Updated: Nov 8, 2022
#RisingLeaders: This Social Justice and Environmental Advocate is Fighting for Equitable Climate Solutions and Empowering Communities on the Frontline
This author was originally authored by Louise Pentland, and published by LinkedIn Pulse.
Understanding the intersection of social inequality and environmental policy is critical to developing equitable solutions that address the climate crisis we currently face. Ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) Summit kicking off this weekend and reflecting on the important work social and climate justice advocates are advancing, I’m honored to highlight William Barber III, founder and president for The Rural Beacon Initiative, LLC, who is speaking up for underserved communities. Through his advocacy work, William is committed to connecting policymakers, grassroot leaders, faith leaders, and corporations to ensure we are collaborating on climate solutions that are equitable for all. I continue to be inspired by William’s tireless work and am excited to recognize the incredible progress he is making to help protect our environment and empower our Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) communities on the frontlines of this climate crisis. Meet William Barber III, founder and president for The Rural Beacon Initiative, LLC.
In your work, you’re advancing critical environmental policy by leading environmental advocacy and advancing clean energy for modest income communities and communities of color. What has been one of the most important lessons you’ve learned from this work? Has this influenced your career in other ways? If so, how?
In this work, I’ve come to learn that the scale of the environmental crisis we are working to solve is one that no individual sector of society can adequately address alone. When we look at the limited time we have to act, and the immense magnitude of resources we must deploy to seed global climate solutions, it’s readily apparent that no individual sector – whether government, academia, corporation, or community advocacy – can address this alone. In some ways this can seem daunting, but I take it as an inspiration. It creates space for us to understand the silos of communication between many of our social sectors, and forces us to answer the question on how we break those down.
When evaluating this climate crisis, I often think of the indigenous principle of Seven Generation – which tells us that the decisions we make today must result in a sustainable world not just for our children, but for descendants of our seventh generation. I think of the prophetic call of the “urgency of now” that Dr. King spoke of in 1963 as the movement challenged the nation to wrestle with the triple ills of racism, militarism, and poverty. I also think of the concepts of intersectionality, coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in the 1980s, and of fusion politics, coined by my father around 2010, which help us understand the social complexity of how social issues play along lines of identity and how we must build our movements and solutions accordingly. And I think of existing environmental justice precedents like the 17 principles of Environmental Justice and the Just and Equitable National Climate Platform. All of this influences my lens on what our solutions must look like.
Our solutions must be inter-issue, and they must understand that our climate—the core issue—serves as a multiplier on existing social inequities. We must understand these solutions as intergenerational ones that build not only on the movement and momentum of the past, but also serve as a foundation for new generations of activists and leaders to continue where we leave off. And finally, our solutions must be equitable and just, centering the voices and expertise of those most impacted in this moment.
What advice would you give to young individuals that are passionate about environmental and climate justice, affordable clean energy, and addressing the impacts of climate change for frontline communities?
I would encourage them to recognize that there is an enormous variety and wealth of expertise in frontline communities that must be tapped into during this urgent moment of solving our environmental crisis. We must dispel the narrative of victimhood for communities and instead see them as crucibles of sustainability, survival, and solution for what an equitable transition looks like.
While frontline and BIPOC communities have systemically experienced (and continue to experience) some of the worst environmental degradation in our society, we must acknowledge that this is a function of what our flawed systems have imposed on them through unjust policy – not a function of who they are or a lack of vision. It is imperative that we see these communities not as passive recipients of ambivalent solutions, but as co-creators that can help build a future for us all.
Additionally, I would encourage young leaders to ensure that in our climate solutions, we think holistically about how to address some of the egregious legacies of poverty, racial disparity, and gender inequity as well. As important as the “how” in addressing the climate crisis is the “who.” We must consider who is being represented in workforce development, in new ownership opportunities, and in new supply chains. If we hypothetically solved the climate crisis tomorrow, but fail to disrupt the existing inequities that contributed to us getting here in the first place, we’ve missed the point. William J. Barber III joins a coalition of local activists to protect North Carolina waterways and protest construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (2019)
What are you most passionate about? Is there a memory or experience that fuels your passion?
I am most passionate about self-determination for communities—specifically, how investments in clean energy can result in increased self-determination for communities on the frontlines of environmental impact. As a native of eastern North Carolina, I grew up witnessing the strength, resilience, and dignity that manifested itself in rural communities. I grew up hearing stories of legacy and innovation that were shared amongst families that had often lived and worked on land in areas for generations, often in the face of incredible societal challenge. I took inspiration from these stories.
My activism was also fueled as I saw the disruption that often happened at the hand of the extractive and fossil fuel industry. My most pertinent memory is that of participating in the North Carolina Poverty Tour in 2012 and visiting Navassa, North Carolina. It’s a small town in eastern North Carolina that was once a vibrant community with over 600 acres of land, but was then poisoned by a wood-processing facility and led largely to the community falling into disrepair. The community is still listed as a superfund site by the Environmental Protective Agency (EPA). The experience of visiting that community shaped my activism and caused me to want to do all I could to help hold industry players accountable for the disruption, while seeding communities with the economic power to be able to resist those types of encroachments.
How do you drive impact and why is it important to you? What opportunities and challenges are you facing in pursuit of that goal?
I seek to drive impact by strategically leveraging the multiple expertise and experiences I am privileged to access on the climate issue. From my education, I have a Bachelor of Science in environmental physics, a law degree with a focus in environmental law and policy, and nearly a decade of experience organizing grassroots movements. This background has allowed me to be privy to numerous, and very distinct, conversations – everything from policy tables where legislation is being created to community rallies where advocates are expressing demands. I try my best to act as a convener and amplifier.
