Kristy Drutman on Activism 101: Age is Just a Number
Kristy Drutman, a recent graduate of the University of California, Berkeley who is now the California Digital Campaigner for 350.org, talks about her work as an environmental activist over the past 5 years, her passion for environmental storytelling and organizing, how activists can work together across differences of age, gender and race, and where she sees herself in 5 years.
Tune in to hear about:
- Kristy’s own podcast, called Brown Girl Green, what she hopes to accomplish with it and how she’d like to grow it in the future.
- The role social media can play in activism.
- How Kristy takes care of herself while she’s fighting so hard to influence positive change out in the world.
- The devastating effects of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and why Kristy is especially concerned about this issue (an issue we’ve talked about before on Rootstock Radio!).
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m excited because we’re at the Bioneers Conference in San Rafael and we get to interview so many amazing people. And right now we’re going to be interviewing Kristy Drutman, who describes herself as a “Brown Girl Green,” which is kind of fun. And we’ll find that out, soon, what that means. And also, she is an environmental media host, activist, and social media strategist. Kristy, welcome.
KRISTY DRUTMAN: Thank you so much. I’m excited to be here.
TM: It’s really lovely to be talking with you. And also because we have something in common, you’re a Filipina and so am I. We probably both like rice and adobo and pancit.
TM: We also, I see, have other things in common, like you are a hardcore activist. And did I hear that you work for 350.org?
KD: Yes, I do.
TM: Tell us about that.
KD: So, I just graduated from UC–Berkley in December 2017. And I decided I wanted my first full-time job to delve deep into full-time activism. And I’ve just always been passionate about social media and the role that it can play in environmental advocacy. And so when I found my current position as a California digital campaigner with 350.org it seemed like a perfect fit.
My first job out of college would literally be tasking me with the job of planning out the social media strategy for the Rise for Climate, Jobs & Justice march, which brought around 40,000 people to the streets of San Francisco on September 8 this year. And as a first job out of college I was like, “You’re throwing me in the deep end, but I’m gonna take it!” And that’s pretty much been my role, is designing the social media strategy for the organization and the campaigns that we support and are passionate about.
TM: That is so exciting. And I just have to ask you, what do you think happened, in your growing up, that made you want to be an activist and be passionate about trying to change the world?
KD: So I actually grew up in one of the smallest red squares in Southern California, in a conservative suburb outside of Los Angeles. And [the] majority of the people that lived there were Republican, and just overall not the values I experienced when I went to UC–Berkley for university.
So growing up, I didn’t have parents who were very activist-driven. But I did grow up in a mixed-race household, so I think it was a little liberal to begin with. But I think, growing up, my parents raised me to have a very open mind and have a good heart to want to help people. And they didn’t really exactly give me an instruction book on what that would look like. They didn’t bring me to any protests or marches or even, really, out to nature that much. I think what really got to me was just this feeling of wanting to help people that didn’t have the same kind of resources and opportunities that I had growing up.
And as I started to delve further into that, the biggest revelation was my senior year of high school when I took AP Environmental Science. And there was just this tiny little section on one page of my textbook that talked about environmental justice. And it explained that communities in Detroit—that was the example in the textbook—were experiencing pollution of their water and air. And basically, in the textbook it said, “Oh, when we’re considering the pollution that occurs in disadvantaged communities, we have to consider what are the laws and policies that made that possible.”
And that kind of sparked my interest by learning about that once I went to university. And then I just kind of realized that once I got into activism, these older folks who saw me as their mentee—that were seniors when I was a freshman—they were like, “Oh, she’s, like, this fresh new face on the scene. She’s passionate, she wants to get behind a cause.”
And so I attended my first Power Shift youth conference in 2013 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And I met these amazing older folks who pulled me in and pretty much taught me what grassroots activism looked like in California. So I joined the California Student Sustainability Coalition right away, and from there got instantly involved with anti-fracking efforts across the state of California.
