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Denise Sala
December 07, 2023

Intersectional Environmentalism means uniting the struggles for climate and social justice

The voice of Denise Sala, interviewed by Chiara Pedrocchi

Blackn[è]ss fest is the first festival in Italy which presents a re-elaborated version of the African lineage universe. Events and roundtables are organized both to think about the concept of being black, following a path of decolonization of the language, and to discuss topics such as mental health issues linked to racial profiling, discrimination, racism, and also music, cinema, media and representation of black people . 

Voice Over Foundation chose to accompany the festival in this path and it decided to tell stories about it through the protagonists’ voices during the whole year. 

Interview with Denise Sala, university student and activist of Fridays for Future Milan, and protagonist of the Blackn[è]ss festival.

Q: What's your name? Can you tell us who you are and what you do in life?

A: My name is Denise Sala and I'm 21 years old. I'm a university student. I'm Italian from my dad's side, Zambian from my mom's side. In life, I'm involved in activism, especially climate activism. I'm part of Fridays For Future - Milan. I also lived in Stockholm, where I was part of Fridays For Future - Sweden.

Q: At Blackn[è]ss fest, you participated in a panel titled "The current state of wokeism": what is it, and where do we stand?

A: The term wokeism comes from 'woke,' which literally means ‘awakened’. It has been used in the United States among African-Americans to describe the process of becoming aware of the social injustices suffered by minorities, especially black ones. Being woke means acknowledging the discrimination experienced daily by racialized individuals.

Q: How has your path of wokeism been?

A: It began when I started attending intersectional spaces, such as Fridays For Future. My sister has always told me that I am a black-white. Actually, she's not entirely wrong. I was socialized as white, I always perceived myself as white, and then I understood that, as much as I feel white, there's a huge part that has nothing to do with all of this. Indeed. Behind that, there's an enormous and significant history to understand, analyze, and surely represent. Wokeism, for me, has been a journey of becoming aware of being black. 

Surely, having an Italian and white parent gave me more privileges compared to others: sometimes I felt like I didn’t have the right to speak about racism because I hadn't experienced the same episodes as others. However, I understood that there are different levels of discrimination, and all of them are relevant.

Q: What prompted you to start this journey?

A: When I returned from Sweden, I realized that there I didn’t face the same discriminations experienced in Italy. I began noticing the glances of women on the bus, people who didn't want to sit next to me, and even discriminatory attitudes from younger individuals. Having lived in a less racist country compared to Italy, I realized that there is something profoundly wrong here. Meanwhile, I started following pages talking about racism, deconstruction, and the more I heard these testimonies, the more I thought, ‘I feel the same way, I also need to question certain things’.

Q: How did you start doing activism?

A: Activism was a consequence of my always being attentive to social and climate issues, and wanting to do my part. I identify two phases of my activism. The first is when the Fridays For Future movement was born. I lived outside Milan, in the suburbs, and did small actions that didn’t impact the systemic matrix of the problem. It was all related to sustainability, which is an important part of the problem but not the main one. In Sweden, I started activism by approaching broader issues, analyzing the systemic problem of the climate crisis and all its social consequences. For me, activism means recognizing that I have privileges and feeling the need and duty to stand up for those who don't have them.

Q: How important is it for struggles to be intersectional?

A: Climate movements that define themselves as intersectional no longer talk about fighting climate change but about climate justice, and climate justice stems from social justice. Fighting the climate crisis doesn’t just mean fighting for the preservation of the planet but also for the people who inhabit it. This economic system is the cause of the ongoing climate crisis and is also responsible for the death of thousands of racialized people, inhabitants of the global South. But even when it comes to the global North, the first to bear the consequences of the climate crisis are those in low-income situations. Often, in fact, they live in the most polluted neighborhoods, exposed to water contaminated by industries.

This society is a vertical pyramid where, at the base, there are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People Of Color, Ed. note). I'm on that side too. Understanding this was powerful and important; on the one hand, I had the privilege of living in the global North, on the other hand, white people who fought alongside me were always placed on a different level. It's crucial to amplify the voices of those experiencing these injustices. When there's an opportunity to make statements, it's important to give space to those who experience these things firsthand. Intersectional environmentalism means realizing that social injustices are interconnected with climate injustices.

The people doing climate activism are mainly white: it's about recognizing privilege and deciding to counteract it. The system we live in provides a series of privileges, like education, living in a slightly polluted area. But it's a system that fuels all the rest of the injustices on the other side of the world. And it's not about being pessimistic or feeling guilty, but about rolling up our sleeves and siding with the oppressed.

Q: What do you think about spaces like Blackn[è]ss and why are they important in Italy?

A: This year, I took part in Blackn[è]ss for the first time. I followed the last edition on social media, thinking ‘wow, I'd like to participate’, because what I saw was a strong sense of community and representation. It's beautiful to see so many black people in the same space sharing their stories without feeling obligated to justify themselves and without fearing encounters with episodes of white fragility, which is the defensive attitude adopted by white people to reject accusations of racism. There, I didn't feel the need to say certain things because I knew the people there already shared my same anger and frustration. The goal was to focus on these two feelings, but also on the joy and celebration of blackness. And then it's important to represent stories and bodies through dance and music, which are predominantly white spaces, especially at a global level. I hope there will be further editions.

Q: What are your future projects?

A: I'd like to make my struggle even more intersectional, approaching other movements too. I'd like to better understand how to take care of myself and other people in my community when it comes to eco-anxiety, for example. And then I'd like to seek inspiration because I feel that all the methods used so far have less and less impact on those who really need to wake up.

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