What We Need Now: Black Leadership
April 1, 2022
The theme of the third season of What We Need Now (WWNN), Greenpeace USA's climate and racial justice-focused podcast produced by Black staff, is "Centering Blackness," and in our first two episodes, we have focused on uplifting Black leaders in our own organization. In March, we passed the mic to the highest level of leadership at Greenpeace USA, our very own co-Executive Director, Ebony Twilley Martin.
The theme of the third season of What We Need Now (WWNN), Greenpeace USA’s climate and racial justice-focused podcast produced by Black staff, is “Centering Blackness” and in our first two episodes, we have focused on uplifting Black leaders in our own organization. In February, we featured Democracy Campaign Director Folabi Olagbaju. In March, we passed the mic to the highest level of leadership at Greenpeace USA, our very own co-Executive Director, Ebony Twilley Martin. Listen to the full Episode here (transcript below):
Ebony is the first Black Woman to hold this role for Greenpeace USA or for any national legacy environmental organization. The interview, conducted by her mentee, Ishmael Herod, WWNN producer and former Greenpeace USA Senior Talent Acquisition Manager, and Avery Raines, Greenpeace USA Senior Digital Strategist, is equal parts unapologetic celebration of what we’ve accomplished and raw honesty about how much more must be done. Right before the interview starts, we hear Ebony processing the significance of her impact on Black staff at Greenpeace. “I’m so excited to be here. This is just like, my journey in Greenpeace… to see this…It’s just like my wildest dreams come true.”
“I think we have to be at the table. Not just there for visibility, but there for our strategies and there for our answers, and there to demand what it is we need because nobody else can tell us what we need but us. And we can’t cede space in that way. “Oh, I’ma just let them fight for us,” No. It’s time out for that.”
Ebony’s journey to environmental activism began in a very personal way, when her son developed asthma due to environmental injustice in her community. She later learned that her experience was not unique, but is part of a bigger problem in which Black and Brown communities are the ones most impacted by environmental injustice.
Shocked by the degree to which the environmental movement lags behind in reflecting the diversity of frontline communities, Ebony devoted herself to increasing Black and Brown representation in the traditionally white-male-dominated field. She seized the opportunity to join Greenpeace US in a talent acquisition role and set about the task of creating opportunities for other folks like her to “not just be engaged in the discussion, but be engaged in the strategies and solutions.” The rest as she modestly says is “history” – belying the transformational impact of her work on the organization.
Ebony also emphasized that, especially for Black Women, it is equally important to acknowledge and address the unique challenges they face once they get to “the table.” This conversation is especially pertinent as we recently watched another phenomenal trailblazer make history.
In this month celebrating women, the confirmation hearings of the first Black Woman to be nominated to the U.S Supreme Court, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson began on the International Day for the End of All Racial Discrimination. It was a rare opportunity to witness history in the making and, for many, the feelings it evoked were complicated.
Like Ebony and other Black Women who have earned their place at the top of white-male-dominated institutions, the eminently qualified Judge Jackson faced questions about whether she belonged. She shared the doubts that crept across her mind as a young student when she first walked the halls of Harvard, and the strength she found in the single word shared by another Black Woman who knew upon sight of her inner turmoil – “persevere.”
The confirmation hearing was undeniably a moment deserving of unabashed celebration. But as we know, this can often be the hardest part. When the norms of professionalism, decorum, white supremacy culture discourage Black joy, it can seem easier to fight for the next victory than to celebrate what we have already accomplished. Moments of triumph for prominent Black folks are often further complicated by the heightened scrutiny that comes with them, challenging us to be our authentic selves, often while holding ourselves to a higher standard of performance.
Ebony reveals that despite her success and demonstrated leadership, she too experiences those doubts. Her words of advice to women and other Black folk working towards our purpose is to trust ourselves. She urges us to be authentic, brave, and bold because we add value when we bring our full selves to the table. “Trust yourself,” she says “even when it seems you shouldn’t. That’s probably the time when you should the most.”
ISH: Hey Family, I hope you’re doing good. My name is Ish, I use he and him pronouns and I am excited to welcome you back to another episode of What We Need Now.
