Jewish, Black climate activist fights for 'intersectional climate justice'

Sharona Shnayder, 23, becomes one of National Geographic Society's 15 Young Explorers

Sharona Shnayder at a beach cleanup day in Tel Aviv in 2023 (photo credit: Courtesy Sharona Shnayder)
Sharona Shnayder at a beach cleanup day in Tel Aviv in 2023
(photo credit: Courtesy Sharona Shnayder)

"Individuals weaponizing their voices and mobilizing for change can reshape our future for the better," Sharona Shnayder, a 23-year-old immigrant, told The Jerusalem Post on Friday.

Born in Nigeria, raised in America and now a resident of Holon, Shnayder, a climate activist and the founder of Tuesdays for Trash, was announced as one of National Geographic Society's 15 Young Explorers last week. 

A grassroots leader and passionate about "intersectional climate justice," Shnayder scored the fellowship for her success in raising awareness about the global garbage crisis, inspiring thousands of individuals in 40 countries to remove more than 30,000 pounds (13,000 kilograms) of litter from the environment in the last three years. 

The Young Explorers 

Young Explorers are a group of 18-25 year olds from 13 countries - Argentina, Cameroon, Colombia, Gambia, Rwanda, United Kingdom, United States and more - who are "selected for their exceptional courage, leadership and impact-driven solutions," the society said. 

 Tuesdays for Trash cleanup in Tel Aviv, Israel in 2022.  (credit: Rachel Redlich ) Tuesdays for Trash cleanup in Tel Aviv, Israel in 2022. (credit: Rachel Redlich )

"These inspirational young leaders are positively influencing their peers, schools, communities and global networks," said Alex Moen, chief explorer engagement officer at the NAT GEO. "They represent a diversity of backgrounds, identities and experiences, yet they share one common goal: using their voices to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. They see profound possibilities to make a difference in the world and do it with confidence, courage and conviction."

SHNAYDER STARTED Tuesdays for Trash at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. At first, it was an excuse to get outside during lockdown and reconnect with her friends. But she quickly saw that her project could make a tangible difference.

At the time, Shnayder was studying accounting at Portland State University in Oregon. She took to social networks to announce her project and encourage others to join, leading to today's global movement. Tuesdays for Trash just celebrated its third birthday on May 5.

"People often don't realize the impact of trash; it's something we so easily ignore. But once you start picking it up, you realize how much there is and the cost it has to our environment and our governments financially," Shnayder told the Post. "I believe it starts a ripple effect, and we've seen it in Tuesdays for Trash, where people take this small and easy action and build it into significant behavioral changes that influence their community on a local and global level."

She said "the real solution" to the environmental crisis will come from education and reconnecting to the environment. 

"Our home isn't just our backyard, it's the entire planet, and this, unfortunately, is something that critically needs to be retaught for most of the developed world," Shnayder said. "Often, we convince ourselves that the problem is too large, too political or too expensive to fix - that only governments and businesses are responsible and must devise a solution," she said. “While they do play a big part, it’s honestly not true.”

What inspired Shnayder?

SHNAYDER'S PASSION for the environment and sustainability started at a young age. Her father is a Jewish Jerusalemite, and her mother is from Nigeria, where she was raised until she was eight. In Nigeria, Shnayder said, she was always very aware of the environment, as sustainability was a survival mechanism. 

"We had to keep things for a long time because resources were limited," she recalled. "I grew up always wanting to protect our spaces, and people encouraged me."

When she moved to the US, Shnayder said she was surprised by how wasteful the culture was and how people threw away perfectly good things.

In 2017, she became an environmental activist inspired by Swedish autistic climate justice activist Greta Thunberg. 

"She put things into perspective for me, made the crisis tangible and scary," Shnayder recalled. "I was studying accounting then, and I started researching. It terrified me of the future, and I wanted to make sure I did everything I could to prevent things from worsening."

SHNAYDER MOVED to Israel two years ago after participating in a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip. She said she struggled in the States as a woman of color, an immigrant and a Jew.

"I felt unwelcome in America," she told the Post. "Every obstacle was stacked against me."

Although she had never been to Israel before Birthright, she said she had heard good things. Shnayder joined the Jewish Student Union in college, learning more about her Jewish faith and the country. Birthright led to participation in the Masa job placement program, where she worked with a start-up that turns trash into sustainable materials and, ultimately, Aliyah.

A friend and a previous fellow from Nigeria nominated her for the National Geographic Society fellowship. The program comes with a $10,000 grant, eligibility to apply for an additional $10,000 for a specific project, and access to National Geographic's network and support. Shnayder’s goal is to use her winnings to open more spaces for more women of color like herself who are passionate about saving the environment. 

"I'm dedicating this award to all the women of color out there who wear so many hats in their communities but often don't get the recognition they deserve," Shnayder said. "I know what it's like and how tirelessly we work because we know it's the right thing to do, and my goal is to use the $10,000 grant to uplift, amplify and showcase their invaluable contributions to the safeguarding of our planet."

The environmental activist said that she is "tired of people thanking me" for working for a sustainable future. "We need people to stop thanking us and join us to make change."