This story is an excerpt from Stone Soup for a Sustainable World: Life Changing Stories of Young Heroes.
From a very young age Illai Kenney understood the connection between sustainability and her identity as an African-American. Her mother, Felicia Davis, was a leading figure in the African-American sustainability community: she would often bring home magazines from work with articles about global warming and climate change. Illai was intrigued, and she was always curious to learn more—and find ways she could get involved to help remedy the situation. But at school, when she read her science textbooks, she didn’t find anything about these issues.
Illai was troubled. She knew that African-American communities like hers are the most negatively impacted by global warming and climate change. And as a young person, she was outraged that the planet, and her right to a healthy, sustainable future, was being ruined by decisions made by an older generation disconnected from her reality. “We are the ones who are going to be the most impacted by the decisions being made today,” she said. “But what recourse do we have? We can’t vote. We can’t lobby.” Thinking back on it now, years later, she says, “It was a daunting realization to come to.”
So, at age 12, Illai created the nonprofit organization, Georgia Kids Against Pollution (GKAP), to do something about it. She wanted to be a bridge between her friends and those who were engaged with more visible social issues, like gun violence and voting rights, than with environmental activism. Illai had grown up around community organizing, and had seen how protesting can help people get their voices heard. “I had a knack for finding common ground. And I did a lot of organizing,” she says. Still, she needed a little guidance. “So we went to the adults in our lives, who helped us flesh out our ideas, and prepare us for some of the challenges we would meet with GKAP.”
That was when she first found her voice. “The environment was affecting us, giving young kids in our neighborhood asthma. These things were affecting us, but we really didn’t understand,” she said. “Things like carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and mercury, were being put out into the air by power plants and major pollutants. They cause smog; they cause global warming; they cause acid rain, which in turn affects us. These power plans dump all the pollutants into the low-income areas.” And she added, “Somebody needs to let the people who live there know that yes, you do have a choice; you aren’t forced to live with this stuff. And you can make a difference if you want to.”
In 2003, when she was just 13 years old, Illai led her very first protest, held outside of the Southern Company, a gas and utility corporation based in Atlanta. “Our demonstration actually made it into the shareholders report,” she says proudly. “This gigantic corporation actually heard our concerns about alternative energy. At the time, I didn’t realize it was such an effective action.” She smiles, and adds, “I started small. And I still haven’t let up in the fight.”
That same year, Illai received the prestigious Brower Youth Award, which is given each year to six youth environmental leaders across the country. “Despite the struggles of organizing, that really gave me validation,” she says.
The following year, Illai joined her mother at the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa. She was eager to learn about how seasoned world leaders were being affected by environmental issues, and what they were doing to find solutions in other places around the world. “At the conference, I saw firsthand how communities of color face the same issues wherever we are on the planet; economic issues, social justice issues, environmental issues. Environmental issues are always the last ones to be talked about.”
The visibility from the Brower Youth Award led to Coco Cola’s Corporate Accountability International division reaching out to Illai when she was 16. They wanted her to partner with them on some advocacy work at an international shareholder’s meeting. She spoke on behalf of farmers in India who were having their local groundwater supplies devastated by the company; and she succeeded in getting them to shut down two of the most predatory plants in India, which were impoverishing local communities. “Getting involved with shareholder advocacy opened up a new world of ways to engage civically,” she says. “Today it’s a common tactic, but back then, there wasn’t much conversation around this sort of engagement.”
When it was time for college, Illai chose Howard University in Washington D.C. as the place she wanted to further her studies in sustainability. While she was there, she interned with the university’s Office of Sustainability. That’s when she discovered the gaping holes in support for sustainable development among Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), especially around tech, solar energy, and green education issues. “The expertise that a lot of universities take for granted—HBCUs just don’t have access to that,” she says.
So she set about changing that too, step by step, as she always had. She spearheaded the installation of solar panels on buildings at Howard; green energy retrofits around the campus; the formation of a full-scale recycling program; and an organic garden with a composting program.
Each of these projects was a huge step toward creating a more sustainable system at the university. However, each project was also a standalone project. This awareness challenged Illai to think about bigger questions concerning the nature of longer-term sustainable growth.
Years later, as the Director of Howard’s Office of Sustainability, she had another eureka moment. In partnership with her mother, she had cofounded the HBCU Green Fund, to create a capital infrastructure for long-term sustainable growth projects to generate money for HBCUs. Their strategy was to support projects that reduce energy and water usage on HBCU campuses – which creates financial savings, which are then reinvested into more sustainable research projects and infrastructure. Illai believes that this fund can lead the way in sustainability for the much larger network of traditional American universities. She also hopes that it will inspire a whole new generation of African-American students to appreciate the value of green living. In this spirit, the fund is creating partnerships with more privileged universities, and pooling resources with them, to make these changes visible at HBCUs on a national scale.
In all of her success, Illai is always quick to recognize the tremendous legacy she inherited from her mother and grandmother, who were among the most forward-thinking environmentalists, at a time when such thinking was in its infancy. “My grandmother was the greatest conservationist and communicator I have ever known,” she says. “She mastered so many of the strategies that are just now being considered today by environmental advocates, such as recycling, urban agriculture, living simply, investing wisely–and also, the power of proactive community engagement.”
Illai’s mother, Felicia Davis, continues to be a leading voice for advancing sustainability in the HBCU community and beyond. At the United Negro College Fund, she has created impactful projects like the Building Green Initiative, which helps black, Hispanic-serving, and tribal colleges move toward a more sustainable future. And in the early 2000s, she carried on her family’s legacy when she started a network of eco-cyber centers in rural Ghana, South Africa, and Senegal. She has also used technology to create powerful cultural exchanges and environmental stewardship programs, through projects like beach and village cleanups.
This dynamic mother and daughter duo are frequent spokespersons, representing communities of color at predominantly white conferences like Project Drawdown. They then host other Black youth leaders to join them. “While there’s a legacy that runs down from my grandmother, to my mother, to me, that sense of stewardship is not for my family, or my community alone. It should extend out globally in our actions, far beyond ourselves and our own communities.”
For youth who want to pursue a path in sustainability, Illai has some practical advice. “What I tend to tell young people is that every day, we all make choices. And everything about the worlds we create is simply a reflection of the choices we make.”
Responsible choices create responsible individuals – and ultimately, this creates responsible communities. Illai wants young people to understand how acts of goodwill can reach far beyond wherever you started.
In her eyes, it’s important to be informed about what you want to pursue as a youth, because knowledge leads to better choices, and better choices lead to empowerment. By educating yourself as much as possible, you are also creating a person that is as resilient as possible. This is important, especially for communities of color, especially in a time when we are constantly surrounded by overwhelming amounts of conflicting information.
In these trying times, we need more youth and adult leaders to bring people of all races, creeds, and backgrounds together. Illai, ever the practical leader, says that she could give us a long story, or a big lesson, to try to get the legacy of sustainability that her family has embodied across to others.
But to put it quite simply, for those of us who want to make the world a better place, she says, “We know better. It’s time to do better.”
As you enter positions of trust and power, dream a little before you think.
Call to Action: Support Illai’s work to create an equitable, environmental infrastructure, with green endowments for Historically Black Colleges and Universities. https://hbcugreenfund.org/