Rebeka Dawit: Trailblazing for Environmental Justice
by Bella Klosterman | Aug 24, 2021
Enormous redwoods towering overhead, lush fern-filled understory, crisp misty air, an ocean breeze, the sweet smell of eucalyptus and cliffs dropping to the Pacific Ocean. Who wouldn’t feel moved to protect such a beautiful place? The origin story of many— if not all— environmental advocates begins with a place. A special place that draws your inspiration, awe, and respect. For Rebeka, that place is Natural Bridges State Beach in California.
She attended University of California Santa Cruz for her undergrad, majoring in environmental studies with a focus on natural policy. With a tone of longing, Rebeka recounts her time at UCSC as “the most beautiful four years of her life.” Attending school in the redwoods solidified her love for environmental advocacy.
However, when asked where her path really began, Rebeka tells me it is pinpointed to the sixth grade. Her class went on a week-long sleep-away camp in the redwoods, which she later found was not too far from UCSC. They stayed in cabins, learning about ecosystems and how the Earth works, hiking every day. Rebeka tells me that she returned home fired up, ready to recycle and protect the environment.
Fast forward to her undergraduate years, and her path became even more clear. Rebeka realized that she wanted to be on the interpretive side of science rather than the research side. She also had her eyes opened to the real life impacts of environmental injustice. She took an environmental racism course and was placed into an internship with an organization called Safe Ag Safe Schools. The organization advocates for a one mile no pesticide spray buffer around elementary schools. When she started interning, pesticides could be sprayed up to the front door. Rebeka was working with a primarily Latinx community with lots of migrant farm workers, and some of the highest childhood cancer rates on the West Coast. She witnessed firsthand environmental injustices. She recounts questioning why the people who grew the food we eat had to bear the brunt of the ramifications. “I remember the folks at the organization saying that we need more attorneys. That’s when my love for the environment also coupled with the intersectional issues that come with being an environmentalist,” shares Rebeka.
“I’m here to be a resource for communities that are historically not included in these environmental processes.”
Also later in her college career, she took an environmental law course in which the professor introduced her to environmental law as the “office” work of environmental studies. It was a challenging course, but piqued her interest. After starting at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland she really focused on environmental law. She worked for the International Environmental Law Project, a student clinic at Lewis & Clark. When she graduated, she was offered a fellowship with the clinic, and finished with an LLM in environmental natural resources law.
I asked Rebeka what she is looking forward to in her position at Crag. “The first thing I thought about,” she said grinning, “was how excited I am to just put all my education into an actual output now.” As I interview her, she is about three weeks into her work at Crag. Her focus will be climate change and environmental justice advocacy. The legal field is changing and now in a position to make meaningful progress on matters of environmental and climate justice— that’s where Rebeka comes in!
In joining Crag’s team just as the nonprofit celebrates its 20th anniversary, Rebeka is heralding an exciting new era. Up until this point, Crag did not have the resources to employ a staff attorney dedicated solely to environmental justice advocacy. This is also true for the rest of the environmental field, meaning Rebeka is trailblazing a new path in environmental law: “I’m here to be a resource for communities that are historically not included in these environmental processes.”
In her new position, Rebeka will be an invaluable asset with her unique expertise, and also a role model for others who answer the call of environmental justice advocacy.
Bella Klosterman is a rising Junior at Skidmore College, pursuing a B.A. in Environmental Studies and Spanish. She is interested in environmental justice, forest conservation, and environmental law.