Based in the United States, Teju is an environmental equity consultant, speaker, and creator and host of the Black Material Geographies podcast. Teju’s lens includes sustainable fibre and fashion systems, urban ecologies, nature, history, activism, and art. She supports people, collectives, and organisations who are mapping and making alternative futures.
“Part of shifting from an extractive economy and oppressive society to thriving communities and collective liberation requires an understanding of how our society shapes space to allow some people and some geographies to have power — while usurping power from others,” says Teju Adisa-Farrar.
Teju is one of ten women fashion entrepreneurs, along with Tamburai Chirume, who have been chosen for the Conscious Fashion Campaign: New York Fashion Week September 2022 edition.
We asked Teju a few questions to better understand how she came to do the work she does.
How is your work an extension of your heritage?
The first house I ever lived in was in West Oakland, California. At the time, West Oakland was more than 80% percent Black and the most polluted neighbourhood in all of Oakland. It is situated between three major highways and adjacent to the Port of Oakland. Children in my neighbourhood had asthma rates eight times higher than children in other parts of Oakland; both my brother and I suffer from asthma and I also have environmental allergies.
Luckily my parents were PhDs who worked at colleges so we had healthcare, grew food in our yard, and my parents went out of their way to buy healthy food since there were no grocery stores in West Oakland from 1970 to 2019. My parents raised us in a very creative, political, intellectual household that celebrated the Black diaspora and the continent of Africa.
We spent time in Spanish Town, Jamaica as children. My mother is Jamaican, so we’d spend weeks with my grandmother running around her yard filled with chickens, dogs, and mangoes that had fallen from the large tree. We loved going to Hellshire Beach on the weekends, buying fresh fish and festival (a sweet fried dough made with cornmeal and flour) from the fishing community whose livelihoods were connected to the beach and coastline. That beach is disappearing now. Climate change and Kingston’s harbour pollution have destroyed the coral reefs, allowing the waves to wash away the sand. This is exacerbated by sea level rise and hurricanes. So both of the places I think of as home are impacted by environmental and climate injustice.
I’ve always had an interest in the intersections of Black identity, space, and place because I noticed growing up that not all neighbourhoods were designed equally. My family used to say when I was younger, that I had “save the world syndrome.” Learning about indigenous African agricultural practices and witnessing the ways Jamaicans used their environment further cemented my focus on thinking about Black communities, culture, and environmentalism.
You use a social geographies perspective to reflect on society and power. Please explain.
Social geography is a facet of human geography that deals with the relationships between how society and space are organised. Our perceived identity — such as race, gender, and class — impacts what types of spaces we live in, our mobility in society, and our experiences with nature.
Part of shifting from an extractive economy and oppressive society to thriving communities and collective liberation requires an understanding of how our society shapes space to allow some people and some geographies to have power — while usurping power from others.
Thinking about how we each experience society and space is crucial to figuring out how we can be in solidarity with those trying to redistribute power and create more sustainable futures.
Why should we return to the past when thinking about justice-centred futures?
I believe that learning from the past gives us ideas and solutions for a more sustainable present. It allows us to honour, recognise and pay homage to the indigenous humans who have been and continue to be the Earth’s most responsible, sustainable communities. Indigenous humans in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean conserved the bioregions in which they lived for thousands of years, before — and even during — colonialism.
Environmental equity is another aspect of your work. How do you define this?
Environmental equity allows communities to have agency, access to services, safe access to nature, and community-based solutions in their environment. It acknowledges the structural ways that certain people’s environments are designed to be unhealthy and unliveable, and creates more sustainable — if possible, regenerative — ways to create an environment that values life and cultural specificity.
We can advocate for environmental equity by first understanding how environments foster injustice and then supporting solutions and alternatives from within the community to remediate or transform those injustices.
Why is it important to highlight women-led initiatives?
Because women, especially women of colour, have always made sure that our communities, cultures, and our homes continue to exist. Women support and value life despite the way most modern societies value profit over life shifting focus away from nature.
Indigenous women in particular have maintained a connection to nature, their communities, and humanity. Black women have pioneered and practiced sustainable fashion throughout history, even before it was recognised as an industry.
So as a woman, I continue to carry the torch. I am expanding what my grandmother – and many other women who came before me – did to create the material conditions of our world in a way that is more aligned with nature and continuity.
What is it about fashion that you are challenging?
There is a myth that mainstream fashion can become sustainable at the scale it currently operates. Part of what makes fashion unsustainable is the global scale and volume produced. To have more sustainable fashion systems, we have to scale down and focus on regional production — to the degree it is possible — in our current globalised economic landscape.
What is your favourite piece of clothing?
I don’t have favourites, since each of my pieces is special for different reasons. But, I have several dresses from my grandmother that I love. They are all very colourful, as she and I love bright colours. One particular dress from her is a multi-coloured purple dress that is voluminous and ties at the back. It’s breezy, comfortable, and gently sways across my skin whenever I wear it.
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