Moving to the Beat of Environmental Justice

Environmental justice journalist Yessenia Funes (photo courtesy of Yessenia Funes).
Environmental justice journalist Yessenia Funes (photo courtesy of Yessenia Funes.)

Yessenia Funes is young, smart and out to save the world. Or at least cover under-reported stories that, if they were more widely known, might lead others to do the saving.

You see, Funes is a journalist and her beat is environmental justice. Some of her recent stories have ranged from the impact of the destruction of Amazon forests on indigenous people, to in-depth investigative reporting on how California is using prison inmates to fight wildfires, to a provocatively titled story about what’s in store for low-lying South Florida when sea levels rise — “Miami Is Fucked.”

As a senior staff writer for Earther, Funes is one of a new generation of reporters who are out to challenge the status quo and speak truth to power. She describes Earther as a vertical on, a future-oriented website descended from a company created in the wake of the 2016 bankruptcy filing by Gawker Media after a 100-million-dollar lawsuit by wrestler Hulk Hogan essentially put it out of business.

“Earther is less about pissing off celebrities and more about pissing off fossil fuel companies and taking on politicians,” Funes said. “Pissing off people is what we’re about.”

The journalist, a graduate of SUNY Plattsburgh in upstate New York, recently returned to her alma mater to make a guest appearance on “Late Night for the Planet,” a live talk show produced by students in the college’s Environmental Science department and presented at a pub in downtown Plattsburgh, where it is live-streamed on Facebook.

The appearance was something of a personal homecoming for Funes, who double-majored in journalism and environmental science and who cited the mentoring of Curt Gervich, an associate professor in the latter department, as a significant influence on her choice of majors. Gervich is one of the driving forces behind “Late Night for the Planet,” overseeing its student producers and facilitating each monthly episode of the show notable for its combination of light-hearted audience participation games and serious discussion of the climate crisis among its student hosts and expert panelists. In Gervich’s view, Funes brought to the show impressive credentials. 

“Since Yessenia left SUNY, I have enjoyed following her career via Earther and Facebook,” Gervich said. “I am absolutely blown away by her work. She is an outstanding writer and thinker and so eloquent on these issues — as well as a strong voice for women and science.”

SUNY Plattsburgh prof Curt Gervich preps the Feb. 19 episode of “Late Night for the Planet.” (Photo by Hadar Pepperstone).
SUNY Plattsburgh professor Curt Gervich preps the Feb. 19 episode of “Late Night for the Planet.” (Photo by Hadar Pepperstone.)

For a journalist in the habit of covering some of the grimmest stories on the planet, the Feb. 19 episode proved to be a lot more enjoyable than the typical panel discussion she’s participated in.

“I’ve never been interviewed by students in such an informal setting — and never had a drink onstage before or played such fun games,” Funes said.

From left to right, Yessenia Funes with Dan Reed of Planet Forward and “Late Night for the Planet” co-hosts Samantha Beck and Rahmel Pacheco (photo by Hadar Pepperstone).
From left to right, Yessenia Funes with Dan Reed of Planet Forward and “Late Night for the Planet” co-hosts Samantha Beck and Rahmel Pacheco (photo by Hadar Pepperstone.)

Reporting on Stories that Were Going Untold

Although her return to Plattsburgh may have been an occasion marked by fun and games, it is clear in speaking with Funes that it was the seriousness with which she approached her college experience at Plattsburgh State that formed the foundation of her current success as a journalist.

Raised in suburban Nassau County, Long Island, she didn’t have clear career goals upon starting college and had little idea what journalism entailed. In high school, she had enjoyed writing but at SUNY Plattsburgh found the “newsiness” of her journalism classes to be a real awakening. The associations Funes made with other students, as well as faculty members, helped lead to an increasing desire to report on social issues.

“I met a lot of [different types of] people I hadn’t met before,” Funes said. “College is about expanding your horizons. I made a lot of friends who cared about the environment and [especially] environmental justice.”

Growing up in the suburbs, her idea of environmentalists was people who preferred riding a bike to driving a car. What was missing from her concept was a deeper human element. Once she became steeped in her study of both journalism and the environment, Funes realized that there were important stories going largely unnoticed by the mainstream media — and that she could help fill that gap not only as an environmental justice reporter but as a woman of color, a Latina.

Unlike many journalism students these days, her transition from college to a career in the profession was a pretty smooth one: Funes landed a job right after graduation.

