McKenna Dunbar Creates Green Jobs, Spreads Black Joy

Apr 21, 2023 2:15:00 PM


McKenna Dunbar started college at the University of Richmond intending to major in biochemistry. They planned to become an intellectual property attorney specializing in biotech. But on their very first class sign-up day, they woke up late and landed in an ethnobotany class.

The course upended Dunbar’s plans.

They became fascinated with the study of the shapes and structures of plants. That was their entree into environmental activism. 

Today, Dunbar, 21, is double majoring in international business and environmental studies, working as a building electrification lead with the Sierra Club, supporting residents of nearby Charles City County, Virginia,  in their fight for clean water, and helping young people explore the field of environmental justice through their own nonprofit, the Environmental Justice Initiative.  

How do they get it all done? “I am a part of the 4:45 club. So I get up at 4:45,” they said with a smile. 

The Ecological Justice Initiative counters an insidious form of environmental inequity: environmental classism. When marginalized young people are left unaware of environmental justice, they miss out on the jobs and opportunities of the future.

EJI taps students from middle school through graduate school as interns and fellows. The young people work on research projects like studying climate migration or measuring the impact of carbon offset programs. They create environmental artwork. And, they connect with an array of environmental nonprofits to find future opportunities. 

Fighting Environmental Degradation in Rural Virginia

When we spoke, Dunbar was getting ready for a mission to test water quality in Charles City County. 

In the early 1990s, the predominantly Black community became home to Virginia’s first megalandfill in the early 1990s. A key argument that persuaded the community to agree to the landfill was that it would provide tax revenue to upgrade outdated schools. 

After two decades, landfill revenue is no longer meeting the schools’ financial needs. Only about one-third of its current capacity has been used.

Yet the company, Waste Management, wants to expand the landfill, nearly doubling its size. Local citizens, many of whom are dependent on well water, are increasingly concerned about groundwater contamination from the thousand-acre landfill, and want the state to investigate. 

Some activists also argue that the landfill expansion might build over a historic site where Black American soldiers fought and died for their freedom in the Civil War–a literal burying of history. 

Environmental Justice Includes Black Joy 

The Sierra Club, where Dunbar works, is probably the environmental group most associated with nature and outdoor recreation, and Dunbar is an avid camper and hiker. 

In their opinion, one of the overlooked impacts of environmental racism is that it keeps Black people from being at home in nature. “If you come across another, you know, camper van, you're scared because they’ll likely make you feel like you don’t belong, due to the color of your skin.”   

But Dunbar doesn’t let those feelings keep them from doing what they love–being outdoors, day or night. And, they believe that joy, energy, and passion are some of the factors that make young people such effective environmental justice leaders. 

“I believe that youth are very creative and because of that, they bring up different and even more effective aspects of climate solutions than adults,” they said. 

Take Action: 

Dunbar asks readers to support the creation of a Youth Energy Equity Council (YEEC) within the federal Department of Energy’s Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations. 

“Establishing a grassroots forum composed of statewide Youth Energy Ambassadors  will foster youth-driven energy equity.”

The Aspen Institute is collecting emails of support for the idea to share with the White House. You can send your email here.

Photo by Anya Kamenetz.

Anya Kamenetz

Anya Kamenetz is an education journalist, author, speaker, and climate advocate formerly of NPR, who now serves as a senior advisor to the Aspen Institute's This Is Planet Ed initiative.

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