Air Quality News reporter Pippa Neill talks to 17-year-old Destiny Boka Betesa, one of the four co-founders of ChokedUp, the campaign group aiming to raise awareness of the racial injustices of air pollution.
ChokedUp began in October 2020 when the four co-founders, Destiny Boka Batesa, Anjali Raman-Middleton, Nyeleti Brauer-Maxaeia and Kaydine Rogers came together with an overall aim of ensuring that black and brown lives are protected in the name of the law when it comes to air pollution.
‘Growing up in South Norwood, Croydon I know a lot of people who have asthma or other respiratory illnesses due to air pollution,’ Destiny tells Air Quality News.
‘As a child it was always the small things I would notice, an ice cream van humming in the playground, parked cars outside the school gates with their engines running, but when my sister started having asthma attacks that’s when I really started to worry, I just felt helpless and like there was nothing I could do.
‘Creating ChokedUp has provided me with a way to speak up, we are being listened to by people who share the same problems, and we are working with those who want to find the solutions.’
Recently ChokedUp partnered with the Environmental Defence Fund (EDF), together they placed road signs across the capital in order to highlight the injustices of air pollution. The signs, which read ‘Pollution Zone’ and warned that ‘Breathing Kills’ were installed in areas where levels of air pollution are exceedingly high, including Whitechapel, Catford and Brixton.
‘We wanted to do something really eye-catching,’ says Destiny.
‘And we thought there’s no better way to raise awareness of air pollution than with road signs, given that most of our pollution comes from the roads. Our aim was to do something that would be seen by as many people as possible, and what better way to do that than when people are driving or are on buses.’
The posters also had a focus on the key aspect of ChokedUp’s campaign work, with one of the road signs highlighting that the most deprived communities live with 22% more air pollution than the least deprived.
This statistic is based on a study published by EDF which found that nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution is between 24-31% higher in areas of London where people from black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds are most likely to live. Additionally, the study also found that the most deprived Londoners are more than six times as likely to live in areas with higher pollution than the least deprived.
‘One of our posters also had a silhouette of a parent with an afro holding the hand of their child, with this poster we really wanted to emphasize that black and brown people are living in these impoverished areas and as a result are being the worst hit by the impacts of air pollution.
‘EDF also helped us to get the signs written in Bengali which were then put in White Chapel in order to represent the large population of brown and Bangladeshi people living there, this inclusivity was really important, and we had great feedback from people who stood in solidarity with us.
‘The racial element of air pollution is something you cannot ignore, with this campaign we really wanted to highlight that although we are all living in the same city, it doesn’t mean we all experience the same effects – there is a wealth gap, a race gap and a class gap, and that disparity is so frank when you’re living on the receiving end of it.’
This campaign and the work of Destiny and the rest of ChokedUp has been praised widely, with their work picked up by both regional and national news organisations and with a group of 100 London health professionals who work in the NHS backing their call for action with a letter to the capital’s mayoral candidates, urging them to commit to tackling air pollution inequalities.
‘The response has been overwhelming,’ says Destiny.
‘It feels really relieving to finally have our names, faces and narratives out there.
‘It was amazing to watch the news and see this issue being discussed. Finally, people were listening to our struggles and worries; it’s something we have talked about so many times, but for so long it has fallen on deaf ears. But I think this campaign was so in your face that people couldn’t avoid it, and I think in that sense it was a real success.’
Next year, Destiny is due to begin her studies at the University of Oxford, but she maintains that her campaign work will not be taking a back seat.
‘Being a campaigner at an age like mine does come with a level of responsibility, I’m constantly having to make compromises and find ways to balance things. But campaigning about air pollution and environmental racism is something I feel so passionate about and something that I want to continually invest my time in.
‘I’ve put my whole heart into ChokedUp so I wouldn’t want to give that up for my studies, but if the past year has taught me anything it’s that the future is uncertain, so if I do need to take a break or pause for a bit then I know that Anjali, Nyeleti and Kaydine will take the baton for me.
‘I’m quite optimistic about the future and I’m not one to let barriers get in my way, I’m willing to do whatever I can to as much as my capacity and I will continue campaigning on this for as long as it takes.’
This article first appeared in the Air Quality News magazine and is available to view here.