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Meet Akansha: A South Asian American Singer in Mainstream Media

Aanandi Murlidharan

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A young woman with dark hair in a headband wearing a white shirt while posing outside her house.

Every day, more and more artists are being discovered. Due to the power of social media and streaming services, all it takes is one TikTok to use a song for a video to become viral. However, if that is the case, where are Asian American artists?

Why are so few Asian American artists reaching Billboard top 100 or winning the Grammys? Where are the South Asians?

Even within the Asian American community, there is a minority in mainstream media; there are almost no South Asian American singers. Why is this?

A possibility might be that South Asian parents emphasize stable professions (law, medicine, engineering) and therefore do not encourage risk-prone, “creative” careers. Another reason might be that mainstream media does not know how to perceive South Asians. 

In an NPR interview, Asha Putli, a Mumbai hailing artist, described her struggles trying to become a mainstream artist in 1960s America.

“In 1969, CBS came to me and said ‘We want to sign you,’ but they wanted me to change my name,” Puthli remembered. “I remember one of the honchos at CBS telling me, ‘You’re not black, you’re not white, so we’re going to find it very hard to market you.'”

Since Puthli, there have been only a handful of South Asian artists who made it big. 

Blendtw had the opportunity to interview Aakanksha Kuchan. Known by the mononym, “Akansha,” she is a rising contemporary R&B artist from Berklee College of Music. Here, Akansha tells her story and challenges of being a rising Indian American contemporary R&B artist. 

Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you get into singing? How did you discover R&B?

“I started singing theme songs like Hannah Montana and Sonny with a Chance. Then, I moved to India in the second grade. There, I learned Karnatik Music (South Indian Classical music).

Then I moved on to pop music, the Top 40 pop. That was my beginning for getting introduced to Western music. I started to fall more into different cultural music like Spanish and Arabic music.

I’m very intrigued by the vocal aspect of music. I started listening to a lot of languages. Freshman year of high school, I moved [to New Jersey], where I joined choir. I did not know what choir was until I joined.

I thought to myself, “Wow, people are actually in groups together singing?” I did not know what harmony was, I didn’t know anything. It introduced me to choral music, opera.

Then I joined the vocal jazz choir, and that led to R&B music. A lot of friends from the choir listened to contemporary R&B music. I had one friend who was an amazing R&B singer; he would always sing these crazy runs, so I would always ask him to teach me.

The more he sang, the more I adapted to his kind of singing. I used that, along with listening to other R&B artists. Now, it’s just so easy for me.”

When did you decide you wanted to be a singer?

“I went to this NYU summer recording program at Clive Davis Recording Music Institute, where I was introduced to the music business aspect. There, I met a lot of people and made a lot of connections.

That was when I found out that this was what I wanted to do. We went to all the places. Apple Music, Spotify, record labels; I met all these successful people and saw what it was like for them to share their music through those platforms.

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There is more to music than singing. You need to have a brand. During college apps season when I was a senior in high school, I applied to college, but with a different major than I had expected.

I could not imagine being stuck behind a desk, doing something I didn’t wanna do. I still applied to other schools for different majors because according to my family, I needed a backup plan.”

As you know, there are hardly any South Asian origin singers in mainstream media. This is possibly due to the fact that the Asian American community encourages stable professional careers such as medicine, law, and engineering. Did your family have any hesitations with the idea of you pursuing music as a career? 

“My parents always knew I was going to do this, but they didn’t talk about it. They are actually surprisingly very supportive.

During my junior year of high school, I told my dad that I was thinking of studying medicine, but he was the one who gave me the idea that maybe I should do music. He introduced me to the NYU Summer program.

We wrote out a resume, applied, did everything we could, and I got in. After that summer program, I was able to finalize my decision and committed to doing music. I still have that mindset that through everything we do, we are pursuing our career, while still doing what we love.

I think that if you want to do something crazy, you need to find a way to also make good decisions and live a good life. Right now, I am majoring in music business with a minor in songwriting.

It’s entrepreneurship, also known as the management, marketing, and the legal side of [the music industry]. However, at the same time, I am immersed in the creative aspect of the music industry and pursuing my own music career.” 

