Isaac Wilkins: An Environmental Justice and Sustainability Calling

by |January 31, 2017

Isaac Wilkins headshot cropped

Isaac Wilkins, a student in the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program, has a calling. Introduced to the environmental movement through advocating for environmental justice issues impacting communities of color, he is expanding his mission to help solve diverse issues across the various sectors within the environmental movement. Whatever he decides to focus on after graduation, his activities are consistently filled with purpose.

His involvement in community began at an early age. Isaac co-founded the Plainfield Youth Organization for Unity in 2010 when he was in high school. Living in a New Jersey area with a high crime rate, Wilkins and his friends had too many experiences related to loss and death. Empowered to make a change, they started an annual Youth Summit, designed to spread unity. The event attracted over 1,000 attendees by the third year, and was later adopted by the city.

“The best things come from passion, not building a resume,” said Wilkins, who won the New Jersey School Board Anti-Violence Award for his work in Plainfield.

Isaac at Howard University with the Men of George Washington Carver Brother-Hood,

Isaac at Howard University with the Men of George Washington Carver Brother-Hood.

A Bill Gates Millennium Scholar, Wilkins began his studies as a chemistry major at Howard University. While at Howard, he founded the Men of George Washington Carver Brother-Hood, to help freshmen males matriculate into university life, teaching brotherhood and community service, while also promoting scholastic enrichment and education of African culture.

Serving as an organic chemistry research assistant at Howard and in the summer at UCLA, Wilkins was on a path to becoming a scientist. He was working with faculty there to help develop a more efficient and less expensive capsule for pharmaceuticals. What really spearheaded his interest in environmental and policy issues was his experience while attending the UN’s Conference of the Parties 21 climate talks in Paris in 2015.

Isaac at COP21 in Paris

Isaac at COP21 in Paris.

As a student delegate for HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) Wilkins raised awareness of climate change issues, successfully mobilizing youth through social media for the international youth workshop, and gained the attention of the White House. Creating a blueprint for change, the workshop also gave Wilkins an opportunity to highlight environmental justice issues, including advocating for loss and damages related to climate disasters.

As a chemist, Wilkins was able to explain the science related to the health issues experienced by vulnerable communities. He learned that “combining the natural and political sciences created an impact. Small communities and common people had voices loud enough to get the attention from the climate negotiators.”

Inspired to get more involved in policy issues, Wilkins volunteered for the Obama presidential campaign, and also served as a congressional intern for U.S. Sen. Cory Booker on Capitol Hill. It was a “very fast-paced, realistic D.C. experience,” he said. “You come in one day working on one issue, and the next day it’s something else, but you are expected to know what you were talking about, offer advice and make sound recommendations.”

Wilkins served as a research assistant in the political science department, investigating key factors and policy issues related to the lack of diversity in STEM, specifically in environmental science. At the same time, he was mastering Swahili for a study abroad program in Kenya, where he volunteered as a tutor in the Saraphina orphanage.

“Science is unknown, you can explore it and can be creative,” he said. “Policy is unknown, but is more about understanding people and procedures and bringing it together.”

Since becoming a student, Wilkins has worked with community organizations, schools and scientists to develop a testing kit and mapping project centered around empowering New York city residents about their environment. Specifically, working with local residents, including high school students, they will map and create a database that will determine areas with high lead soil concentrations and push for policy to solve these environmental issues.

Americans need to pay attention to issues, stay informed and use the power of the people within our democracy to solve issues. We rely on government too much to make these decisions for us.

Wilkins received a travel grant from the Earth Institute to attend the UN Conference of the Parties 22 climate talks in Morocco, to learn more about how minorities are affected by climate change.

His ethics paper analyzed the Black Lives Matter movement from an environmental lens, and looked at the potential for the movement to serve as a voice for indigenous and underrepresented communities, raising awareness around international environmental justice issues.

With a new Trump administration elected, Wilkins will continue to focus on environmental justice and sustainability. Undeterred, he said:

“We need to stay focused on doing our jobs, keep working, and support our narrative. Americans need to pay attention to issues, stay informed and use the power of the people within our democracy to solve issues. We rely on government too much to make these decisions for us. The president is only one man.

“There is already momentum in the private sector, as many companies have invested in renewable energy, and [that] will continue. For example, Google will be a 100 percent renewable [company] next year—so capital investments have been made, and the net profit has been realized. Private investments will fuel sustainability. There will also be focus on the more global issues, and pressure from other countries to continue reducing carbon emissions.”

Wilkins has some advice for new students coming into the MPA-ESP program:

  • While you are in New York, take advantage of the opportunities the city offers.
  • Be diligent.
  • Drink coffee.
  • Be confident.
  • Be open minded to new areas of study.
  • Have a mission, have a goal, and tell your narrative.
  • Take advantage of the great alumni network.
  • Cherish the diversity: Diversity helps you construct your narrative, and learn how to speak to people about your point of view.
  • Columbia and New York City is a microcosm of what you will experience in your career, and you have to be prepared to be here, mentally and physically.

After graduation, Wilkins plans to use science to effect policy and drive change in innovative ways. Preferably in California, he would like to work for a company or organization to creatively integrate and/or expand social, sustainable and environmental initiatives in its core.

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