AVERY: Hey y’all I’m Avery. I use she/her pronouns and today we’re gonna talk a bit about the importance and the impact of having Black people in leadership and what that means for movement focused organizations.
ISH: This episode is a minisode…[minisode sound effect] which is like a snack size version of our full episodes.
AVERY: And with that, we’re going to get right to it
ISH: We have an INCREDIBLE guest on the WWNN podcast today.
AVERY: Yes! It is an absolute pleasure to introduce the very first Black Woman Executive Director of a national legacy environmental organization in the US. She is none other than the Co-Executive Director of Greenpeace, Ebony Martin. Hey Ebony, welcome to the show!
EBONY: Hey! Oh my goodness, it’s so great to be with you both today, this is like Black excellence. I’m loving it.
ISH: Yes yes, Black excellence. Oh yeah, we’re loving having you here too. This is an exciting moment to have you, the Co-executive director, join the call. So really excited to chat with you.
EBONY: I am I’m I’m so I’m so excited to be here. This is just like, my journey in Greenpeace to like, see this…It’s just like my wildest dreams come true.
ISH: Oh that’s facts. It’s like being able to be on this call and like see who I’m talking to like. I’m talking with Ebony Martin Co-Executive director of Greenpeace. I’m talking to Avery up in here. Like we are actually really really thriving right now. Really good to hear these Black voices, see these Black faces and just really get into it. So Ebony, how’s your week been so far? How you doing?
EBONY: You know it’s it’s been a great week. We are getting ready to announce our first Black Chief Program Officer–
EBONY: To staff later today so you know we’re just doing big things around here. So it is. It’s a good day. A good week. Like Ice Cube say, I gotta say it was a good day.
AVERY: The Black Excellence just does not stop at Greenpeace lately!
EBONY: Girl. Just get ready. We got some more for you.
ISH: I like this. I like this! Right So we would love to hear more about you, who is Ebony? What brought you to work in the environmental movement and what was your journey like to get to where you are now. Like who are you?
EBONY: Wow that’s deep. Who am I? I’m probably many things to many people. I’m a mom. I’m a wife, I’m a sister. I’m a auntie. I’m a daughter. I’m a worship leader. You and I know I’m a WWE fan. Yes, I’m a dog lover and I’m an environmental activist. So, how I got to Greenpeace was actually my oldest son started developing breathing issues and I was trying to figure out like what was going on. And so I take him to the doctor and she, you know, said it’s probably asthma and I said to her well, I don’t have asthmatics in my family like that. Doesn’t run in my family and I thought asthma was only hereditary. And she asked, well, where do you live? What’s your neighborhood like? Are there gr-Is there grass? Are there trees around? And I was like, well, you know, I live kind of on the highway. And she said it’s probably the pollution from the cars, the truck exhaust, that was probably impacting his breathing. So that was startling for me, so I started to do more research and found out that Black children are more disproportionately impacted by asthma, and in fact, Black people are 40% more likely to get it and three times more likely to die. And I was like,
EBONY: Yeah I was like wow.
AVERY: That’s horrifying.
EBONY: It is. And I had no idea, like, when I started to look into it more that even the way highways and roadways are constructed have like a racial undertone to them. They put, you know highways and byways, in cities that are more Black and Brown. In doing more research, of course, when you look into the environmental movement, you don’t see many faces that look like mine. Or look like us. But we’re the ones that are most impacted. And so, like I kind of purposed in my heart from that moment forward, like. I had to do something to make a difference or do something to make a change and to make sure that more people like us were represented. In the environmental justice fight. And to bring more faces in like ours. And a position popped up open for me at Greenpeace in Talent acquisition. And I said, you know, I prayed about it and I was like. “Well, maybe this is my opportunity that I can make change” I applied to Greenpeace and the rest is history and I’ve I’ve been here I’m ever since creating space for others folks like us to not just be engaged in the discussion but be engaged in the strategies and the solutions.
AVERY: Thank you so much for sharing that with us. That’s that’s truly horrifying, and I hope that your son is doing better now. You know, the NAACP released a really amazing report around the respiratory impacts on people of color called “Fumes Across the Fence Line.” The health impacts of air pollution from oil and gas facilities on African American communities, and I highly recommend that everybody go check that report out because it’s very illuminating into the issues that we face with pollution and emissions being concentrated around our communities.