Who are some of your biggest R&B musical influences? 

“I started by listening to a lot of 90s R&B, so I was influenced by TLC, Lauren Hill, Outkast, and Wu-Tang Clan. These people made a huge difference in my sound and moved me into contemporary R&B.

They had a great vocal influence on me because of their different and unique melodies. People don’t really use that now, but I’m trying to incorporate that sound within my music.

Current contemporary R&B artists include Snoh Aalegra, Rihanna, and Jorja Smith, and their influences are also from 90s R&B. It’s an overall spectrum of artists that I take inspiration from.”

What are some challenges you’ve faced as a South Asian pursuing music? Or just as an artist in general? 

“That happened not in college because I’ve been there for six months, but in high school. We had a lot of South Asians, but not many in choir or musical theatre. They thought it wasn’t my area.

They thought, “why would you, an Indian, be cast as a lead? You are brown.” This cast is white people. I’ve seen a lot of these musicals, they’re often white lead musicals. It doesn’t give a lot of opportunities to people of color.

It just makes no sense. People of color always end up in the background. Every person of color wants to be the lead. They have that fantasy, especially if they’re into musicals.

You would want that attention. I tried out once in junior year and the teacher responded with, “yeah no, you wouldn’t be fit for a role like this,” and they ended up using a blonde white girl.”

“Even in the college I go to, Berklee College of Music, very few Desis go there. People come to me asking me questions like, “What are you? Where are you from?”

I’ve also gotten a lot of questions like, “Are you going to be like Raveena?” but we’ve got different and diverse experiences unique to us. I totally respect Raveena, she’s a queen, but at the same time, we’re telling our own individual stories. I want [South Asians] to be labeled as different individuals.”

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You’ve collaborated with a lot of other up and coming artists. You were just featured on the track Hunnit with Funder. What is that like? How do you think they influence your sound? 

“The track that I just recently was on is very true R&B and has a lot of hip-hop, nuances to it, which I’m not very used to. It’s lyrical rap, so when I had to write my verse it was so new to me.

It was not something that I usually do, but Funder kind of gave me the idea of [the track] as a typical love song. Once we talked it out, I knew what I was going to write my verse on.

It took me a couple days to write my verse because there were so many words packed in a minute. It’s so different from contemporary R&B, which is just a couple words and you sing it over and over again.

It was different, but I really liked that it pushed me out of my comfort zone. Now that I’ve experienced that, I’d definitely try and collaborate with other artists in different genres.”

Releasing your music on Apple Music and Spotify is a huge deal! In 2019, alone, you had 11.7k streams and 7.6k listeners from 65 different countries just through Spotify! Congratulations on that! What was the process like?

“Honestly, I didn’t know that it would be so easy to get on all those platforms when I first started in 2019. I found out that there are distributor companies where you can literally post your track, and they send it to different platforms within two to three weeks.

You just have to pay five to nine dollars. It’s so accessible today; it’s crazy. I just recently read an article that at least 40,000 songs drop on all platforms every day.”

Let’s talk about your most recent single, “Under My Skin.” What is the story behind this song? How do you think your style has evolved since “Goodbye” and “Slow“? 

“The song, “Goodbye” is a good starter song because it is really breaking through and really coming through with my artistry. It wasn’t really about anyone.

“Under My Skin” is a romantic song. I am not a romantic person. I’m not usually in relationships. I don’t do that kinda stuff, at least not yet.

I take experiences I see from others from my friends, people that I know, and incorporate their story within my writing. So whenever I hear a story, I go back home and write the whole thing down and turn it into a song.

That was kind of the basis of “Under My Skin.” Under my Skin was a person who has betrayed you, but you’re not trying to seek revenge. You know that you’ve moved on.

The idea is that they really did get under your skin and took you for granted. It’s your typical “get away from me, I’m a new person.” A lot of artists say that they need to experience this in order to write it. I’d rather just hear someone out and incorporate it into my writing.”

As you know, Indian music has a very distinct style. Do you think you’d consider weaving in elements of Indian culture into your own music? 

