Anna van der Heijden

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In the summer of 2018, Whitney McGuire, 33, and Dominique Drakeford, 30, put their heads together to figure out a solution for better representation in the environmental movement. As women of color, they never saw themselves reflected in its leaders and community, yet environmental issues disproportionately affect communities of color. They took it upon themselves to start Sustainable Brooklyn, an organization that brings sustainability to communities that are often left out of the conversation.

On a recent Monday morning, McGuire’s one-year-old wobbled to the beat of “head, shoulders, knees and toes,” sung by the Sesame Street puppets on TV and his dad. “When I became a mom, sustainability became non-negotiable,” said McGuire. “My kid deserves a clean planet.”

Drakeford snapped her fingers in agreement. The two have agreed on a lot since they were first introduced by a mutual friend. Both of them had strong feelings about the ways in which the mainstream sustainability movement was lacking inclusivity, and both of them felt ready to take action. Meeting each other was, as Drakeford said, the missing link.

“Our first meeting was so powerful,” said McGuire. “We were finishing each other’s sentences. It was just a cascade of ‘aha-moments.’”

These ‘aha-moments’ lead to the creation of Sustainable Brooklyn, which aims to bridge the gap between the sustainability movement and people of color. They want to bring the community and experts together to open up meaningful discussions about problems within the movement, learn about the environment and frame solutions.

“The voices of people of color were often left out of the conversation,” said Drakeford, “Even though climate change hits low-income communities of color hardest.”

The pair decided to start Sustainable Brooklyn, but weren’t set on how exactly they wanted to shape their organization. So they gave themselves a year to organize events focusing on different aspects of sustainability and see what they already knew and what questions would arise.

One of their events was a volunteer day at the Good Life Garden in Bushwick. They invited people to get a tour of the garden and get their hands dirty. Many people don’t know that these resources are available, and many gardens don’t have the platform to spread the word. So Sustainable Brooklyn stepped in as a mediator.

“It was such a healing experience,” said Drakeford. “They put their sweat equity into gutting and building the garden and really making it a space to connect folks in the community.”

McGuire continues by explaining how important community gardens are: “Building a community garden is the one thing you can do to instantly inject some sustainability and positivity into your community.”

According to the women, many global trends start in this corner of the world. If Brooklyn sets the example, then many other cities are bound to follow. “So this is a perfect place to plant the seed of true inherent information in the sustainability space,” said McGuire.

Even though they themselves are now hyper aware of what’s happening to the environment, neither of them grew up consciously living a sustainable life. Looking back, McGuire and Drakeford realized that sustainability has always been part of their lives, but because the stories told by the mainstream movement didn’t look like theirs, they didn’t recognize it.

With Sustainable Brooklyn, they want to stress that sustainability is different for everyone. The way it’s often portrayed — be zero-waste, don’t eat meat, never drive a car — is not for everybody. McGuire and Drakeford want people to understand that you can approach sustainability on your own terms, as long as you have intention and take action from that intention.

One way to learn about sustainability is by joining them this Saturday, May 11 at 11 a.m. for their EARTH Symposium, which looks at sustainability across fashion, food and wellness while centering people of color. Tickets are available for purchase here. They’re hoping that the EARTH Symposium will be followed by air, water and fire symposiums.

What’s next for the duo? They might host more events. They might write a book. They might launch a website. They might host a retreat. They might collaborate to create Sustainable offshoots in other cities. All they know for sure is that they are on a mission to making the sustainability movement more inclusive. The sky’s the limit for Sustainable Brooklyn.