Environmental educator Isaias Hernandez did not need a degree or write a thesis to understand environmental injustices. As someone who spent his childhood in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley, the unfairness was a part of his everyday life. Born to immigrant parents from Mexico, his family lived in subsidized housing units that were often near toxic facilities or heavily polluted. Young Isaias couldn’t connect the factors that forced him to stay mostly indoors until he started visiting different cities and noticing the gap in infrastructure, amenities and the overall environmental quality.
While he learnt about climate change, global warming and greenhouse gases in school, he was always told that it is happening in another part of the world, in a faraway country. He remembers the frustration and confusion he felt – nobody would talk about it happening right outside his home, in communities like his! This nudged him to pursue B.S. in Environmental Science at the University of California, where Isaias came face to face with other imperative gaps – no one looked like him, the interconnections between privilege, identity and the environment were not addressed, and access to this information was still elitist and riddled with jargon. He has made it his mission to tackle these issues. Fast forward to today, Isaias is the creator of Queer Brown Vegan, an Instagram page with over 80 thousand followers that makes accessible environmental education content. Core focus areas of this work include veganism, zero-waste, and environmental justice. As a Queer, Brown, and Vegan environmentalist, he also seeks to provide a safe space for other like-minded environmentalists to engage in the discourse of the current climate crisis.
Isaias is a long way from his childhood home when I speak to him over a video call, but it is clear that the insights from experiencing these challenges still drive his mission. Ayushi Shah speaks to him about the importance of BIPOC environmentalism, the connection between colonization and veganism, and why he encourages progress over perfection in environmental journeys.
Ayushi Shah (AS): Isaias, what is your first memory of understanding climate change and environmental injustice?
Isaias Hernandez (IH): It took me 16-17 years to first hear the term environmental justice. But I grew up in the San Fernando Valley, where we lived in subsidized housing. And most housing units that are affordable, are generally nearby toxic facilities or in cities that are already heavily polluted. And I remember I could never really go outside and play. My mom’s excuse was always that it’s polluted or dangerous outside.
AS: How did that shape the path you took with Queer Brown Vegan?
IH: When I went to college, I wanted to do Environmental Science because I thought – this is what I have to do to be an environmentalist and change things. But, I realized how inaccessible and unwelcoming a lot of these academic spaces are for BIPOC students as well as those who have different types of abilities and identities. I was also faced with a lot of homophobic remarks. After graduating, I realized I wanted to share this information – no one should have to pay thousands of dollars to learn about environmental justice or environmental racism. It should be taught at younger ages, so people can develop their own framework. So, I saw myself creating Queer Brown Vegan as an environmental educator. This way, people can access information that didn’t just include academic experiences, but also referenced indigenous knowledge and wisdom, as well as culture-based and lived experiences.
AS: What is the role of environmental intersectionality in this conversation and more largely, the world we live in?
No matter what industry you look – education, activism, fashion or design, it is extractive and linked to the oppression of humans and animals. They also have negative outputs that destroy ecosystems, and in some way have contributed to the enslavement of humans, or not paid fair wages. I try to tell people to make environmental intersectionality the deeper lens of understanding what it really means to be talking about any subject. And it’s not just rooted in a lifestyle like the type of food or clothes. The larger question is: how does any action of yours reflect your ethics within environmentalism?
AS: What is the role of influencers and Gen Z in the environmental crisis?
It’s interesting because I’m 24. I’m almost Gen Z but also a very late millennial, I guess (laughs). Gen Z is important because they live in an era where digital spaces have already been cultivated. While that allowed them to enrich themselves with this type of information, they are also living environmental impacts that are already severe. So it is both positive and negative.
But, I also want to remind people that it is an intergenerational movement. And because digital media has really amplified and put certain people on pedestals, we should never forget the contribution of older folks that have been here in this movement. They did the work when social media didn’t exist; they organized in different ways. It’s important to really honor that rather than to always have this conversation that it’s the youth that’s leading this movement.
I think one of the other dangers of social media is that we receive this skewed vision of what we think is environmental climate justice. I try to provide supplementary resources so people can discover what that means to themselves, rather than a watertight definition. So I always ask my community: What do you think? How do we discuss these issues?
AS: So, what are some of the things that we need to unlearn to be better environmentalists?