ISH: Wow, thanks for thanks for sharing that and Avery. Thank you for dropping that knowledge to definitely check that out for sure. Yeah, we’re glad to have you not even gonna lie. I’m glad that the journey did take you here, ’cause there’s been a lot of changes so far.
EBONY: Yeah, and I’m so grateful like that Even now we can connect with the NAACP and other allied groups of color to amplify. And to like I said at the end of the day, it’s about creating solutions because we have the research and we know what we need to do. And right now it’s just on a pathway of, and trajectory towards us building power to do exactly what we need to do.
AVERY: You can say that again. So let’s have a little Minnie Riperton moment and just go “Back Down Memory Lane.” When you found out that you were becoming the Co-Executive director of Greenpeace. What was that moment like for you? What were you feeling?
EBONY: Wow, so actually what had happened was, Annie told me that the– who’s who’s a Co executive director with me, had told me that the board chairs wanted to meet with me about a leadership discussion for the organization and I kind of freaked out. I was like, “the board chairs? What do you mean they want to meet?” And she was like “No, it’s a good thing, you know, just just come to the meeting.” So I’m like, “O.K.” And I have a..I have a really good relationship with Jakada Imani who’s our Inc Board chair, first Black Inc. Board chair also. Shout out to Jakada.
ISH: Shout out to Jakada.
EBONY: Yes, so I get in the meeting with them and they start discussing, you know, the trajectory of the organization and how we are pioneers in multiracial leadership and just the changes that we’ve made within the organization with regards to embedding justice. And they said, you know, and we think it’s time to make another step. And they said, you know, we want Greenpeace to have the most impact at this moment and we think now is like a pivotal moment with nearly 60% of Americans concerned about the climate crisis. This just wasn’t the case. Like five years ago. Now it’s like literally THE topic of discussion. And then they were, like you know, we’ve seen your partnership with Annie. We’ve seen your leadership in the organization and we want to offer you a Co-executive director role in the organization.
And when he said it to me, I kind of was like it did not hit me. So I actually picked up the phone and text my husband and I’m like, “I think they just offered me Co-executive director.” He calls me and he’s like, “What?!” but I had to put him on mute. I was like, “I can’t talk. I’m on the phone with them like I’m in a zoom room. It just didn’t hit me. Like it it it was. It was like they were still talking to me, but I just wasn’t like in the moment. And I told them, you know, “OK, thank you so much. I’m really honored. Let me pray about it.” ’cause I don’t take anything without praying. And I got off the phone with them and I’ll– I kid you not. It still didn’t really hit me up till mayb. 30 days later they were like, “We made you an offer, are you going to circle back with us?” And over that time, over those 30 days, like when I began to pray and really consider like what was happening and what I felt I was being positioned for in the moment and the impact that I felt that I could make. That is when it all began to hit me. And. At the end of the day, like I said, I came here for not just my child, but for other children because clean air and water is a basic human right. So how could I in this lifetime being given this opportunity, not take advantage of the platform that was laid before me to make impact and change in the world? So it, in short, it didn’t really hit me until like days and weeks later, and to be honest it..it’s still hitting me like even in moments like now where I see the gravity of everything before me.
AVERY: Well, Ebony, I just want to ask you a quick follow up. You know you detailed a little bit about your journey and to come into Greenpeace. When you first joined Greenpeace, did you envision yourself eventually taking on such an impactful leadership role? Was this something that you saw in your future? I know you said you were a little blindsided by the offer, which is, which is an amazing thing to have happen–happen, you know? We love these happy little surprises, but is becoming Co-Executive director something that you envisioned for yourself when you began your journey at Greenpeace?
