Speaking Up on Behalf of Others

Tasnim Mellouli on trees, wetlands, and her Muslim faith

By Wendy Becktold

November 7, 2019

Tasnim Mellouli wears a cream hijab and cardigan and a rust-colored dress. She's wearing glasses and looking to her right, smiling. Behind her is a swampy landscape.

Photo by Mary Beth Koeth

Name: Tasnim Mellouli
Location: Orlando, Florida
Contribution: Fellow with the Sierra Club's Gender, Equity, and Environment program

How did you learn about the Gender, Equity, and Environment fellowship?
In summer 2016, I was a climate justice intern with Organize Florida. My supervisor there told me about it. I was accepted and got to attend a weekend-long training in DC the following June about the intersectionality of gender and climate change. One point that stuck out to me was that women tend to face the brunt of climate change. It's harder for them to bounce back from disasters.

The fellowship often includes a special project. Did you do one?
I'm still thinking about what to do. I really want to write a children's book for Muslim kids. Our faith community isn't very active in climate justice. I think it's because we have other problems to deal with, like discrimination, but I want to highlight that we should be on the front lines of this.

How did you become an environmentalist?
I have always loved trees and wanted to protect them. I'd watch movies like WALL-E—where the whole earth is filled with trash—and I was the one kid who was like, "Oh my gosh, we have to do something!" If I see that movie today, I still get upset.

When did you first become aware of climate change?
We immigrated to Orlando when I was five, but most of my family is in Tunisia. Half the country is desert, and the other half is mountains. And it's coastal too. When we'd go back to visit, we'd see the effects of climate change. It's really hot, which is hard on the elderly and babies. I see the effects of climate change here in Florida too, of course, just going to the beach—the shoreline is higher than what I experienced as a kid.

You're a student at the University of Central Florida. What's your major?
Environmental studies. I really love wetlands—I've been doing research on wrack, which is a kind of seagrass that washes up onshore. Last year and this year, I went to the Society of Wetland Scientists conference and took part in discussions about how we can diversify wetland sciences and science in general. In my experience, the science community is pretty accepting, but I'm always the only Muslim woman, the only one wearing a hijab.

What's that like?
Growing up, because I was visibly Muslim, I always got a lot of questions about 9/11 and the current state of the world. I'm actually kind of a shy person, but I became not shy because I was put in a position where I had to speak up. I welcomed the questions, though, because I could at least answer them more correctly than if people just looked online. It's a big role that a lot of young Muslims have to take on, whether we want to or not. I played sports too. You definitely didn't see many hijabs there. People were always like, "Oh, you can run and stuff?" Yeah, I can!

This article appeared in the November/December 2019 edition with the headline "The Accidental Spokesperson."