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Climate Change, Health & Equity convening brings together grantees, partners to connect, collaborate

Environment, Health

From record-setting wildfires to rising sea levels, climate change is impacting people in real ways – today. The world’s leading health journals have identified climate change as among the most critical public health priorities of this century. While everyone’s health is at risk, climate change takes its greatest toll on low-income communities and communities of color.

But there is good news. Leaders from communities around the country, including those from the health sector, are making smart choices to combat climate change that improve people’s health and well-being.

More than 140 of these leaders came together February 10-12 in Atlanta, GA to participate in the inaugural peer-learning event for The Kresge Foundation’s Climate Change, Health & Equity (CCHE) Initiative, “The Urgency of Climate & Health: Building Power to Promote Equitable Change.”

Participants – many of them representatives and project partners of the 26 nonprofit organizations funded through the CCHE initiative – engaged in a series of workshops, panel discussions, local site visits and networking opportunities over the three-day meeting to share experiences, tackle common challenges and tap into collective knowledge to help accelerate work at the intersection of climate change, health and equity.

Recognizing climate change is one of the most important social determinants of health, Kresge’s Health and Environment programs partnered to launch the CCHE Initiative in early 2019.

Through the CCHE Initiative, which builds on years of work Kresge has supported to accelerate action on climate change and equitably reduce health disparities, the foundation is working together with hospitals, health care systems, public health departments, health practitioners, community-based climate advocates and others to improve community resilience and advance policies and practices that improve community health.

“The impacts of climate change affect people in multiple ways – from one’s physical and mental health, housing stability and financial well-being, said Shamar Bibbins, senior program officer with Kresge’s environment team. “The CCHE Initiative is a unique partnership that brings stakeholders from multiple disciplines and sectors together to strengthen partnerships among equity-focused leaders and those from the health community to create new ways of thinking to address these intersecting issues.

Imagination Builds Power

Communities affected by climate change have an important story to share. To put strategic storytelling at the center of social change, the Center for Story-Based Strategy kicked off the convening with a pre-session gathering for the 15 community-based organizations and invited partners currently funded through the initiative. The pre-session provided participants with a practical framework to analyze powerful stories and hands-on tools they could use to apply story-based strategies in their work.

“It’s about more than simply telling a good story,” said Bernice Shaw, co-director of the Center for Story-Based Strategy. “It’s about analyzing the opposition’s stories, understanding what you want to change, choosing where and how to intervene and then crafting your own.”

“The currency of narrative is meaning, not truth,” Shaw added.  “Pin down the story you need to change, then take action to transform it.”

Following the presentation, David Fukuzawa, managing director of Kresge’s Health Program, encouraged grantee partners to use their voice to change the narrative around climate change.

“There is an entire set of voices being left out of the climate change conversation – your voices, and the voices of your community residents,” he said to the grantee partners. “Not only are voices from the ground important, they are the most important voices to inform climate policy. As opposed to being cast as victims, residents are active agents for change. We have to include their voices in the story.”

Making Connections

CCHE convening 2

Following a dynamic performance from Atlanta-based group Soul Food Cypher, the second day of the convening was packed with plenaries, panels and peer exchange workshops focused on topics ranging from creating resilience hubs and transforming energy systems to using community-informed metrics and aligning capital with community priorities.

For many, it was an opportunity to meet new people working on the same issues, make connections and collaborate on new ideas.

“It’s a huge opportunity for us to understand that climate work is equity work, health work is equity work, but they all intersect, they are all really necessary and need to go together,” said “It’s wonderful to see so many who are interested in focusing on taking collaborative action to change the way things are done,” said Kristin Baja, Programs Director, Climate Resilience, Urban Sustainability Directors Network.

Keynote speaker Nathaniel Smith, founder and equity director of the Partnership for Southern Equity, emphasized what it will take mobilize a strong constituency for equitable climate action.

“If you are waiting on the Avengers to come and save us, they are not coming. We have to rely on ourselves to move forward,” Smith said. “If we come together, bring the assets of health institutions together with assets of the community, we can make a fundamental change.”

“This work is not just about the earth or global warming. It’s about economic and social justice. It’s about survival. It’s about humanity,” Smith said.

Because climate change is happening at such a rapid pace, we need creative strategies rooted in the needs and priorities of local communities that are grounded in climate science, said Jalonne White-Newsome, senior program officer with Kresge’s environment team, during a lunch plenary focused on effective planning in the era of a changing climate

“For everyone who is looking ahead, climate change is now. So how do we plan better?” White-Newsome asked the crowd.

“The same systems that wreck the climate are bad for the water, the air, our bodies, our economies, and our communities. So instead of multitasking, think multisolving. We can solve our challenges simultaneously without separating the goals and outcomes,” said Elizabeth Sawin, Ph.D., co-founder and co-director of Climate Interactive.

In the Community

In addition to thoughtful discussions on how to respond to complex issues and drive a new vision for change, attendees had the opportunity to visit two communities in Atlanta and learn how they are addressing climate and health impacts.

The Equitable Green Impact Zone (EGIZ) in Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn neighborhood will be the city’s premier “equity-district” that seeks to combat several challenges at once. The tour uplifted a wide range of successes and challenges around community leadership, affordable housing, air quality, mental health, energy burdens, urban agriculture, and energy-saving techniques.

Land preservation and climate resilience efforts go hand in hand, particularly in communities that are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. In West Atlanta, visitors learned how stormwater management, infrastructure, food, job training and creative placemaking all came together to create a greener, cleaner, healthier community at the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance.

As the convening came to a close, Makena Themba, Chief Strategist at Higher Ground Change Strategies; Dr. Mildred McClain, executive director of The Harambee House; and Richard Moore, co-coordinator of the Environmental Justice Health Alliance and coordinator of Los Jardines Institute focused on how the past can serve as a powerful guide for the future.

Using stories and songs, they shared their wisdom on the lessons of the climate justice movement and reflected on what we can learn from the past to build a strong, powerful and inclusive climate movement that promotes health and well-being for all.

“We are extraordinary people doing extraordinary things,” McClain said. “We will win through unity.”

To learn more about the Climate Change, Health & Equity initiative, visit

Read remarks delivered by Kresge Foundation President and CEO Rip Rapson at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights: “Centering community voices is essential in addressing climate change, health disparities in cities.”