EBONY: Avery, never in a million years, never in a million years. My goal was to come into the organization and honestly, it was to be HR director. I wanted to move up in talent acquisition, which I was able to do. Also, nurture talent up under me and move into HR because as the HR director role, that’s where a lot of the policies and the strategies that you can implement to impact culture happens. And that was actually my goal. And I had a goal to do that I think in….I can’t remember probably like three to five years and that actually happened for me in two years. You know, once I- I got into that role and was able to build a team around me, we were able to make it like a lot of impact on the organization with regards to ensuring our policies were more equitable and lead to more equitable outcomes with regards to compensation with regards to promotions, different things of that nature. And then something happened and I think the Chief Operating Officer left. And Annie came to me and said, she said, I want you to just take the realm of the administrative team for six months. And six months turned into a couple of years, and then the next thing I know I’m getting asked to do Co-executive director of Greenpeace. So it it’s been a wild and amazing ride and it has far outlived whatever expectation I had coming into the world.
ISH: Come on Black excellence.
AVERY: We love to see it. It sounds to me like Annie Leonard and the board knew a good thing when they saw it. So again, we’re super glad that you’re here. So what do you think the impact is that this will have moving forward in terms of other green groups and environmental and climate justice, focus movement groups?
EBONY:Yeah, I’m really hopeful that it sends like a huge message to the movement. I think oftentimes, we look outside of our circle when we’re looking for Leadership roles or when we’re looking for certain things that are lacking or that we perceive to be lacking in organization, when really they’re right up under your nose. They’re right there all along, and one thing I have always tried to do in Greenpeace is like to cultivate leadership, to seek out talent and then to invest in them that I see potential. And I think, you know, me moving up in the organization, especially from an area that isn’t perceived to be you know, you know if you think about a Co-Executive director of Greenpeace, the first thing I would have thought was, “oh it would come from the programs department.” I’m such an anomaly in that way, so I’m hopeful that it’ll signal to the movement that what you have, probably right around you, is what you need to get you to the next level, and I’m hopeful that other big legacy and enviro organizations and not just in enviro but like the movement at large starts to pay attention to the talent that they have right in front of them.
ISH: Speaking of those, national legacy and enviro orgs and just organizations in general like we’re rounding out Black History Month like we’re going right in the Women’s History Month, and I’m just really excited that we have the first Black Woman Executive director of one of those type of organizations like like, what does that mean? Like? There’s so many opportunities for Greenpeace as an organization to move towards being even more intentional about advancing equity, embedding justice. But I also assume there’s Probably a lot more challenges as well, and I’m curious if you could speak a little bit to like what those challenges could be.
EBONY: Uhm yeah, what can those challenges be? Ish, I’m sure you have a list of them. Avery, I’m sure you have a list of them. I think we all do because we’re confronted with those challenges everyday. Aren’t we? Just existing as Black bodies in inherently white- dominated spaces? We we face those challenges every day. I think society-wise, we’re facing like a reckoning right now. And like we’re calling on institutions basically to move beyond their flashy phrases and kind of their performative tactics and really move into transformation. And, transformation with regards to justice,that actually is the change that liberates, and that’s actually the change that we need to see the progress and the big ambitious goals like that we have. We have big goals in this movement and the only way to get to them really is transformation, because we can’t keep doing the same thing. And so I think the challenge is…is for folks to like embrace the transformation in the change and the strategies that they need to adopt to make the change. It’s not good enough just to have Black and Brown folks at the table. Or like I said, it’s not good enough just to have Black and Brown folks in the car with you. It’s time for them. You know to hand over the keys. In some regards, it’s time for them to, you know, change the lanes. Sometimes this our lane and we have the solutions and you know we need to let folks drive. And I, I think at the end of the day it’s really about ceding power in certain spaces and I know that’s a..hard thing for people to grapple with, but that’s the only way change is going to come because right now what we’ve been doing hasn’t been working. It hasn’t.
ISH: So we’re gonna take a little break and then we’re gonna talk about Centering Blackness and what that means to us, but first, a quick ad break.
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AVERY: Well hey, hi and hello everybody. Welcome back to the show. So the theme of the third season of What We Need Now is around centering Blackness. You know, speaking from personal experience, I’ve spent my entire professional career at various environmental nonprofits and movement organizations, and I can tell you, it’s not always easy to really show up in your unapologetic Blackness in these spaces that are typically dominated by white folks, you know? So Ebony, I’m wondering if you can tell us a little bit more about what centering Blackness means to you. And what that looks like, especially in your role as Co-executive director of Greenpeace USA.
