top of page

Ogechi Obi: On moving through discomfort and finding her power

This story was a collaboration between Ogechi Obi and NBEC's Stories for Change working group.

Photographs by Nate Magoon; Interview by Nyamuon Nguany "Moon" Machar


Ogechi at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University

First nature connections through school

For Ogechi Obi, a 19-year old college student, it all started with a field trip. Growing up in Maryland in a family of hardworking immigrants, she didn’t have the opportunities that other kids had to get outside and explore nature. 


“It wasn't just taking days off from work–we didn't know where you would go and how you would do that, what shoes to wear, should we have bug spray? It wasn’t just things—more information is needed for immigrants to explore nature, especially when they're from backgrounds where nature exploring wasn't a thing in their previous lives.”


It wasn’t until Ogechi’s fifth grade class went with a forestry program into county-managed wilderness that she had her first notable interaction with nature. 


“I remember a pond, there was this big bird. I remember hiking and the trees and the bugs and how quiet everything was. I think when you get into nature after having never been there, everything is amazingly still.” 


Ogechi wants this moment of access she experienced to be more common. “I think there needs to be more exposure for children,” she says. “Even if their parents can't take them, they can still develop an interest when they're young and pursue it when they're older.”

And she did pursue it. Upon moving to Maine, Ogechi got the chance to further explore her interest in nature at Bangor High School. Ogechi’s projects had a focus around biodegradable plastics made from plant materials. She also worked with a team of students to collect and test water samples from different areas in the Penobscot watershed. She even spent one of her summers in what she calls a “mini-academy,” learning how scientists can improve the quality of the watershed. 


“I have a lot of fun memories of sampling. It was always in the middle of the summer, so it was really hot. We'd just be walking around, collecting water. There wasn't an easy way to the water at a lot of sites, so I would be in sandals climbing down the rocks on the side of a bridge. There was one site in Bangor, next to Asian Food Palace, at the bottom of that rock flow near the bridge was one of our sites. The climbing down was always bad, but the worst was climbing up because you had samples and you didn't want to spill them. I would never want to spill them.” 


This work meant a lot to Ogechi because it felt bigger than just her. 


“I never felt like I was very good at science or math. Something that made science and math palatable was if I could connect it with something that seemed socially important or something that represented my values. Because I do value climate justice and justice as a whole, it felt like I could learn more about the science if I centered it around nature, the earth, and especially sustainability. It felt like I was doing something worthwhile whereas in physics class, I couldn't assign any meaning to what I was doing. It was just easier for me to become interested in things that I felt like I could see a tangible difference being made if I learned it.”


Building community through climate action

This desire to put work into what matters to her is what drove Ogechi to get involved in climate justice as a junior in high school. Ogechi’s friend Kosi Ifeji and their sister Amara invited Ogechi to work on a campaign for a climate education bill. 


This bill, LD 1902, was developed by the NBEC Climate Education Advocacy working group, was deeply informed by the experience and needs expressed by students and teachers, and was introduced in the Maine legislature in January 2022. It aimed to fund climate education professional development for teachers and partnerships between schools and community organizations, and was a focus of that NBEC working group’s advocacy.  Because of an impressive grassroots effort, the bill passed and was funded with over $2 million! While Ogechi was initially tentative to involve herself in something that felt out of her depth, the experience ended up being something that built her confidence, and she became a co-chair of the working group.


“I can't even lie,” she says, “Throughout the entire process, in the back of my head, I was like ‘I'm not qualified, and I'm so scared, and I don't know what's going on.’ Looking back, I'm really glad I did it because it was empowering. I was a young person being put in a space where what I said meant something and what I said was going to be used for further cause. Also, in a sense, it taught me more about my own capabilities; I had more capabilities than I thought I did.” 


In addition to learning and growing through the LD 1902 campaign, Ogechi enjoyed the comradery and the process.


 “I have fond memories of it, particularly the people and the conversations I had with them. I don't remember what the work was like on the day-to-day, because I don't remember it as work. I just remember getting to know people, getting close to them, sending emails, advancing what I thought was a good cause. It really wasn't work. It was just getting closer to people doing a good thing.” 

From feeling like a latecomer in nature to tricky STEM classes and intimidating campaign work, Ogechi is no stranger to uncomfortable situations, but she feels that her comfort with discomfort is one of her most useful assets. 


“I took on a motto of "you're going to be uncomfortable," and I always say that to myself,” she says. “I like to think that being uncomfortable is a sign of growth….”


When asked what advice she would give to young people who are tentative to get involved in climate justice, just like she was, Ogechi has a lot to say. 


“At the young teenage stage when everything was awkward and gangly, I had the compulsion to never be at an uncomfortable table, which also means I was in spaces where I was never being heard because I didn't want to raise my voice. That was disempowering. I would tell young people that things are going to be uncomfortable, you're going to feel like you don't know what you're doing, but you sometimes need to feel that way to accomplish something. Maybe those feelings aren't inherently negative. Stick with those feelings and keep going, because things do get better.” 


