Akilah Stewart is the director of FATRA, a creative waste management company that produces high-end bags made from recycled plastics and fabrics. FATRA, which means "waste" in Haitian Creole, is centered around the idea of looking at the plastic pollution we currently have and reintroducing it into the market to make consumers more aware of their own relationship with the Earth. We invited Akilah onto our Peachy Keen Podcast to talk about her work, intersections of race and sustainability, and the state of the sustainability movement at large.
[The following interview contains condensed excerpts from our podcast. To hear more from Akilah, listen to the full episode!]
We have all seen the sustainability movement change so much in the past five, ten years and there are just so many flaws in the movement itself. So, if you ruled the world, what are the first things you would change about the sustainability movement today?
...It’s so deep, guys! It’s so deep. The first thing that I would change is the description around sustainability, what it means to people. Because I think we’ve sat on the white lies on what sustainability is and because if you cannot define something accurately, any way that you use that word is going to be inaccurate. We haven’t defined sustainability in its entirety to honestly be able to build on top of it properly. So I think ultimately we have to learn that sustainability is not just organic cotton and organic “this.” It’s a lifestyle. It is a spiritual connection to everything around you: people, beings...things that you have! You still treat things with respect! That’s why it was that, in olden times, you wore certain things during certain times. Because it’s sacred, you know? Everything that you have, you are giving life to. You have to hold that in a sacred space. I don’t believe that sustainability has been defined properly, as an inherently Black and brown ideology, to even be able to build on. And unless we’re talking about that, unless we’re talking about how people already had homes that were built of clay, built of mud, built of sticks, built of different plant-based materials that we’re later told are savage, but now are [being sold back to us]; unless we’re talking about how everything is interconnected with plants and your food source and how you’re getting the fibers; unless we’re talking about the very thing that sustainability is which is just basically holding sacred space for everything without having to commodify it- commodifying your resource doesn’t give it value, it's already valuable because of the life that it sustains and the life it gives to you!
So, unless we’re talking about sustainability from a spiritual aspect, talking about it as a cultural aspect, we’re not talking about sustainability, we’re talking about green capitalism! And...that’s really...that’s the first thing I would change is definitely the definition and looking back and giving proper acknowledgment to where a lot of these ideas and innovations and technologies come from.
It’s so interesting hearing you talk about sustainability from a spiritual lens because I think that’s one thing that is really far removed from the current way people think of sustainability. Just like you’re saying, it's so much more focused on green capitalism and on how sustainability is valid because "if we don’t start being sustainable, humans won’t be able to survive." And there’s so much more to the sustainability movement than whether or not humans will just be able to exist…
Yeah, I think, Rebecca, you touched on that briefly, just saying that basically we want dominion over nature, and that is the first wrong. Have you guys ever read the book “Ishmael”?
Yes!! [laughs] I have it in my room right now! Leah gave it to me.
I want to put my right hand on the Bible that is “Ishmael” and just be like [laughs]. It never spoke so much truth! It never spoke more truth [than] where it said that the story we tell is the one we’re going to act out. I’m also currently reading “Braiding Sweetgrass” which is amazing as well. And it’s talking about that same thing. We’ve been told a narrative about nature...if you’re religious or not I’m sure you’ve heard of Adam and Eve. We’ve been told that because they sinned, they had to go out into the world, and they had everything at first and then the relationship with nature basically changed. I think that’s a story that resonates and comes out unconsciously about how we act to the Earth. Those stories and the way we are told that nature is there for us or to support us versus living on it together has been one of the most detrimental things.
You can’t see but my little board [gestures behind screen] is always about reimagining, reprograming, reallocation, and regeneration. And part of being able to regenerate and really use sustainability for what it is is that we have to reprogram ourselves. So we have to reprogram the way that we think about nature [from] being something we need to trump and being something that we need to live with [to] something that we owe, something that we’re in debt to, something that we all need...It’s the one thing that if we don’t adhere to it, if we don't pay attention to, we can be in climate catastrophe. And, for humans, that would be horrible. The Earth will live on, people! So everybody saying “oh it’s gonna be the end of the world, it's gonna be…” The world has been here for billions of years and it’s gonna be here for billions of years after you leave it! But how you leave it is really the most important thing.
