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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Dickson

#003 Keshia Hannam: on Changing Your Life Algorithms & Environmental Racism

Updated: Nov 22, 2022

What’s the difference between environmental racism, intersectionality and climate justice? How can we navigate our bias and privilege? And how do we have the hard conversations around these topics? We caught up with Keshia Hannam on the Live Wide Awake podcast and deep dove into how our life algorithms reinforce our biases, why we should actively seek out conversations that make us uncomfortable, and so much more.

You know those people that you meet who light up the room with energy, really make you feel seen and heard? Well, Keshia Hannam is that ray of sunshine. I had the pleasure of being connected to her via a mutual friend in Hong Kong and was instantly drawn to her light, playful nature, while also being intrigued by her deep intelligence and passion for people and the planet.

Keshia is a speaker, writer, and activist. She’s spoken at the United Nations, The New York Times, Fortune 500 companies likes Marriott and Macy’s, and of course, The Conscious Festival by Green Is The New Black, to name a few. She’s a contributor for publications like Forbes, Huffington Post, CNN etc. And a storyteller at Dear World, connecting people through their meaningful stories. She regularly leads large companies through transformative workshops around inclusion, equality and activism.

We’re going to be deep-diving into a few of her favourite topics – the environment, racism, biases, climate justice just to name a few. If you’d prefer to listen to our chat, and for even more of Keshia’s wisdom, head on over to the Live Wide Awake Podcast on your streaming platform of choice.

"Every person deserves a liveable planet — bias & climate change make that impossible.” – Keshia Hannam

On understanding differences…

When we were growing up, we lived between India, Australia, Hong Kong, and the UK. This was a privilege that was beyond my control, that came from the fact that both my parents worked in the airline industry and I always joke that I was born on a plane. When I finished university, I remember having this hunger to do a formal and an informal inquiry into humans; what makes for a healthy life and what makes for equity because living between those places you see such a disparity.

I always remember being very confused about that as a child. I would see drastic inequality in India, and then a lot of pollution in Hong Kong. And in Australia and I was like, why does Australia have so much cleanliness, but also no one looks like me here. I had a lot of really interesting moments that then shaped my understanding that, at the end of the day, we’re all more alike than we are different, but we speak to our differences more because our differences cause greater conflict. And so how do we help people first understand our similarities and then build on what does make us different? Empathy is the language that we need to use to communicate.

On equality…

In India, I saw just how difficult everyday life is compared to life in the West. That’s not having equity in terms of a livable planet for all. Where you’re born shouldn’t determine the quality of your life. The climate crisis is our most pressing concern over the next 50 years, to ensure that we have a planet to live on, and within that, bias makes equality impossible for everyone. Bias is a really important word to use because it’s invisible and it’s subconscious.

The institutional weaknesses that we have results in not everybody having the same opportunities; whether men or women, how we perceive somebody’s sexuality or skin colour. All of those things mean that one person is not going to have the same opportunities as another person. My purpose in this life is to create more equal opportunities for everybody that is not based on what you look like, where you live, your zip code, your income, but purely based on your humanity.

On breaking down biases…

The safest place to hide water is with a fish. The idea that there are consistently environments, behaviours, issues, moments and ideas that have that become so normalised to us, we can’t even see them. It becomes the water that we swim in, we are the fish and that’s the water we swim in. The first step in any kind of social change is education and awareness. Self-awareness and then awareness of our world. Even in my life, there have been so many times where I was unaware and called out for being demeaning and privileged, and I couldn’t see any of them. I learned to tune my radar to look for the bias in situations, and seeing the disconnect between people and what they think is right. But it all boils down to awareness.

On intersectionality…

Intersectionality is a term that was coined by Kimberly Crenshaw, a scholar and a civil rights activist in the eighties and it refers to black women. It speaks about the variety of social pressures that will impact somebody’s life as they move through the world. For example, a black woman experiences many more oppressions than a lot of others in society. Why? Because Western society’s structure is determined by white, male bias—to oversimplify, that’s who has the power so that’s the world that’s been created. We make what we are. So as a black woman, your experience is far from that norm.

We have a global issue whereby we send a remedy for a single issue without recognising the complexity of the society within which it operates. Until we can be more complex and we can hold the idea of plurality, where many different things are true at once, we will keep perpetuating the problem and solving it for a minute. Versus looking at all of the intersecting social issues and how they affect different people. It’s going to be a far slower exercise, but it will bring about genuine change versus the reactionary social activism that we have now.

