An Interview with Poet and Environmental Educator Ashia Ajani

Graphic by Robert Samec and Kapp Singer

Ashia Ajani, YSE ’21, TD ’19, is a poet and environmental educator whose work centers queer and Black stories. Their writing has been published in them, Frontier Poetry, and the Hopper Magazine.

Nyeda Regina Stewart: Thank you so much for being willing to do this. I’ve been thinking a lot about how capitalism, imperialism, and colonialism has affected the way that Indigenous and African Americans interact with the land. And the sad thing is that these exact things are also exacerbating climate change and affecting these same groups of people. What do you think about this political dilemma and how do you view your work in relation to this?

Ashia Ajani: I’m originally from Denver, Colorado which is a place that has been going through really rapid and really violent urban renewal. Gentrification. Seeing that and also seeing the intersections of gun violence, the intersection of police violence, and the way that it almost encourages Black people, specifically, to stay indoors and to not have access to these parts of the city, of the landscape that originally we were stewards of is really disheartening. So, a lot of my work is kind of challenging that and re-centering Blackness in the natural landscape. And to really interrogate what it means for Black people to interact with land and nature, but also interact with a built environment that is oftentimes unfriendly and unwilling to engage with its own history of exclusion.

Part of my work, at least part of my writing, is just to complicate that narrative to recognize that America would not be what it is without the labor force that was Indigenous and Black people. Even if you think about where we’re at right now, Yale was built by slaves. It’s such a violent imposition on New Haven. It’s like these loopholes of dismissing the necessity of Blackness to a place. New Haven would not be what it is without Puerto Rican and without Black people. 

I see, in some ways, my work as a self-preservation of history, but also a re-centering and an interrogation of the violence that is embedded in our geographies and what it might take to undo some of those violences.

NS: I think that’s really powerful — the idea of re-centering Black people being the work, if that makes sense. We do live in this dilemma where we have basically built this land, but also we are being threatened by the land because of all this other shit. How do you view poetry as a tool during rising climate issues?

AA: I’ve loved poetry ever since I was a little kid. I just love its storytelling ability and the innate lyricism. When comparing poetry to nonfiction or other fiction work, there’s something within poetry…And I’m not saying that poetry doesn’t have certain rhythmic tendencies or rules, but…there’s a certain freedom and a certain lyricism and imaginative capacity in poetry in the way that we work with language and the way that we interpret sound, feeling the five senses, that makes it so much more vivid than other writing forms.

And when I think about my poetry specifically, I think about it as an ancestral tether connecting to the history of Black people, especially, and Black people who are the descendants of West Africans, as storytellers, as griots. Connecting to that legacy is super important to me in terms of talking about rising climate issues. One of my biggest worries is this sort of desire for ignorance and unknowing and dismissal of Indigenous and Black histories. We see how climate change, especially, is really messing with a lot of sacred sites. It’s messing with a lot of historically Black community symbols that are super important to us. You can even think of it in terms of animal populations that have a lot of significance to Indigenous and Black communities. They’re threatened a lot by climate change. Our histories. Our arts. These very physical artifacts.

To be able to have that sort of poetic and lyrical memory, while also working through and  building climate resilience and adaptation, I think is a super awesome way that poetry is able to function.

NS: In your poem, “undone,” you wrote, “When will it ever not hurt / To get free?” Can you talk about the realities of fighting climate change and the practical steps that we might take to get there? And what must be sacrificed for this.

AA: Every day when I wake up, I’m like “Damn, another day of this bullshit.” But! I was talking to one of my friends and their mom says, “Much of life isn’t pretty; much of life isn’t glamorous.” And I think if we remove this idea of utopia and this idea of glamour and consistent pleasure, I think that would help with a lot of what people are calling “climate grief.” It feels, in so many ways, that we’re reaching towards utopia or reaching towards no pain and no suffering. I think it’s a little bit of a pipe dream. The reality to me is: how do we harness our strengths and how do we harness our desires for a better world and recognize that that pathway is going to be painful in some ways and that pathway is going to be really tumultuous and it’s going to take a lot out of us. But eventually, we’re going to get to something that allows us to get to a point of healing.

I’m not interested in utopia as much as I’m interested in getting to a point of accountability, reckoning, and healing.

I’m gonna butcher it, but there’s a really great Saidiya Hartman quote I think out of Lose Your Mother where she says, “How do you mourn the event when the event is still happening?” I’m not super interested in climate mourning or climate grief because this is an event that is going to be ongoing and happening. It’s about: how do we build community and how do we build adaptation? How do we build our ability to really engage with these issues and protect the most vulnerable people who are going to be disproportionately impacted by these events?

NS: I really feel that. Recently, I’ve been getting annoyed with the way that people are viewing abolitionist work because I’m like it’s not that easy. For example, Barack Obama being the first Black president. To a lot of people, that isn’t doing the work because he’s a war criminal. But if you look at it from an objective point of view, it’s like okay, he was the first Black president. But he was also the President of the United States, so he’s not gonna be coming in and fucking shit up. He’s gonna play the role as was given.

And I think it’s okay for me to be angry about these things, but also be like, “Okay, what can I do with this reality?” And I feel like a lot of the ways I’ve been seeing people dream about the future is very much ignoring the more realistic things that we have to confront. And that’s fine. But we also need to think about what we’re gonna do in this moment, right now, that will at least get us to where we want to be. And it might not look like what we want it to look like, but at least we know that we’ve planted the seeds to get there.

