By Katie Barham
Born and raised in Durham, Aissa Dearing is a senior at J.D. Clement Early College High School and is dually enrolled at North Carolina Central University. At school, Aissa is a member of the National Honor Society, the Human Rights and Activism Club and the Latinx Club. Recently, Aissa was selected as one of this year’s 150 Coca-Cola Scholars, receiving a $20,000 scholarship to the school of her choice. She’s narrowed down her college decision to Howard University. Outside of school, she works with the Youth Justice Project, East Durham Children’s Initiative (EDCI) and Made in Durham’s Youth Network, and is a barista at Cocoa Cinnamon. In 2019, she co-founded the Durham Youth Climate Justice initiative with classmate Elijah King.
At 15, Aissa Dearing walked the streets of Washington, D.C., alongside hundreds of thousands of women during the Women’s March on Jan. 21, 2017. She remembers the voices reverberating among the buildings: “Women’s rights are human rights!”, “My body, my choice!” While the chants are now a distant blur, Aissa cherishes that moment as the foundation for the activism work she does today: going to climate strikes with her own organization, Durham Youth Climate Justice Initiative.
Aissa learned about environmental justice a few years ago and felt connected to the cause. “I remember Rev. William Barber II said something along the lines of not being able to tackle one sole issue and that the disproportionate impact on people of color that the climate crisis has is astounding,” she says. “I realized then I can be passionate about racial justice and climate justice because institutionalized racism is embedded in every issue society faces.”
Aissa and her friend Elijah King began to attend protests and meetings, but, she says, the gatherings skewed white and older. The pattern kept repeating at other demonstrations, so she and Elijah decided to start their own environmental organization. “I wanted to provide an intentional space for young people of color to engage in the subject with other people who are interested and look like them,” Aissa says.
She says it’s not that young people of color aren’t invested in environmental issues, it’s just that they don’t see themselves represented in the movement. As a mentor through EDCI, Aissa taught environmental justice to a fifth grade class at Maureen Joy Charter School. One of her students in particular connected the topic to his own life. His family, who are Latinx, and many others like his, live closer to a landfill than to grocery stores. “In North Carolina, many power plants, landfills and toxic waste facilities are disproportionately located in low-income communities of color, causing increased health problems for a population who may not have access to affordable, decent health care,” Aissa says.
This is the kind of takeaway she wants for kids to help them understand about environmental justice. “Just seeing that even students younger than me so clearly see this, but maybe just don’t have a name for it, it’s great,” Aissa says.
The Durham Youth Climate Justice Initiative continues to provide young people a place to learn more about environmental policies and issues. Given the uncertainties surrounding COVID-19, Aissa doesn’t know what’s next for the project, but her primary directive stays the same: Educate and inspire young people of color to speak up against environmental injustices.
“Aissa Dearing is the epitome of what it means to be a strong woman of color in today’s society. She is one of the most innovative and smartest people I know. Through her work with Made in Durham’s Youth Network, she has proven to be a powerhouse of knowledge and a passionate team member for the Early College Action Team. She has also constantly expressed traits of leadership and teamwork.”– Elijah King, co-founder, Durham Youth Climate Justice Initiative