Brighton Kaoma is a graduate student in Environmental Science and Policy (Class of 2020) at Columbia University, and an intern for the Earth Institute’s Initiative on Communication and Sustainability. Below, he shares his story of growing up in a pollution-choked town in Zambia and amplifying the voices of communities impacted by environmental problems.
When you realize that something threatens your entire future and well-being, you can literally feel a deep shiver down your spine. This shiver can either inspire you to take action or bog you down in hopelessness and despair. After facing the consequences of the climate crisis at a tender age, I chose the former — hope, not despair. I took the next steps personally because of what was and is still at stake: my entire future and well-being.
Imagine growing up in a community tucked in between a river on the east and a copper mine on the west. You cannot escape to seek refuge elsewhere if the community floods, or worse, gets choked up by the toxic fumes from the copper mines. Imagine waking every other day and not being able to see across the street because the sulphur dioxide haze is so thick. You can literally see the air you are breathing in. When you inhale, your chest stings, your nose clogs, your throat gets irritated, and your airways choke, causing coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and a tight feeling around your chest. Every day you see desperate poor community dwellers scavenge in the vast slag heaps known as Black Mountain. I know some of you might be imagining Chernobyl and you are neither wrong nor right. What you’ve just imagined is my birthplace, the community where I was born and raised two and a half decades ago. Ipusukilo, loosely translated as ‘freedom,’ lies in the periphery of Kitwe town on the Copperbelt province of Zambia.
When I was 14, I had an idea. Everyone listens to the radio in Zambia; often people turn it on just to hear the time announced. Why not use Kitwe’s airwaves to educate my community about the environment and the climate crisis?
I went to a local station and shared what I wanted to do. They gave me a time slot and began training me for free, and within a few weeks, I was running a program called Environmental Watch. Tons of residents started tuning in to learn about the environmental problems affecting Zambia — from climate change to deforestation to pollution — and how they could help. The model was very participatory as community members found the program an ideal conduit to report on how they were being impacted disproportionately by the severity of the climate crisis and other toxic legacies left behind by copper mines owned by western and eastern multinationals. I believed that when you give the community a voice, you are offering them a springboard to a world of broader opportunities. This moral sense of purpose and conviction inspired me to be fearless in front-loading the airwaves with strong messages on climate action targeted at duty bearers in government and multinationals in the extractive industry.
Inspired by a deep passion to ‘pay-it-forward,’ I collaborated with other young community organizers to establish the Agents of Change Foundation, and began offering radio skills training to children across Zambia. Through collaboration with stakeholders such as UNICEF and Children’s Radio Foundation, over 1,250 young Zambians, aged 12 to 19, have been trained in radio production and broadcasting and are now orchestrating sustainability radio projects in their communities and amplifying their own voices. Here’s one example:
After spending close to a decade organizing across Zambia, including advising other youth-focused organizations in over 10 African, European and Asian countries, I decided to apply to Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) to attend the intensive year-long Masters of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy program. While at SIPA, I have been privileged to ride under the wings of highly acclaimed sustainability champions such as Andy Revkin, whom I got the honor of knowing through my mentor and US NPR founding member Bill Simmering.
Since October, I began interning under the Initiative on Communication and Sustainability, where Andy Revkin is the founding director. I am exceedingly thrilled and challenged to journey with this award-winning science journalist and author to build this great initiative. The Initiative on Communication and Sustainability will, among other things, develop toolkits and forums to help scientists and journalists communicate more effectively with each other and with the public and policymakers. My experience in radio, communication, and facilitation, weaved together with the knowledge and training acquired from my MPA in Environmental Science and Policy at Columbia, shall be critical in supporting the initiative’s growth and sustainability.
The internship with the Initiative on Communication and Sustainability will position me to work with and learn from some of the best communicators and scientists from within and outside Columbia University. Asking critical questions to these scientists and garnering their critical feedback shall help me communicate climate science to general audiences and stakeholders. The Earth Institute is a place I have come to learn about and respect based on the number and quality of climate scientists, innovators, and communicators it houses. While the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program is giving me analytical and decision-making tools to implement effective and sustainable management policies, the Initiative on Communication and Sustainability is poised to hone my skills in communicating science and the fates of the things we value the most as the climate changes. The two experiences combined will shape my future plans of supporting organizations in government, NGOs and the private sector to develop, implement and communicate sustainability policies.