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Grantees share how they are addressing climate, health and equity concerns in COVID epicenters

Environment, Health

The events of 2020 have crystallized the connectedness of work at the intersection of climate, health, and equity. When COVID-19 was elevated to pandemic status in March, uncertainty loomed around the risk factors for contracting and spreading the virus. Economic instability caused by nationwide shutdowns left millions out of work and many industries struggling to stay afloat.  It didn’t take long to recognize that an all too familiar and unfortunate pattern had emerged; people of color were disproportionately impacted and bearing the brunt of health and financial challenges exacerbated by COVID-19.

In response to these challenges, the Climate Change, Health & Equity initiative’s grantee partners have had to adopt alternative ways of working to rapidly respond to community needs in the midst of the pandemic.  As people around the country now also rise up to protest against racial injustice, this ability to pivot and persevere  demonstrates why now more than ever, work that intersects climate change, health, and equity is more vital than ever in this moment.

Rapid Response in COVID Epicenters

CCHE’s national program office, the Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC), reached out to representatives of New-York based organizations UPROSE and WE ACT, along with Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles (PRS-LA) to find out their perspectives on our current climate and how each organization is fairing in this time of racial uprising, uncertainty, and a global health crisis. Below are highlights from their conversations.

What opportunities and/or challenges have emerged from the pandemic?

PSR-LA: PSR-LA’s Leap LA Coalition is focused on the implementation of a new Climate Emergency Mobilization Office (CEMO) in the City of Los Angeles. While the jurisdiction of the CEMO covers the entire city, the priority communities are the frontline, fenceline, low-income, Indigenous, and communities of color which face multiple, synergistic and cumulative stressors that result from living in areas that are heavily polluted due to the presence of freeways and industries, and thus are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The hazardous exposures created by these toxic conditions — combined with existing health vulnerabilities created by poverty, housing instability, and the inability of undocumented people to seek assistance — lead to adverse health consequences and health disparities which are now being significantly exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

These intersecting issues of climate change, health, and equity are at the heart of our plan for a Just Climate Transition and COVID-19 Recovery. Some of the most pressing challenges we already face are only compounded by COVID-19, with many people losing their jobs and homes, and many more not having reliable access to digital tools that allow for communication in the current environment. We also face the challenge of having to fight to safeguard the city funding that we had already won for the Climate Emergency Mobilization Office, Commission, and Community Assemblies, which has been under threat as elected officials grapple with the competing economic challenges created by COVID-19.

Doors have been opened for new ways of thinking and the possibility for changes that people previously could not envision. The public now has a greater understanding and recognition of environmental racism and a greater appreciation for how climate injustice makes communities vulnerable to public health crises. There is now more understanding of how these challenges affect everyone, and the current catastrophic wildfires have also made the climate impact and its intersecting problems much more threatening for some

UPROSE: Like many environmental justice communities across the nation, Sunset Park residents are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 due to the long-term exposure to air pollution and historic health disparities. Our community is a multi-generational frontline working-class community of color that suffers from disproportionately high rates of asthma, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. As a result, we have experienced devastating health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Social distancing and isolation have made it more difficult to connect with each other. It is harder to have community meetings and provide input in community visioning and the political decisions making process. A significant number of our residents have limited or no Internet and computer access, and we have many elders in our community who, despite access, do not have the capacity to engage online. Many public meetings are now virtual, therefore it has been harder to actualize an inclusive policy-making process. We planned to conduct door-to-door surveys for our CCHE project, but because that is no longer feasible, we have switched to conducting our surveys by phone and mail. So far we have been successful in reaching hundreds of Sunset Park residents. Initially, our survey was focused on the impacts of climate change and pollution, but we added several COVID-related questions about access to health care, medication, and cooling centers. The opportunity to check in on community members and have conversations about their experiences has allowed us to stay connected in a time where so many of us are isolated. The results of this survey will better position us to advocate for resources for our community.

WE ACT:  The COVID-19 crisis has opened the door to implement equity-focused environmental justice policies. Elected representatives are paying more attention to environmental justice. This is in part due to the research that has linked exposure to poor air quality to more severe COVID-19 cases. And we know it is people of color who are exposed to poor air quality due to racist environmental policies that placed industrial sites, highways, bus depots, and other hazardous spaces in their neighborhoods. Our community is low-income and people of color living in Northern Manhattan, which includes the neighborhoods Harlem, Washington Heights and Inwood.

Our community is hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic economically, socially and psychosocially. Therefore, the work we do with the community has had to pause, or shift, in order to meet their most pressing needs. This has led us to scale back some of our projects. We have paused all in-person meetings, which has been  one of our primary tools for building community power to fight for environmental programs and policies that can protect us. We have also had some great opportunities that arose as a result of the pandemic. For example, concerns about public health finally led both New York City and State to delve into deeper discussions about healthy housing and energy efficiency. New York City launched a program to hand out 74,000 free A/C units to low-income seniors. The Home Energy Assistance Program extended its cooling benefit program, and New York State is currently debating expansions for energy efficiency programs.

