Music, Activism, and the Environment: Interview with Thanushka Yakupitiyage

Music, Activism, and the Environment: Interview with Thanushka Yakupitiyage

. 10 min read

Thanushka Yakupitiyage (“DJ Ushka”) is a DJ and organizer for immigrant rights and climate justice. She is the U.S. Communications Director at the climate justice organization She is also an award-winning DJ who has performed at MoMA PS1, the American Museum of Natural History, the Brooklyn Museum, and other destinations.

How did you first get involved in music and activism?

I came to the US for college, and I went to Hampshire College in western Massachusetts. I think the combination of really amazing professors who really had a decolonial lens and where I really started to learn about social justice issues and colonialism and the impact of colonialism and racial justice, I think, really created a foundation and a base for a political journey for me.

Between undergrad and grad, I was doing different kinds of work. After my undergraduate degree, I was a researcher for an organization which is now called Race Forward (but it was called the Applied Research Center). I was the main researcher for a book project about the undocumented workers who worked at a restaurant called Windows on the World, which was on the top floor of the World Trade Center. When September 11 happened, all of them died, but none of their families got any sort of assistance and relief because they were undocumented. Doing that work plus also working in a restaurant with a lot of undocumented folks was a real reality check for me as someone who was an immigrant who was also having a really hard time staying in the US.

So, when I went to grad school, I decided to study specifically media and immigrant rights. When I graduated grad school, I ended up being the communications and media lead for an organization called the New York Immigration Coalition. That's what started my journey into doing more immigrant rights-specific work with a racial justice lens. I was living in New York [and] was very involved in anti-gentrification fights [and] a lot of work against police violence and in support of families who were being impacted by police violence, whose loved ones were being killed by the police. I was really involved in Occupy Wall Street and a lot of Black and Brown organizing.

I'd always kind of been a club kid, and for me, as someone who is not from the US, I found that music and nightlife was really healing for me. I always joke with my friends that some folks have their religious spaces, their religious temples. For me, that was the club. I'm very much a dancer, and so when I was [between 24 and 26], I started learning how to deejay. I always had this little bit of a dream to be a DJ, and at that time, there weren’t actually that many femmes and queer folks in control of music spaces in New York. It was pretty emergent.

So, my interest in being a DJ and using art as a tool was because I work on a lot of really intense issues. For almost a decade, I worked on immigrant rights issues, and now, I work on climate. I think sometimes it's just really doomsday, and it's really intense. You're dealing with communities who are constantly under threat, whether it's a threat of deportation and now living in a climate crisis.

I think so much of my values and philosophy around why I do this work is rooted in joy and is rooted in the kind of world we want to see. The kind of world I want to see is something that I, in a very small way, have been able to craft on dance floors, in clubs. Obviously, that shifted of course with the pandemic, but I think music creates a different kind of medium to communicate around what it means to uplift and support Black and Brown communities and immigrant communities, and what it means to create an alternative to a white supremacist norm in this country, but also across the world. And also, to create spaces where you can be yourself. You can be queer and trans. You can be someone who has multiple interests, and that's okay.

When I ended up in my earlier years doing immigrant rights work, I was dealing with a lot of work around deportations—this was pre-Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)—supporting young undocumented folks who are still under threat. Literally last week, a Texas Court said that DACA was illegal. In my twenties, I started to get super depressed around some of the work that I was doing, and I had to shift the way I did it and create spaces that were joyful because resistance doesn't always look like a policy change. Resistance actually starts from culture, and culture leads and actually creates policy shifts. So for me, joy is resistance.

You have previously spoken and written a lot about how immigration and climate change are deeply intertwined. Rising sea levels and droughts from climate change have already forced many people to leave their homes. Could you elaborate more on how immigration and environmental justice are connected?

On a basic level, we're living in a climate crisis that is not going to go away unless we have very intentional and swift climate action to limit warming to below 1.5 degrees. We're already seeing all of these climate impacts. Just look at the floods in Germany to wildfires all across the Pacific and the Pacific Northwest into Canada.

I live in New York. Two days ago [in July], it was hazy in New York because of the fires in California. We're seeing much more extreme climate impacts whether it's hurricanes, whether it's droughts, and there's a lot of ways in which it's connected to migration. Of course, because of climate impacts, people are going to move.

Migration [appears in] a lot of different ways. Oftentimes, it looks internal. You'll have people moving from one part of a country to another. We saw that in the US with Hurricane Katrina, for example, and particularly [for] Black folks in Louisiana moving from Louisiana to Texas then again being impacted by another hurricane—Hurricane Harvey—and again needing to potentially move. We saw with Hurricane Maria and Puerto Rico the mass exodus of Puerto Ricans from the island after Hurricane Maria and also the impact of economic upheaval there. In South Asia, you're seeing a lot of Bangladeshis and Muslims actually moving to India. In Africa, you see people moving from one country to the other all the time.

That's considered internal migration, or migration within a region. There's also external migration—that means from one country to the other. For example, in places like Honduras and Nicaragua, Central America is considered a drought tunnel, so it's really being impacted by droughts. Farmers can no longer till their land the way that they used to, so you'll see farmers moving to cities. That causes complications. There's also a mixture of lack of opportunity, corruption, violence, and the climate crisis all mixed into one. On the US-Mexico border, a lot of refugees who are coming from Central America are also impacted by the climate crisis. It's just that, in the US, there is no asylum policy that accounts for climate displacement. If you're at the US border, and you're trying to seek asylum in the US, and you say, “Well, I'm a farmer, and I can't grow food on my land anymore,” that's not the basis to get asylum to the United States. So, there's a lot of limitations on current immigration policy that don’t account for climate.