“A lot of people ask if I’m going to wear Indian clothes or show off my culture’s music. I am proud of my background, and where my parents are from, but I’m not going to use my culture for profit.

It’s still a part of me, but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to wear a lengha in every music video. That’s their perception of me, but I am still an American.

I am pursuing contemporary R&B music, but at the same time, I am Indian. I’m balancing both of these cultures and introducing this balance to America instead of them having this perception that I am just an Indian girl incorporating that weird mix into my music.

I don’t need to bank off of it. It is something that is sacred to me. We do pujas, we go to all these places. That’s when I will truly show that I am immersed in this culture. This is a part of me, but it wouldn’t be used for something commercial.”

What’s a typical day of music production like for you? 

“I usually don’t produce the entire track. I produce the demo track and send it to my producer. Basically, I come up with the melody, try and produce chords, and then just play acoustic for a while. For a couple days, play it.

A young lady with dark hair in a ponytail wearing a white T shirt with two pictures on it,  pink pants, and a necklace while posing.
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It really just needs to sink in for a while. I threw out hundreds of songs like that. There are a couple songs that hit within the first few days, and once I get comfortable with the acoustic version of it, I start using my midi, Logic ProX, and add the harmonies.

That’s just the rough version. I make all the demos, and then [the producer] sends it back and makes it much better. Then, I add the vocals from the studio inside my house.”

What can we expect from you in the future? Any plans for new music? An album? 

“I have a new song that’s coming out. It’s a ballad. It mainly talks about the issues that are going on right now in terms of Black Lives Matter and colorism within the South Asian community.

I’m talking about me and my sister’s experiences — essentially, societal problems. It also talks about how I’ve been stereotyped, and how I’ve been talked about solely using my culture as my identity.

It’s really a pivotal moment in terms of my artistry because it’s just a piano and my voice. It’s more about the lyrics, the voice, and how people feel.

The lyrics are mine, it’s from my experiences. It’s just something that people will relate to especially people from [the Desi] community. It’s different, and I’m really excited to show what I’ve come up with to the world.”

“I’m also planning two music videos for this summer; the song that I just talked about and another summer bop that I will be filming a music video for in August. It’s not as depressing as the one I was talking about before.

It’s very relatable. It’s talking about anxiety, dealing with people as a woman, and not being judged by people. It’s basically about women struggles, but it has a very upbeat, inspiring tune to it. Those are the two things I have for this summer. I’m working on more songs and maybe an EP in the future.” 

Lastly, what’s your advice for aspiring South Asian artists? 

“My parents have been supportive, but other members of my family have not. You only have one life, and if you know that aspect or that thing is what you want to do then there are ways. It’s not impossible.

There are outlets in which you can explain to your parents that this is what I wanna do, this is how I’m going to go about it. Just be strong in where you stand, and who knows? They might go along with it. At the end of the day, it’s your passion.

You don’t want to be living another person’s life. You want to be living your life. There are always things you can do to convince your parents. It did take me a while.

It took me all my life to convince [my parents], but eventually, they knew that this is what I want to do and I have the talent. Prove that to your parents, that you are fully invested, that you have the talent, and they might say yes.

We need more representation. We need to take this opportunity because there is no representation to fill in that spot, and that’s the part that I’m playing. There are not many South Asians in the R&B industry, so it would be cool to see faces like mine.

It’s high time that we follow our passion and do what we want to do.”You can listen to “Hunnit,” “Under My Skin,” and the rest of Akansha’s music on Apple Music and Spotify. You can also follow her on Instagram @axkansha for more updates on her music journey.

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How the Coronavirus is Shaping the 2020 Election

Ian Wentzlaff

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2020, a year already destined to be recorded as one of the most bizarre times in recent history, adds another layer of intrigue in November: the presidential election will take place in the midst of a deadly pandemic sweeping across the globe.

Voters across the country are entering uncharted territory this fall; individual health concerns about contracting coronavirus will lead many to vote by mail for the first time.

