Powerful Words to Live and Breathe By

By Brett Matulis

April is known for Earth Day, but it is also National Poetry Month. So, I’d like to take this opportunity to share an environmental poem that’s been particularly meaningful for me. I first encountered this poem as I was seeking perspective following the murder of George Floyd. It helped me process a lot of the things I was feeling, and also connected a lot of dots related to my personal and professional commitments.

The poem is called A Small Needful Fact, by Ross Gay.

Gay’s poem pays tribute to Eric Garner who, like George Floyd, lost his life at the hands of police. Each time I arrive at the final line evoking Garner’s immortal words — “I can’t breathe” — I get chills. Tragically echoed by Floyd six years later, these words shook the world and helped give rise to the Black Lives Matter movement, opening eyes and leading many to stand against injustice.

What Gay’s poem helps us to see is that Garner’s legacy also carries on other ways. The “small needful fact” of Garner’s one-time occupation brings forward a much larger essential truth: environmental care is deeply intertwined with racial justice.

What the poem says to me is that, if we are committed to protection of the environment, we must also be committed to the protection of Black lives. If we are committed to solving climate change, we must also be committed to solving racial injustice.

Respiratory distress arising from the heat of a changing climate, just like the respiratory distress arising from institutional violence, is not experienced equally across populations. And so our solutions to these problems need to be inclusive and formulated to achieve equity. The climate actions we take — say, for example, advocating for shade trees or greenways within our communities — should always be oriented towards equitable distribution that repairs historical injustice.

I hope that this poem will inspire you — as it has inspired me — to live, work and breathe at the intersection of climate and racial justice.


About the Author
Brett Matulis, Communities Program Director, ecoAmerica

Additional Resources

American Climate Leadership Awards 2023 Broadcast Recording

ecoAmerica American Climate Leadership Awards Replication Guides

Path to Positive Communities Resources

Path to Positive Communities – Ambassador Training


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