At sixteen and seventeen years old, Destiny Boka-Batesa, Nyeleti Brauer-Maxaeia and Anjali Raman-Middleton launched an iconic campaign to raise awareness about alarming levels of air pollution in London. Three years on, they’re campaigning to enshrine the right to breathe clean air.
Air pollution is an invisible killer, damaging every organ in the body and affecting even unborn children. It lingers at disproportionately high levels in some of London’s poorest areas where people of colour are more likely to live. In 2020, nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah became the first person in the world to have air pollution listed as a cause of death on her death certificate in 2013. In the three years beforehand, Ella was admitted to hospital twenty seven times. She lived just twenty-five metres from the South Circular Road in South London, near Anjali Raman-Middleton, who was also in Ella’s year at primary school.
Unable to ignore the dangerous air they were forced to breathe on their way to school each day, Anjali and friends Nyeleti Brauer-Maxaeia and Destiny Boka-Batesa co-founded Choked Up, a campaign to end the air pollution that has blighted their communities for far too long.
“It’s an issue that we feel really strongly about because we have friends, family and peers that are directly affected by it and yet it’s known that our community hasn’t contributed to the climate crisis,” says Destiny. “Me and my family, in particular, have got quite a few chronic illnesses and I know it’s quite simply because of the quality of the environment that we live in. It’s just really, really unfair. We thought if no one’s going to talk about it then we should and that’s how Choked Up started.”
“For us, campaigning is a lifeline, not a lifestyle.”
Before the trio met, they were involved in the youth climate movement in England, where they felt that they were tokenized and not adequately listened to. When they were subsequently brought together by the Advocacy Academy, they decided to build a different kind of movement: one in which campaigning is understood as a means of survival, and not a hobby.
“We felt uncomfortable in the youth climate movement and the unspoken hierarchies because it almost felt like we were fighting for our lives and we just weren’t being listened to or heard. It felt like our identities were being used in this political monopoly. We just didn’t really feel respected and we saw that the climate movement in the UK is seen as a white, middle class activity that kids can do as a hobby or write on their personal statements, but for us, campaigning is a lifeline, not a lifestyle.
That was in our early teens and then, when we were enrolled in the social justice summer school that the Advocacy Academy runs for sixth formers, we were put together because environmental issues spoke to us. The aim was to graduate with a campaign. We started from scratch, looking at things like our aims and allies and naming the campaign. Working from the bottom up was really challenging and it took around a third of a year to really get things started.
We wanted to hone in on a particular issue within the climate movement so we thought that air pollution should be something that we speak up about because it’s the issue that affects us the most. The immediacy of it all, I think, really spoke to us. We thought that we had to brush it aside and get on with our lives when we were growing up, but together we realised that we don’t actually have to stand for this. We can speak up against what’s hurting us and our communities.”
The campaign that Destiny, Anjali and Nyeleti launched together made waves in the national news media. In partnership with the Environmental Defence Fund, they hung road signs in Brixton, Catford and Whitechapel reading ‘Breathing Kills’ and ‘Pollution Zone’. The signs also highlighted the greater levels of exposure to toxic air that people of colour experience.
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“We wanted to bring home the issue of the climate crisis through our lens and through a topic that really worried us,” says Destiny. “Because you can’t see air pollution, people don’t see the immediacy of the issue. And that’s something that we really, really need to stress. Trying to tap into people’s empathy in the UK is just a really difficult task on its own because we’re quite individualistic in the West. Because of how we’ve grown up, we know that we don’t have immediate access to spaces where change actually happens; the more political and legal side of things. I didn’t contact my MP until I was around fifteen and then that got me connected with local groups in the area. Not having the same level of social capital really did affect me.
It felt like we were on the inside reaching out. The moment you hold an MP or the government in whatever form to account, people start talking and the MP is going to have to at least pretend to care about the issue, and you can take advantage of that.
For example, in 2021, we were all too young to vote. I was a month away from being able to vote in the London mayoral elections and it absolutely broke my heart because I really wanted to vote and I couldn’t. So, we hosted a panel discussion with most of the candidates where we gave them two hours to be interrogated by the general public and MPs about what they would do about clean air in London. It felt quite empowering because we couldn’t vote but at least we properly knew the legitimacy of what they were promising to do.”
Such was the noise that Choked Up generated that a hundred health professionals who worked in the NHS backed their campaign with an open letter that urged the 2021 London mayoral election candidates to take action to reduce air pollution inequalities.