Coronavirus has afflicted nearly every part of the world, but the United States in particular has felt its ravaging effects. The U.S. has accounted for over 200 thousand of the 1.15 million deaths related to coronavirus worldwide.

Another way of thinking about this: one out of every five people killed by the virus was an American citizen. This statistic weighs heavily on the minds of voters in the upcoming election, as the decision to vote traditionally or by mail needs to be made.

There is much confusion surrounding mail-in ballots, and rumors about the likelihood of voter fraud abound. The reality is that voter fraud of any kind is extremely rare in the United States. This extends to mail-in voting.

Causing more confoundment is the fact that voting regulations vary from state to state. Places like Hawaii, where mail-in ballots have been the norm for some time, will presumably have little trouble implementing this method again in this election.

On the flip side, a state like Alabama that only allows voters to register for absentee ballots may find the increased number of mailed-in votes difficult to process.

Yet another wrinkle in the mail-in ballot complex is the necessitation of so-called secrecy envelopes that are required by some states. Further, any vote cast via mail without a said envelope, which are sometimes called “naked ballots,” may not be counted.

However, the need for secrecy envelopes ceased to exist when mail-in ballots began being counted at a separate location from the public polling places, thus eliminating the need for secrecy.

These regulations may deter some voters from opting for a mail-in ballot this election. However, others may fear that the risk of contracting a deadly virus is too great at public polling locations, where thousands of people will congregate.

The virus’s recent resurgence in Europe has led many experts to predict that the United States will also see a spike in the number of cases very soon. This second wave may hit just in time for the election, and that unfortunate timing only adds to the existing fears of voters.

In this upcoming election, no matter which political party you align with or which candidate you prefer in the White House, vote in whichever way makes you the most comfortable.

If the risk of contracting coronavirus frightens you, know that all states are required to allow absentee ballots, and most states support general mail-in voting. Make sure to familiarize yourself with your state’s voting regulations, and most importantly: VOTE!

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Tragic Chicago Shootings Shed Light on Gun Violence

Eunice Park

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A big crowd of people protesting outside of a building against gun violence, while one person wearing a hat carries a sign saying, "Choose KIDS over guns".
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It is absolutely heartbreaking that in the midst of various social movements and a global pandemic, there have been several shootings in Chicago this past week alone. There have been unsolicited and unwarranted attacks resulting in many endangered lives.

With two pronounced dead and more than 47 innocent civilians wounded, this resurgence of gun violence must be addressed immediately and thoroughly.

Although the right to bear arms is instated in the U.S. Constitution, the time for Americans to reconsider the Second Amendment has long been overdue. If anything, we’ve become numb to these events; after countless shootings throughout the past couple years, gun violence is no longer an active topic of discussion.

The lack of conversation around the topic of gun violence is where the problem lies, but it doesn’t have to be this way. People don’t have to accept these dangerous situations or weapons into the U.S. culture and society any longer. People have the power and the right to promote greater change and come to a more agreeable solution.

It is time to weigh some of the moral pros and cons of eradicating the Second Amendment.

Pros and Cons of Enacting More Gun Control Laws

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1. PRO:

It is not an unlimited right to own guns. The Second Amendment states that only those who are “fit” to own a gun should purchase one, and it does not support the “possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings.”

Laws that require a permitting process have also been maintained, but could become more strict. This would essentially reduce the number of people eligible to purchase firearms, and hopefully reduce the amount of unforeseeable casualties due to gun violence.

CON:

The Second Amendment also protects the right to individual gun ownership, even if the owner is unconnected with service in the militia. This means that tougher gun control laws would infringe upon the right to bear arms in self-defense, and would therefore deny people a sense of safety.

The police cannot protect everybody at all times. This right dates back longer than some of America’s oldest traditions, and it is these traditions that are the most difficult to change.

A lady with short grey hair wearing a pink sweater and a man wearing a beige shirt carry a sign saying, "This gun owner demands background checks."
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2. PRO:

More gun control laws would reduce gun-related deaths. Between 1999 and 2016, there were a total of 572,537 gun-related deaths: 33,579 were suicides (58.8% of total gun-related deaths); 213,175 were homicides (37.2%); and 11,428 were unintentional deaths (2.0%).