How is your organization addressing racial equity in relation to this work, especially in our current climate of racial tension as a result of police brutality?

PRS-LA: The disproportionate and cumulative impacts that come from being overexposed to pollution and under-protected by laws that treat Black and Brown communities as sacrifice zones are at the center of the motivation for the creation of the Leap LA. Our coalition is intentional about centering communities of color throughout the entire implementation process of the Climate Emergency Mobilization Office, Commission and Community Assemblies. In order to achieve this goal, we are hosting community roundtable discussions next month to get feedback and build more awareness about the office and to reimagine public safety along with our allies that have been working for years on divesting from policing and investing in community-driven solutions.  We understand that environmental racism is itself a type of state-sanctioned brutality.  We are currently working to deepen our connections with local allies in the Black Lives Matter movement to address the need for a People’s Budget that shifts budget priorities away from policing and towards measures that create real public health and safety.

UPROSE: Sadly, these are not new issues for our community. We have been working with our youth over the last 20 years to develop various initiatives to address police brutality, brutality they have experienced first hand. Over this time we have created campaigns to hold our local precinct accountable. We held rallies and protested outside of their precinct. We also protested against raids in our community and at hospitals that cared for our undocumented residents. Most recently, we joined with other local partners to march and speak out against racial violence in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

WE ACT: As a black-led environmental justice organization, WE ACT has been addressing racial equity since our beginning in 1988. WE ACT’s mission is to build healthy communities by addressing and fighting against the systemic environmental racism in Northern Manhattan. The fight for environmental justice is a part of the fight for racial justice because it is the communities of color that are sacrifice zones in this country; illustrated through environmental hazards, police violence, mass incarceration, and other forms of systematic and institutional racism.

We believe that environmental justice cannot exist without racial justice because the issues are so intertwined. For example, redlining was a form of systematic racism that led black neighborhoods to be neglected by the government. A recent study found that formerly redlined neighborhoods have some of the highest heat vulnerability in the country due to the decades of disinvestment. Coincidingly, these neighborhoods also have fewer high quality parks and green spaces.

The intersection of environmental and racial justice is where WE ACT’s work lies, and we are continuing to advocate and organize for BIPOC communities. Increasingly, we are thinking about how injustices that hit Black and brown communities the hardest, like policing and mass incarceration, are tied to environmental justice. For example, we have been working with criminal justice activist groups to close a penal colony and use the space for renewable energy generation.

What do you want people to know about the importance of the intersections between climate change, health, and equity?

PSR-LA: The main thing we want people to know is that a Just Recovery from COVID-19 and a Just Transition off of fossil fuels are possible and that these bold plans are the best way to address the intersections of climate change, health, and equity. In addition, we want people to know that the processes we use to bring about change are as important as the changes that are implemented. Our work aims to drive new systems within policy-making and governance that integrate a far more community-oriented and collaborative perspective which ensure the people most impacted by the policy have a seat at the decision-making table. Our work helps develop tools for deliberative democracy that help ensure a public-led process for advancing our intersectional solutions that are needed to adapt to the current challenges of these times and the changing climate. By co-powering with communities to co-design climate policies that are restorative, and producing real health improvement as metrics of success, we not only repair existing damage, but we also provide a new model for cities that want to seriously address the climate crisis and systemic disparities in terms of climate and health.

UPROSE: Whether it is communities of color New York, Detroit, Native Nations, Appalachian Communities, or The Gulf South, all of us are threatened by climate change-driven extreme weather events; events that people of color did not create. People of color are more likely to live within their carbon footprint, yet, we are more vulnerable to the impact of climate change. Climate change is a result of an extractive economy. Not just fossil fuel extraction, but the extraction of our labor.  We require a system change and Just Transition to a regenerative economy. It is important for people to know the complexities and nuances of “health” that transcends physical health. Health is infrastructure, social cohesion, living-wage jobs, housing and food security, and access to resources. In order to successfully promote “health” we need to be intentional, innovative, and collaborative. True health cannot be addressed in silos, or without the leadership and decision-making of those most impacted by historic health disparities and neglect.

WE ACT: There is no better time to take a deep look at these inequities and find systematic solutions that will not only protect our most vulnerable communities now in the short-term, but that can help us prepare for pandemics and disasters that are impending due to our unsolved climate emergency.

For so long, environmental justice activists have been highlighting the impact that environmental hazards have on public health. Particularly, that due to systematic and institutional racist practices, environmental hazards are disproportionately and intentionally placed in low-income communities and communities of color not only in the United States, but around the world in the Global South.

The disparate exposure to environmental hazards has resulted in intergenerational health impacts on the communities subjected to environmental racism. It is vital for people to understand how the environment is linked to health, and how the increasing climate crisis is only going to lead to more public health crises like the coronavirus pandemic. And within that, it is vital for people to understand that it is communities of color around the world that have and will bear the biggest brunt of the public health implications of our climate crisis. In the United States, we are seeing the health impacts of environmental racism, as well as other historic racisms, play out under the microscope of the COVID-19 pandemic. What we are seeing now is shedding a light on how we will see other health crises from climate change play out inequitably. Covid-19 is killing Black/African American and Latinx people in the United States at a disproportionately high rate. Latinx people represent about 30% of Covid-19 deaths, and Black/African American people account for about 31% of Covid-19 deaths in New York City. These statistics are also based on undercounted data, only accounting for 37% of non-hospitalized cases.

