The fight against climate change has shifted, climate justice activist Wanjiku "Wawa" Gatheru told the Bryant students gathered for the recent “An Evening with Wawa: Fighting for Climate Justice” event.
“I don't think we're trying to just educate people anymore,” she argued. “Most people, over 70 percent of the United States population, understand that climate change is an issue, cares about it, and believes it's real.”
“What we’re really doing now is trying to activate people,” Gatheru suggested, inviting the audience to become leaders in the fight for a better planet.
Gatheru, a first generation American of Kenyan descent, has made it her mission to help lead that mass activation. The founder of Black Girl Environmentalist, the first-ever activist board chair at the Environmental Media Association, a Narrative Fellow at the All We Can Save Project, and a recent Revolutionary Power Fellow at the U.S. Department of Energy, she is also the youngest member of the Earthjustice Council and the first Black person to receive Rhodes, Truman, and Udall Scholarships.
“I think it's important that we remind ourselves that we don't want to return to precedented times. Instead, we want unprecedented care for our people and planet.”
Her March 29 presentation in Bryant’s Quinlan/Brown Academic Innovation Center served as the culmination of the University’s HerStory celebration, a month of empowering and educational programming coinciding with Women’s History Month. The session — made possible by a partnership between the Women's Leadership Living and Learning Community, the Gertrude Meth Hochberg Women's Center, and Bryant’s offices of International Affairs and University Advancement — drew women-identifying students from across campus eager to make a difference.
“Right now, we're experiencing the greatest existential threat the world has ever seen: The climate crisis,” Gatheru told the audience. “From natural disasters to environmental degradation, coupled with governmental inaction in the face of corporate greed, climate change threatens the livelihoods of billions of people and non-human species around the world.”
Yet, while the climate crisis is an all-encompassing threat, Gatheru noted, “its impacts are anything but equal. Any crisis or catastrophe that happens in an unequal society will have unequal impact.” Women, especially Black, indigenous, and other women of color, she pointed out, were among those most affected.
“When we analyze root causes, it's clear that women experience climate change with disproportionate severity precisely because our basic rights continue to be denied in varying forms and intensities around the world,” Gatheru stated. “Time and time again, we've seen that enforced gender inequality reduces women's physical and economic mobility, voice, and opportunity, in many places making us more vulnerable to mounting environmental stressors.”
The current struggle to save our dying planet, she shared, is in many ways the culmination of a history of injustices ranging from colonialism to slavery to unchecked capitalism. “Climate change is our greatest existential threat, but it's important to remember that it's not our first. Humans have had to fight for their lives before and the future hasn't always been certain for all of us,” said Gatheru.
Yet, there is also opportunity in the climate fight, Gatheru said — an opportunity to change the world. Our current environmental strife, she stated, is “Mother Earth telling us that the systems that we've relied on for so long aren't working. She's telling us that we need to reprioritize and that we have a once-in-a-species opportunity to restructure our world to be better than the one that we were left with.”
The goal of climate activism, and all activism, Gatheru explained, extends beyond ending the current crisis at hand. “I think it's important that we remind ourselves that we don't want to return to precedented times,” said Gatheru. “Instead, we want unprecedented care for our people and planet.”
Building a better future
To help make that world-redefining change, Gatheru encouraged the students to “rehearse revolution” in their own lives. Drawing from her own personal journey, she offered advice on finding inspiration, drawing lessons from previous generations of activists, determining where you can do the most good, and embracing the community of other activists from all disciplines and walks of life.
“If you can't imagine a world that doesn't include everything that we’re fighting for — the people and places and causes that you already care about — then we have room for you in the climate movement.”
“When it comes to an issue with a scope as massive as the climate crisis, it's easy to feel disoriented by the weight of the problem,” she said. “It feels overwhelming, and it should, especially since everyday people like you and me aren't the ones that led us into the climate crisis in the first place. But the good thing is that the weight of the world isn't yours alone to hold. It's all of us collectively.”
The collective action of women leaders, Gatheru argued, has played and continues to play a crucial role in climate activism. She cited studies that have found that increasing women's representation in national parliaments leads to the adoption of more robust climate policies.
She encouraged each member of the audience to take an active role in the climate fight and asked them to picture what they valued most. “If you can't imagine a world that doesn't include everything that we’re fighting for — the people and places and causes that you already care about — then we have room for you in the climate movement,” she told them.
If we all work together, she argued, we can build a better world for those who came after us. “One of my biggest goals is to be able to, in my old age, see a young person and not think that they're going to have to be an activist,” said Gatheru. “This is not the world I want to leave behind.”
First year student Anna White ’26 left the talk eager to begin to make a difference. “I think her words resonated with every woman who has felt like their limitations were beyond them and that they couldn't fight,” she said. “It inspired me to fight with everything that I have in me because I’m not just fighting for myself, I’m fighting for the next generation.”