Updated: Aug 17
At 15 years old Anjali Raman-Middleton started protesting for climate justice. Not long after she noticed a gap in young people attending clean air events. Now Anjali is the Co-Founder of Choked Up, a youth led London organisation "elevating young black and brown voices in the environmental movement." Go Inspire UK spoke to her about her advocacy and why everyone in the UK deserves the right to breathe clean air.
Go Inspire: To start off with, tell us a bit about you and what you were doing before co-founding Choked Up UK?
Anjali: I started campaigning for climate justice in 2019 when I was fifteen years old. The school strike movement showed me just how powerful young people could be and how important it was that we take action. I ended up getting involved with UKSCN and helped organise the London strikes, most notably the September 2019 strike. The YouthStrike4Climate movement was definitely what got me passionate about climate justice and introduced me to the idea of running campaigns.
GI: When did you decide it was time to start speaking up about Air Pollution in your area and across London?
ARM: I started attending clean air events with Rosamund Kissi Debrah before I started Choked Up, and I realised that there were basically no young people at any of these events, most of which were about young people’s health, and I thought that this was so wrong. Young people needed to be part of this conversation about our health. So I decided that I needed to speak out about the polluted air I was breathing and give a voice to the young people living with dirty air.
GI: There’s a lot online about your ‘Pollution Signs’ in particular. What was it like coming up and then putting those signs out in public? What sort of reactions did it get?
ARM: It was so incredible to put up our ‘Pollution Signs’. We’d been working on them for so long and it was just amazing to have them out in the world where everyone could see them. I remember people initially thought that they were signs put up by the council, which was quite cool. There were a lot of people who were very supportive of them and the message we were putting out, but there were equally a lot of people who called us divisive for mentioning race, arguing that everyone breathes the same air and therefore there is no inequality.
GI: Your charity is aimed specifically at ethnically diverse neighbourhoods because they are ones most affected by air pollution. What is your experience of this? And why does it happen with these specific areas and communities?
ARM: When people from ex-colonies immigrated to the UK in 1940s-1960s, they experienced institutionalized racism that effectively forced them into poverty. They also experienced housing discrimination that kept them from moving into more affluent areas. These factors forced them into poorer and less desirable areas, which were often located by busy roads that people did not want to live on, away from green space. These areas were obviously more polluted, resulting in Londoners of colour today breathing, on average, 27% more air pollution than their white counterparts.
GI: What do we need to do to dramatically reduce the air pollution in these areas?
ARM: National government needs to take real action on air pollution. The current targets just aren’t good enough - we need World Health Organisation air quality targets and they need to be legally binding. We also need investment into local government, making sure that areas with the worst pollution receive the greatest investment. Our response to the air pollution crisis must be locally-based and community led, prioritising the voices of those most affected. The solution to traffic pollution is not the same as the solution to wood burning, so we need to give local government the room to devise their own solutions.
GI: How was Choked Up UK set up? And whose part of it…
ARM: We all met whilst doing the Fellowship program at The Advocacy Academy. They supported us in creating the campaign, by teaching about key principles of campaigning, social justice, and movement building. There are only three of us in the campaign at the moment, but we’re hoping to take on some new volunteers soon! We’re all young people of colour, who grew up in South London in highly polluted areas. We were all in sixth form when we started the campaign.
GI: How do you see these communities 5, 10 or even 20 years into the future if you and many other people continue to reduce and fight against air pollution? How do you see it if we don’t?
ARM: Everyone will be able to breathe. It means lives saved and inequality reduced. I hope that people’s relationship with nature will also be improved as investment into urban planting projects increases and the amount of traffic on our streets decreases. I see people’s lives as less defined by the roads they live next to.
GI: What advice would you give to young people of colour in urban areas facing the same issue in the UK to start campaigns like yours?
ARM: Find other people who are passionate about the same thing as you and work with them. Campaigning cannot be done alone. You need people who can support you and brainstorm ideas with you. You also need to be specific and realistic. What specific issue do you want to change? How likely is this to change? Lastly, don’t be disheartened when you don’t see changes immediately. Always remember change is slow and difficult, but if we give up it’ll never happen.