An Interview with Environmental Justice Advocate Khalil Shahyd

Interview by Andrea Becerra

Khalil Shahyd is a Project Manager of Urban Solutions at NRDC where he focuses his work on energy efficiency programs and environmental justice issues in rural and urban development. Shahyd’s passion for his work is infectious and it’s only natural that we would want to get to know him a little better. I asked him to tell me a little more about that initial spark that led to his commitment to environmental justice.

“My interest and involvement in social justice initiatives has been a significant part of my work for most of my life. It wasn’t until about 10 years ago, during my time in India that I began to see environmental issues as a critical factor of justice. While visiting a Dalit community outside of Bangalore I witnessed how the development of the city of Bangalore directly impacted surrounding rural populations. Dalit communities depending on agriculture for subsistence farming were seeing their topsoil stripped to support the construction industry in Bangalore. Losing the land forced them to go into other types of work, stripping them off of their identities and livelihoods. It was in Bangalore that I saw most clearly the connection between human and economic development and the environment and it was there where I ultimately found the passion that continues drives my work today.”

1. What do you love most about the work you do?

What I love most about it is that it feeds my intellectual curiosity. It involves both rigorous inquiry but also creative imagining. It allows me to think critically, and scientifically on important issues. But it’s not just a thought experiment running in my own head, there are consequences to the work I do. It actually matters politically, in the outcomes we pursue. If I weren’t doing this work, maybe I’d be a speculative/science fiction author because what we do is about imagining alternative worlds but steeped in a hard reality.

2. Do you consider yourself an environmentalist? If not, why?

Yes absolutely but that term doesn’t encompass all of who I am. I’m a father, a son a brother a friend, and knucklehead to some. All of those things influence and drive what I do. It’s not possible to separate my environmentalism from the whole. The same way “environment” can’t or shouldn’t be viewed as apart from society, politics, economy and technology.

3. Why do you think it’s important that we tackle climate change? Is there an issue affecting your community?

Because failing to address climate change literally means suffering for a great many people. But climate change isn’t the problem per se as I see it. It is symptomatic of those systems and institutional processes that create the daily oppressions we see and experience all around us. Climate change will exacerbate those, perhaps cause many people who were spared from those oppressions to come to face it but it can’t be truly understood in isolation.

4. What do you think is the best way to tackle this and other environmental challenges?

I think the best way would be to come to grips with who we are as a humanity and a society. We need to take stock of what we truly value and the ways in which we organize ourselves. Most importantly, our societies are not stagnate entities but constantly evolving. We need to decide upon what institutions and human priorities will drive that evolution and change. For now we have decided that the pursuit of wealth should drive our evolution as a society (as many have decided that the pursuit of wealth is the best way to drive environmental change). Unless we are willing to look deeply at that and consider alternatives I’m skeptical of our ability to deal with these issues effectively and in a holistic manner. We may save ourselves from climate disaster only to abandon large portions of our population to poverty and squalor in the process. This isn’t about markets versus command economies. It’s highly possible to have free exchange without the wealth motive or command economies that pursue profit. It’s about how we truly value people, places and things when the chase for profit doesn’t distort our concept of value.

5. Are there any other leaders that you want to shine a light on? How are they setting an example for future leaders?

Jacqui Patterson at the NAACP deserves a great deal of light. As director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program she has been leading local and national efforts on her own for years and she’s been able to get so much done. Simply put…she’s a funk legend.