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Welcoming Our First Environmental Justice Fellow

Welcoming Our First Environmental Justice Fellow

We’re excited to welcome Vilas Annavarapu as the Great Plains Institute’s inaugural Carbon Management Environmental Justice Fellow! We sat down with Vilas to get to know him better and learn about his plans for the fellowship.

Interested in connecting with Vilas? Reach out to him at [email protected]


About the Carbon Management Environmental Justice Fellowship

The fellowship program is a professional development and advocacy position aimed at individuals interested in furthering a just and equitable energy transition for impacted communities through the implementation of carbon management policies and programs at the local, state, regional, and federal levels. The fellowship begins with three months of policy immersion and research, followed by one year of active engagement and advocacy.


Q: Welcome Vilas! Tell us a little bit about yourself.

A: My mom taught me to love my name. “Vilas. Make sure your teachers pronounce it correctly,” she would instruct in Telugu. My heritage is a point of pride, a badge of honor, and a marker of difference—all invitations to exploration. Dance was a natural starting point. From choreographing performances with my sister in our living room to teaching an entire block in Lima how to groove to Bollywood, dance made space for the particular and newly minted converts. In my first year of college, I joined the University of Virginia’s “HooRaas,” a garba/raas dance team that remodeled traditional Gujarati steps for a national competition circuit. The adjustment was difficult. Bollywood emphasizes fluidity, whereas raas is disciplined and rigid. Through hours of late-night practice, the steps became natural and instinctive. The exhilaration of performing on stage with friends and teammates never fades.

What drew you to environmental justice work? What life experiences have shaped your worldview?

A: The summer before my second year of college, Neo-Nazis with tiki torches marched on the University of Virginia’s Grounds to protest a petition calling for the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. I hid under my bed as they marched past my window. They tried to kill my friends. This, after all, was Thomas Jefferson’s university: the author of the Declaration of Independence and a slaveowner. What is my role in undoing structures of oppression? What does it mean to be a South Asian in the face of white supremacy? I found the beginnings of an answer in the politics of solidarity.

After studying the history of the Mississippi Freedom Schools, a radical and democratic education movement in the 1960s led by young people to resist white supremacy, I moved to Jackson, Mississippi, to teach middle school. Racism and historic disinvestment have plagued my adopted home for decades. The state legislature regularly diverts funds for infrastructure repairs or economic development away from the city and refuses to adequately fund public education. I saw my students’ passion, creativity, and brilliance trapped in a system not meant to uplift them. Solidarity is an unrelenting commitment to the flourishing of their futures.

I co-founded Riverside Collective, a cooperative entrepreneurship program for middle and high school students and an incubator for democratically run businesses in South Jackson. Young people channel their creativity through social entrepreneurship and learn to make decisions through consensus. Through a model of worker-ownership, Riverside is an engine for grassroots economic development committed to local wealth generation.

My investment in an economy rooted in mutual aid drew me to the work of environmental justice. An economy that endlessly extracts denies my students a future. An economy that works for the wealthy instead of the workers denies my students a future. An economy that disrespects our planetary limits in the name of profit maximization denies my students a future. The work of environmental justice is urgent, and it relies on an ethic of cooperation. I joined the Great Plains Institute in service of that mission.

As our Environmental Justice Fellow of Carbon Management, what do you hope to achieve?

A: As GPI’s inaugural Environmental Justice Fellow, I’m passionate about reimagining traditional approaches to community buy-in. I want to move beyond government agencies, NGOs, and companies asking for input and to build out real structures of co-governance.

Communities should be active decision makers when it comes to their environmental futures. Carbon management, specifically, offers an exciting pathway for communities historically harmed by the impact of extractive industries to participate in an economy that’s sustainable and dignified.

The suite of carbon management technologies—from afforestation to industrial carbon capture—are real solutions to averting climate disaster, and they require political will, sector-wide commitment, and the trust of the public to become possible. In my role, I’m excited to bridge stakeholders’ differences without erasing them to achieve consensus.

Overcoming climate change requires our courage. In the process of cutting emissions, building new industries, and protecting our planet, are we brave enough to transform the status quo? Can we eliminate pollution and eliminate poverty? Can we invest in green energy and invest in our education system? Can we break down historic structures of oppression and build a world governed by mutual care? We can. We must.