EBONY: Yeah, Avery thanks for sharing that. It really resonates with me. It’s hard sometimes to show up unapologetically who you are, especially when, society has taught us that Black is not beautiful or that Black is problematic or Black is, you know something detrimental. Nobody wants a, you know, a Black mark. It’s always given like a bad name. But, I’ve been reading a lot of Bell Hooks lately and there’s a phrase that she had where she says, “The moment we choose to love we begin to move against domination and oppression. The moment we choose to love, we begin to move towards freedom and act in ways that liberate ourselves and others.” And so for me, centering Blackness is basically centering that love. Love of our self, total acceptance of who we are with all of our quirks. With all of the good things that come with us, all of the things you know that we are struggling like within ourselves to even rise to a higher level of real realization or manifestation. But it’s like loving, loving yourself, loving what you’re going through. Loving who you’re developing into becoming. And I think for us and in regards to like centering Blackness, It’s about total love and acceptance of who we are as people. What we bring when we bring all of ourselves, no matter what it is. And so, I’m hopeful that Greenpeace is evolving into the organization. Where we are censoring who we are as people and who we are as a community. Like I said, yeah at the end of the day, it’s centering its centering that love and that for me, is like centering Blackness.
AVERY: That really resonates, love begets liberation.
ISH: Yeah yeah yeah, I love that historically, like we know what’s been going on with the relationship between Black people in the US. Like often the needs of Black people and the issues we face have often been overlooked. And not to mention the many many different areas where we’ve had a lot of racial tensions specifically, like police with the justice systems and kind of how they just treated us in general. So I’m just–we’re just curious to ask. Literally….what steps do you think the US should be taking in order to kind of make sure that our lives, our people become more of a priority?
EBONY: Wooh Ish, that’s deep!
ISH: I know we could spend like 50 more hours on that…
EBONY: Really. We really could, and I mean that question really resonates with me because the article that just came out in New York Times about the Biden administration and J 40 and what strategies…what environmental strategies they’re developing to help or to correct actually, the environmental injustices that have been placed upon, largely BIPOC folks. And what they’re doing is actually trying to create the strategies around like a– a race neutral approach like not even acknowledge race in it. And this is like, really perplexing because like Doctor Buller said, the most powerful predictor of industrial pollution is race. It doesn’t have to do with your property value. It doesn’t have to do with your income level, but it’s race. Like I said, they literally place BIPOC communities in harm’s way when it comes to the environment.
ISH: That’s ridiculous.
EBONY: It’s crazy. So I don’t. I don’t know how we’re going to come up with solutions when we don’t acknowledge that race is a part of the root cause for the problem. And so, I think the first thing is like we have to stop erasing blackness and brownness. We have to stop erasing like– it’s there and it is the root cause of the issues and the crisis that we are facing today. And that takes courage and you have to know that they’re still going to be pushed back. And I think somebody said, you know, you’re gonna get sued either way, so you might as well be honest about the solution and know that it’s linked back to the disproportionate harm placed on BIPOC communities. And so I think the first thing is like to kind of like yell at this administration. You can’t erase that. It’s core to the fight. It’s core to the movement.
AVERY: I completely agree. Yeah, it’s absolutely paramount that we continue to call out that so much of environmental racism. What we call fossil fuel racism is intentional. It is well planned and we need that same level of coordination IN our strategies in order to be able to combat it, you know.
AVERY: Really heavy stuff, so..
EBONY: Yeah, it’s like we’re taking two steps forward and then taking three steps back. Keep pushing it and I think, again, we have to be at the table. Not just there for visibility, but there for our strategies and there for our answers, and there to demand what it is we need because nobody else can tell us what we need but us. And we can’t like cede space in that way. “Oh, I’ma just let them fight for us,” No. It’s time out for that.
