Environmental activist Dionna Brown informs the next generation of BIPOC climate leaders

dionna brown

The climate crisis is a hot-button issue featuring many young environmental activists from Swede Greta Thunberg and Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s daughter Isra Hirsi to Flint native and our very own Wayne State University Warrior Dionna Brown.

“Unfortunately, it’s up to the younger generations now,” Brown says, “because we’re the ones that will be without a planet in the next couple of dozens of years at the rate we’re currently going. It sounds sad and intense, but it’s the truth.”

Brown, who is currently pursuing a master’s degree in sociology with the goal to attend law school and become an environmental rights attorney, is the national director for the Black Millennials 4 Flint’s Youth EJ Griots program and a recent inductee to the People’s Climate Innovation Center’s inaugural Young Climate Leaders of Color program.

The climate crisis isn’t just about rising temperatures—turn on the late-night news and you can see the effects of a warming planet right now from melting glaciers and rising sea levels to extreme weather and wildfires to setting entire species on the move while wiping out others.

It’s not some distant threat, Brown says. It’s here. It’s now and we’re already behind on doing something about it.

On Jan. 12, Vice President Kamala Harris paid a visit to the University of Michigan to talk about the Biden-Harris administration’s dedication to sustainability and environmental justice. Brown was personally invited by the White House to attend the event because of the name she has made for herself as a rising young leader on environmental justice.

Harris and other speakers that included U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Ann Arbor, U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor all emphasized the crucial role Michigan must play in combating the climate crisis.

“Michigan is an important contender in the environmental debate because of the Big 3,” Brown said, referring to Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors, “and other companies that thrived off the accessible waterways of the Great Lakes. The Big 3 has polluted our environment for decades with no consequences. Not only water pollution, but air pollution. Detroit has the zip code with the highest air pollution that affects the most children.”

A rising environmental activist

Long before she considered herself an activist, Brown was no stranger to environmental crises. She was a teenager when the Flint water crisis started in 2014. She has family that has worked for the Big 3 for generations. She has family living in Cancer Alley—a 85-mile stretch of land along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans where over 150 petrochemical plants and refineries secrete toxins into the air and water of predominantly Black and brown communities.

It took a personal tragedy even closer to home for Brown to start considering an active role in activism against the environmental crisis.

The day she had to register for classes her senior year at Howard University, her grandmother passed away.

“I had one of my friends register me for classes because I didn’t want to deal with anything,” Brown said. “I told her that if any class I pick isn’t available, just sign me up for a random class in the sociology department. One of the classes I chose was not available, so she signed me up for environmental inequalities. I read about it online and it looked interesting so I stuck with it. I got to the class and I loved it. I always said I wanted to be a civil rights attorney and that class made me start thinking of environmental rights as civil rights. The professor changed my way of thinking.”

She started thinking more about environmental racism. If the future looked bleak for the planet, it looked the worst for Black and brown and poor communities whose neighborhoods were being disproportionately turned into landfills and sites of toxic waste.

Brown felt compelled to make a change.

That’s when her professor introduced her to Michelle Mabson, the co-founder of Black Millennials 4 Flint. Mabson offered her an internship in 2020 and Brown hit the ground running.

Fighting the climate crisis

Now Brown is the national director for their Youth Environmental Justice Griot program. A two-part initiative that starts with the Young, Gifted & Green Environmental Justice (EJ) Academy, an innovative summer learning experience for youth in grades 8-12 in the Greater Flint area and Genesee County.

“The Young, Gifted & Green EJ Academy focuses on the impact of public health and environmental justice and builds youth leaders’ capacity to advocate for a healthier and cleaner Flint,” Brown said. “The other part is the Youth Advisory Council. The youth that participated in the summer camp have an opportunity to work with our staff and board of directors to let them know what EJ issues they care about and what they want to see from us to combat or raise awareness to the issue.”

As an environmental activist, Brown has also had conversations with Rep. Dan Kildee to push legislation, meetings with region 4 and 5 EPA workers to work on youth education about environmental justice and better practices for our environment. She has traveled to cities all over the country, including D.C., to attend conferences and events to meet, speak, and listen to other organizations working on environmental justice in their own communities and lobbied for sustainable change.

As one of about 50 activists in the Young Climate Leaders of Color program based out of California, Brown will have access to a whole new network of BIPOC activists from all over the country. The ultimate goal of the program is to inspire and reimagine what the environmental movement looks like when led and informed by youth of color and their communities, the website reads.

But you don’t have to consider yourself an activist to start making small changes that contribute to the overall good, Brown said.

“You can take public transportation. You can walk, if you live in a walkable city. Just buy more reusable and sustainable items in your everyday life. Corporations are the biggest polluters of our environment, but when we use metal straws and reusable bags, the demand goes up and it hurts their bottom line, pushes them to make sustainable changes. We can help our planet a little more and also hold these corporations accountable.”

For ways you can learn more and get involved in the local environmental movement, visit:

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