Must-have Voices

Sophie Dipti Sarkar works to shift the focus of the environmental movement to include communities of color

2019 PGM ONE Summit. Photograph by Natasha Cohen-Carroll.
By Kardelen Koldas ’15
September 8, 2020

Growing up in the small rural town of Pullman, Wash., Sophie Dipti Sarkar ’11 turned to nature in moments of hardship. The rolling hills and trees never let her down. They were her solace through all her emotions.

“I knew as a young person that I could go outside to heal,” said Sarkar, whose ancestors were farmers, fishers, and landscapers hailing from Japan, India, and the United States. “I’ve always had a deep reverence and commitment to nature, the land, and the earth.”

But her relationship with the environment also bears a dash of tension.

While feeling mesmerized by the Sierra Nevadas, for instance, she never forgets how her grandmother was incarcerated in the Japanese-American concentration camps at the base of those mountains during World War II. “It’s this mixture of loving and longing for nature, but also not feeling like I belong.” Sarkar thinks that a lot of Black, indigenous, and other people of color feel a similar tension.

Instead of overlooking her emotions, Sarkar decided to explore them. She wanted to heal, reclaim her connection to the outdoors, and also fight for it. It was her turn to show up for nature and the earth.

In 2016 Sarkar, an economics and environmental studies: policy major with a master’s in urban planning from the London School of Economics and Political Science, cofounded the nonprofit People of the Global Majority in the Outdoors, Nature, and Environment (PGM ONE). This grassroots organization offers programming for people of color in the environmental movement to connect with one another, converse about their experiences, exchange knowledge and skills, and take on leadership roles. It’s work that creates a community of leaders and activists.

The goal? To bring leaders from those populations hit hardest by environmental degradation and climate change—communities of color—to the forefront of environmental justice work and amplify voices currently underrepresented in the movement.

Sophie Dipti Sarkar '11
Sophie Dipti Sarkar ’11. Photograph © Zack Marcial Garlitos.

“In order for everyone to live in a world, in an environment where they can thrive, those who are most impacted need to be at the center.”

Sophie Dipti Sarkar ’11

Sarkar, herself a leader in the movement, would attend conferences and meet these same people of color over and over. They often served in token roles, such as on diversity panels intended to educate white folks, but would always end up self-organizing and imagining how different things would be if they were leading. In 2017 Sarkar and PGM ONE started their own summit exclusively for people of color to combine their power.

The annual, three-day summit allows activists and leaders of color to discuss issues stretching from anti-Blackness to settler colonialism to ableism to sexism and transphobia. “It was really hard to have more nuanced and intersectional conversations in very white spaces,” said Sarkar, the organization’s director of programming and engagement, “because the focus is so often on dismantling whiteness.”

Around 350 people—with 200 more on the waiting list—attended last year’s summit in Philadelphia. Sarkar feels proud of the summit’s growth, not just its numbers but also its offerings. While maintaining its focus on fighting for climate and racial justice, the summit has evolved to include opportunities to heal from experiences of oppression, celebrate one another, and center joy and the arts in its programming.

The art component sprouted from Sarkar’s background as an artist—something she tries to bring into every realm of her work. “The paintings I make have been really about exploring my connection to nature and getting more in touch with my ancestors,” she said.

The arts became part of the organization’s efforts when the pandemic struck and it transitioned to online programming. PGM ONE held workshops on watercolor painting and storytelling along with monthly affinity spaces for specific racial groups.

The pandemic and postponement of its fourth summit forced the organization to slow down, reflect on its work, and establish an ongoing community between the conferences, something it always desired. PGM ONE, currently consisting of codirectors Sarkar and Anderson, has been thriving despite the pandemic by expanding its programming. The organization is looking to add 20 new leaders to extend its reach and share power.

Amidst last summer’s racial uprisings, when both its community and white-led environmental organizations looked to PGM ONE, the cofounders realized its potential to take leadership. It could support people to act against anti-Blackness and also help them link racism with environmental justice. PGM ONE recommitted its work to put Black lives in the center of its organizing efforts by allocating resources for its Black community members and brainstorming actions to support them.

2019 PGM One Summit
2019 PGM ONE Summit. Photograph © Natasha Cohen-Carroll

Sarkar’s efforts to fight anti-racism and support climate justice go beyond PGM ONE. She’s also a partner and trainer with the Avarna Group, which supports environmental organizations to better embody values around equity, justice, and anti-oppression. She helps these mostly white-led organizations recognize how different forms of oppression show up in the workplace and how to work toward dismantling them. Previously, she worked for the City of Philadelphia’s Beat the Heat Project that mapped out communities that were the most heat vulnerable.

Her work allows her to keep her foot in both worlds—community organizing and institutions—so she can strategically determine how to allocate resources, energy, and time in the environmental movement.

“I really believe it’s important to do both,” she said, “to be tuned in to the visions and imaginations of communities who are most impacted by climate change and social oppression, and to also understand how our systems and institutions are intentionally setup to not work for everyone.”