Dany Sigwalt, a third-generation Washington native, has worked to build power for climate justice for more than seven years. The 35-year-old, who now lives in Knoxville, Tenn., with her preschooler and her partner, recently joined Green Leadership Trust as its managing director. Green Leadership Trust, founded in 2013, aims to strengthen the environmental movement by focusing on equity and diversity within environmental leadership; the organization functions as a network of Black, Indigenous, and people of color who serve on U.S. nonprofit environmental boards. Before this position, Sigwalt served as executive director of the Power Shift Network, an organization that serves a similar network-building role but focuses specifically on youth in the climate justice movement.
This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Kayla Benjamin: Tell me a little bit about your family and growing up here in D.C.
Dany Sigwalt: My grandparents — my mom’s parents — moved to D.C. in 1956. They settled in Mount Pleasant, where they were the first black family to buy a house on their block. And my grandmother still lives in that house. Her porch is my favorite place in the world.
I grew up in Columbia Heights, a couple blocks away. And a big part of my organizer story is that I grew up like a block away from buildings that were still burnt out from the ‘68 riots into the late ‘90s. Now where there’s a Target and a Washington Sports Club, and like all of these other stores, [then] it was just like burnt-out storefronts and a Payless and a Woolworths. But even through all of that disinvestment, I grew up with a certain amount of privilege. My parents are professors. My mom got her PhD at Howard, where my parents met. I grew up going to private schools west of the park. So I grew up with a very clear view on social inequity. And in D.C., any kind of conversation about social inequity is also about racism, structural racism. And racial justice has always been the lens through which I do my work.
KB: What led you to work in the climate justice space?
DS: For a very long time, I didn’t really think about doing climate work, because it felt like it was folks with a lot of privilege who were able to be worried about things that are going to happen 50 or 100 years from now, right? Thinking about climate change the way that people were talking about it in the 2000s, even the early 2010s, it just felt like something that was very, very far away. And you know, when my family, my extended family is dealing with housing insecurity, mass incarceration, the school-to-prison pipeline, joblessness, like all of these issues — it’s hard to worry about climate. But I realized that climate is an issue that is very much impacting our lives now. It’s impacting the economy, it’s impacting the way that we relate to one another. And is really, definitely causing the most harm to Black people across the planet. So all my work in environmentalism is really grounded in my passion for racial justice.
Dany Sigwalt, climate justice advocate and managing director of Green Leadership Trust, speaks at a climate rally outside the DNC in 2020. (Courtesy photo)
KB: Was there an experience, or a person, that kind of catalyzed that realization about climate and made you want to focus your activism in that space?
DS: I think, for me, it was a combination of seeing Hurricane Katrina when I was in college, and then seeing Hurricane Sandy. [Katrina] was like a front seat to understanding how climate disasters are going to disproportionately impact Black folks. Even just like the way that the messaging existed around Black people — like, Black people are ‘looting’ but white people get to ‘scavenge’ in the aftermath of the hurricane.
Hurricane Sandy didn’t hit D.C. nearly as hard as it hit other places. But my now-husband had to walk home in the middle of the storm because he didn’t have any options and he had to work. His job at a restaurant just made him stay through his shift. And the man was walking home in the middle of this hurricane. It wasn’t that bad as hurricanes go, but trees were down, it was a real, real bad storm. So [it was] one of the closest experiences I’ve had to that kind of immediate climate disaster, and I saw the labor implications, the class implications, and just the ways that folks who didn’t have a lot of choices were going to be the most impacted. I decided at that point that I wanted to figure out how to get more into climate work.
KB: You just left the Power Shift Network after almost seven years in top leadership there. Can you tell me a little bit about your work and what the organization does?
DS: Yeah, so Power Shift is a network and resource hub for organizations either run by young folks or committed to building youth development for climate justice. So we convene folks, facilitate relationships between people, try to move resources, do trainings, and provide mentorship for young folks who want to create or initiate a project or are already leaders of organizations. We have a specific focus on multi-marginalized youth, because the climate movement has not historically been a safe space for [any] folks who are living at the margins, but particularly young folks of color, and queer folks and disabled folks. So we’ve had a unique focus on building a safe and nurturing space for those people to be able to build some power.
KB: And now you’re headed to the Green Leadership Trust to join their team as managing director. What are you looking forward to in the next chapter?
DS: I’m really excited about being a liaison at GLT between generations. GLT has a lot of Gen Xers and baby boomers who founded the organization, who’ve been running the organization for a really long time. And as a millennial, I’ve been longing for relationships with folks who have been doing this work for longer than I have, because I’ve been working with young folks new to the movement. But I’m really excited about creating opportunities for folks even younger than me to be able to access the kind of mentorship that’s been so important and so critical for activism and movement work in Black communities forever.
KB: In your career, have you ever found yourself consistently one of the only Black activists in the room, and if you have, how has that impacted your experiences?
DS: I would say that the whiteness of the climate movement is why it took me so long to get my foot in the door. And I haven’t necessarily been in the kind of organizations or communities where I would be the only Black woman — like, I’ve avoided those, and that’s strategic. It’s how I survive.
But the power dynamics can be really intense in terms of having conversations with funders and trying to explain why fighting for racial justice in tandem with climate mitigation is actually a good strategy.
KB: And what do you usually say to help people, especially funders, understand that strategy and get on board with it?
DS: It’s a lot, but generally speaking, [I say] that the only way that we’re going to actually find successful systemic solutions to the climate crisis is if we bring everybody to the table, and folks have a voice. One, so that we’re not leaving folks behind, but also so that we’re not depending on Band-Aid solutions that are going to continuously create new crises.
So if we have folks at the table, we’re able to actually find solutions that are going to be sustainable for the long run and aren’t just throwing folks under the bus—because so often, the people who are being thrown under the bus are Black and brown people and poor people.
This is the fourth in a series highlighting local Black advocates fighting for environmental justice, a stable climate, and our Earth. If you would like to nominate someone to be featured in our next Spotlight, please reach out! I’m at email@example.com.