.

Emily Pinckney is an expert. She has a degree in marine biology and conservation from Humboldt State University, completed an undergraduate fellowship at Duke University, and has conducted research at Fordham University, the University of Texas at Austin, and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, not to mention serving on boards, task forces, and commissions at the city, state, and national level. But as reputable as these credentials are, they are not the sole criteria she would use to define her expertise. If she did, she would strip herself of another sort of expertise — the expertise of lived experience that always complements, and sometimes rivals, data maps and doctoral degrees.

Pinckney often talks about the importance of bringing the “whole self” to one’s work. For Pinckney, this means bringing her lived experience — as a Black woman from Tacoma who has known financial hardship — to her practice of environmentalism. And in doing so, she has expanded her focus beyond traditional conservation and climate change action to include people’s experience in the places where they live, work, and play, as well as the dangers they face in a warming climate. Pinckney is an intersectional environmentalist. This work examines and acts on the relationship between the injustice imposed on marginalized communities and the abuse inflicted on the Earth. In her diversity of roles — activist, youth mentor, public servant, artist, and scientist — Pinckney not only seeks out the breadth of lived experience embedded in these communities but ensures that it is heard, that it is taken into account when decisions are made, policies are drafted, and money is allocated.

Pinckney grew up tide pooling on Titlow Beach, a liminal zone of dark sand between a tended city park and the wilds of Puget Sound, where the wood pilings of a long-gone pier poke haphazardly from the nearshore and the Tacoma Narrows Bridge runs neat and taut at a distance. With her nature-loving, white-water-rafting mother, Pinckney saw her first sea star at age 3, those wondrous orange and purple creatures unlike anything she could have encountered on dry land. But it would take seven more years and a disagreement over summer camp for her to decide to be a marine biologist. Pinckney had her heart set on dance camp, but her mother sought a more academic experience for her daughter. So despite Pinckney’s refusal “to go to school in summer,” her mother enrolled her in marine biology camp at the local Y, which was accessible to low-income families like hers. There she helped free an octopus caught in some nets at the dock. The animal splashed her legs with ink, then swam off, leaving 10-year-old Pinckney mesmerized — and certain of her career path.

Today she is the youth volunteer programs coordinator and conservation leadership development lead at Tacoma’s Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, and one of just a few Black people on staff. Pinckney, now 27, is helping to cultivate diverse and equitable leadership at the institution and mentoring youth, with a particular focus on Black youth, who don’t often see scientists who look like themselves. She also helps young people recognize and access the power they have to make change. She is particularly proud of two teen girls, both queer like Pinckney, who with her guidance organized a protest to raise awareness around the dangers of a liquefied natural gas plant planned for Tacoma.

“The whole idea of who is an expert and who’s not is a white supremacist idea,” says Pinckney, referring to a dominant culture that prizes credentials over other qualifications, perhaps social media savvy and unselfconscious passion in the case of young people. “In terms of climate change, the kids have done the most work. They’ve lived on the planet. They are experts on their future. They’re experts on what they need.” She thinks we suffer from ageism as well. “When we think of ageism, we think of people who are boomers,” she says, but no one thinks about the fact that we don’t listen to young people. Part of Pinckney’s work is to advocate that their views and experiences be taken more seriously.

“The whole idea of who is an expert and who’s not is a white supremacist idea,” says Pinckney.

When Pinckney’s father used to pick her up from school in Tacoma, he’d often announce, “I’m going to a meeting,” and the longtime citizen activist and his 7-year-old daughter would head over to the Urban League. This is where Pinckney first came to know the elders of her community — the likes of Harold Moss, its first Black mayor and Pinckney’s “honorary grandpa,” and Victoria Woodards, who worked at the Urban League before becoming mayor herself. Pinckney’s father, Timothy, was born in Charleston, South Carolina, and grew up in the Bronx. While serving in the military, he was stationed in Germany, where he met his wife and where Pinckney, like her mother, was born. The military took the family to Washington, and they remained after her father left the service. The Pinckneys did not have deep roots, but she and her father were adopted into the Urban League family and into the larger Tacoma Black community.

Timothy Pinckney has spent much of his adult life urging people to get political, to show up at city council meetings and give public comment on the environmental remediation issue of the moment. He wants to see more than the minimum standards required by the Environmental Protection Agency, because “wind blows, water flows,” as his daughter likes to say, and pollution ends up unnoticed and untreated in places where it puts people in danger. He runs his own business as a provider of occupational environmental hazards courses, addressing concerns he knew firsthand from growing up in the pre-EPA Bronx and working on the construction crew that capped the Asarco copper smelting plant Superfund site in Tacoma. Of the limited options available to vets transitioning to civilian life, construction is a stable, decent-paying gig with benefits. It is also one of the better options available to the formerly incarcerated, a disproportionate number of whom are people of color, and so the conversation when Pinckney was growing up often centered on racial justice and how the environment, in her father’s words, could become a “tool of oppression.”