She acknowledges the way in which youth experience a lot of change, but how often our values and the things we are passionate about are constant.  


“To young people who want to get involved in the climate movement, but are afraid of operating from a young lens because they're thinking ‘oh I'm a young person and by default my opinions aren't as steady or noteworthy’--while your logic may evolve, and your ability to reason may become better as they get older, a lot of times the things you value when you're young are the same things you'll value 10 or  15 years from now. If you believe that climate justice is good when you're 15, then maybe when you're 20, 25, 30, you'll have a better way to articulate that, but that doesn’t mean you’re wrong now. To the young people scared of being wrong or being uncomfortable, you never know what might happen.” 


Climate justice work and finding balance 

Ogechi herself has shifted her studies in a big way, making the leap from a STEM track in high school to taking all humanities courses in college, and is excited about this change. Through the transition, however, she has maintained her passion for climate justice. 


During the summer of 2023, Ogechi has been working as a research assistant for a project that brings energy security to Indigenous and low-income groups in the lowlands of Louisiana through solar power, focusing on people who are disproportionately affected by climate change. This work with the Lowlander Center, sponsored by Harvard and in collaboration with Professor Jason Beckfield, has brought Ogechi into research of renewables, community harm reduction, sustainable agriculture, land trusts, and grant programs. She feels passionate about helping communities disproportionately affected by climate change gain further financial independence by moving away from earth harming petroleum. She likes the work she’s doing, feeling that it synthesizes her background and interests. 

“What I took away the most was not me helping the communities–but me having the opportunity to be part of the inspiring work that they had started on their own, despite the rebuilding that has not been completed from past hurricane seasons, despite unstable power. I am amazed by the resilience of these communities, and really grateful to have been able to be of service because I felt like I learned more from them than they ever could have learned from me.”


In order to maintain a healthy relationship to the work she does, Ogechi makes sure to find time to relax, and oftentimes all this takes for her is a step outside. Ogechi is living in Boston this summer and enjoys going on walks through the city, along the Charles River, and into Boston Common. 


“It's nice to just be able to take part in a meditative experience and learn more about yourself. You stop noticing time passing because you're really really lost in your thoughts.” 


She finds that movement through outdoor spaces, in addition to relaxing her, can help motivate her work. 


“You remember the serene feeling you had in one place and you take it with you to another place. For a while, you're able to operate off that level of peace that you had in nature. It's an automatic de-stressor until you go back there again to refresh. The appreciation I have for the state I can be in, I take it with me into my research assistant position and environmental justice and things that create more sustainability, because I want to have these resources around me for the rest of my life and perhaps the rest of my children's lives. I want them to also be able to feel these things that I feel when I'm in nature.”

But nature is also a reprieve from work, and from the need to be productive.


“I can just take a step back and be stuck in time for a little bit, instead of thinking of how much am I gonna make this week, how many hours am I gonna work, am I gonna get my paper done. Instead I can just look at the pretty trees, look at the air, look at the water, think of where I am, be grateful for where I am. That's my relationship with nature now."


Hope for a sustainable future

In all that Ogechi does, there is an element of hope. Ogechi exists in direct contrast to the idea that having hope is naive or that it's too late to turn things around. She is just one person, but she believes she can make a difference.


“We are at a point where signs have been ignored for decades and it's going to be easier for a lot of people to say that we've reached a point that earth can't return from. Isn't that so depressing to even bear? I'm not sure how I could live like that and continue living. Hope is the fuel of life. If there's no hope, at what point could I get up in the morning? I don't like to think of a reality where I can't do anything meaningful, because doing something meaningful gives me the courage to get my education and do things in terms of long term planning, because I think there will be a world 20, 30, 40, 50 years from now to live my life in and do my work in. I just ask people who think we've gone too far if they find that hope has any meaning in their lives and if they're really able to function as they like without believing that there's something that they as an individual can do.”


Ogechi works in the now, but she is thinking a lot about the future. While this may be something inherent to the young and climate conscious, Ogechi uses her background in climate justice and all that she has learned through her own research and schooling to imagine a greener world. 

She has been learning about urban planning recently by reading a book about cities by Jane Jacobs, the urbanist and activist.


“I think about urban planning as a means of introducing natural life back into the city. This might not be technically possible in the next one to three decades, but in an ideal world, we would live in a place where the vegetation lives with us. We would have denser cities but also cities dense with plant life- a lot more vertical farming. We could utilize spaces on the sides of buildings. I've been learning about microgrids in my research assistant position so I think of communities where electricity is generated by different means, so a community in a sunny area would use solar power and a community near a river would use hydropower. The energy would be traded in different spaces and be decentralized energy. Decentralization of energy and localization of agriculture and more trees in cities, more vegetation on the sides of buildings, growing in people's apartments.”

The potential discomfort of large-scale change doesn’t scare Ogechi—she’s ready to take it on. 


“If we could learn to live like that,” she says of her idealized world, “It would be so sustainable. It would be uncomfortable for the first 20 years, but as the generations replaced each other, it would be so beautiful.” 


This story was created and published in May-September 2023

bottom of page