AANHPI Leaders Paving the Way Towards Environmental Action
May 17, 2023
The month of May marks the beginning of Asian American, Native Hawai’ian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage month, which is meant to recognize, represent, and celebrate the history, culture, and contributions of the AANHPI diaspora. The AANHPI community has had a particularly important role within the environmental movement in advocating for climate and environmental justice issues. Our Asian American, Native Hawai’ian, and Pacific Islander communities are placed at the forefront of the climate crisis and have been working to mobilize action for years.
The Pacific Islands are and continue to be the first in line to feel the negative impacts and effects of climate change. They are experiencing climate change at unprecedented levels with rising temperatures and sea levels presenting security threats to their lands and livelihoods. Many islands are experiencing damages to infrastructure, land erosion, coral bleaching, an increasing shoreline, risks to freshwater resources, and endemic species threatened by the reality of extinction.
Asian American voices have also been crucial to the environmental movement altogether with a majority actively identifying as environmentalists. A recent poll from the Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote shows about 75% of Asian Americans find the environment extremely or very important in deciding how to vote. However, Asian American voices and experiences have largely been ignored when it comes to environmental justice, despite being disproportionately subjected to segregation and pollution.
In recognizing the need for environmental justice for communities on the front lines of the climate crisis, EARTHDAY.ORG is highlighting AANHPI leaders who continue to advocate for the health of our planet.
Brianna Fruean is a pacific climate warrior and activist from Samoa. At the age of just 11 years old, Fruean saw the impact that climate change was having on her community. It was then that she became the youngest country coordinator for the grassroots climate organization 350 and the leader of “Future Rush,” an environmental organization focused on mobilizing youth voices across the Pacific around climate activism. Fruean continued as an environmental activist serving as a youth ambassador at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012, becoming the youngest winner of the Commonwealth Youth Award at 16 years old, speaking at the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in 2021, and is a recipient of the 2022 Global Citizen Award. These accomplishments are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Fruean’s activism, exemplifying her leadership in more ways than one.
Keone Kealoha is the Executive Director at Kanu Hawai’i, an organization that strives to promote and protect the things that make Hawai’i special. Kanu Hawai’i seeks to create and promote connections to the ‘āina (land), local self-reliance, and a culture of aloha. Keone has been engaged in environmental advocacy for more than 16 years. Before becoming the Executive Director at Kanu Hawai’i in 2017, Keone was the Co-Founder and Executive Director of the organization Mālama Kaua’i. In this position, Keone implemented various programs, projects, and education initiatives to promote sustainability, resilience, and local food production on the island of Kaua’i. Some of these programs include the Kilauea Agricultural Park Complex, Kauai School GardenNetwork, Kauai Permaculture Food Forest, and Kilauea Community Garden to name a few. Keone has also been an active and successful advocate for policy and legislation through his work advocating for farm worker housing, the Mayor’s Campaign to Save Energy, the Kauai Bus Campaign, the County Energy Sustainability Plan, the Coalition for Responsible Government, and County Land Use Bills.
For Earth Day 2023, Keone and Kanu Hawai’i planned thousands of events across the Hawaiian islands to show how we all can Invest in Our Planet. Through The Pledge to Our Keiki Kanu Hawai’i hosted one of Hawai’i’s largest dive cleanups with over 700 divers; gathered individuals representing close to 100 countries at Sunrise for E Ala Ē ceremonies; and held a State Capitol event which brought together hundreds of government officials, dignitaries, and business leaders including the Governor of Hawai’i, mayors, and even the President of Palau to honor environmental and cultural stewardship. Keone Kealoha illustrates the importance of environmental advocacy and the positive effects it can have on our local communities, showing us what it means to Mālama ‘Aina (take care of the land).
Charlie Jiang, a Chinese American environmental activist, discovered his passion for climate advocacy during his studies at Stanford University. Jiang was passionate about issues related to oil drilling in Alaska, the increasing amount of heat waves, floods, and wildfires across the planet, and the racial discrepancies in environmental protection within his own South Side neighborhood of Chicago. As such, Charlie quickly became involved in the environmental movement on his campus by organizing oil and gas divestment campaigns with Fossil Free Stanford and advocating for environmental justice with the group Students for a Sustainable Stanford. After graduating from Stanford, Jiang continued to advocate for environmental action working with the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington DC as a policy analyst. Charlie has also served as a climate campaigner for Greenpeace USA, a U.S. Environmental Justice Fellow for Namati, and has participated as a local organizer for organizations like 350 DC and the Sunrise Movement.
Kathy Jetn̄il-Kijiner is an environmental activist, poet, performance artist, and educator from the Marshall Islands. Jetn̄il-Kijiner brought attention to the plight of Pacific Island nations in the climate crisis during her poetry performance at the 2014 United Nations Climate Summit. Since then, Jetn̄il-Kijiner has had her work featured across various media sources including National Geographic, CNN, NBC News, and the Huffington Post to name a few. Kathy Jetn̄il-Kijiner speaks about climate change and its impact on the Marshall Islands. Her advocacy efforts have continued in her role as co-founder of the environmental non-profit Jo-Jikum which aims to empower Marshallese youth to find solutions and advocate on behalf of their community for climate action. Kathy has also been named one of 13 Climate Warriors by Vogue in 2015 and is the 2016 Impact Hero of the Year by Earth Company.
Charles Lee is a Senior Policy Advisor to the Office of Environmental Justice and a notable environmental activist and advocate. Lee first connected with the environmental justice movement identifying the connection between race, poverty, and environment during the 1970s and 80s where he experienced the protests in Warren County North Carolina over hazardous waste. After this experience, Lee would go on to work for the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice where his work helped establish the Environmental Justice movement on a national scale. Lee would go on to author the book “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States” and would also coordinate the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. Lee is also a founding member of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council. His experience as an advocate and civil servant has promoted change and action for years, having a profound impact on the environmental movement as a whole.
Each and every one of these environmental leaders continually uplift and empower the environmental movement through their bravery, tenacity, perseverance, and dedication. They have all invested their time, money, and resources to fight for environmental action and accountability, embodying what it means to truly Invest In Our Planet. Just like Brianna, Charles, or any of these amazing leaders we too have the ability to commit ourselves, our voices, and our actions to the protection of our Earth. We all possess the power to use our voice as consumers, voters, and individuals to invest in our planet and pave the way towards a healthy, prosperous, and equitable future.