In “5 Minutes With…,” NationSwell’s Editorial Team sits down with practitioners in our community whose work advances social, economic, and environmental progress. As part of our focus on Meeting Our Climate Moment, and with mindfulness around the overlapping celebration of AAPI Heritage Month and recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month, NationSwell sat down with Kristy Drutman, founder of Browngirl Green, about the work she’s leading (and inspiring) on climate justice, why the climate crisis is a mental health crisis, and how her Philippine heritage informs her sense of urgency and intersectionality.
This is what she had to say.
NationSwell’s Anthony Smith: Tell us about your professional and personal journey.
Kristy Drutman, Browgirl Green: I’m a Jewish and Filipina environmentalist and online educator. I run a platform called Browngirl Green that centers diversity, equity, and inclusion in climate solutions, and I’m the co-founder of the Green Jobs Board, which is a social media-powered platform that strives to build a bigger and more inclusive green workforce.
NationSwell: In the climate space, we’ve heard for a few years that climate justice and racial justice are intertwined. What’s unique about your approach to the intersections between the two?
Drutman, Browngirl Green: My work is unique because it draws its power from storytelling. Leaders may have access to the tools, and they may also have access to the information systems, but it’s really storytelling that empowers us to tell a new narrative about climate solutions — and empowers people who have been traditionally sidelined to see ourselves as leading the charge. The mainstream media has failed to tell these stories well; it’s one of many mainstream institutions that young people who care about their futures are fed up with. They’re turning to one another in their frustration, and the platform I’m building seeks to not only support those connections, but give them education and resources so that they can be more than just frustrated. I start by representing them — and I use that to galvanize them to take action, and educate them on the steps they can take.
NationSwell: You mention frustration with media, with legacy institutions, with status quo. What are people — even people who care about climate — getting wrong about climate action?
Drutman, Browngirl Green: There’s a lot of excitement right now about geoengineering, but quick technological fixes aren’t going to get us out of this mess. It’s more than just investing in new technology; we still have to address that the reasons for resource degradation, extraction, and inequity is not a technological issue. It’s a human issue.
That’s what we mean by climate justice. It’s more than just moving away from big oil and focusing on renewables — which, of course, we need, along with other scalable technologies; but it doesn’t matter if we never answer the human question at the heart of all of this: How do we make sure that these transitions aren’t at the expense of marginalized communities — how can we make sure they actually benefit?
And if we don’t ask these questions, if we don’t center these communities and the humans in them in this transition, how is that any different from how the fossil fuel industry operates?
NationSwell: I can imagine that part of how we think more comprehensively about the humans at the center of the climate crisis is in thinking about how this impacts our health: from the food we eat, to the air we breathe, to even our mental health. How do you think about this?
Drutman, Browngirl Green: The climate crisis is a mental health crisis. I feel like our society today is just constantly in a state of dissociation from what’s happening. That happens to me all the time where I’m just trying to be in my twenties, living a life that young people want to live, that other generations got to live, and we’re both trying to do that and we don’t get to do that.
Meanwhile, there’s all this chaos happening and it’s almost like one of those things where you have to either become numb to it or you feel it so deeply — and it can be so overwhelming to where you just don’t even know how to function. And I would say that the climate crisis is leading a lot of people to feeling like there’s not much left you, because there’s no hope.
But there is hope, and there is so much you can do. Young people always have to question their hopelessness, because we need to build systems of emotional support alongside the climate work that we’re doing, where we can talk about how scary it feels to live at this time, knowing that science shows it will get worse if we don’t do anything.
NationSwell: We both share a Philippine heritage; I’m curious about how your heritage might inspire the work you’re leading.
Drutman, Browngirl Green: My culture and heritage… they’re really what’s at stake, and they instill in me a sense of accountability and responsibility. The Philippines is on the front lines of the climate crisis, and knowing that definitely drives a lot of my work. I think a lot about people who look like me, the communities I come from, the diaspora I come from, and I do feel a responsibility to the people in the Philippines because I have the privilege of being in rooms in America where I’m connected to people with power, and many of them do not have access to those spaces.
NationSwell: Can you share a little bit about the impact you’ve had?
Drutman, Browngirl Green: I get young people hired in climate jobs, so they can do this work full time and get paid for it. When people tell me, “You’re the reason I got my first job,” it’s so exciting to me. I am directly creating avenues of employment and accessibility through storytelling, through the platforms that I’m building to make people’s lives better.
That’s what it’s all about for me. I can’t do it all; I’m only one person. My work is about making sure there are more of me. Because this movement needs more of us, and more people bringing more people like them into it. That’s how we build more conduits for change.
NationSwell: What’s your call to action to people who read this?
Drutman, Browngirl Green: We need more intergenerational support. We need folks that are from older generations that do have resources and access to networks to open up doors, especially for young people of color.
A recent report showed that a very small percentage of environmental justice organizations are getting any funding in the climate space. Young people are likely an even smaller percentage of that; to say nothing of the disparities in funding for issues that disproportionately impact and marginalized BIPOC people. There’s a huge opportunity for people with wealth resources and access to understand that redistribution needs to happen in a very active and intentional way to make sure that that leadership is being nourished and that they are getting into those rooms.
There have been people that I met through NationSwell that did that for me. And I’m really grateful for the NationSwell community because a lot of those connections that NationSwell made for me really benefited me. And I made this call to action at NationSwell two years ago, where I asked the community to reach out and help me, and some of my most important relationships in this space came out of that — people I’m still in touch with.
I just wanted to take this moment to shout out NationSwell, because I think you all do really try to bring youth representation into those circles. And those round tables really have made a difference on the kind of people I got to connect with.