Welcome back to #AerieREAL Shop Talk, Aerie fam! After speaking to inspiring women like Aly Raisman and Syma Raza, we are back to highlight our 2020 #AerieREAL Changemaker Candice Youngblood. This lawyer-meets-youth mentor is making a genuine difference when it comes to environmental justice, and her phenomenal journey shows why she has just the tools and motivation to do it! Read on below to learn more.
When did you first know you wanted to pursue this career and what attracted you to it? Did your career aspirations change at all over the years?
I grew up with asthma living at the intersection of three freeways in Los Angeles County. Having enjoyed the AP environmental science class that I accidentally enrolled in (biology and chemistry had not made me a science fan), I applied to college to study environmental studies. When I got there, I learned that Black children are more than twice as likely as white children to be hospitalized for asthma.
I was the only Black student in the lecture hall that day, and the case study illustrating that health disparity was my home: the South Coast Air Basin. Institutional divestment, decades of redlining, and massive highway expansions resulted in Black and Brown communities having higher rates of asthma due to their proximity to traffic pollution. I learned this phenomenon was called environmental racism. I remember feeling so angry that I had gone so long without knowing my truth. But learning about environmental racism changed the course of my career.
How did you get started in your field and really break in?
After I graduated from college in 2015, I worked at a large nonprofit environmental law firm as a litigation assistant. There, I supported attorneys who represented frontline community members fighting for their right to breathe. I remember watching community members bring in their children’s inhalers and nebulizers during public comment to show decision makers the costs of their decisions. I realized that there was so much power in sharing stories like mine, of upbringings on the frontlines of health hazards. That ultimately led me to law school.
What do you feel like was the turning point for your career?
It was definitely the year following law school. I started volunteering at a few youth civic engagement and conference programs, and I loved seeing all these diverse California youth coming together in one space. I enjoyed watching them simulate government and civic engagement. I then started to reflect on why I hadn’t even heard of some of these organizations when I was in high school, and I learned that (1) the cost of participation was too steep for my family to afford, and (2) there weren’t local chapters in my community. That inspired me to create a program for youth in communities like mine. And since I had gone so long without knowing about environmental racism, I wanted to shape my program around centering Black and brown youth in environmental education.
How did you learn the skills it takes to be successful in your job?
In many cases, my lived experiences have made me more successful in my job. Because of those adversities I faced growing up, I’ve been able to connect with youth from underserved communities. There’s a level of legitimacy and trust that comes with a shared lived experience. Of course, college also gave me the knowledge and tools to name and frame environmental racism. During law school, I built my confidence and learned of ways I could empower others. And my volunteer experiences taught me that youth are more capable than adults typically recognize, and they reminded me that many of these lessons I’ve learned so late in life should have come much earlier.
How would you describe the day to day of your job?
My day job is being a public interest attorney, and while the end goal is sometimes exciting, the day to day functions are…not that interesting. As far as my executive director role with Youth on Root, it varies a lot because we’re still in the planning phase. We recognize that many of the youth with which we’ll be working will have endured trauma, so we’re being as intentional as possible about how we execute this project.
My “day to day” has mostly been having calls with similar organizations to see if there are partnership opportunities, calls with more experienced folks in this space to learn from them, calls with my team to strategize how we’re conducting needs assessment or developing our brand identity. In sum, a lot of phone calls, which I guess isn’t that much more interesting than my day job…
How has being an #AerieREAL Changemaker impacted your journey?
The #AerieREAL Changemaker competition enabled me to start Youth on Root much sooner than originally planned. It was an idea I had been sitting on because of my recent volunteer experiences. But I was not planning on taking the leap any time soon until I saw Iskra Lawrence post the Changemakers competition.
Since then, I’ve attended a nonprofit incubator to learn about nonprofit management, assembled an amazing team, secured fiscal sponsorship so we’re a legal entity, and hosted two public service fellowship projects with youth who are helping conduct needs assessment for this project. Our immediate next steps are to participate in training programs to develop our leadership skills and capacity to partner with youth, and then recruit the youth who will drive Youth on Root under our guidance. All of this progress was catalyzed by the Aerie prize.
What have been the biggest challenges for you as you’ve navigated your career?
It can get a little lonely, and impostor syndrome sneaks up on me because of the lack of representation. Black people accounted for only 2.8 percent of the nation’s total environmental science degrees in 2016, making environmental science among the least diverse fields of scientific study. During my second year of law school, Black women comprised 1.73 percent of all attorneys in the country. These numbers are in part caused by the steep costs associated with higher education, and public interest careers don’t always pay well. Cost was definitely a barrier for me, particularly as a first-generation student from a low-income and single parent household.
But these challenges are some of the reasons I was inspired to start Youth on Root. First, elite institutions tend to be gatekeepers of environmentalism, and frontline youth should be able to center themselves in dialogue about the environment. Second, I wanted to help youth from communities like mine have access to these elite spaces should they wish to participate in them.
How do you stay knowledgeable and on top of the latest news/trends in your field?
TikTok definitely isn’t my thing, but I do enjoy seeing youth sharing their thoughts, aspirations, and causes via TikToks and other forms of social media. I enjoy it because you can see that they feel empowered and recognize that their stories and opinions matter.
Who are you inspired by in your field?
As far as my personal heroes go, I have to shout out Angela Johnson Meszaros. Representation matters! I remember walking into that interview in 2015 and thinking “Oh, OKAY, I can work here” when Angela introduced herself as one of the senior-most attorneys there. After I had been working there for a while, she told me she remembered feeling that same sense of kinship when I walked into the door. I’m also incredibly inspired by Dr. Dorceta Taylor, Mari Copeny, Wawa Gatheru, and Leah Thomas.
What advice do you have for others who want to pursue this career?
Connect with people! Generally speaking, folks from my background—be it Black, Black women, folks from Los Angeles, or my alma mater—have looked out for me. Similarly, I’m always happy to lend advice, share scholarship resources, or make connections between folks. I believe that no one succeeds by only their own merit. It’s also a bit of luck and knowing the right people.
Because we’ve all succeeded by standing on the shoulders of giants before us, many of us want to pay it forward and help others like us pave their own path. So I highly encourage others to seek opportunities to network and meet folks. Perhaps one day, there will be a youth whose life is changed by meeting their mentor at a Youth on Root conference. 🙂
What did you think of her inspiring story, Aerie fam? Let us know in the comments!