“I took my classes and my studies… very seriously,” Funes said. “They solidified my path forward in environmental journalism.”

And while she’s not sure if “sexy” is quite the right word to describe the field she’s in, Funes feels she’s been fortunate to encounter enough interest from editors and publishers to create a lot of opportunities for her to do the kind of work she loves doing.

Saying Yes to Opportunity

Her first job out of college was an assignment editor position with Yes! Magazine, which focused on “solutions” journalism. For a time following her hiring, Funes was the only person of color on staff and she was given the beat of racial justice — a position she felt “kind of shoved into” when she would’ve preferred to focus on her true passion, environmental justice.

That focus would come soon enough, at Earther — itself a relatively new venture, having been launched just two-and-a-half years ago — and there Funes’s identity as both a woman and a person of color has informed her journalism.

“I’ve reported on low-income communities, communities of color, urban communities, indigenous communities — in part because of my identity,” Funes said. “If I weren’t a woman of color, I’d still be doing this. I cover a lot of stories that go untold. I do the reporting I do because of (the need for) justice.”

When asked if she would describe her work as a form of “advocacy” journalism, Funes acknowledged struggling with that term and its implications. In her view, all journalists are advocates in a way and some — particularly those in her generation — have become more outspoken and are pushing more and more against the status quo, whether they are consciously participating in advocacy journalism or not.

“It pits some of us against more traditional journalists,” Funes said. “I’m not a fan of that term.”

Funes cited the recent case of a reporter for ABC News, David Wright, who was suspended after a secret video recording by the right-wing undercover operation Project Veritas was released of him self-identifying as a socialist. While Funes takes issue with the concept of “objective” reporting and believes journalists should be allowed to express their own opinions, she does not think it necessary for them to take on the label of advocacy journalism.

“I don’t think journalists need to declare ‘I’m a socialist’ or “I’m a conservative,” Funes said.

On the other hand, it shouldn’t be considered bold for a reporter to contend that future generations should have a habitable planet or that fossil fuel companies are contributing to the climate crisis.

“All journalists should be advocates for the public and put the interests of the public above all other — without creating unnecessary tensions between new-age journalists and old-school ones,” Funes said.

Writing Ambitions that Preclude Politics

Her longer-range goals include doing more investigative pieces that push the envelope, like the story about California prison inmates fighting wildfires or exposés of water crises like the one in Flint, Michigan — stories that, in Funes’s view, hold people in power accountable and expose injustice.

Does she see herself staying in journalism long-term? “I always struggle with this…. Investigative journalism is not easy to do, hard to break into.”

One thing she would like to do beyond journalism is to write children’s books on environmental issues, centering on children of color — Latinx, immigrant children.

“I’d love to write about little brown boys and girls,” Funes said. “That is my ultimate dream.”

When asked if she has any heroes in journalism or politics, Funes pointed to Emily Atkin, a contributing editor at The New Republic whose work has been cited in House committee meetings in Washington. “She is fearless — she doesn’t care who she offends.”

In politics, U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes of the Bronx, New York is the ultimate for Funes. “I would like to sit down with her — not even interview her, just be her friend.”

Despite the focus in her journalism on environmental policy, Funes says she has no interest in ever going into politics.

“Hell no, hell no, I hate even just reporting on politics,” Funes said. “I prefer doing human-centric stories. I can’t stand politics.”

Seizing the Future by Holding onto Past Relationships

Advised by her interviewer that she reminded him of the muckrakers of the early twentieth century — crusading journalists such as Ida Tarbell — Funes offered, upon being prompted, the following advice for journalism students of today: “Fake it until you make it.”

When she began her career, she was editing journalists who were in their 30s or 40s and practicing their trade a lot longer than Funes had been, but she did her work with confidence. Student journalists should seek advice from whomever they can, including their professors, and not to be afraid to reach out once they’ve begun their careers.

“Hold onto those professors who are role models and mentors — you don’t have to give them up,” Funes said, citing former SUNY Plattsburgh journalism professor Luke Cyphers as one she stays in touch with.

She also urges student journalists to take school seriously, having encountered, during her undergraduate years, too many students who didn’t care enough about their classes or getting the most out of school.

“Learn what you need to learn,” Funes said “Fake it until you make it and hold onto those relationships. Keep those people who are your mentors. You will need them when things turn tough. This industry will eat you alive.”

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