When Mattie Bell advocates for a thriving environment, they simultaneously advocate for human rights. This fervent passion for social justice began at a young age.
“I don’t remember a time that I wasn’t aware of it. I remember being like 7 years old and arguing with my grandpa on whether climate change was real or not,” Bell said. “I believe social justice is an aspect of climate change because climate change exacerbates all social justice issues.”
Factors such as race and class are directly related to environmentalism, they said.
“One example in the history of the U.S. is that Black and Brown communities have been redlined into certain neighborhoods, and those neighborhoods have been either selected as where industrial infrastructure will go, like factories and stuff like that, or highways will be built through them,” Bell said.
“Both highways and factories are contributors to climate change, but they also [provide] health risks for those communities,” Bell continued. “It also affects poor and working-class people first because in a system of capitalism, when you have money, it’s a buffer to a lot of problems.”
In March, Bell was appointed by Mayor Courtney Shipley to serve on the City of Lawrence Sustainability Advisory Board. The SAB is tasked with advising the city on “issues affecting sustainability, environmental protection, waste reduction, recycling, energy conservation and natural resource conservation, and environmental protection,” according to the city website.
At the SAB’s last meeting, board members selected Bell, 27, to serve as vice chair.
Prior to taking on a leadership role on the board, Bell had attended city commission meetings as a member of the public, giving them a personal understanding of their commitment to the community.
“Even though I wasn’t elected (to serve on the SAB), I’m still in a way representing the public and I need to listen to members of the public who show up to talk,” Bell said. “It’s been a good opportunity to practice examining my own biases or my gut reactions and being like, ‘Is this the right thought, or do I need to reevaluate?’”
Bell’s involvement in the Sunrise Movement since 2020 has given them a foundation for their environmental work in Lawrence. Centering the communities most harmed and creating a federal Green New Deal is at the root of Sunrise Movement’s work, Bell said.
Through the Sunrise Movement, they became involved with the Lawrence/Douglas County Community Remembrance Project Coalition’s racial justice essay contest and helped select winners. During the summer of 2020, Bell was on the ground assisting with a racial justice movement in downtown Lawrence.
Most recently, Bell became involved in fighting for abortion justice, serving as the outreach coordinator for Vote No Kansas leading up to the Aug. 2 primary election. They plan to continue that work ahead of the general election on Nov. 8.
Though Bell calls Kansas home, they said they have a feeling of nostalgia for Washington. Bell was born in Seattle, lived there until sixth grade and then moved to Lawrence in 2007.
After attending college at the University of Kansas for a few years, Bell transferred to Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. There, they participated in Habitat for Humanity and campus protests as an ally supporting Black and Brown students.
Bell was also introduced to an environment at Evergreen State where preservation was a daily priority.
“[Evergreen State] is a school I would say is pretty funky, and it has a focus on environmentalism,” Bell said. “It’s got an organic farm [and] recycling and composting available on campus and in campus housing. It’s also just situated in a gorgeous environment.”
Bell graduated with a bachelor of liberal arts in 2018 and returned to Lawrence in 2020.
Though people can consciously incorporate eco-friendly actions — such as reusing plastic bags — into their daily lives, Bell said the fight against climate change is a mass effort rather than an individual one.
“You can’t stop the big company from continuing to make potato chips and bags even if you just personally decided to stop buying that product,” Bell said.
“It can feel really overwhelming to be like, ‘Oh my goodness. If my individual actions don’t mean anything because I’m living in these giant systems that are contributing to climate change, then what’s even the point?’” Bell continued. “It’s a long-haul thing and no one person can fix it. I think my biggest recommendation is to find community — find people who you have affinity with, who have the same worries or thoughts, and then figure out something you can start doing together.”
Ultimately, Bell said they encourage others to control what they can, and to keep hope at the forefront.
“Despair means paralysis,” Bell said. “If you can find joy in nature and social relationships and then find organizations who are working on stuff, then you can be productive. You can also talk to your Sustainability Advisory Board about ideas.”
“I would also say envision your utopia, because utopia is a place you can never reach, but by pushing towards it you get closer and closer, and that’s something that’s been really useful for me.”
Note: This post has been corrected from a previous version.