You may have heard of Choked Up: an activist group fighting for cleaner air, founded by four south London teenagers.
We recently spoke to one of their founding members, Destiny Boka Batesa, about their biggest successes so far, how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted their fight to improve air quality, and what the future holds for the group.
What prompted you to take action against air pollution?
Our main catalyst was the fact that all four of us have grown up in areas that are badly affected by air pollution. As a result, we’ve seen so many friends and family members be directly impacted by it. And these areas have high BAME and working class populations, meaning these groups are disproportionately affected. There’s a lack of government intervention in terms of taking care of these more vulnerable communities, and it’s something that we just couldn’t just stand by and watch anymore. So, we formed a campaign to really bring this to light and advocate for voices that are often brushed away. We’re really trying to make this topic inescapable among those in power.
What would you say has been your biggest success so far as a group?
I think our biggest success would have to be our recent campaign. To begin with, we really wanted to take action and actually bring light to the fact that we’re really passionate about changing the narrative of black and brown communities. We ended up designing these road signs, and the signs said things like ‘pollution zone’ and told the general public important statistics, like how people from BAME communities are worst affected by air pollution. Weeks and months went into designing them and all the work behind it!
Then in the run up to mayoral elections in London we put the road signs up. It was around March time, and we put them all around Lewisham, Catford, Brixton – areas that we’re from, and that had high levels of air pollution and high BAME populations. We also put road signs up around Whitechapel, as part of a collaboration with EDF and Purpose We aimed to not only raise awareness of the fact that this is happening and the fact that this is an inescapable reality, but we wanted schemes to be implemented so that clean air was being prioritised and not just pushed away.
The campaign was in the news, and we’ve been on the news quite a few times since. We’ve finally been able to put our voices and names out there, which is great, because people didn’t know who we are and what we stand for. We’re not going to go away, and we’re literally sixth form students – it just goes to show, I guess, how committed and driven we are. It’s so personal to us, but also so important, which is why we’re willing to put so much time into it despite other commitments. I’m just glad that the turnout was really, really good, and we got a lot of recognition from that, which was great.
At first it was quite like an overload, because, you know, all these people want to reach out to us and we’re just children. But it was really cool that so many people were interested in learning and listening to what we had to say, and that sort of gave us a platform to further expand what we’d already been saying. It was great to see so many conversations being sparked. Whether it was in national news, or from our own communities. I had teachers ask me questions about the posters, and I could speak to them about what I do outside of school. When you have a movement or a campaign like ours, it’s all very much community led and based in the sense that building relationships and meeting people who share a similar mindset goal to you is so important.
Getting this amount of work done in such a short space of time is great, and it paves the way for so many more projects and things for us in the future.
Have you felt that COVID-19 has been a trigger for people to start talking about air quality more?
When everything shut down in the first lockdown and fewer people were travelling, the air cleaned up pretty quickly. And there were people reporting that they were able to breathe a lot easier. Things were much cleaner. Obviously when things start back up again and return to normal a bit, air quality will decrease gradually again. But seeing this difference in such a short space of time does open up a conversation, because people are able to actively compare the fact that, you know, if we use fewer polluting vehicles, then the quality of air is going to be better. This has definitely come up a lot in conversations I’ve been in.
In terms of the campaigning side, campaigning through the pandemic has been a bit difficult. More than anything, it’s made us change the way we actually campaign, because we’ve had to rely on social media quite a bit. It was quite easy to be able to spread our message, but we had to have a proper plan. We had loads of Zoom interviews, which were great, but really tiring. But it meant we were able to send our message in more ways than one, and that momentum really helped in building up our campaign in March because it made us more established. Campaigning through a pandemic is difficult, but it’s not impossible!
What do Choked Up hope to achieve in the next five years, what are your next big plans?
Our biggest goal is for the government to launch an updated version of the current Clean Air Act. The Clean Air Act in question right now hasn’t been updated since the 90s – the problem is that we’re now in 2021. The issues that people faced in the 90s are completely different to the issues we have now. Existing legislation doesn’t cater to communities like mine.
We need something solid, something that will actually be actioned to improve air quality in all areas across the UK, but more specifically for those who are worst affected by air pollution. We really want to ensure that all lives are being considered and protected by clean air laws. That’s definitely our biggest goal!
In terms of right now, the most important thing we can do is continue to spread our message and do other projects that will hopefully build up more momentum. We want to be invited to take part in conversations that we wouldn’t be otherwise so that we can make smaller changes, as well as radical differences.
Amid campaigning, the members of Choked Up are currently awaiting their A Level results. Their dedication and passion shows air pollution can no longer be ignored; it’s impacting our children, and marginalised communities are being disproportionately affected by the health ramifications of poor quality air.
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