Environmental justice advocate visits Grand Rapids

GVL / Emily Frye
Syreeta reciting work she has written

GVL / Emily Frye Syreeta reciting work she has written

Allison Ribick

On Feb. 24 in the LINC in Grand Rapids, advocate Nikki Silvestri participated in a community conversation about environmental and social justice.

Attendees were able to speak with Silvestri and share their experiences with environmental justice, social movements and nonprofits through the form of questions and spoken word poetry.

Silvestri spoke of her background and how she got involved in the food movement and sustainability. The media and her family helped her become aware of the issue of food.

“Every time I saw (my grandmother) she would say, ‘How are you and how are your bowels,’” Silvestri said. “That was her thing. It didn’t matter who I was with, didn’t matter where we were – it was really important to her.”

As she grew older, Silvestri began to understand the implication of her grandmother’s questions, as they pertained to her emotions, too.

“I started asking questions really early and started putting together this picture of, ‘Where does our food come from? How do we treat the land?’ Agriculture, emotional health if you’re living in poverty, just all of these things,” Silvestri said.

The Women’s Center at GVSU and the West Michigan Environmental Action Council sponsored the symposium. WMEAC is a nonprofit organization that offers environmental education and advocacy in order to build sustainable communities. WMEAC offers workshops, volunteer opportunities and has programs related to water and energy.

“The symposium explores the intersection between women and the environment,” said Rachel Hood, executive director of WMEAC. “This year the focus is on environmental justice, climate resiliency and the new, green economy.”

Public health, food justice and climate concerns were among the topics discussed.

“We’ve been working hard to make this event and information accessible to all people in the community,” Hood said. “We’ve done several events in advance with community members working on equity, community development and design for sustainable, resilient communities.”

Other topics discussed included the difficulty of finding funding for certain nonprofit organizations and causes, public policies that have environmental impacts like the creation of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the issue of using contaminated soil to grow food.

Silvestri has a background in environmental justice and social equity through her position as the former executive director of Green for All, which seeks to build a green economy and offer jobs and opportunities to poverty stricken communities – particularly that of people of color – and as the former executive director of People’s Grocery, which develops food systems in West Oakland, Calif. to better the health of the community.

Silvestri has an extensive public speaking record, including conferences, TEDx and colleges and universities. She was named one of The Root’s 100 Most Influential African Americans in 2014.

In addition, the Women and the Environment Symposium continued on Feb. 25 from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. in the Loosemore auditorium on GVSU’s Pew Campus. The symposium featured a variety of panelists involved in nonprofits and environmental justice, as well as keynote speaker Silvestri. For more information on WMEAC, visit www.wmeac.org.

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