Firearms are also the second leading cause of death for children, with motor vehicle accidents taking first place. Implementing universal federal background checks may be able to reduce firearm deaths by a projected 56.9%. The more gun control laws are enacted, the fewer unnecessary and violent deaths there will be.

CON:

Gun control laws do not deter crime; they deter gun ownership. A study showed that assault weapon bans did not significantly affect murder rates.

These criminals do not, and will not, presumably, obey gun control laws. Resolving the issue of the misuse of firearms will take more than another law enactment; it would require a deep uprooting of future generations’ educations and, consequently, banning the right to bear arms.

3. PRO:

More gun control laws and/or the banishment of firearms will help protect women from domestic abusers and stalkers. Five women are murdered every day in the U.S. by firearms. A woman’s chances of getting murdered increases by 500% if a gun is present during a domestic dispute. Statistics show that between 2001 and 2012, 6,410 women were killed with a gun by an intimate partner in the United States.

CON:

However, not every gun owner is abusive or has negative intentions. Many own guns for recreational purposes. Gun control laws, especially ones that try to ban “assault weapons,” would consequently infringe upon the right to own guns for hunting and sport.

Under the pretense that all hunters are clear-headed and would never turn a gun onto a person, this would be doing the population a massive disservice and inevitably cause more political issues. In 2011, there were 13.7 million hunters in the United States who were 16 years old or older, and they spent $7.7 billion on guns, sights, ammunition, and other hunting equipment.

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4. PRO:

Gun control laws would reduce the societal costs associated with gun violence. 100,000 Americans who have been shot generate nearly $3 billion in emergency room and hospital charges, and this is excluding the charges of a taken life. With all of this combined, implementing more gun control laws would be doing a massive service to the people, both physically and financially.

CON:

When implementing more gun control laws, there will always be some other type of infringement that follows. Gun control law regulations, such as background checks, ID checks, and micro-stamping, are seen as an “invasion of privacy,” which would go against the Fourth Amendment.

In order to do a thorough background check, the use of a government database that holds all personal information, such as addresses, mental health history, family, and more, would be required.

There are many more pros and cons to gun control laws that are easily accessible on the web, but the recent Chicago shooting has reminded us of one thing: gun control is an important part of the U.S. society and should be taken seriously. 

The Second Amendment is interconnected with other rights stated in the Constitution. As shown, enacting more gun control laws in an effort to reduce gun violence incidents is difficult, and by doing so, it also affects other rights and concerns.

To find a real solution, preserve all life, and respect all rights, the leaders of this country must not only reconsider the Second Amendment alone, but also the entire Constitution.

May those affected by the tragic Chicago shootings find peace and continue to protest against gun violence. At some point in the unforeseeable future, a way to put these travesties to an end will be found.

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How Climate Justice Equals Social Justice and Vice Versa

Hannah Frankel

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“What is intersectional environmentalism? This is an inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for both the protection of people and the planet. It identifies the ways in which injustices happening to marginalized communities and the earth are interconnected. It brings injustices done to the most vulnerable communities, and the earth, to the forefront, and does not minimize or silence social inequality. Intersectional environmentalism advocates for justice for people and the planet.”

~ Leah Thomas (via Intersectional Environmentalist)

With climate change raging ahead at a pace much faster than environmental progress, many of those who are concerned for the future of the planet also feel a sense of urgency to make substantial and lasting change in order to reverse the ways in which humans have destroyed our collective home.

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Although academia has attempted to evolve in order to fight back against the growing threat to the health of our planet, it is clear that we, as an environmentalist community, are not making the progress necessary to undo current damages.

Furthermore, there is a harmful tendency in the environmentalist community to be so hyper-focused on climate justice that all other forms of social justice are neglected.

Environmentalists, as an activist community, cannot ignore the fact that marginalized, low-income communities are the first to be negatively affected by environmental injustice. Furthermore, we, as human beings, cannot expect to advance in global sustainability if institutions of higher education are dominated by sexism, racism, and prejudice.