For Pinckney, environmental justice is the goal, and intersectional environmentalism, the means to achieve it. This approach demands that we understand how our intersecting identities, defined by race, gender, class, and other social categories, determine both our access to power and experience of oppression. And it demands that we understand that the fight against one form of oppression is ultimately the fight against all. “Even a straight white Christian cis[gender] male can do intersectional environmentalism,” she says, but that would mean actively seeking out the perspectives of groups that do not share his privilege, and viewing environmental issues through the lens of their experience. With respect to parks, for example, it could mean recognizing that a Black man might not have access to one close to home and that he may be eyed with suspicion when visiting one in another part of town. It calls for advocating not simply for parks, but for a universal right to a safe and welcoming experience within them.

The way that multiple inequities overlap and compound was not always apparent to Pinckney. In college she won a fellowship to study at the Duke University Marine Lab, four hours outside Durham. It was a great opportunity to research chemosensation — specifically the ability of black turban snails to detect predators — but it was also an encounter with the complex, intersectional nature of identity and bias. She recalls dolphins and turtles swimming offshore and sharing lab space with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — the stuff of Pinckney fantasy. But there was a darker side. She was the only Black woman fellow, and even on the main campus, was one of very few Black students, most of whom were athletes or wealthy international students. Her suspicion that she was not being taken seriously was confirmed when her professor told her, “You will have a better chance finding a designer purse in the mall than finding this specimen in the wild.” There happened to be another student of color in her cohort, a Puerto Rican, but he was male and received all the associated respect and privilege. Pinckney’s treatment, she realized, wasn’t due to either racism or sexism alone, but was a function of their intersectionality.

We know that people of color and the poor are disproportionately subjected to environmental hazards: highways bisect Black and brown neighborhoods more than white ones, power plants are more likely to be erected in their midst, toxics leach into their drinking water and infiltrate the air they breathe at higher concentrations. The statistics of environmental racism have the power to shock even those who know there is a problem: more than half of the people who live within 1.86 miles of toxic waste facilities in the United States are people of color; about five times as many Black children are poisoned by lead than white children; and on average, communities of color in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic breathe 66 percent more air pollution from vehicles than white residents. Environmental injustice is a multifaceted crime — overexposure to danger combined with under-representation in the decision-making process and reduced access to environmental benefits like healthy food and open space.

Twenty years after she began attending Urban League meetings as a girl, Pinckney now represents the Tacoma Urban League on the Washington State Environmental Justice Task Force, serving as one of three community representatives on a committee of government officials. The job of the task force is to redress health disparities related to environmental hazards, basing its recommendations on an interactive data map created by the Washington State Department of Health in combination with the group’s own community engagement work. Task force members are gathering the qualitative data of community experience and injecting it into a conversation on policy — for people who are heard, acknowledged, and valued are not so easily marginalized. Pinckney has been steadfast in her insistence that racism be explicitly called out in the task force’s operating principles and recommendations. “When you use that word,” she said in one of their meetings, “we are seen.”

Pinckney has a deep capacity for empathy, compassion, and listening, all tools she employs in her efforts to bring about political change. At a public meeting of the task force in Yakima, a farmworker rolled up his shirt sleeve to reveal boils from his hand to his elbow, a chemical burn from the pesticides used in the fields. He had cancer too. In Vancouver, Washington, a 15-year-old girl spoke about what it was like to live with her family in a van parked near a fossil-fuel-burning plant and the pain of hearing her grandmother, who has asthma, wake up coughing in the morning. “This is what it looks like. These are the impacts. This is my story,” Pinckney remembered the girl saying.

Environmental injustice is a multifaceted crime — overexposure to danger combined with under-representation in the decision-making process.

Not surprising for a marine biologist, Pinckney loves the water. She excelled on the swim team in high school, and her mother had hopes for an athletic scholarship. But Pinckney disliked being the only Black person on the team, so she quit. In the context of America, with segregationist history and continued racism playing out with particular malice in the cramped, shared, and often privileged space of pools (her father tells of someone pouring bleach in his Bronx pool on the day designated for Blacks), Pinckney cannot just be a swimmer. She is a Black swimmer. Pinckney is also a dancer and has been working on a piece that explores her family’s connection to the environment and the fraught relationship many Black Americans have to water.

Through research into family songs, facial features, and basket patterns, her great-uncle traced the family’s roots to Senegal and Nigeria, and Pinckney’s own genetic test confirmed his findings. The revelation was powerful and affirming, a rebuttal to the traumatic dead end of slavery many African Americans encounter when tracing their lineage. These are coastal countries. Her ancestors must have also loved the ocean, Pinckney reasoned, and in fact many living along the coast were excellent swimmers before the slave trade made the ocean a place of danger. Reconnected to her history, she began her own research, which led her to the House of Slaves, a museum and memorial in Senegal on the site of a former slave warehouse, and its Door of No Return, a “gorgeous and terrifying” portal framing the ocean waves — the start of the Middle Passage.

In the dance, the forward thrust of her chest, deep bend of her knees, the whip of her hair, and circling arms evoke African dance, and the music, with its refrain of “I can’t breathe,” channels American protest and racial brutality. She recently staged the performance at the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium. To watch her is to understand the many intersecting strands that have carried her to the present: her father teaching her about environmental injustice, her mother imparting a love of the sea, the professors and legislators who underestimated what she or the young people she mentors bring to the table. Her bare feet in the grass, her figure illuminated beneath a cloud-mottled sky, Pinckney is a woman of African descent. She is a Black American. She is a swimmer. And she is an environmentalist.