On environmental racism…

Environmental racism is a really important term, particularly if you’re in the sustainability movement. We think a lot about how to make the world better, how to improve the planet and keep it healthy. But what we don’t think about is that humans are a big part of it. For example, dumping hazardous paint into waterway systems absolutely damages the water, affects the fish, the top-soil, the insects that depend on that ecosystem, but it also affects the people that live on the water system. Again, intersectionality. Environmental racism refers to the practices and standards that affect mostly low-income brown and black communities because of these types of practices.

A really good example of this is in New York City. The Munsee tribe are the original custodians of the land now known as the Tri-State Area of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. In the seventies, Ford motor company dumped toxic paint into the water systems when they closed their plant. And it has affected that community, to the point where there are some areas where every single home has had cancer in it. You would never dump that paint on the upper Eastside. There’s no even opportunity for that to happen, but because of the lack of protection that there are around these communities, it’s the norm. If you are black you are 75% more likely to live near a hazardous waste pot or in a high pollution area. This type of environmental racism doesn’t just affect Americans, but it happens in India, Malaysia, all around South East Asia too.

On climate justice…

Climate justice is the hope. Climate justice takes the climate conversation and makes it about human rights. And says, how do we fight for the rights of people, as well as planets? And recognises that, yes, the polar bears are important, whilst also recognising that humans are important. If we don’t change the language around this conversation, we will continue to exclude the people who are impacted most.

On the elements of racism…

There are four elements of racism that are also relevant to the environment. First, internalised racism – the racism that we hold within ourselves. I would call this our worldview. Second, interpersonal racism – how we engage with other people. These are our biases as we’re speaking, and the stereotypes that we uphold. Third, institutional racism – racism that is baked into the institution. Like governments, the schooling system, public health, which are usually designed to serve white people. Forth, structural racism – which is based largely on the history that has got us here. I would suggest doing a deep dive and checking out The Slow Factory who do a lot of really consumable content around this topic. Or watching my talk at The Conscious Festival to understand more.

On life algorithms…

Identify and acknowledge your blind spots because we all have them. And revisit them, a lot. And then change your life algorithms. Algorithms are not a foreign concept to us as we live in the technological world. But what is, is the idea that this concept still applies to the way that we live our life. For example, if you keep going to dinner parties where everyone looks and sounds the same, you’re going to have conversations that look and sound the same. If you’re following only a certain type of people on Instagram, you’re going to keep getting the same messages from those people on Instagram. If you’re only reading white authors, then you’re only going to read white perspectives.

We need to ask ourselves what else is informing my worldview? And yes it might be unpleasant in the beginning. If you only listen to nineties R&B, and all of a sudden, you need to start listening to techno, you might be like ‘oh, I don’t like this.’ But the more you listen to it, the more you’ll start to understand the nuance of it, and you might even begin to appreciate it. That’s the same journey we need to go on with our life algorithms. We might not find it pleasant initially. We might find it causes defensiveness. We might find it triggering, but as we sit with it more and it becomes less unfamiliar, then we will be able to ingest the information more and actually start to empathise with it. Changing my life algorithms is what has changed my perspective the most.

On being uncomfortable…

We have to actually actively seek out conversations that make us uncomfortable because they hold the biggest opportunities to grow and learn. It’s really hard to do that because it trying to short-circuit our habits – normally when we feel like something doesn’t relate to us, we push away from it and we avoid it. But that’s been the biggest change for me. Human conversation and allowing yourself to be challenged is important and something I find most people are uncomfortable with. When we are uncomfortable it is not a sign of failure, it is a sign of growth.

On having challenging conversations…

There’s going to be confrontation. It’s going to be with the people we love the most. How do we navigate that confrontation? How do we continue to be loving and empathetic and have the patience to recognise that this is a brand new conversation for a lot of people? How can I continue to stay by my facts? We have to rewire our brains to not think that confrontation is a negative thing. Confrontation is necessary when we live in a world with different viewpoints.

Take my Dad for example. I have had many a heated conversation with him about these hard topics. The best way I have found to have these conversations is by coming up with alternative situations to present a story and ask – do you think this is okay? Because once we put ourselves into the problem it becomes harder to justify injustice. For example – as a 71-year-old white man, he believes that places like India benefited from the railroad systems and architecture created during colonial rule and that they are better than anything that was created thereafter. To illustrate a different perspective, I asked him “Say we were going to colonise a different planet. When we land there we realise they have a whole ecosystem thriving. Do we have the moral right to go into that place? And by force, take that planet and its resources? Would you do that?” We went around in circles with this conversation, but he couldn’t really answer. Because I asked him personally if he would be okay to do that.

A final thought…

When I feel like I’m getting lost, caught up in rhetoric or drowning in my own anxious thoughts, I always come back and remember that people are the point of everything.

Head to your favourite podcast streaming service to listen to the whole conversation, and follow along with Keshia Hannam’s journey on her Instagram account @keshiahannam.

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