And that’s kind of how it all began. It was just like, I saw an issue that a lot of people around the world are facing; I wanted to do something about it; I found a network of supporters who were wanting me to embrace that passion, and I just kind of went for it.
TM: Well, I couldn’t be more thrilled to be hearing this story, because it’s just lovely, though, to feel that kind of energy of wanting to make a difference. And so, thank you. I’m not sure what your parents did and what happened to you. I can see that you’ve gone through an evolution, though, and you were exposed to something. Do you every worry that, “Gee, I’m just young now and I’m seeing things that I don’t really like, and I don’t know that I’ll be able to sustain that”?
KD: That’s a tough question. I think about that every day. But I would say that the way I’ve addressed it is by having fun—
TM: All right!
KD: —and making friends who also know how to not take themselves too seriously in this work. Who have taught me to know that I’m a whole person. And I had to really learn that the hard way because, as I mentioned before, I got into anti-fracking efforts my freshman year. I was speaking in front of thousands of people. I was drinking the juice—I was into it! And by the time I was a sophomore in college, all of a sudden, I was skipping my classes to go to protests and demonstrations. I wasn’t doing well in my sophomore year of college, and I had to take a step back because I was so burnt out.
And I tried to talk to some of my friends who were in these environmental groups like me, and they were like, “Oh, that’s just kind of a part of it. You have to burn out, that’s part of being an activist. You have to give it your all—no guts, no glory!” And that just totally rubbed me the wrong way, because I was like, “You’re not really my friends, I don’t really trust you if you’re telling me you don’t really care about my well-being.”
So it made me step back and reevaluate how I viewed activism. And I actually stepped away from it for an entire year to address, What part can I contribute to the movement that feels good to me? Because I was like, oh, I’m just blindly following this movement, but I don’t really see myself in this. I don’t see where my skill set is. I feel like I’m just a bunch of words and no bite.”
And when I went through that introspective period of my life, I started actually learning how fun it could be to be an activist using social media. And I learned that through my friends, because we started just Snapchatting and using Instagram to talk about the issues that really pissed us off. We would take these selfie videos, like: “You know, I just heard about this issue in the news that there’s a bunch of climate change deniers denying that the world is even round.” And we would just do these rants. And I’d get all these people direct-messaging me like, “Yeah, that pisses me off too!”
And it was just kind of funny because it was just this outlet of just self-expression where I felt like I was being listened [to] and really seen. And I started making more friends who were like, “No, that’s really cool that you’re using social media in a way that other people aren’t. Like, you’re actually talking about social issues. You’re not just posting pictures of your food, or your cute YOU’RE YOUR Outfit of the Day. You’re like, #activist #climatejustice. What’s that about?”
And it was just kind of cool because I was like, wait, there’s a gap. I started identifying the gap and the gap made me curious. Why aren’t more people talking about climate change around my age in a way that’s solutions oriented? Or positive? Or funny? Or interesting and not just, “Oh, we’re screwed”? And that started to intrigue me. And I think that is what has made me sustain this work, is it’s starting to peel back more layers where I’m starting to embrace more aspects of myself that I didn’t know were possible as a creative.
TM: You know, that’s so exciting to hear your introspection on this. And I think, as someone who’s been a 40-year activist, you’ll do a lot of introspection on and off, but that’s okay, that’s good. And it is okay to sort of have low moments. But to do it long-term, you do need to have fun and be creative, and also say, “Wow, I may beat my head against a wall for a long time, but I know this is the right thing, so I’m going to do it anyway.”
I have to ask you this—I’ve asked quite a few young people this: Do you know who Emma Goldman is?
KD: I’ve heard of the Emma Goldman prize.
TM: She was a hardcore feminist and anarchist at the turn of the century, and she was outrageous. If you would hear her quotes you’d think that she was a twenty-first-century woman. But one thing she said—and she was very revolutionary, considered herself an anarchist and revolutionist—she said, “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution.” I always remember that because basically she’s saying, “I want to live my life to the fullest.” And that means dancing and celebrating. And I think that a lot of celebration is needed when you work at this kind of work. This is hard sometimes. You don’t always have a lot of wins.
