Barack Obama: An Alternate Environmental Biography & History?

If Barack Obama had been born in Kenya and not the United States then his environmental biography would certainly have been different. George Obama, Barack’s brother, grew up in Kenya. George’s biography gave me some insight into an alternate environmental history, what might have been if President Obama’s path had been a different one in Africa. The president’s relationship with and story about the environment would have been different. Or would it have been?

Consider George Obama’s biography written with Damien Lewis titled Homeland: An Extraordinary Story of Hope and Survival (2010).

Perhaps Barack Obama, the older of the two brothers, calls many places homeland including his birthplace Hawaii in the United States. Like many a child of an immigrant, Kenya is Mr. Obama’s ancestral homeland, the birthplace of his father.

If Barack had been born in Kenya his experiences might have paralleled George’s life. The president would have visited and perhaps even lived with the Luo, his people, his cultural group in Kenya. Much like George, a young Barack might have visited  his grandfather’s compound filled with family in rural Kenya.

The family supported themselves herding livestock including cattle. (Obama, 4) The Obamas were also farmers. Their grandfather “owned land  . . . that was used for rice growing. The rice fields were rain-fed, as opposed to irrigated. If the main April-June rains failed, the young plants would wither and die in the fields, and there would be no crop that year.” (Obama, 4-5)

George, who spent much of his time in Nairobi, remembers nature as a child visiting the family compound:

At the start of the rainy April season the wind would blow in from the bush in a sudden, raging storm. The dry fronds on the palm trees clashing together sounded like an army of children fighting with wooden swords. Then you knew that rain was on the way, and you had no more than ten minutes to get under cover. As a wall of gray clouds rushed in from the far horizon, powerful gusts knocked down coconuts from the palms and dead branches from the trees. (Obama, 5)

Barack Obama in Kenya, 2006

Now here is some whimsy on my part: although Barack did not grow up in Kenya, his DNA influenced his environmental thought and actions in reality, in the real world. In 1987, George still a child met Barack already an adult. They met on a Nairobi playground. Barack had visited Kenya, his homeland. He returned again in 2006.

Today, President Obama is the first green and black president. In his 2011 State of the Union Address, he highlighted that California Institute of Technology was developing “a way to turn sunlight and water into fuel for our cars.” (2011 State of the Union Address, NPR transcript) This is part of federal green initiatives in and for the United States and the world.

As I sit here in my home, miles away from the president and the White House, even more miles away from Kenya, I dream a global dream that embraces Barack Obama a descendant of Kenyans influenced by his rural origins there; at the same time, he is driven to implement environmental innovation and initiatives as an American, as the President of the United States.

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In Conversation with Philip O’Neal of Green DMV

GREEN DMV is a non-profit that promotes clean energy and green jobs as a means of diminishing poverty in low-income communities in the United States.  Philip O’Neal and Rhon Hayes are the co-founders.

Dianne: Philip, let’s start by writing poems that includes themes of nature.  I’ll write one too inspired by your verses.

Philip:

Winter’s magic in grandma’s garden, deep roots, moments of loneliness, feeling forgotten, and silenced.

While Grandma, warm, weaves her basket with the thoughts of strawberries, cucumbers, tomatoes and egg-plant.

D: I like it. Grandma! Fruits and vegetables. Here’s mine . . . borrowing some style from ee cummings . . .

i dream

of stark trees through

eight window panes in a row

like sentinels

waiting

first glance desolation

future

spring hides under brown, grey, and silver bark

leaves wait for warmer days to unfurl

winter is not desolate

breath exhaled

spring

D: We spoke–a short conversation–for the first time a few weeks ago. I would like to know more about you.

P: I was born and raised in Elizabeth City, NC. Attended Elizabeth City State University. I’m married to my beautiful wife of 7 years Danielle, with one son Logan and a little princess on the way in May. Danielle and I lived in Atlanta for 4 years, before moving to Washington DC in 2004.

D: What led you to become an environmentalist?

P: The first person who made me realize I was an environmentalist was Dr. Robert Bullard, a long time educator and environmental justice activist who teaches at Clark-Atlanta University. In 2007 I heard him speak on a panel at a Congressional Black Caucus forum on Climate Change. A statement that I will never forget is when he said. “If you drink water, eat food or breathe air. Or any two out of the three, then you’re an environmentalist”

D: Ah yes, Dr. Bullard! He has clearly influenced your thinking. Any other influences?

P: I can’t pick one person that has been the greatest influence in my efforts. But I feel that my thinking was cultivated from academics such as W.E.B. Dubois and Dr. Julianne Malveaux, civil rights leaders such as Dr. King and Gandhi, to environmental leaders past and present from Dr. Bullard to Al Gore. Between each name, I can fit a hundred or more names, it’s that many! I represent the sum of many individual ideals mixed in with my own little individual flavor.

