When we sat down with Isaias Hernandez of Queer Brown Vegan, the most startlingly impressive piece had to do with education – so many of us go through school, get the degree and maybe, maybe not so much, forget most of what we learned as work/life takes over. Not so for Isaias. He is a master at self-education. He takes what he learns to his instagram to educate, inform, inspire. A space he is forging to build community through empathy and conversation. We wanted the back story☺
I was looking at your Instagram. The depth, the engagement, the unique gesture towards learning, it’s off the charts! How long have you been doing this?
Isaias November of 2019. So the page itself is fairly new but previously I had co-created a BIPOC environmental magazine with my best friend back in 2018 after I graduated college.
What inspired you to start this?
I was always doing environmental research with creative work on the side but the two never interconnected. There was so much knowledge from undergrad going to waste – I was working at a creative agency – I wasn’t really using my degree– so I felt disconnected in the sense of how am I able to build this into a career or meet other environmental creatives; I shared this idea with my friend – we had the same values and the same goals – so we developed Alluvia magazine. That became the stem idea for Queer Brown Vegan – a space to express my own thoughts, my own passions, and really incorporate personal side stories of my lived experiences of environmental justice and racism.
There’s a unique mix to how you present the material on your Instagram, it’s pretty radical actually in its seeming simplicity…and yet…
I was looking at how to understand conceptually what terms mean in academia. I broke the terms down to find simple ways that connected to me personally so that slowly and surely people could enter into my work.
and the last few weeks have been very transitional where a lot of people have been wanting to work with or wanting to know more about the work I do.
Yes, I saw you had a really good number of “likes” and now it’s exploded in terms of interactions. Do you feel that the recent protests raised awareness, that people started looking around for a space where racism and social justice and environmental justice coincide?
Yeah and this leads to a questioning of modern environmentalism. In undergrad it was even a little bit too controversial to talk deeply about racism in the environmental space and I didn’t understand that because I took an environmental justice course and so I was “well, why isn’t it required for all the environmental science people to take this course?” because clearly some people don’t know about it or they think it’s not real. So I’ve always talked about it in the beginning of my work. And with the recent light on the injustices happening globally to communities it encouraged people to unlearn and learn themselves to what they want to do. I think a lot of people came to me because I had cultivated my community already and in the beginning a lot of them were like level 1 into environmentalism – my content offers an introductory welcome. So I think people were very attracted to it because in a sense it was not too much information going down their throats but it was like “wow, I didn’t even think about this”. People are able to use my page as more of a resource themselves and to further develop their own mark.
What drove your initial interest in environmental work and also becoming a vegan? Were you raised this way or was it something you discovered yourself?
I’ve been passionate about environmentalism since a young age. I grew up in a community that experiences a lot of environmental injustices with things like air quality and pollution so my earliest days were like survivorship rights. Zero waste was a way of survival, a way to make money. I grew up collecting cans across the neighborhood in LA, which was pretty common, right? You see people with their carts in NY, too, and so that was my experience with my mom doing this work where I saw the value of recycling because it was a form to live, to survive in this society.
When I began studying in college I realized that a lot of material was purely reflecting and upholding white supremacy. They present the environment from a heteronormative cis white male perspective – it’s never ecological – it’s about “This is how this scientist thought so that’s how we should think.” They don’t really want to challenge you to think other ways.
So during that time I really unlearned! you don’t necessarily need a degree to be an environmentalist, right? I got involved in doing more diversity work in environmentalism; I was involved in the students of color environmental collectivism at UC Berkley. We demanded the University implement diversity programs and hire more professors who were black people or people of color because 98% of their staff were white and that was a huge issue.
Then I started going vegan near the end, as a senior in college because I have a sister, she’s 10 years vegan and she’s always sending me videos of factory farms and talking about environmental racism. I went vegetarian first, slowly and surely I cut out things that I didn’t really eat –like red meat I never really ate– so when I made that jump it was pretty easy because I didn’t have to depend on cheese or chicken like many people do plus there are a lot of vegan alternatives, and that really began my vegan journey.
I revisited zero waste a year later after I did more research about it being an ancestral practice and really reconnecting with my own roots and my own practice of what was zero waste for me. I wanted to reclaim the word, to identify with it. I feel like it’s a human threat issue, zero waste and so I think that implementing systems that are obviously very sustainable and regenerative but also that don’t harm the people is very important. What we’re seeing today is that the zero waste movement is focused on individual consumer based choices instead of the larger picture.
Yes…so you’re having it become more part of the larger picture?
Is there someone you found influential on your path?