Here at Bioneers this weekend there’s 500 youth. And so were you recruited to come?
KD: Well, I was actually a workshop presenter this weekend.
TM: Oh, wonderful!
KD: So I got invited to be a speaker, but I was also a youth scholar—I was right at the cutoff age 23. So I’m at my last strand of being a youth, I guess, according to Bioneers. But I was actually recruited through my work at 350. So, because I planned that march that I just mentioned, the Rise for Climate, Jobs & Justice March, I had a friend who—David Shaw, shout him out—from UC–Santa Cruz permaculture who knew that I was really passionate about environmental organizing, particularly about intergenerational organizing. And he was like, “Oh, you need to come to this year’s Bioneers and be a presenter.”
So I was able to share my perspective as a young person at the World Café here at Bioneers about why I started my show, Brown Girl Green, and that my vision is that I can start bridging the gap between these ideas of what it means to be an environmentalist between, regardless of your race, your gender, your age. What does that look like, how can we start exploring that, and what are the gaps and what are the opportunities for collaboration?
And I think this intergenerational organizing conversation was really fascinating because we just got to go in depth on why there’s these weird stereotypes and gaps between “olders” and “youngers”—that’s the terms we were using, which I loved. And—
TM: I must be one of the olders.
KD: The olders! And I’m the younger. And it was just such an amazing conversation to have people step back and really evaluate for themselves what that means to them. So I was recruited as a presenter, but also as a youth.
TM: Well, what do you think, now that you’ve thrown that on the table? I’m an older, you’re a younger, here we are having this conversation, and we obviously have some things in common. I’m like you, I’m an activist. What are the things that you think are differences? And do you sometimes feel kind of restrained or anything, working with older people?
KD: I think in my experience it’s been frustrating, especially as I’ve created my show, Brown Girl Green, [there] has been this frustration where I’ve brought it to some older folks who I have viewed as mentors and have told them what my vision and idea for it is, and they’re like, “Oh, that’s cute!” Or they’ll just say some remark like, “Oh, well, a podcast is a lot of work.” They’re just kind of discouraging, like, “Oh, you need to be realistic. How are you going to balance that with a full-time job? How are you going to make that happen?”
And I think they’re doing it out of care, but it’s also this feeling of, like, well why can’t just you frame it like, “Okay, this girl needs help. I’m going to just try to help her”? And why can’t you just view me as like a friend rather than just someone you need to give advice to? And I find that frustrating sometimes when I work with older folks who think that they have to impart some great wisdom on me. Like, maybe I just want you to have a conversation and realize that I also can be smart and have my own things I have to say about certain issues too. Because that creates a dynamic where I don’t feel confident to speak my truth either.
But at the same time, I think sometimes young people also think that older people automatically are judging them and looking down on them, and so they don’t want to engage in those conversations because they think that older people are just set in their ways and aren’t going to think that we have anything to bring to the table either, other than being these token young people in the room. And I think there’s that disconnect there where we have to realize there’s wisdom from both sides, and that we need to let go of these controls over labels that we have for people sometimes, in order to really have a deep connection. And be little more vulnerable beyond just these coffee chats and these really formalized “How do younger and older people interact together?” Like, why don’t you just interact and get to know each other as people? And I think that’s sometimes missing a lot.
TM: If you’re just tuning in, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. And I’m having a very lovely conversation with Kristy Drutman. She is an environmental media host, activist, and social media strategist. And we’re having a lot of fun talking cross-generational here. And thank you for saying what you did about, you know, can’t we just have a conversation?
I want to talk about fracking, and I’d love for you to talk to our listeners about what about fracking concerns you. And what kind of wisdom can you bring to us?
KD: So, when I was a youth anti-fracking activist—I mean, I’m still a youth anti-fracking activist, but when I was “in” it, and I was chanting “Frack is Wack”—I think that during that period of time I was very much getting to learn about the stories of frontline communities. And I actually went home to Southern California, in Los Angeles, to try to see where the fracking wells were in the city of L.A.