IH: I always tell people that lifestyle movements have glorified white people. And the issue with that is that those people rarely talk about race or address environmental justices. Like, unlike what is mostly propagated, zero waste was meant to ensure that there’s no negative discharges in either the environment or the community, which is linked to environmental racism. But would they ever talk about those issues? No, because they’re white and it does not relate to them or affect them. And I think that’s the disservice within a lot of lifestyles from veganism to environmentalism; we’ve glorified and put these people on pedestals. And yet, BIPOC people who have been doing this type of work have been either erased, or don’t have large platforms to grow, or are not well funded to receive resources to continue doing the work. It creates disconnection and this illusion where people say, “Zero is a white thing” or “Veganism is a white thing”. And it really shocks me to see that! White and zero waste influencers, who are now aware of this should be speaking up more for people of color. It’s your fault for contributing to not advocating for more diversity. It goes back to the corporations; we know who you are, and who you like to work with. It is one of the hardest things to talk about. When I have to do campaigns, it’s rather frustrating when I see their diversity. Sometimes, I am the only one of the few men in there and perhaps the only man of color that is queer. That really erases a lot of people’s work.
The more people talk about these issues online, the more that conversation will actually start to shift. That pressure will be put on those people who’ve had these platforms and have not done a really good job to address these things, or taken the step to decenter themselves. The conversations are all about reducing trash, but no one ever never talks about colonialism or environmental justice. So I tell people, enough is enough.
AS: In your opinion, does that disconnection also dissuade people from entering lifestyle changes like zero waste?
IS: Sometimes lifestyle movements like zero-waste or plastic-free living are a privilege. Not everyone has money to afford terracycle boxes, those cost $90. Even I would not even want to invest $90 in a terracycle box to be quite frank.
There’s a lot of misinformation within those lifestyle movements. And so, I tell people that zero waste is not about being perfect or absolutely zero. It’s literally about changing the way that you use plastic in your own home that you may have not tried before. Look into reducing corners of your life, whether it is your bathroom, your living room or your kitchen, try things that you haven’t tried before and also look into more regenerative practices like composting gardening, that really incorporate zero waste practices. That being said, I would never want anyone to harm their mental or physical health over lifestyle, because that’s when it’s dangerous.
AS: So what are some of the simple tips or actions people can follow?
IH: It starts with first just reconnecting with your lived experiences, because I think that a lot of people disregard how their parents are environmentalists in different ways; whether they are trying to make you save money by telling you to reuse, or not buying something just because it’s cheaper and more disposable. I think there’s a lot of sustainability rooted in cultural practices. Go back to your culture and just revisit things – either the dishes will be plant-based, or the materials used to cook are plastic-free, and you’re like – wow, I didn’t really think about that. It creates this notion of value for yourself instead of looking at these unobtainable lifestyles. You don’t discourage yourself when you look at people who don’t look like you and think that you can’t do it. When you look at people in your own community, country or area, you think – wow, this is actually someone that lives like me, relates to me, and also shares similar cultural experiences. So, don’t just rely on social media, but rather find those communities within because at the end of the day, they’ve always existed.
AS: What is your role as an Instagram educator and environmental influencer who has access to a community of more than 80 thousand people?
IS: I think that my work is just the level one of environmentalism because I only build the bridge, and then it’s up to the person to decide whether they want to go to the next level or not, after that bridge. I also am aware of the fact that I don’t know the answers to everything. But for now, I love the fact that people don’t always have to be environmental activists. You can even be an artist or an educator even to have conversations on environmental activism. I really advocate people to be their own environmentalists, by presenting information in a simplistic form. That is just the beginning, it’s not the final stage and the ecological crisis can be solved only this way. But I do think we need to actively incorporate all these lenses and honor all the people who have been doing this work.
The most surprising things that I’ve seen through my work are the amount of DMS I’ve received that say – hey, your work really changed my career. Or the fact that they talk to their colleagues about the work in their program. To hold space for students who feel ashamed internally within academic spaces and help them process their thoughts has also been great. I don’t see them as followers but rather my friends and community.
AS: So, how do you think we can encourage more people from the community to try veganism?
IS: For me, veganism really advocates for the anti-oppression of humans, as well as animal liberation. We need to really understand that total liberation is interconnected. A capitalistic society is rooted in the idea of labeling non-human animals as commodities and resources, as well as exploiting farmers who are enslaved by these industries and are paid very low wages to produce our crops. There needs to be a shift in the narrative. I absolutely understand that there are indigenous communities who have to rely on meat as a food source, and so do people who live in food deserts. But many people in this generation don’t live in food deserts!
I think the first step to transitioning to veganism or talking about it is understanding how it lessens your environmental impact, because it really does go a long way. We always hear about how individual change does not really create long term change, but I disagree. It challenges you to do better. And so, if you can’t go vegan for a certain reason then reduce your meat consumption by at least minus one per week. And, progress over perfection; if you slip up or accidentally eat something, it’s not the end of the world – just be more conscious about it in the future.