D: How did you and Rhon come up with the idea to launch greendmv.org?
P: It kind of organically happened, (no pun intended). I call it strategic intuition. We knew the green movement was going to be the next boom, and we knew historically low-income communities and communities of color typically don’t get the information early enough to take advantage of ground floor economic movements. So we made it our mission to insure the left out communities of the past, would be locked in the green economy of the future.

D: Tell me about the contributions of others working for and with Green DMV.

P: We have relied heavily on volunteers. For the first 2 years, Green DMV was funded from our own pockets. After out first two grant requests were denied, we just found creative ways to get things done, like organizing volunteers and making our organization attractive to supporters. Since then, we’ve received support from Home Depot, Whole Foods, Giant Foods, City Governments and more.

D: Yes, the hard work in environmentalism relies heavily on the work and good will of volunteers. Another question: why do you think clean energy and green jobs are important?

P: Environmentally, this is the most important work that needs to be done. Economically, because these are the jobs of the future. If you take a look around, it’s very rare that you see a solar panel on a person’s home. Now let’s take a look in the future. It will be very rare not to see solar powered home. Between now and then, somebody has to do this work and currently the workforce doesn’t exist to supply the demand of all those projects. Somebody has to train and hire this new workforce. So why not train the people who have had barriers to employment for this new industry?

D: How can environmentally conscious energy and jobs change our lives here in the United States?

P: A new industry will be created to boost our economy, which will support jobs in both metropolitan and rural cities and towns.

D: What is our responsibility as individuals and a nation to the rest of world when it comes to protecting the environment and its resources?

P: All I ask is that we be conscious of little negative acts. That’s all. If you can just ask yourself a question, “Am I doing the right thing?”, even if you do the wrong thing after that, I’d be happy.

D: Could you share something about Green DMV’s latest initiative?
P: In partnership with the District of Columbia and AARA, GREEN DMV is taking on the daunting task of educating the entire faith-based community of Washington DC, to take part in the efforts to fight poverty and pollution in our Nation’s Capitol. We’re calling this “The Green Faith Initiative- One Green City Through Faith.” The church is the backbone of the community and there is no way we can inform poor communities effectively without the support and efforts of the faith-based community.

D: Do you spend time outdoors? What is your favorite activity? Do you hike? If so where? A favorite park?

P: Honestly, My favorite activity is doing spontaneous things with my family. Living in Washington DC, there’s just so much history and things to do.

D: How is Barack Obama doing concerning the environment? Michelle Obama?

P: Well, President Obama just isn’t the first black president; he’s the first green president. Approving 500 Million dollars for Green Job Training, he get’s it and now after the State of the Union Address, he’s focusing on getting them all employed in the green sector. Michelle is focused on the greening of our bodies with the Let’s Move initiative. She’s ensuring that we have healthy schools and fit kids.

D: Thank you, Philip. I look forward to ways Green DMV will continue to change the green economy.

Photos Courtesy of Green DMV

2011 MLK Day: Remembering Martin Luther King the Environmentalist

Before Martin Luther King was assassinated, he had broadened his Civil Rights agenda to include advocating for the Vietnamese during the Vietnam War and the sanitation workers striking in Memphis.

Courtesy americaslibrary.gov

On MLK Day, I like to remember Dr. King as the environmentalist. Memphis sanitation workers went on strike in Memphis, Tennessee on February 12, 1968.  They wanted higher wages, and better hours and vacation time. “An unhealthy work environment” was “the subtext” as the workers “were exposed to hospital waste and rotting food, which drew rodents, roaches, and birds.” (Dianne Glave, Rooted in the Earth Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage, 131)

Dr. King arrived to support the sanitation workers at a rally on March 18. He continued his support with his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech on April 3rd at the Mason Temple in Memphis, saying,

“It’s all right to talk about streets flowing with milk and honey, but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s alright to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day God’s preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis.”

Thank you Dr. King for being an environmentalist–before environmentalism was en vogue–for African Americans, for the impoverished, for Americans!

Zora Neale Hurston and Floods: To Those in Brazil, Australia, and Sri Lanka

Zora Neale Hurston

I have been thinking of the people in Brazil, Australia, and Sri Lanka who have been suffering because of the floods. African American Zora Neale Hurston’s best known and most compelling novel Their Eyes Were Watching God focuses on the grief surrounding a watery natural disaster.

