Nikki Silvestri

Nikki Silvestri is the Executive Director of Green for All in Oakland, CA. She has worked over the last ten years as an advocate for environmental and social equity for underrepresented populations in food systems, social services, public health, and economic development.

My family, like many African American families, has a history of sexual violence dating back to slavery. My family is composed of African American women and the white men who raped them; African American men and the women they were forced to “breed” with; children who were owned by their fathers. We also know from our history that ways can be found out of that slavery, to give a woman sovereignty over her own body.

Like me and my forebears, women in disadvantaged communities already know the stark dangers confronting their lives, and they are already passionate about protecting their reproductive health and rights.

My great-grandfather was an Irish railroad worker who met and fell in love with a black woman in Louisiana. When he told his family he wanted to marry her, they tried to kill her and her family. The couple fled to Mexico (because miscegenation was illegal back then), married, moved to Los Angeles and had eight children. One was my grandmother.

Such stories have engraved the realities of women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights into my bones. As a result, I have spent my life trying to help create zones of safety where people can love whomever they want and raise their families without fear. It’s not easy. Violence is still the reality for millions of women worldwide: over a third of women have experienced some form of physical and/or sexual violence, often at the hands of an intimate partner.

In fact, women’s conditions are a general canary in the coal mine of a country’s condition, because where women’s health is poor, their life expectancy short and their rights few, we can be sure that their society is unstable, corrupt, callous toward the poor, abusive of everyone’s human rights and lax about environmental hazards. Even in the developed world, women are still under-represented in the health studies that set toxic chemical and pesticide exposure limits.

My mother was adamant that women’s health was important. She told us she had planned each of us, avoiding possible hazards in her diet and surroundings – and my father’s as well – before we were conceived, and feeding us healthy foods as we grew up. Environmental conditions for health protection became a natural focus for my work.

My parents ran a foster-family agency so I started working for social justice through the foster care system of southern California, tutoring and directing Foster Youth Empowerment Workshops. I witnessed the way drugs and alcohol and living near toxic waste dumps and pollution-emitting factories and power plants could ruin women’s health and their families’ lives. And make no mistake: such environmental hazards are usually much closer to communities of color and poverty than they are to wealthier neighborhoods.

Areas of poverty tend to be the hardest-hit by natural disasters like floods and hurricanes, and they pay the most for energy, food and water, transportation, and other services because investment in infrastructure goes elsewhere. Rates of miscarriage and birth defects are also highest in these neighborhoods. A black woman with a Ph.D. has a higher infant mortality rate than a white woman with a high school diploma. Concern for women’s reproductive rights and health care access in such situations has always just seemed common sense to me.

At Green for All, we are working to build an inclusive green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty. We collaborate with business, government, labor and grassroots communities to create quality jobs and opportunities in green industries, with women as critical advocates for key changes in their communities.

Like me and my forebears, women in disadvantaged communities already know the stark dangers confronting their lives, and they are already passionate about protecting their reproductive health and rights. It is a natural understanding and a natural opening to environmental and social awareness. It will remain with me as long as I live.