Prove your humanity

NaTisha Washington says her journey into environmental advocacy was a long one.

“But I’m so happy that I found it,” she said.

LISTEN to NaTisha Washington in her own words

It was growing up in Wilkinsburg, just outside of Pittsburgh, that started her interest in the outdoors.

“We had vacant properties, we had vacant homes, our environment was not the best to look at or to live in, and there wasn’t much for us to do as kids outside,” she said. “So I really was like, I want to change this in the future. I was always into the outdoors and into plants.”

That took her into landscaping and a degree from Penn State. When she met Penn State alumni, they showed her how she could use her knowledge to help the community in other ways. “And that kind of like jump-started all the work that I do now,” she said. 

Washington is an environmental justice organizer for One PA, a community advocacy organization focused on helping community residents advocate for policy change around environmental, educational, housing and political issues. 

“My role as an environmental justice organizer is focusing on trying to help pass a lot of policies to change the effects of environmental harms like air pollution, lead in the water, lead in soil, food access among a multitude of environmental issues that impact Black and brown communities, as well as low-income communities,” she said.

NaTisha Washington volunteers

NaTisha Washington, seated, with community garden volunteers with One PA. Photo courtesy of NaTisha Washington

She said she wants to make sure that these community voices are heard by leaders and decision-makers, especially politicians. Her biggest campaign is working with people in the Mon Valley area to advocate for cleaner air. She is hoping to see change at the U.S. Steel Clairton Coke Works, one of the worst offenders for air pollution in the region.

Environmental justice for me is ensuring that everybody — everybody — no matter what their race, no matter what their sex, have a healthy environment that they can live, eat and sleep in,” she said.

Washington is hopeful for the next generation when it comes to the environmental justice movement. She has seen more youth, especially elementary school students getting involved and understanding the issues. 

“Ultimately, all the things that we’re doing are going to impact the future generation. And I’m happy that they’re hands-on with it. 

Washington points out that there are a lot of barriers to being a Black person in Pittsburgh, especially a Black woman, and believes there should be more representation of Black people and people of color in environmental organizations. 

“Even though there’s this environmental justice movement, there are a lot of environmental organizations that are mostly white-based and mostly male. We don’t see a lot of our faces at these bigger tables that make the bigger decisions,” she said.

So, have conversations, build community, educate yourself and don’t be scared.

She would also like to see more environmental groups in Pittsburgh working in collaboration with Black and brown nonprofits which are doing similar work. “Sharing in those resources for us who cannot get those resources just because we are in the communities that we are in, I think would be a big help and big support,” she said. 

Washington also wants to get the conversation going between white and Black communities in Pittsburgh. 

“People who are in like whiter and more upper-class communities in Pittsburgh, they’re so isolated in a bubble that they don’t really see what’s going on and they don’t really have to,” she said. “At least starting the conversation, at least going to the community, at least listening to what’s going on out there that people can take to really be a part of this movement.”

She urges movements and those within them to understand that many of the people are coming from a community of privilege and do not often interact with these ideas which leads to ignorant and sometimes harmful speech. 

“I think just correcting that and saying, you know, yes, we can talk and have a conversation, but do know that saying this is not the best way to go,” she said. “If we help educate people how to talk to us, how to approach us, how to be a part of this movement, I think that we will have better allies.”

Washington recognizes that a lot of people don’t know where to begin. 

“So, have conversations, build community, educate yourself and don’t be scared.”

Production assistance by Kara Holsopple.