Voices of Earth Day is a student podcast series that digs into stories of protest and passion from the very first Earth Day in 1970 and the half-century since. This audio storytelling project was done in collaboration with undergraduate students in the spring 2020 journalism class “The Art of Audio.” This episode features an interview with alumna and current staff member Savannah Baber (’19) about the inextricable nature of environmental and social justice. She is interviewed by Emilia Migliaccio, a rising senior at Wake Forest university.
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Welcome to Voices of Earth Day – a series exploring 50 years of Wake Forest University’s involvement in the national holiday. This series is produced by students of ‘The Art of Audio,’ a spring 2020 audio storytelling class, in partnership with Wake Forest’s Office of Sustainability. For the project, students interviewed Wake Forest community members who have influenced the school’s commitment to the environment over the last 50 years.
Savannah Baber is a former Wake Forest student, earning her Bachelor’s in English and politics and international affairs. She was born and raised in North Carolina and currently serves as the program coordinator for the Intercultural Center at Wake Forest. Savannah is Native American and is passionate about advocating for students of color and increasing cultural competency within different institutions of higher education. When thinking about the impact of Earth Day, Savannah looked back on her childhood and many historical and personal moments that have influenced her worldviews. She shares an incredible story about how her Native American heritage has impacted her views about Earth Day and Environmental Justice.
SB: Earth Day is something that growing up we always briefly celebrated. I am Native American, so over the course of my life I have had a variety of relationships, I guess you could say, with the environment and the concept of environmentalism. And it hasn’t always been the best relationship, because Native people can get stereotyped a lot into a misperceived concept of environmentalism I think. People can see us as having some sort of magical or supernatural relationship with the earth as opposed to one that is very real. So over the course of my life I have sometimes struggled with being identified as an ‘Environmental Indian’ or something like that. But then when I got to college and I started interacting with the Office of Sustainability I got the opportunity to learn about things like Environmental Justice and Environmental Racism, and it really helped heal that relationship for me.
EM: When you talk about the sort of tense environment – environmental change and environmental injustice – could you elaborate a little more on that? The feminist movement is a little similar wherein not all women are equally represented in the movement. Is that how it is similar with environmental injustice?
SB: Absolutely. Yeah I think it’s that way across social justice movements because we live in a place like the United States of America. And for me as a former politics major, I think something that’s really interesting to think about is, you know, who has power. Who has a platform to speak. A lot of times, I think Black and Brown voices can get erased in how we talk about the environment and how we understand environmental movements and who’s leading them and things like that. So something that is fairly fundamental to our country — like racism, like discrimination, like inequality — is going to permeate any social justice issue because until we solve those things, they are going to exist.
So the reality of Environmental Justice is that Black and Brown people have land taken from them, live in places where there limited natural resources compared to other parts of the country, and then don’t have the political power to have their voices be respected. Marginalized people always have a voice. It is whether or not that voice is being listened to by the people who have the power to make the decisions. And whether the people who currently hold the power are willing to then distribute that power or give it up and share it with marginalized populations.
EM: How can we do that? How can we make sure that black and brown voices are being heard?
SB: That is the – THE question. For me, what I always say is it comes down to the people who are involved in the movement being willing to do that. Black and Brown people, marginalized people, they are fighting. They are using their voices. That’s not the problem. And I think sometimes our language around that can be complex. We say, “We need to use our voices” – and this is me speaking internally, within Black and Brown communities – sometimes we say things like, “We need to use our voices. We need to fight to be heard.” And the reality is that we are already doing that. So it becomes the responsibility then of the people whose voices are heard to share that platform.
What can sometimes happen with representation is you let the marginalized people speak and then do nothing with it. So the key is to let them speak and hear it. And then use it and let them lead. Let them make the decisions for environmental justice, for feminism for, I mean, any range of social movements, really. But it’s about letting our knowledge of what’s happening to us and around us inform what is done about it. The Dakota Access Pipeline in Standing Rock happened during my first year of college. So the more I read into that I knew people who were going there, who lived there, and who had a very deep relationship with and sense of urgency about the issue.
EM: Could you elaborate a little more about what happened in Standing Rock?
SB: Yeah, absolutely. So the Dakota Access Pipeline is a major pipeline that goes through North and South Dakota, so it’s aptly-named. And there are several tribal reservations in both of those states. So the Dakota Access Pipeline actually goes directly through the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota. And the same hesitations and worries that apply with all pipelines certainly apply there. So they have a river, the Cannonball River, and I believe it’s the Missouri River that connects the two. So the worry, of course, is the degradation of the water. That is their main water source and it has been forever. It’s part of their story as a nation. That is their water. The threat of it being polluted by this pipeline is just — I don’t even know what the appropriate word would be — I think it’s devastating. It would be devastating to lose that water source. And then more than just the water it’s the land around the water that the pipeline is being built through. Its sacred sites. Its burial sites. Its cultural artifacts from centuries ago. And that is all being bulldozed. Literally bulldozed.
And so like I said, this relationship between indigenous people and their land is most often what is at the center of these tribal nation’s creation stories. They can trace their people back to these spots. They have mythology and belief systems built around land and then it just gets built on top of. And they are just literally ignored.
It says so much. It says that you don’t matter. And that the fact that you’ve been in a place for so long doesn’t give you any right to that place. And then you have to wonder — what does? What gives me a right to anywhere? What gives me a right to home? What gives me a right to survival? What gives me a right to life?
All those things that I think we can take for granted were really put on trial for them. And are being put on trial for them by the existence and the construction of this pipeline.
EM: Yeah, and I think it shows how unaccepting of a culture we can be when we fail to recognize that cultures have different ways of living and both ways are great. And both ways are beautiful. But not recognizing how much a place can mean to someone is..it’s sad.
SB: Exactly. And I think it comes back to the power question too, you know? Whose interests matter in this situation? And I think the bigger question we have to ask ourselves as a society is – do those interests have to come up against each other? Because I would say that they don’t.
EM: I want to ask you a final question. What are you most proud of about being Native American, and what would you want to share with the world?
SB: It’s so many things. I would say our resilience, by far. When I think about the path that the world takes, the path that history takes, we have just been seen as the losers. And I just think that that’s so wrong. We haven’t lost anything. We have on a technical level maybe and on a political level. But we have retained so much. And we have grown so much. And we have survived so much that I don’t see how anyone could see that as a loss. And I think that there is this really beautiful thing happening right now where Indigenous communities around the world are connecting over these shared values of community — being connected to a place, being connected to the people around you. The story that’s been told about us, that we have somehow “lost,” I think we’re going to subvert that narrative. So yes. Resilience.
Thanks for listening to Voices of Earth Day. Make sure to check out the rest of the series to get the whole picture of Wake Forest’s commitment to sustainability.