This is not even to mention that low-income, marginalized communities are often blamed for destroying the planet via overpopulation and poor waste management strategies. However, according to Oxfam’s “Extreme Carbon Inequality” report, people belonging to the richest 1% of the globe’s population use, on average, 175% more carbon than someone from the poorest 10%.

Although social justice causes like gender and race equality seem completely different from climate justice, movements such as ecofeminism have arisen from the belief that all forms of oppression are connected, or are symptoms of the same disease.

If we, as a society, accept that humans have the right to dominate and use nature however we see fit, regardless of the consequences, this way of thinking may lead people to believe that certain members of society have the right to dominate others perceived as “lesser.”

As long as we live in societies dominated by inequality, the ruling class can always take advantage of and damage those with less agency, like women, minorities, those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and, even, the environment.

“Intersectional environmentalism” is a term coined by environmentalist Leah Thomas, and it stresses the importance of protecting both humans and the environment from injustice. This movement does not only stress that both ecojustice and social justice are important — it also signals that developments or defeats in one category affect the other.

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Take the current COVID-19 crisis, for example. We may not know for sure that the emergence of the virus is an environmental issue; however, we do know that climate change will set off other crises related to food production and the frequency and severity of natural disasters.

The coronavirus crisis has disproportionately affected people of color and poorer communities in America. Marginalized communities all over the world take the brunt of the harm during global crises such as this.

For example, the WHO reported that a hurricane that hit Bangladesh in 1991 killed 140,000 people, 90% of whom were women. Relief worker Rasheda Begum attributes this disproportionate loss of female lives to the rigid social structures that hold male lives above those of women and mandate women to protect their children and property at all costs, thus prohibiting them from evacuating.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, largely affecting impoverished communities that could not afford to evacuate the area in time. These communities, which were made up of largely poor, Black individuals, were left to battle a Category 3 storm without an adequate federal support system.

Mark Naison, a professor of African American studies at Fordham University, has since asked, “Is this what the pioneers of the civil rights movement fought to achieve, a society where many Black people are as trapped and isolated by their poverty as they were by segregation laws?”

Fast forward 15 years to today. We are seeing some of the very same racial and economic factors putting low-income persons of color and indigenous ancestry at a heightened risk of dying from COVID-19.

Due to the high presence of comorbidities and lack of access to adequate healthcare, these groups of people, along with those over the age of 70, are the ones primarily being sacrificed by America’s inadequate response to the global pandemic.

Continuing to exploit the environment by perpetuating reliance on non-renewable energy sources, failing to safely dispose of toxic waste, allowing for a continued rise in global carbon emissions, etc., will put communities with less economic freedom and political influence at a disproportionate risk of death and fatal health complications.

In most cases, unfortunately, those with economic influence are the only members of society that are able to gain political influence, meaning that the people society exploits are unlikely to have any real voice to make positive changes for themselves and their communities. Therefore, it is important that we take measures to combat climate change, as these measures would be effective in the protection of marginalized communities from future environmental disasters.

Social justice is just as vital to environmentalism as environmentalism is to social justice. Diversity of personhood and academic specialization are key factors involved in the success of combating environmental injustice.

“climate change is a man-made problem with a feminist solution,” said Mary Robinson, the first female president of Ireland.

Feminists work to level the playing field so that one gender does not have more power than the others. Likewise, environmentalists work to dismantle the very same systems of oppression and provide a sustainable future for generations to come.

The best environmental policies come from those who have suffered the most from threats like climate change, poor air quality, exposure to toxic waste, and more.

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If environmentalists truly wish to catch up to the speed of climate change, they must take on social justice movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter as if they were their own. All forms of oppression, all over the world, are interconnected; a victory for one marginalized group is a victory for all, including Mother Earth.

One tried and true method for oppressors everywhere is to separate the oppressed, drive wedges between us so that we are too busy fighting one another to direct our efforts where they truly matter.

The environmental movement has always been about more than protecting and preserving the natural world that has birthed and fed us. It is about protecting the world as a whole, including everything and everyone on it.

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