“The impact has been monumental over the past three years,” says Destiny. “Shifting the narrative has been probably the most important thing. We’ve really stressed our perspective and our role in a movement that should have empowered us in the first place. It’s been nice to know that people around us have really picked up on it. My siblings are always part of it, they want to be invited to talks and they’re so supportive of what I do, so I can see the immediacy of that change, but you never know how far reaching your impact can be. For example, one of my peers in university had heard of Choked Up, but he didn’t know it was me and my friends. Another person I met at a Movement Builders weekend workshop run by NEON told me that she mentors a group of young people every year in Wales who care about air pollution and they’ve taken the initiative that we started, formed their own version and have taken it to the Welsh government. It’s incredible because it’s because of what we did. They’re putting in the work within their own communities because we started a snowball effect.”
“I get to do what I love all the time without worrying about when I’ll be paid next.”
Since they launched Choked Up, Destiny, Anjali and Nyeleti have become students at the University of Oxford, University College London and the University of Cambridge, respectively. With support from the Challenge and Change Fund, the co-founders are building upon the momentum they’ve created since they launched and planning for the future.
“People underestimate how hard it is to be one person making change in the sense that we’re still in full time education and campaigning,” says Destiny. “We also have duties towards our families. We grew up in an environment where we just get on with it. It’s the working class mindset just kicking in all the time. For the first year we worked for free, but with the funding, we could pay ourselves and use the money for travel reimbursements when we speak at conferences, for food and other things. If we’re invited to host a stall at an event, we can buy things like stands and tote bags, A4 posters and things that enable people to engage with us.
We’ve really benefited from the Challenge and Change Fund and we can only be grateful because it goes beyond financial security: we feel empowered in the work that we do. It’s probably one of the first times where we don’t feel like we’ve been taken advantage of by a big organisation. The stress has really been alleviated from us because emotional labour can be really taxing and it can feel a bit overwhelming pouring your heart out to lots of people. I really love the work I do but it’s not the easiest. Now, I get to do what I love all the time without worrying about when I’ll be paid next and the girls would tell you the same. It’s nice to have a sense of freedom, even beyond finances, to fully invest in a cause that you really care about.
We have the time now to do even the most mundane things like checking our emails regularly, meeting together, doing an internal assessment, auditing our work and planning for the next six, twelve and eighteen months. We’ve been reviewing our tactics because they won’t be the same going forward. We’re not in the place we used to be and we’re getting better at what we do.”
“Our aim is for Choked Up to not exist.”
Choked Up has inspired a wave of local action by groups and activists across the UK, often without the co-founders realising. Most recently, they have spent time developing a strategy for how best to mobilise the growing network of people who are demanding clean air.
“It’s scary expanding something that you started with two other people but we’re planning for it to not just be the three of us anymore,” says Destiny. “We’ve formed links in Birmingham and Manchester already and it’s incredible to see normal people coming together doing extraordinary things and I’m grateful for them. We wouldn’t have immediately been able to do that so the process has sped up because they’ve modelled their work on what we do. I cried when I learned about the group in Wales. It amazes me that people feel moved by what we do.
Not everyone knows who we are but we’ve gained enough respect in the clean air movement that many people have heard of Choked Up, so we’re steering our priorities away from awareness raising towards more political lobbying. We have an overall goal, which is to create a renewed version of the Clean Air Act.”
The existing legislation was written before the co-founders were born and does not adequately protect the right to breathe clean air. Destiny, Anjali and Nyeleti are calling for a new and more ambitious Act that corresponds to the World Health Organisation’s targets for tackling air pollution. This, they hope, will include targets related to pollution from private vehicles and public transport, the mapping of low emission zones and red routes, and the explicit protection of people at greatest risk from polluted air.
“Our aim is for Choked Up to not exist,” explains Destiny. “We want people to breathe clean air and for that to be enforced. I want to know that my friends and family aren’t ill or their illnesses aren’t exacerbated by the air we breathe. I don’t want to see the gridlock anymore because there are so many cars and buses stuck on the road when your kids are going to primary school. I thought that was normal, but it’s not. The campaign is always going to be bigger than us but it is also me. And I deserve to live another day. I deserve to know that I can live past fifty.”
The Challenge and Change Fund is designed by young changemakers for young changemakers. It funds young people directly, supporting them to create the change they want to see. It prioritises young people who are emergent and have lived experience of the injustices they are trying to change, supporting youth led collectives, social enterprises and CICs across England. You can read more about Challenge and Change here.