And I think it was just wild. My best friend and I, I’ll never forget, we like drove up in the hills of Los Angeles to this neighborhood, which I’m totally blanking on right now, but it’s a frontline community that’s been impacted by proposed drilling wells for a long time in Los Angeles. And basically, I’ll never forget, you just saw those rigs that move up and down, like those black monstrosities. And it was just this scary feeling of being like, wow, there’s a school right near by here, there’s a neighborhood right near by here. Why is this allowed?
And I think the scariest thing for me about fracking is just that people aren’t talking about it as much as they were a couple years ago when it seemed politically salient under the Obama administration, especially. I think that Californians Against Fracking kind of merged into Brown’s Last Chance, like that coalition that’s been doing a lot of amazing work to call out Jerry Brown and just hold him accountable as a climate champion. And I think they’re doing amazing work by holding him accountable. But I think it’s scary that people have just, in some ways, in the mainstream media, stopped talking about after Gasland and all of that stuff.
And I think the lack of awareness about those issues means those fights are going to be that much harder for these communities as natural gas is continuously being proposed—by both sides, not just Republicans, but Democrats on the left—that natural gas is this bridge fuel that’s going to get us to renewable energy. And I think that that’s the wrong kind of discourse to have. And I think it’s really dangerous and seductive rhetoric that people get caught within. And I think that’s going to make fracking continue for a while during this century.
TM: I’m fascinated with—or actually I think fascinated is the wrong word. I’m disturbed that they’re fracking in Southern California where earthquakes are common. So isn’t that dangerous? I don’t know a whole lot about the relationship between fracking and earthquakes, but I wondered if maybe you knew something?
KD: Yeah, well, in the Midwest it’s been reported in many places where they will frack the ground, they’ll pump it with a bunch of water and chemicals, and the pressure keeps building, building, building, and it’ll actually be this just like manmade earthquake that just happens because there’s too much pressure in the ground, to where the ground just starts shaking. Because it’s usually in areas where the soil and the land is already kind of unstable. But it’s, like, the perfect spot where you can extract natural gas.
And that’s been happening in Texas, it’s been happening in the Midwest. I’m not sure if it’s happened in Pittsburgh, but there’s been a lot of fracking that’s happened in Pittsburgh and in the Northeast. But yeah, it’s very concerning. I’m not exactly sure the scale of fracking right now in Los Angeles. There’s plenty of it in central California. But I think in terms of how we are on a fault line in Southern California and Northern California, I think it’s just something that we all should be concerned about.
And even more so, the possibility of these chemicals getting into our food in central California, and a bunch of the pollutants and the fracked water waste that’s going into crops in central California. And these are things that just, people aren’t talking about at the rate that they need to. And there’s frontline communities that are fighting back as much as they can.
TM: And the water issues too. Doesn’t fracking use a lot of water?
KD: It uses a lot of water.
TM: In a place that doesn’t have water.
KD: Yes. And that was one of our biggest points with Californians Against Fracking was that while we were in a drought, it was a really politically powerful moment to be like, “Well, why are people having to buy imported water bottles, but you’re putting all this water into extractive oil and gas [unclear]?”
TM: It has to be freshwater, doesn’t it? It can’t be salt water?
KD: They have invented technology now to be using salt water and recycled water, and that’s like their “ecofriendly” evolution of the practice. But all I know for sure is that the chemicals that have been shown to be pumped in, like a lot of these wells to frack oil and gas, have been known carcinogens. And I think that that alone—
TM: I think you’re right about that, they’re very dangerous actually.
KD: Yeah, that alone, people should do more research on and should be more concerned about, for sure.
TM: You know, your article talks about fracking close to where people live. And in your article, someone talks about—is it non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma?
KD: Yeah, there is it a lot of reported cases of local communities that have said that due to local fracking and the leaking of toxic chemicals into their water supply, that they’ve seen these changes in their community, of babies getting sick, of communities getting different sorts of diseases. And of course, people write it off and say, “Oh, well, you can’t just connect that to fracking.”
