Perspective  | 

We can’t end the climate crisis without “passing the mic”

How a piece of Black history and my dad’s life and death have shown me the need for new narratives

by Matt Scott
Matt Scott standing in front of projected image of him and his father.

Project Drawdown’s director of storytelling and engagement Matt Scott stands on stage at the 2024 Great Northern Festival sharing his climate story.

Credit: Whitney Terrill

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If there’s one thing I’ve learned through my career as a storyteller, it’s this: Everyone has a story, and those stories have power. But in a society that often prioritizes science, data, news of the problem, and traditional voices over personal narratives, this essential truth is easy to overlook.

I’d always been drawn to the stories my dad, Moses Scott, would share about growing up as a Black child in Civil Rights Era Virginia. He faced countless obstacles and, in his resilience, was my role model. He showed me that even when people want you to shrink yourself, you have to keep going, and I’ve always been motivated by his courage and fire to prove everyone wrong.

When my dad passed away on March 8, 2017, he became the heart of my story, and the reason why I’ve dedicated my career on “passing the mic” to the changemakers who often go unheard. I’d long known that his story and the ways it influenced me were significant. However, it was his death that made me acutely aware that many of us – particularly those from Black and Brown communities – never have our stories told. That’s a key reason I share my dad’s story far and wide to this day; his story, like those of so many others that often go unheard, is full of insights that not only inspire and inform me but that have the power to motivate others.

A couple years before his passing, I interviewed my dad about his story.

“The way I see my life is taking lemons and making lemonade.” He continued, “That’s what, for me, Prince Edward County was.”

The Story of Prince Edward County

In 1959, the state of Virginia adopted the anti-integration policy of massive resistance. This blocked the desegregation of public schools ordered by the United States Supreme Court following Brown vs. the Board of Education. Until then, Black students and White students almost entirely attended separate schools, with Black students, including my dad, relegated to substandard conditions. When Virginia’s government closed the schools, nobody – including my dad, who was 16 at the time – would have imagined that some 1,700 students would be left without a formal education for five years. Consider the negative impacts of distance learning due to the COVID pandemic; now imagine learning being put entirely on hold for five years.

“When we found out the schools were closed, I wasn’t too concerned,” my dad shared with me in an interview. “I was very happy to get another two months not to study and do whatever I wanted. But then, when it went beyond that… I missed school. School was where I competed, where I’d show that I was just as good as anybody and better than most. That outlet was gone.”

In 1960, when given the option to become one of only 70 students to finish school living with complete strangers hundreds of miles away, my dad jumped at the opportunity. By the time the schools reopened, my dad, at 21 years old, was on his way to graduating from Howard University. In the following years, he would serve as a military captain, graduate from Harvard Business School, start a family, and launch his own business.

Black history, my history, is filled with these stories of resilience, triumph, and joy. Still, I witnessed our predominantly White community discount my dad, overlooking his real-life superpowers and story. This was nothing new for him.

Growing up, my dad cleaned the homes of wealthy, White community members who didn’t see his full potential. He told me, “Everything in that environment motivated me… Ms. Marshall, silver hair, about 80 years old. I used to go up the hill and I’d clean her house. One day, I must’ve been about 9 and she said to me, ‘Moses, if you learn how to make bed good, you might be able to get a good job at a hotel’…That made me mad, too. ‘No way!’ That’s what I said to myself, and this all helped me to be motivated.” 

Even 60 years later, I could feel the emotion in his voice. His story taught me that challenging circumstances present us with a choice, a chance to take lemons and make lemonade. 

The Stories We Need for a World in Crisis

I can see strong parallels between my dad’s story and the treatment of people at the frontlines of the climate crisis.

I’ve realized that even when you know that you have something valuable to contribute, people don’t always see your power. 

As a young, Black, LGBTQ person, I have often been the only one from any of those demographics in the room in climate change conversations. Scientists, engineers, policymakers, and even storytellers, who are predominantly White men, have shaped the dominant narrative, discourse, and decision-making about climate. That is problematic. To end the climate crisis, conversations must include underrepresented problem-solvers who have thus far been overlooked in popular climate dialogue.

We need narratives that center Black and Indigenous communities, communities of color, and others, who already bear the brunt of climate change and understand what just solutions look like. New narratives are critical to shine a light on untapped power.

Everyone has a more meaningful story than we may realize on the surface, but we often don’t know it’s there or appreciate its power.

Over time, in reflecting on my dad’s example, I realized that I can withstand discomfort to use my role as a storyteller to lift up underrepresented voices, share their resilience and leadership, and celebrate their real-world superpowers.

One of the climate superheroes I’ve met through the stories I’ve shared is Clara Kitongo. Clara shares, "Sometimes, we don't know that we have a superpower… realizing, 'oh, because you're born in Uganda and you have this unique experience, that is in itself a superpower because of the perspective you bring to the table’." 

Clara’s journey from seeing her identity as a burden to recognizing it as powerful is an example of the influence that narrative can have. Clara is an engineer, educator, and musician from Kampala, Uganda. Many of the dreams she had as a child were not things her culture saw as “important”. While today she lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, promulgating equity and planting trees as a climate solution, she didn’t initially see such a path. She recalls being fearful when entering the climate space as a Black woman. Clara credits Kenyan environmental activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangarī Maathai with helping her see her own power. Wangarī has been called “the troublemaker who fought back with trees” and received a master's degree from the University of Pittsburgh; Wangarī paved the way for Clara as a young African woman working with trees in Pittsburgh. This is a tangible example of the power of representation in the stories we tell. Representation can and does drive belonging, and serves to build power, shape culture, and change behavior.

In sharing my dad’s story, Clara’s story, and the stories of underrepresented changemakers everywhere, I want people to see themselves and their power. All too often the messages we receive make it challenging to find our place. Therefore, stories that encourage us to tap into our agency are critical.

While discouraged when called names like “little Black boy”, my dad found empowerment through the stories he was told.

My dad told me, “I just gritted my teeth and said, ‘Wait and see’. I studied harder. I studied longer. I memorized textbooks and it didn’t matter. Instead of lashing out, I said I will do better… I had people, my grandmother and my mother, show me and tell me my value… When we used to make speeches in church, I practiced with my grandmother, Rosetta Allen Brown. She said to me, ‘Mose, you can memorize a lot. You gon’ be something when you grow up.’ There was… that positive tone.”

Everyone has a more meaningful story than we may realize on the surface, but we often don’t know it’s there or appreciate its power.

There’s a saying that you can't be what you can’t see. Too often the mainstream narrative about underrepresented communities is one of victimhood, and it can be an arduous journey to discover our power. Positive representation in stories is critical for identity development and invites us to embrace our role as heroes.

My dad's story has inspired me to share stories that will bring about the end of the climate crisis. The same is true of Wangarī Maathai for Clara. Seeing people like us doing extraordinary things expands our idea of what's possible.

When it comes to the climate crisis, we need stories that help us recognize and leverage our power. This means representing the full diversity of solutions and problem-solvers, rather than perpetuating an exclusionary narrative. We need to pass the mic to the voices that often go unheard, and ask ourselves critical questions: Whose voices are being heard and whose aren't? What impact can those heroes and their voices have if we just listen? By questioning the status quo and passing the mic, each of us can help others discover their roles in solving climate change. We can discover that our power to do something about climate change is far greater than our wildest dreams.

Matt Scott leads Drawdown Stories at the climate solutions non-profit Project Drawdown. This essay was crafted with support from Jothsna Harris of Change Narrative LLC, which exists to build capacity in the climate justice movement through the power of our stories. For more on the Drawdown’s Neighborhood series, visit

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