In this same poem, you wrote, “When even the people who share our skin write our destruction into law.” This reminds me of the saying, “All skin folk ain’t kinfolk.” What different type of liberation work is required to reach these types of people? Or do you just not put energy towards those types of people?

AA: The first thing that comes to mind is possibly my favorite Angela Davis quote: “There are some people I don’t want to be in community with.” This is a huge problem that I have with DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) work and anti-racism workshops. So much of it is less about building organizing capacity in solidarity among people of color as much as it is trying to convince White people that we matter. I’m not interested in that, just like I’m not really interested in convincing straight cisgender Black people that my queer Black life matters. Like, why would I spend time doing that when I could hang out with my queer homies in the park and eat some fruit?

I do think that people of privilege within the Black community need to step up, especially straight folks. If they are queer allies or if they’re worried about the rampant fatphobia that goes on in the community, or if they’re worried about classism, they should be the ones talking about that and organzing their own people.

Noname has a great tweet. It was in response to White leftists versus Black leftists. The White leftists really be coming for Noname for no reason. And part of it is just like, worry about your own people. Organize your own people. And then maybe we can have a conversation. It’s not fair to ask me — just trying to get by on the day to day — “Hey, can you teach me how to do ‘xyz’? Or hey, can you teach my parents how to value your life?” No? No, I cannot do that. That’s on you. Y’all figure that out. We will be over here taking care of our business.

NS: I’m just like, why is there no White organization that is fighting White supremacy? I guess Black Lives Matter is for everyone to join and support. But White people have so much power. It’s like, y’all could really start your own lowkey infiltrating the government type shit. On some Black Panthers but White type shit. Like, do something. 

AA: Do something.

NS: Organizing and not hopping on our work and taking away from it.

AA: I’ll give you a great reading list, but like I’m not going to sit down and talk to you. You need to learn more about queer Blackness? Here you go. You want to learn about trans liberation and how it intersects with the Black radical tradition? There’s a book on that. There’s a book on everything. And you just need to seek it out.

NS: You recently received your Masters in Environmental Management from the Yale School of the Environment with a specialization in People, Equity and the Environment. Can you talk about what you learned in this program and how you might apply it to your work? Also, congratulations on that and being accepted into your PhD program.

AA: Thank you. Technically I don’t have my Masters yet — hopefully by the end of the semester. One thing that I’ve learned in this program is that the environmental sector is huge and there are a lot of different things that people are working on. But I get a sense that a lot of the desire within the environmental sector is to somehow make capitalism work for us and to somehow promote this sort of green capitalism or sustainable capitalism that will invest way more into renewables and create jobs and sustain the economy, which I’m all for. However, I’m worried that that vision might be a little shortsighted because it doesn’t take into consideration the other inequities at play. The way that we rely so heavily on extractivist practices with regards to the environment oftentimes intersects with how we treat the people who are forced to participate in these extractivist economies. We think about people as property, as a labor force.

Just being able to sit, think, and analyze what is needed for meaningful systemic change to happen is constantly evolving as our environment evolves. One thing that’s really worrisome about climate change is that people generally have an idea that the planet is getting warmer. But I don’t know if there’s a general consciousness about how bad it already is and how much worse and unpredictable it is going to be.

I personally like to think of climate change as the Earth trying to self-regulate, trying to get back to some form of equilibrium. And in a lot of our practice, we’re impeding that. So, what does it mean to really look at what we’re doing as a form of harm to the Earth and the Earth responding in the only way it knows how? That’s something that I’ve been thinking a lot about. What would that viewpoint look like in the way that we think about climate policy and other environmental issues?

NS: What feelings are you entering this issue of climate change with? Is there any semblance of hope?

AA: I have a lot of hope. Even though we haven’t experienced climate events to this magnitude before, our ancestors have and they were able to survive and persist. I don’t say that as super dismissive, because we’re probably going to lose people — and we are, as we’re seeing with Covid. We’re losing people on the daily. It’s really fucked up and it’s really sad. It’s heavy, but knowing that we have gone through something like this before and we are able to adapt…When given the resources, humans are extremely adaptable and humans are extremely able to.

What I’m really pissed off about is the recycling of disaster and the constant feedback loops of keeping people in a certain form of disaster. Look at what happened in New Orleans. New Orleans never fully recovered from Katrina and now you have Hurricane Laura. We know that this is a hurricane-prone zone and this is going to get worse. Yet there’s no sort of action being taken because it’s a predominantly Black city. People don’t care. So building up a more community-oriented capacity for resistance and resilience is going to be super important in dealing with climate change.

The unfortunate truth is that I don’t trust the government to care and I don’t trust the government to do what needs to be done to protect the most vulnerable. We’ve seen that even with Covid. Three checks, one of them being $600. That can’t even cover my rent. Being able to inform people about what it’s going to look like and being able to stockpile resources is going to be super useful. I’m not doing this in a doom sort of way, but in more of a mutual understanding that our lives are going to be pretty much wholly influenced by climate change. We are the generation. Many of us, if not, all of us, are going to experience some sort of climatic event. It is going to definitely influence and impact our lives. Now it’s just a question of how do we prepare for it and how do we get as many people through as possible.

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