TM: “It could be anything.”
KD: “It could be anything!” It could be any form of downstream pollution. But these communities have pretty much said, “Well, this didn’t exist until this company came in and started drilling.”
TM: Well, you know, when you talk about how, what is the bridge between the oil, why can’t some of the alternative energy be a bridge? And you’re now working with 350.org. Is that a discussion that’s… I mean, the bridge can be solar panels, solar farms. Especially here—the sun’s amazing.
KD: Definitely. Well, we push for 100 percent renewable energy. We believe that there needs to be a transition to transition away from fossil fuels to 100 percent renewable energy future. And I think that that’s a core part of what we represent and what we believe is going to be a key part of solving the climate crisis. And I think we have the technology available. It’s a matter of shifting the political will to do so.
TM: And that’s a pretty hard fight. What do you think, is that something you’re going to take on? Fighting the political [unclear—will?]?
KD: I think I want to be friends with the people that are doing that. I think that for me, personally, I of course love environmental policy and I am a little bit of a policy wonk, but I think, for me right now at least, I see myself as a supporter of the policy wonks through a media platform. Again, I feel like that’s just where I see my role in the movement as.
TM: So, you know, this might drive you crazy about the older generation, because they love to ask the younger generation questions like this. Let me first just ask, what is your degree?
KD: I got a degree in urban studies and society and environment.
TM: And so right away, you knew that you wanted to do something that would make a difference. Have you thought about five or ten years from now and what you think you want to do?
TM: And if you haven’t, that’s perfectly fine! I didn’t when I was your age!
KD: Well, I did make a five-year plan just for fun with my creative partner, Jorge—give him a shout out—for Brown Girl Green, because I see Brown Girl Green as a core part of my five-year plan. And for me, one of my dreams in life is to kind of be like the Jon Stewart of climate change advocacy. So I want to create a show that’s entertaining and powerful but teaches people about climate change news in a way that is more solutions oriented, but also bringing in the stories and voices of people who I just think are really cool and doing cool work, and to get people into that.
And I don’t think I need to wait five years from now, but I need to start creating the community of supporters and people who can support that vision. But ideally, in the next five years, I would love to have my own online platform where I’m able to both create content along with, not just me but other young people who are into, and older folks—I’m not going to exclude older folks.
TM: I was going to say, my, you sound like an ageist!
KD: Yes! No, older, younger folks, people of all generations. But people who are passionate about content creation and coming up with creative storytelling about what kind of moves and actions are being done to address the climate crisis. Because as we heard in the recent IPCC report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, we have 12 years. We have 12 years until 1.5 degrees Celsius. To those of you who don’t know what that means: until island nations are sinking, natural disasters are out of control, diseases run rampant. It’s a scary time.
So when I think of 12 years, I’m like, alright, well, within 5 years I’ve got to have a platform established. And I have to find people who are down to partner with me to make that happen—it’s not just going to be me. By then I think it’ll be a collaborative platform of a lot of different creators and filmmakers and creatives that are creating both art and content, but also like community forums where people can chat and connect with each other. So I don’t want to say it’s like a Facebook for environmentalists, but kind of this idea of a place where people can go to and it’s like a centralized location where people can share stories and discuss with each other about the stuff that they’re doing in their community. And I just see myself in five years, at least, if not having that platform established, having created a pretty solid foundation for that with people I meet along the way.
TM: Kristy, how do our listeners plug into your media? Do you have a web address?
KD: Yes, so you can find me at www.KristyDrutman.com. Or the better way to honestly find me is on social media, and my Instagram and Twitter is @BrownGirl_Green.
TM: And it’s Drutman, D-r-u-t-m-a-n, Kristy with a K, K-r-i-s-t-y. Thank you so much, Kristy, it’s just been a joy to talk with you. And for all the work you’re doing. keep on keeping on. It’s been a real, real pleasure.
KD: Thank you so much.
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