The upcoming election cycle offers a critical opportunity to change the direction of current policy and action. What, if anything, is your organization doing and/or preparing in the midst of this moment?

PSR-LA: While some of our member organizations participate in local races, create voter guides and offer their spaces as polling locations, collectively, Leap LA is not a 501(c)4 entity, so our electoral efforts are more constrained. However, our advocacy plays an essential role in candidates addressing issues around climate and environmental justice by ensuring that climate issues are well-understood in the public, with the Green New Deal being a notable example. We also have long standing relationships with current officials, including in the Mayor’s office, which help us work within the city, with global repercussions, as Mayor Garcetti is the chair of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group.

UPROSE: Voting is one part of implementing change, but our campaigns and advocacy transcend elections. Cultivating political will for our work is very important for both local implementation of Just Transition projects and statewide and regional frameworks to support environmental justice and climate resilience long-term. We develop briefing materials and hold meetings with elected officials to engage them on our campaigns and they can best use their platforms to offer support. We have worked with coalitions and other frontline leaders to pass policies that have emission reduction, equity, and investment mandates. We engage in public processes such as Article X and the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) to set new and better precedents in terms of policy alignment and compliance to promote equity and justice. We also continue to engage our community about a Just Transition and climate justice while holding elected officials accountable for the decisions they are making which impact frontline communities, we are continuing to develop and implement local models.

WE ACT: Our organization is doing a lot of work to prepare for the upcoming cycle. One major action is our Healthy Homes Initiative, in which we are mobilizing New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) residents to increase voter turnout in the City’s 2021 election cycle. We want to help build a powerful public housing voice to make NYCHA improvements a central topic in the City elections. Increasing the power and representation of NYCHA residents in government and politics will give them a critical upper hand in obtaining the improvement needed to make NYCHA a healthy and sustainable place to live.

What is your vision for your work moving forward? What is the ideal? Where are you trying to go?

PSR-LA: Our vision is to restore our communities from the soil to the soul through collective action that creates the power to change what is politically possible and do what is necessary to address climate justice and health. Our work seeks to decarbonize, detoxify, and democratize the city of Los Angeles in regard to its response to the climate crisis. Our plan to achieve this is on a dual track, with immediate attention being paid to the Just Recovery from COVID, and a long-term plan for a Just Transition off of fossil fuels, which is our work to establish a fully functioning Climate Emergency Office, including the Commission and Community Assemblies. We also plan to engage with and support Black Lives Matter along with other anti-racism and justice efforts and organizations in Los Angeles, with a strategy to promote participatory budgeting which will  realign city priorities to match real community needs.

UPROSE: Building resilience makes it possible for communities to embrace cultural practices and traditions that have worked to ensure their ability to survive and thrive. Our vision is to ensure that regardless of economic, health or climate disruption, we help create sustained local space for building and sharing local knowledge and strength. We strive to provide opportunities to embrace different economic and governance models and develop and support local leadership prepared to engage in intergenerational power and community building. We are driven by our understanding of North American based African and Indigenous practices to overcome existential threats. These practices depended on social cohesion, creativity, and resourcefulness- they built confidence and redefined success.

WE ACT: We envision Northern Manhattan to be a healthy space for people to live, work, play, pray and learn. Right now, we are in a politically ripe time to pass some policies that equitably address environmental injustices. Particularly, we envision using the just transition framework to guide our work. In the transition away from fossil fuels, we want to ensure communities that are hit hardest by the climate crisis are not left behind but are at the forefront of the decision-making process. For one, that means having our city, state, and eventually country gets its energy from renewable sources. We want communities to access renewable energy through community power and energy democracy, in which the people control their own power. WE ACT is currently working on expanding community solar in Northern Manhattan, and also training people in the community on solar installation so that people of color are equipped to participate in the industry. Expanding renewable energy use, increasing energy efficiency, and getting good jobs are three key pieces to creating healthy communities. We are leading advocacy for a number of city and state laws that take major steps towards this goal, such as the expansion of Local Law 97 with Introduction 1947 at City Council, and the Energy Efficiency, Equity, and Jobs Act at the State. Paired with this work, as we prepare for the increasing threat of extreme heat in New York City, we envision a system in which the government heavily subsidizes retrofitting costs for low-income renters and homeowners. This will allow more efficient home energy use and reduce high utility bills, which are a major burden for low-income people. Not only will subsidizing these costs help low income and vulnerable populations adapt to the heat, but it will help mitigate the issue through increasing efficiency.

As we move into the final quarter of the year, immense concern and uncertainty remains around public health, safety and racial equity. While it is unclear what the coming months will look like, it is painstakingly obvious that we must be steadfast and resolute in our work to advance solutions that bridge the intersection of climate change, health and equity.