AS: What do you think about the gentrification of veganism? Do access and privilege play a role in your ability to be able to go vegan? Say, for a mother with three kids to feed and a limited budget in India, dairy is a more affordable choice than oat milk.
IH: When I talk about veganism, I try to tell people that it’s not just rooted in buying vegan products, but rather understanding the compassion of life, that sentiment that no being should be oppressed. The way that we extract resources from non-human animals is very degrading to the environment, and also their lives. About privileges and being vegan, it’s really important to know that most aspects of veganism are rooted in black, indigenous and people of color tradition, because non-human animal meat came from different types of countries in Europe, and it was actually colonized in certain regions of the world. Like, I know that Ethiopia had rich plant-based diets that already existed even before veganism was coined. It’s important for people to understand how meat plays a role in colonization and how it was introduced. So there’s a cultural aspect, especially with indigenous communities. Also, most vegans actually don’t eat that much-processed food.
We need to shift these ideas of like – Oh, I need to get vegan meat in the packet, or vegan cheese, vegan chips, or vegan mayo. You don’t really need that because a lot of people have gone vegan, including me, primarily use fruits and vegetables to create a lot of the things I love. I think that there is a lack of education for people to understand nutrition and also the ways to cook recipes. Part of that comes from who has the time, which I understand not everyone does. But, if you have the time to go on social media for an hour, you have the time to cook for an hour. So that’s always my argument – you need to push yourself to rethink your ways.
AS: I love that you touch upon colonization and veganism. Do you think the current environmental systems are not equally designed for people who are black, indigenous or of color?
IH: Definitely. I think that the systems that were designed today, especially by institutions, are never designed to serve the community. They’re always designed to capitalize and poison people. It’s about the government’s rhetoric versus reality. The rhetoric is that they want to fight for a community, it’s a very vague language, but they make it seem very utopian. Like, we’re going to help our community, we will fight for justice, and we are your government. But the reality is that you continuously allow these corporations to poison this lake, or that community and continue to pollute. It’s imperative to critically analyze language and rhetoric, because I’ve realized that with institutions, you need to look at who they serve, and whom they work for. When you realize that person X was associated with all of these institutions, you start to make pictures and diagrams in your head; they serve this corporation that does not have itself rooted in good terms with the environment.
AS: Do you think mediums like Instagram have made sustainability more accessible and even more ‘fun’?
IH: Social mediums have definitely made conversations about sustainability more accessible to some people. I do think, though, that it has also highly glamorized a certain lifestyle over the true roots of sustainability. And so it’s really important to remember that when we talk about these topics in sustainability, that we’re really incorporating regenerative systems, black indigenous people of color, historical traditions, and other contexts of how sustainability is done throughout different countries. I think the role for communities online is also to constantly educate, empower or support BIPOC communities that have been doing this work.
AS: Agreed. But, it isn’t always possible for people to let their activism bleed into their day jobs. So, how can someone balance what pays the bills with what impact they want to have on the world?
IH: I understand that not everyone is in a situation to speak about these injustices in their own company in lieu of possibly losing their job. I think that the way that people can achieve this balance is to after work hours and dedicate at least one to five hours a week to activism. It could be online, through the community, or even within yourself by learning a lot of things. It doesn’t have to look the same thing as how other people do it. It definitely does not have to do in your own work career if that’s not really a possibility.
AS: What are your future plans?
IH: I will be launching a short climate illustration book in a few months that is comprehensive of some environmental terms that we’ve talked about. My team and I have spent countless hours on it and I’m really excited to see how that turns out.
The interview has been edited for clarity.
In our Spotlight interview, we have a wide-ranged, in-depth conversation with a green changemaker. The conversation focuses on them, their eco-friendly organization or project and the philosophy that guides them.
Eco-Spotlight is a digital publication that focuses on different aspects of climate change solutions: projects and ideas focused on sustainable development, social entrepreneurship, environmental businesses, eco-friendly practices, and similar green initiatives. Through our solution-focused interviews and articles, we want to bring good news to the forefront and remind the world – without hope, there is no future. We also syndicate our content with White Print, India’s first English lifestyle magazine in Braille.
All images of Isaias are provided by him. Creatives are screenshots from Isaias’s Instagram @queerbrownvegan, and are © Isaias Hernandez. You can check out his work his website and read other Spotlight interviews on Eco-Spotlight’s website here.