AVERY: Yeah absolutely. Our community is our people. We know the solutions that we need. We have all the answers among us. Absolutely paramount that we’re there. And me Personally, I’m very excited that you’re at the table. I’m very excited that you’ve taken on this new role and that you’re ushering Greenpeace into a new era. You know, for Black people in the movement, or even more specifically, for Black women like myself, who may have aspirations to also make history, inspire change, help shape the legacy of the climate, justice movement of this era, what advice would you give to us?
EBONY: You know, I think Avery as Black women we are in a unique role because it’s… sometimes when you experience resistance or aggressions, we can’t always figure out is it because I’m Black or is it because I’m a woman? And so it’s like that. That paradox that we’re often dealing with, but I think. The advice that I would offer to Black women in particular, and Black folks in particular who are…who know that they’ve been called to make an impact and to make a change is to number one: trust yourself. Trust yourself, trust yourself, trust yourself, trust yourself. Often. I would have ideas that I know went against the status quo or I thought about things in ways that were different from the environment or the culture around me and sometimes I wouldn’t speak up. But I knew I had a thought or idea or suggestion that could make change. And in those moments when I actually started to trust myself and put myself out there because I know that that makes you vulnerable because a lot of times folks will look at you like you crazy. You….you put your idea out there, but when I started to trust myself. That’s when the change started to happen. That’s when systems started to shift, or barriers began to fall and it’s hard to do that like I said, because you can say things and people– you’ll be met with silence or you’ll be met with…you know folks just kind of looking sideways at you and not really agreeing with you, but you’ll be surprised. Maybe two days later, you’ll get a message from someone and something that you said resonated with them, or you’ll get a– a tap on his shoulder and someone will say “that sounds like a good idea. How can we make this work?” So my my number one advice would be to trust yourself even when it seems you shouldn’t. That’s probably time when you should the most.
AVERY: Thank you for that. I think as Black people sometimes we forget the importance of our intuition and you know, we sort of let the professional environment and what’s deemed to be acceptable for how we’re supposed to navigate the workplace, sort of overshadow that intuition. I think it’s very important that we don’t lose sight of that. So thank you for offering that up, Ebony.
EBONY: Yeah, definitely. I think that that’s something even to this day I continue to struggle with. But I have to remind myself often. I’m different. And diversity and differences, actually it makes the team or it makes the work better and stronger so… Bring that difference and trust in your difference. Trust who you are.
ISH: Well, I love that. That’s like I’m ready to go ahead and buy me a hashtag. Trust Black folks, hashtag trust Black women. Thank you for sharing that. And I hope the listeners definitely hear that too. Like trust yourself like that is something that is very powerful to see you as a Black woman. Make it to the level that you have made. It has been nothing short of incredible, so we’re excited to have you talk through that. But before we close out this episode, we have one question that we ask all of our guests. So as Black people, what do you think we need now?
EBONY:What do we need now? Honey, we have everything. We are the most creative, funniest, solutions-oriented…. We are so productive. Like just the way we come up with things, the way we think about things, the way we experience things, like our culture is just so amazing. So what do we need now? Just to continue to be who we are, continue to show up how we are in the moment. Be us. Be you. Celebrate one another. Black Joy. Black excellence. Like be happy for you, that’s what we need. Just like…We are amazing people. The things that we accomplish whenever we put our minds to things, no matter what it is? I saw the, umm, the Olympic skater, what she had just gotten on the ice for the first time in six years. And then she gonna go win a medal? Like we just be doing things and doing things big. So like, just let’s just keep going.
ISH: Love that come on, it’s almost like you know that we’re centering Blackness. So thank you for that. Ebony, any final words that you want to say to the people?
EBONY: I’m just so excited. Really grateful to talk to the audience. Reach out to me anytime. Like you know, I tell staff that I am very accessible. Just yeah, just thank you. Thank you Avery. Thank you Ish. Thank you to the what we need now crew. Let’s keep going.
ISH: We want to thank Ebony again for joining us on this episode of What We Need Now. It was truly a pleasure to have her join us for this very important conversation. You can find links to her bio and work in our blog and social media posts. We want to continue to remind everyone that it’s going to take all of us fighting together to get there. No matter your age, gender, ethnicity, or anything we are all needed in the fight for Black lives. So that’s all for now but we’ll see you next time on What We Need Now.