One basic way in which climate and migration are interconnected is that, as sea levels rise, as there are stronger storms and droughts, people are going to leave their homes. You’ll see that more clearly in the Pacific Islands, [in] places like Fiji and Tuvalu and Tonga, that are literally 10 meters above sea level. If sea level rise increases to such an amount, those islands will not exist. You're seeing that in the Maldives, for example.

As the climate crisis intensifies, you're also going to see right-wing nationalism really intensify. A real shutting down of borders, excluding people, and this real inequitable approach to who gets safety from the climate crisis and who doesn't. And, it's oftentimes people from the Global South, Black and Brown people—people who have had the least to do with the climate crisis—who are going to be the most impacted.

In terms of environmental justice and migration, you'll often find that Black and Brown immigrants live in the poorest communities. They face higher rates of asthma [and] of other sorts of pulmonary and respiratory diseases because they're living in areas where there are fossil fuel plants, where there are a lot of polluting industries that are impacting their health. You see that across the board in Black and Brown communities, and you'll see more poisoned water, more poisoned air. There, again, is a real direct link between environmental justice and racial justice, and more broadly climate and migration as well.

How would you say that different countries can improve their policy regarding climate migration? What can be done at the international level?

Right now, very little has been done. The UN finally acknowledged climate as a reason for why people migrate. And this just happened [in December 2018] that they acknowledged it. The UN Convention for Refugees, which was made in the fifties, makes no mention of climate and environmental disasters as a way for people to move. On an international level, some of these international-level organizations need to do more than just acknowledge [climate-related migration]. They actually need to ratify [climate and environmental disasters as] one of the reasons why people should migrate.

Across the board, countries need to move forward with the understanding that migration is a human right, and people have the right to migrate with dignity, whether it's within their country or across countries. People migrate for particular reasons. They migrate for economic opportunity. They migrate for the survival of their family. They migrate because they want a better life. If they are being impacted by the climate crisis, they can't live in their homes.

So, I think there's two approaches: both the right to leave and to migrate to wherever you want, and also the right to stay, [because] a lot of people want economic opportunity in their home. It's a very complex subject, but I think that particularly countries in the Global North need to be advocating for reparations. It's fossil fuel companies like Shell and BP and Exxon that are based in places like the US, like Europe, that have got us into this climate crisis in the first place, and the countries most impacted are countries in the Global South or are poorer countries. We need some sort of framework of reparations to ensure that countries in the Global South have what they need in order to support communities if they want to stay.

Also, Global North and Global South countries need to expand their immigration policies and refugee and asylum policies to ensure that people can move if they want to, that they are set up, that they have resources. And, there needs to be a lot of countering and combating of right-wing hate and right-wing nationalism. Oftentimes, there's this real fear of the “influx of new migrants” coming in, and people, particularly in places in the Global North—whether it's Germany or the US or the UK—and it’s often white folks who are like, “But this is our country. You can’t come in.” There needs to be a lot of education around the role that the Global North has had in creating these crises to begin with and [around] the colonial impacts that these countries have had on the global South, which is why people migrate to the North (if it's South to North migration).

Based on your experience, what role do you think civil society should play in advocating for the rights of climate migrants and refugees?

I think civil society has a huge role to play in demanding climate action. Our window of opportunity is really dwindling: it's less than seven years. We're in a climate crisis. We're in a pandemic that's not going away. It's very difficult to advocate when you're dealing with multiple crises, but I think that we're reaching a tipping point, and you're going to see the economy start to reach a tipping point.

I think civil society has a role to play in demanding a different kind of world—a world that is more open, that is borderless, that is fluid—within an economy that works for all. We have to stop thinking of this as one nation against the other. At the end of the day, it's one planet, and we're destroying it. While the planet gets destroyed, one of the richest billionaires is spending his time going to space for less than 10 minutes. It’s absurd. Literally, Jeff Bezos could single-handedly pay for the climate action that we need. I think there needs to be a lot of work done to tax the rich to ensure that there's a cap on the amount of money that millionaires and billionaires can make and that anything that they make over a certain threshold goes towards climate action [and] towards supporting the poorest communities. Civil society has a role to play in creating a cultural space for radical ideas about a different way in which we can live.

You helped organize the Muslim Ban protest at JFK, and you serve as the U.S. Communications Director at the climate justice organization What's something you've learned working in these advocacy spaces that you would share with other organizations?

What I've learned is advocacy is hard. It's not smooth. There's not one way of doing things, and I'm really grateful for the opportunities that I've had in these nonprofits to create change. I recognize that it takes more than one organization. It takes a lot of coordination and collaboration across organizations across civil society. I feel like I'm just doing my part in the small way that I can, and the way I do that is through storytelling. I do communications and media work. I do it through trying to support the creation of strong campaigns that can hold governments and corporations accountable to the needs of the most vulnerable communities.

I've also learned that burnout is real. I think for those of us who work in these movement spaces, it's really important to prioritize yourself and what you need, and that's why the arts are so important to me. What I've learned is that, particularly when you're dealing with extremely heavy issues, you have to remember that we have to be part of a collective unit of people and part of a community who's doing this work because no one of us can single-handedly change anything.

Young spoke with Yakupitiyage on July 22, 2021. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.