I’ve had so many amazing mentors but my sister and mom, they really taught me how to be sustainable. My dad and brother, too. But when I got into college, it was a lot of my friends that really got me into these roots to be able to interconnect and challenge myself and to unlearn and make these interconnections. And there was a professor, she was known in the department to be controversial and people were like “Oh she talks so much, her classes are a little controversial” and I realized the institution already labeled her as someone that’s too critical of neo-liberal policy. I took her International Development class and learned so much about institutions and how to critically challenge who and to whom they serve.
It was a good framework for me to develop before I left college. And then in the environmental community of social media there’s a lot of amazing people, like the Slow Factory, that really talked about sustainable literacy. I was able to go to the conference, the Study Hall event in NY…
You were there? We were there!
Oh really, that’s so awesome! I appreciate the work they’ve been doing because they’ve been at the forefront of the conversation within sustainable fashion, of course, so that really helped me develop a clearer framework to understand my own work and what I wanted to do.
I think that as an educator, a lot of that education for me stems from being a very versatile learner in a sense that I don’t identify myself as someone who is good in a certain subject or certain topic. My work is more generalized. I try to introduce concepts in a simplified way because while I’m not an expert I do know about the topics I cover. I told myself why not try and learn, and also try and educate others as a form of an entry level. When you dig deeper into environmentalism, that’s when more questions are asked, which my platform obviously doesn’t cover. I tell people my platform shouldn’t be at the forefront, but a beginning so when you go in deeper, like Generation Now for example, you learn more about these tools or what these systems are designed by, who made them.
I think you have some pretty sophisticated little things on here like “What is Soliphilia?” I mean I’m going to have to go and read, I don’t know…so do you see your role as an educator?
Well I’m first generation Mexican American, my parents immigrated to California back in the ‘80s from Mexico. And fun fact – my mom was an educator in Mexico! She got her degree but unfortunately in California she couldn’t teach. It was really sad for me to see my mom work so hard and get her degree and go okay we’re going to the US and …for me it was…my mom always taught me a lot of things, even basic elementary stuff, like adding numbers when I was struggling and so for her to teach me in Spanish and instill all these other values it really opened a way for me to help others.
But yeah I do identify as an educator because I feel the power of knowledge should never be privatized, right? I don’t think that institutions should ever privatize any open source knowledge. It should be openly distributed. But unfortunately we have institutions that have locked things away from people. I think that’s why my page gets people to start thinking about these things. In the future I want to become a professor but obviously it would also be awesome to be a high school teacher, an educator, a person in the system.
What’s an ongoing challenge for you?
I think an everyday challenge is having this imposter syndrome where you don’t feel like you belong in the space but also I don’t ever want to be on a pedestal either…I want people to see me just as a human being that wants to live in this world, fight for people.
How do you like keep your spirits up in this time of insanity?
I think personal experiences of trauma that I’ve had over the years and learning to work through it has given me an ability to be grounded. The reason I’m able to do it is because I know what I want – to improve my writing and research skills, my reading skills and just continue learning and unlearning at the same time.
My intention for cultivating a community in the beginning was to connect with people who had similar mindsets or values as me or interesting perspectives. To really think about and challenge me to along the way.
What other resources would you recommend to people who want to become more aware of these issues of environmentalism and the larger issues with racism beyond your site?
I think its just recognizing the things you have or haven’t…asking yourself, do you have access to housing? Do you have access to clean water? Do you have access to fresh food? Do you have access to a space where you can sleep? To a space where there’s no people that are harming you physically or mentally? And just acknowledging those things that of course should be basic human rights. An understanding that everyone will agree that no one should ever be harmed.
A lot of people agree for example that no one deserves water that’s poisoned by corporations nor would they want to live in communities with unsafe water. So there’s really acknowledging that you have that privilege. It’s good for you that you have a family that ensured that the future would be safe for your community but also important to realize that if you’re going to continue doing this work you need to make sure you are de-centering yourself – and centering those who may not have the opportunity or even get the chance to speak.
I understand that as an environmentalist there are way worse situations happening in other communities that I honestly cannot even speak on behalf of and so I think that its only right for me to center those conversations for them. And really looking at if you are being an ally or a bridge builder while insuring that your own positionality in life has meaning to you and to the work and to the people around you.
While much of the work is difficult, you seem so joyful. When you’re not working on your research and writing and Instagram what do you do for fun in your free time?
Honestly, I’m so lucky to have met someone in NY, my boyfriend so random, too, the first month I moved to NY back in August actually. On weekends we go on hikes and birdwatching which was something I never did growing up – birdwatching. I was not really interested in it, it’s not my thing, and I thought oh you never challenge yourself to learn and he challenged me a lot to do all these things. And a thing I loved growing up was just watching anime so on the weekends there’s hours that I block off and I just want to watch anime and not really focus on environmental work right now and just focus on that. Checking in with friends in general post college everyone in a very vulnerable time in their lives and my friends that I really love and cared for are still being fine and we’re finding ways to still communicate even post grad.