To read about the rest of the Culture Shifters, including TV writer Cord Jefferson and activist Mariah Moore, return to the complete list here.
To plant a seed is to invest in the imagination of the future — a hope, a dream, potential.
In November 2019, then-23-year-old Isaias Hernandez planted a seed, making his Instagram debut as @QueerBrownVegan, an account aiming to educate folks about environmental justice, veganism, and a zero-waste lifestyle. With more than 80,000 followers on Instagram and growing, the report has firmly taken root.
Answering simple questions in posts — for example, “What Is Food Waste?” — Hernandez educates followers on the basics and points them to additional sources on a topic, encouraging further critical discourse and collective engagement. Within the gridwork of the ’gram, a lateral classroom is called into the session where Hernandez passes seamlessly between the role of educator and student. Using both piercing anecdotes — such as the degraded health he experienced due to growing up in Los Angeles, living in low-income housing that was close to toxic facilities — and thought-provoking infographics, @QueerBrownVegan marries experience and theory.
The comments section on each post reveals an ongoing experiment in peers, knowledge exchange, personal and collective vulnerability, and unlearning. One post, “Is Choosing An Environmental Major In College Worth It?” had multiple followers commenting that it was precisely the message they needed to see as they faced their own personal struggles with limitations with academia and labels.
Aesthetically minimal and vibrant, and educationally expansive, the account mirrors the essence of its creator, as well as his journey. Found among Hernandez’s posts about environmentalism and sustainability is a radical acceptance of self and gentle encouragement for us all to love ourselves, too.
Hernandez, now 24, struggled with asserting his identity as the only queer person growing up in a Mexican household where “sexuality and mental health wasn’t really addressed or normalized.” Homophobia, machismo, and environmental injustices cast a haunting shadow.
He learned more about his identity at the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental science.
“Growing up in circles that did perpetuate homophobia, it did get to me because I realized the people that I thought loved me didn’t really love me,” Hernandez said in a phone interview. “And so that really put a big strain on who I was, but then when I was in college, I realized that I wanted to be authentic.”
This actualization of self-value, bolstered by a supportive chosen family of fellow queer and transgender students of color, led to a sense of safety and confidence, which helped Hernandez assert sharp criticism as one of the few queer non-Black people of color in his field of study.
“For centuries, queer and trans-BIPOC have led movements towards advocating the rights of their communities,” Hernandez said. “The environmental curriculum that we learned glorified white cis straight men who often disregarded and discarded so many queer ecological practices.”
In academia, antiquated curricula often push marginalized folks further to the sidelines.
Anger can be a fortifying tool in the quest for liberation, and Hernandez was getting mad. Facing discrimination within research spaces that historically have been — and often presently are — hostile toward queer people of color, Hernandez asked himself, “Why do I have to continue shaming myself into allowing a white man’s comfort to continue to perpetuate curriculum?”
He and his friends began to critically discuss intersections that were violently erased within environmental justice movements.
“One thing we did notice was how we can really intersect environmentalism with LGBT and people of color,” Hernandez said. “When natural disasters strike, those who are the most affected are front-line communities.”
This generally means low-income Black and brown communities, undocumented, disabled, or experiencing homelessness and unemployment. Hernandez observed the organizations that focus on helping these communities are typically riddled with homophobia, transphobia, racism, and systemic oppression — in direct opposition to the historical role that queer and transgender Black, Indigenous and other people of color have played and continue to play while fighting for environmental justice.
Hernandez doesn’t claim to have all the answers. He freely takes accountability for past and future mistakes. He has positioned @QueerBrownVegan as a direct counter to the dominant narrative that violently erases queer and trans people of color and alienates individuals from practices indigenous to their ancestry.
With his Instagram account, Hernandez hopes to center queer people of color, especially when it comes to education about the environment. Centering his own experience is paramount to the process.
“When I’m doing this work, I just want to create things that helped me also learn, that challenged me to be something better than I was before,” he said. “Because I’ve made so many mistakes and I’m going to continue making mistakes.”
In essence, the goal is to encourage conversations. Hernandez deeply feels the responsibility to continue carrying that message. He almost seems to be speaking directly to his followers when he says “the value of community is medicine.”