In a convener role, I work to connect individuals who otherwise might not know each other, maybe connecting a community advocate with a policymaker to have a conversation on how to best operationalize concepts around equity or conduct community outreach. In an amplifier role, I work to amplify voices of individuals that are often shut out of these conversations, and support their priorities on community impact. I firmly believe every solution starts with a conversation. Resurrecting that, in an age where it seems the art of conversation is lost, is a challenge.
It is also a challenge being a young, Black, and Indigenous leader in a space that has traditionally lacked visibility of people of color. Mentors in this work are sometimes few and far between – or so inundated with requests on their time that they may not be as available as they like. Friends and allies, though well-meaning, sometimes have a tendency to silo the expertise of BIPOC leaders for program outreach, or to fill a quota on a panel, not recognizing them as fully-fledged scholars and strategists. This, in addition to the stress of environmental activism, is a very real stressor. It is why I believe it’s critical to replenish oneself so that we can engage in this work in the long-haul.
I do believe the opportunities are in front of us, and I’ve seen conversations lead to incredible work and relationships. I’ve seen environmental non-profits begin to hold themselves accountable to Diversity, Equity, and Justice through organizational restructures and deployment of environmental and climate justice programs. I’ve seen community groups at the state and local level, who – despite often being under-resourced and understaffed – are now seeing recognition and investment into their organizations at levels of scale. William J. Barber III and his father Bishop William J. Barber II
How have allies or mentors helped you throughout your career journey?
Relationships are at the heart of any successful movement. A leader is not just an individual, but the sum of those who’ve poured into them. Mentors, though sometimes few and far between, have been an invaluable part of my experience and leadership. I’ve had the opportunity and privilege to be exposed to a number of key mentor relationships in my work. The examples of both my father, Bishop William J. Barber II, and my mother, Rebecca McLean Barber, have ingrained in me a commitment to community service, social activism, and personal integrity. They’re examples that have often grounded me in my own journey. Additionally, I believe the actions of former Vice President Al Gore, Chairman of The Climate Reality Project, have been a shining example of what it looks like to dedicate oneself to a cause, and taking up the responsibility of being effective in organizing and advocacy often at deep personal cost.
Mentors in the climate justice space like Nathaniel Smith and Chandra Farley, at the Partnership for Southern Equity; David Neal at Southern Environmental Law Center; and Catherine Coleman-Flowers are all mentors who have contributed to my leadership development and theory of change over the years and helped me hone my lens of activism. Some of my mentors inspire from afar, including Professor Muhammad Yunus of Grameen Bank whom I had the opportunity to briefly meet, but who has always been a model of work I’ve closely followed. It is also important to have allies. People like the team at the Coalition for Green Capital, the Croatan Institute in Durham, North Carolina and others – there are too many to name them all – have help make my work possible.
What is something that you’ve achieved in your life or career that you’re most proud of?
There are two experiences that are tied as my proudest achievements. The first is contributing to the coalition grassroots advocacy that resulted in the cancellation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) in 2020. I was exposed to the ACP during my second year of law school. As I learned more about the project, it was a personal hope of mine to be a part of the efforts to cancel the unnecessary project and work with regional advocates to demand investment in clean energy. Low and behold, I was able to have that experience, working with community allies to mobilize and eventually win on the issue. A part of this included working with the Climate Reality Project and Poor People’s Campaign to organize the largest public gathering in Union Hill, Virginia – a small freedmen community that was targeted by the ACP’s route.
The second is contributing to Atlanta Climate Reality Leadership Corps Training in 2018. This was a monumental lift, and made possible only by the efforts of the full team. It was especially impactful for me, as I was able to spearhead a partnership between Climate Reality Project and the Poor People’s Campaign – of which my father was serving as the national co-chair. This partnership resulted in over 2,000 individuals from across the Southeast coming together for a three-day training on the climate crisis and fusion politics in movement building. Other benchmarks of success included having over 300 community leaders from directly impacted communities, the highest training attendance of people of color to-date, and the first Interfaith Mass Meeting on the climate crisis, where we brought together leaders from different faith sects to talk about the moral compulsion of climate activism. William J. Barber III speaks at a Moral Monday protest in Raleigh, North Carolina with the North Carolina Poor People's Campaign
What value do you believe is most important for a leader to embody, especially in today’s world? I try not to think in singularities. In terms of values, there are many different values a leader may embody. What is important is for every leader to recognize they must establish values and find a code that they abide by.
For me, I think it is important that a leader has the courage to speak out, sometimes alone, for what they know to be right. I think courage is also important when offering a different way of thinking in a very tumultuous time. It is often too easy to create a platform dictating everything that is wrong in the world. It is harder to develop solutions. I salute and encourage those of us who feel the pull to not just stop at articulating that there is a problem but choose to do the hard, and sometimes imperfect, work of developing solutions.
I also think it’s important that a leader understands that you must find your team. Without a team, a leader can be dangerously isolated to themselves, their own ego, and their own limitations. A leader must be around other leaders to be effective.
Can you share something that you learned from someone else or through your experience that remains with you today?
I am constantly learning from people around me. I am blessed to have a network that consistently exposes me to diverse people on a regular basis. With every conversation that I’ve had, I’ve learned that there is always something you can learn from every person you talk to.
Whether you end up working directly with that person, whether you agree or disagree, or whether they intended to teach you is non-consequential. The reality is that you can learn something, for your benefit, from every person you interact with. It is just an exercise in listening and reflecting to understand what lesson they were there to teach.
Follow #RisingLeaders to stay up to date on the series, and share with me who a rising leader in your life is – it can be someone you know personally or someone you haven’t met, but are inspired by.