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What drove a former USA swim team member to tackle the diesel problem?

BJ Johnson transformed himself from athlete to an eco-entrepreneur. In this episode, he tells us why entrepreneurship is a viable planet-saving career and the challenges of being one of the few Black men in his field.

BJ Johnson is in a hurry — and for good reason. He’s frustrated by the slow pace of change to address the climate crisis. And he’s angry about how air particle pollution endangers everyone, but especially marginalized groups. 

Black, Brown, and poor communities are especially plagued by harmful health outcomes—like asthma, COPD and other lung diseases—from environmental pollutants. Regardless of their state or income, Black residents are exposed to 26% higher levels of soot from heavy-duty diesel trucks than the national average. Once exposed, they are then at a three times higher risk of dying.

BJ won’t settle for it taking another two decades to solve the problem. As he tells host Yesh Pavlik Slenk, “This notion of, oh, well it’s okay, that five-year-olds in L.A. today have asthma because we’ll have electric school buses in 2040—we need to reject that type of thinking and start asking, no — why can’t we start making this better today?”

Which is exactly what he’s trying to do. BJ talks with Yesh about how he and ClearFlame cofounder Julie Blumreiter are working to transform the dirty fossil-fuel-based trucking industry into a clean one, affordably. Now.

But that’s not all—the two founders are also fighting for more diversity, inclusion and equity in academia and in the world of high-tech startups. Johnson is one of a small handful of Black academics who have earned doctorates in engineering. Sadly, that’s not surprising: women and Black people (both men and women) remain underrepresented in STEM degrees and careers, according to the Pew Research Center. Black people are especially underrepresented in engineering, where they make up only 5% of all groups in that field, despite being 11% of the workforce.

Blumreiter and Johnson, who is half-Black, call for an end to this inequity. Writing in an open letter on their website, they reference their own experiences as being “consistently underestimated” because of their identities. In their letter, they call for acknowledgment that solving the world’s problems must come from “a diverse range of thought-leaders.”

ClearFlame was named one of Grist’s top 50 “fixers” of issues around climate change in 2021.

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