It’s the fictional love story of Janie and Tea Cake set against the backdrop of southern Florida during the early twentieth century. Hurston describes the aftermath of the flood of the1928  Okeechobee Hurricane:

Janie buried Tea Cake in Palm Beach. She knew he loved the ‘Glades but it was too low for him to lie with water maybe washing over him with every heavy rain. Anyway, the ‘Glades and its waters had killed him. She wanted him out of the the way of storms, so she had a strong vault built in the cemetery at West Palm Beach . . . No expensive veils and robes for Janie this time. She went (to the funeral) in her overalls. She was too busy feeling grief to dress like grief. (Zorah Neale Hurston, Novels and Stories, 330)

Remembering tragedies past and present. Remembering my sisters and brothers around the world who are suffering.

 

Cab Ride II: Haitian Muses About Post-Katrina in New Orleans

New Orleans. Charles, my Haitian cab driver, escaped Katrina, and quickly came back to work in the city. Quite the irony but more on that later.

I told him I’d returned about the same time seeing few women but plenty of male contractors and military. I shared with him that I was afraid seeing so few women around and smelling death.

Haiti. He told his story in a more matter-a-fact way. Charles escaped Haiti many years before the recent earthquake and cholera outbreak on the island.

New Orleans. He returned to transformed a limping distressed Crescent City two months after the hurricane and the flood waters had receded. He told me he got good pay but faced a housing shortage. A friend of a friend got him an hotel room.

Haiti. When I asked him more about Haiti. A fraught weighted silence filled the car signifying that his life had surely been troubled in Haiti, perhaps more so than his experiences in New Orleans before, during and after Katrina. As many have said to me, “Katrina was a bad girl.” Based on Charles’ heavy silence,the troubles in Haiti seemed a wicked step-sister in comparison

The irony: Charles escaped tragedy in Haiti but found another sort in New Orleans. He seemed happy though, grateful to be working and alive in New Orleans.

Post-BP Gulf Disaster: Grand Bayou, Louisiana

I feel in some way that I contributed to objectifying the Houma, Native American people during a visit to Grand Bayou, Louisiana on January 8, 2011. That made me sad during my visit. With pride mixed with humility and graciousness, they continue to accept help and support;  BP destroyed the Houma’s ecosystem when oil spewed from the ruptured Event Horizon and in turn the latter’s livelihood of fishing, crabbing, and shrimping. The Houma have been reduced to giving tours of the Grand Bayou and inviting strangers like myself into their lovely homes. I thought, what would it be like if I had constant streams of people in my front yard and in my house? I am sad about by the dark grim times faced by these beautiful self-sufficient people.

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So I honor the Houma with a few photos in hopes of keeping the Gulf of Mexico on people’s minds. Can I counter BP’s inhumanity in this small way? Can I reverse the lousy under-handed treatment of the Houma fishermen, oyster-men, shrimpers, and their families by BP? That’s a tough one since money promised for lost wages like the presence of the global company in the region has long evaporated.

The disaster is a tragic study in how a global corporation–a story that keeps repeating itself–has exploited and continues to exploit people who only want to live off the land and ocean.

Photos by Dianne Glave

Cab Ride I: “The Birds,” Said an African American Man in Atlanta

“There’s something very wrong?” he said looking up at the overcast sky standing between my house and his cab. As I locked my door, I turned my head  to look at him knowing more was coming.

A young African American man in his early twenties sat in the driver’s seat. He turned over the engine and rap poured out a single speaker wedged between the two seats pointed at me. Jay-Z was spitting rhymes. Sounds of 21st century angst and protest filled the cab.

He said again, “Something is wrong.” He added, “There are no birds in the sky. I’m stuck in this cab all day so I only hear bits and pieces of the news.”

I almost said turn on NPR but that would have destroyed the mood edging on protest, real fear in the cab.

I told him a winter storm was coming, which might explain a bird-less sky.

He protested saying, “No, no. There have been birds dropping dead from the sky all over the world.”

I’d said I’d heard one story in the news. It was beginning to feel like an M. Night Shaymalan movie.

We went back and forth sharing two theories as Weezy rapped in the background. I had to speak up because he’d cranked up the music, I think, reflecting a strumming anxiety. Theory 1: fireworks. Theory 2: a storm swept the birds up.

He said, “You know animals are the first to respond to environmental problems.”

I agreed adding that for decades creatures like frogs with delicate skin have long been a barometer of toxic environments. When they disappear, die, because of pollution, it indicates a damaging climate and environmental havoc.

More than fifteen years ago when I began my work in environmentalism this conversation with a young African American man about the modern environment would have been a piece of fiction. Now it is non-fiction and I’m living it. And the people of color expressing concern is ever-increasing exponentially.

Photo by Dianne Glave