OPINION: TED Countdown could’ve included more grassroots BIPOC climate justice leaders 

“You need to have people from Detroit to be a part of these conversations taking leadership in the things that we’re talking about,” said Diamond Spratling, founder of Girl Plus Environment.
TED Countdown Summit in Detroit on June 13. Photo by Rukiya Colvin.

The TED Countdown Summit this week invited over 750 people from across the world to gather in Detroit for a 4-day “invite-only gathering” with the purpose of bringing “together a group of global innovators, business executives, scientists, policymakers, next-generation leaders, artists, activists and more who are determined to create a better future.” 

Guests had the opportunity to hear presenters of various professional backgrounds speak about their innovations, discoveries, and ideas through storytelling or dialogue with a moderator. The event included the likes of Al Gore, Al Roker and climate luminaries like Paul Hawken. Guests also explored supplemental breakthrough sessions, exhibits, and off-site visits to local organizations.  

While many appreciated the thought-provoking analyses and conversations offered throughout the conference, others couldn’t help but wonder if the event left out many who have been for decades and continue to be greatly affected by environmental injustice and climate change.

One of those was a local native Diamond Spratling, who noticed a lack of representation of Black women and Black climate justice leaders from Detroit at the conference. But that didn’t stop her from taking up space. 

Spratling, the founder and executive director of  Girl Plus Environment, was not invited to attend the summit in her hometown, yet she asserted herself despite this, emailing conference coordinators and expressing the need for more Black representation from Detroit. 

“You need to have people from Detroit to be a part of these conversations taking leadership in the things that we’re talking about,” she said.

Diamond Spratling, founder of Girl Plus Environment. Photo by Rukiya Colvin.

Girl Plus Environment is an organization Spratling created to educate,  engage and empower Black and brown women to stand up for climate and environmental justice in their neighborhoods.

A special session during Thursday’s series of events allowed local grassroots climate organizers to attend on a limited invite-only basis. The feeling was distasteful to some organizers who accepted the invite. 

Detroiter Calandra Jones had high expectations as she knew TED Countdown events did not offer community invitations in the past. But she mentioned a sense of inauthenticity, disconnectedness, and “tone deafness” when she showed up, hoping to see more climate leaders from Detroit and to hear more about the work of those on the front lines. 

“There wasn’t enough attention given to Detroit specifically, which has been a leader in the climate space across the United States; we have some of the most innovative climate thinkers in the country,” Jones told Planet Detroit. “As an emerging leader in climate, I think I have high expectations of any event that claims to have a global reach when it comes to Detroit.”

Despite the limited representation of grassroots Black and brown climate justice advocates from Detroit, the session did honor a few Black women leaders from the city. Anika Goss of Detroit Future City, Laprisha Berry Daniels of Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, and Payton Wilkins of Mandela Jones Consulting Group represented Detroit on the TED stage, speaking on local climate change impacts like flooding and organizing against fossil fuels as a union movement. 

The conference also included other women of color from across the globe. Energy access innovator Tombo Banda, a Black woman engineer,  shared how the people of Sub-Saharan Africa live without access to electricity, leaving towns to rely on kerosene fuel and deforestation as energy sources for lighting and cooking. 

She noted that 15% of Malawians and more than 500,000 Sub-Saharan Africans are living without electricity. Banda’s mission is to provide solutions rooted in solar panels that would better power the towns currently without electricity. 

As we reflect on the conference’s theme of “Turning Vision into Reality” and revisit the purpose of the gathering, it is natural to question how innovators and attendees can connect with those directly impacted and on the frontlines of the fight against climate change and injustice. 

This interconnectedness and interdependence are crucial in our collective effort to combat a battle we are already losing. We must also consider how these innovative and thought-provoking conversations can effectively reach lawmakers who hold the fate of our climate and our livelihoods in their hands.

Centering grassroots Black and brown voices who are most impacted should be at the forefront as our struggles have long existed before climate change was the hottest topic. 

“That’s not rare for the climate space as very often there aren’t a lot of [Black and brown people] here,” said Spratling. “We need to change that, especially when we talk about equitable solutions when we talk about wanting to make sure that those solutions are sustainable, and for us and prioritizing the frontline community.”

You can learn more about the presenters and The TED Countdown Summit here.


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