Definitely we need to reprogram and go back and ask ourselves...like, why are you against the earth? Why are you against what gives you life? We all need air, we all need clean water, we all need decent soil to grow food, we all need these things so we should really, one, make sustainability attainable and relatable for everybody. We can’t leave anybody out of this movement if we’re really trying to make a change and meaning that means that you have to meet people where they are and it can’t be all about buying, buying and buying. We need to have a better relationship with nature.
And I know for Black people that’s probably a very traumatizing one because I think...the story that we’ve been told about nature is “you’re the cotton picker, you’re the field n*****, you’re outside doing work” and that was something to be looked down upon. And I think that that has played a very traumatic role in the minds of us unconsciously [so] that we don’t enjoy or look at the outdoors as something to enjoy and something to find rest and restoration in. We look at it as something that’s laborious and something that we’ve had to toil and work in and something that we still haven’t had any reconciliation with because there’s been no reparations. There’s been no type of giving back at all for Black people who had to toil in the land and have made this country what it is! And with all of that, we still can’t even go outside and just enjoy nature. Because of that trauma.
That is so true, and it’s so disappointing as well that we’re always reading about environmentalism, taking classes on it, and that narrative is never brought up. It’s always left out. It’s like, how can we even attempt to try to heal a problem that’s never being brought to light?
That’s the main thing! And everyone is like “equality!” and “I don’t see color!” and I’m just like...[The wound has] never been closed and...I think that in order for white people to understand and to be taught about these things it has a certain amount of accountability and it’s just like they don't even want to see it, don’t even want to acknowledge it. And I think that that overall is probably the thing that is the most difficult: it’s still something that needs to be done; you can sweep it under the rug all you want, but then when it starts leaking out the sides...then you notice: there’s this issues. Yeah, but you have to come back to the root and we have not come back to the root. And we’re like “oh sustainability,” but yet you have not even talked about indigenous knowledge! There’s no way you can talk about sustainability without addressing indigenous knowledge.
Yeah, we literally pretend like Native Americans aren’t even here anymore which is...it’s crazy.
People who have been saying, you know, treat the land with respect for seven generations and now all of a sudden companies are saying “treat the land with respect,” and it’s like, whoa whoa whoa...he just said that! But, so...being voiceless is a whole nother thing...being voiceless being overseen. There’s so many things.
Yeah, I mean it’s so true, it’s such a slap in the face to have everything rebranded and just sent back to the people who founded the movement! And it wasn’t even a movement, it was just how they lived. And, like you’re saying, there were hundreds of years of shaming that lifestyle to now just saying “oh, actually you guys were right but we’re not even going to give you the credit…”
But they never even said “you guys were right!”
It’s just...it’s so terrible. I think exactly like you’re saying, there needs to be an emphasis on intersectionality within the environmentalism movement because it totally is just marketed to one person right now. I think you said that in your interview with MelaninASS that the kind of picture of sustainability now is white hipsters going to local coffee shops when that is not what sustainability has looked like ever up until now. And who even says that that is the most sustainable life to live? It’s just so frustrating to see continual [whitewashing] within a movement that is claiming to be here just for good, and within the movement itself there’s just so much erasure left, right and center.
No, definitely. I feel like....how do you promote sustainability outside of the capitalistic space? Just understanding that...Black bodies were capital. And being that sustainability is about cutting down on waste and living in a way that’s going to be regenerative and living in a way that’s going to allow you to sustain and carry on beyond that moment in time...I think that for a lot of us Black and brown people it’s honestly been a healing situation going back to or reclaiming a lot of those practices. And reclaiming things from our past or even discovering things from our past. But, I do wonder: in white spaces how do you implement sustainability in a way that acknowledges those things while also, same as us, trying to be innovative. How do you find the “old world” within the “new world” when there has been no middle ground of acknowledgment?