Restoring Balance in the Climate, Racial Justice and Health Equity Storyline

By Surili Sutaria Patel and Vernice Miller-Travis

Photo credit: RISE for Climate, Jobs and Justice on Flickr (Creative Commons license)

From extreme weather to wildfires and heat waves — climate change is a threat multiplier. The effects of climate events, like worsening air quality and the spread of insect- and animal-borne diseases, lead to life-threatening health impacts. And while we all encounter the downwind health impacts of climate change, some among us are disproportionately harmed, including historically excluded people — namely Indigenous, African American, Latino/Latinx and other communities of color and low wealth.

The solutions to curb climate change effects on our health can also be solutions to dismantle structural, institutional and environmental racism. Often, the narrative around climate change is perceived to be a boutique problem observed by the upper and middle classes. However, the truth remains that those contributing least to our growing climate problem are often the ones who suffer the most. This dominant narrative has reinforced who has a seat at the decision-making table, which has led to the design and implementation of racist policies and practices that disproportionately target communities of color.

In September 2021, Metropolitan Group convened an expert panel of leaders, over Zoom, for a conversation on restoring the balance in the climate change, racial justice and health equity storyline. Joined by 160 people across disciplines, sectors and countries, the panel created a lively, yet vulnerable conversation on how to achieve environmental justice and health equity by advancing racial justice during a time of climate crisis. (Click here to watch a recording of the conversation.)

Moderated by Surili Sutaria Patel, vice president at Metropolitan Group, the panelists shared their struggles and triumphs with regards to what it takes to dismantle systemic racism inherent in White supremacist culture and how oppressive laws and policies, have both impacted and catalyzed environmental and social justice movements. Each panelist emphasized actions that we can take now to hear from the voices of those most impacted in ways that also shift the narrative and center their lived realities in climate policies.

The conversation featured personal anecdotes and insights from our panelists.

Vernice Miller-Travis, executive vice president at Metropolitan Group opened the conversation by making the connection between how racial bias has affected the dominant narrative around climate change and how this issue has ravaged the health and livelihood of people. Vernice clarified that when storms, floods, wildfires, hurricanes — any climate disaster — descend on a population, it is always vulnerable people who suffer the most. Many of these folks, specifically Indigenous and other communities of color, were often forced, due to residential segregation, to live in ecologically vulnerable areas (e.g., floodplains and flood zones, low-lying areas, coastal plains, unprotected waterfronts) and often lacked the infrastructural, economic or political support to be protected from devastation. The lived reality of climate change is intrinsically tied to race, which is why we must interrogate and dismantle racist policies and practices, and begin to reimagine them so that they can start to protect everyone.

Photo credit: Kristian Buus (Creative Commons license)

Dr. Adrienne Hollis, president at Hollis Environmental Consulting Services, talked about how her community, Prince George’s County, Maryland — a county that has one of the highest and most affluent African American populations in the country — bore the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic in that state because of a lack of data. Racial inequities have always translated into health disparities, and we know that Black and Brown people are three times more likely to contract and die of COVID-19 than their White counterparts. The higher infection and death rate is tied to pre-existing health conditions as well as living and working conditions, such as being “essential” or frontline workers, that made this population more at risk. Adrienne also highlighted that in the case of Prince George’s County, the lack of reported data and data analysis derailed the vaccine rollout strategy, which led to higher infection rates, more sickness and ultimately more deaths. Health equity is necessary to protect all of us in a public health crisis. And since climate change is a public health crisis, we need better data on communities most impacted.

Jacqui Patterson, founder and executive director of the Chisholm Legacy Project, enlightened our audience about what happens to a community when they, and their surviving generations, face constant abuse, trauma and neglect. She acknowledges that, as Americans, we are on stolen, unceded land of Indigenous peoples and that our nation was founded on practices of scarcity, greed, exploitation and dehumanization. Jacqui also reflects on the time colonizers brought Sub-Saharan Africans to the Americas — by means of theft, displacement, genocide and enslavement — that their labor was considered essential, but they were considered disposable. This is a common theme that we see play out with people, land and the planet, where the extraction of resources is deemed valuable, but the custodians of that land are seen as worthless. As a result of the reckless, imperialist drive for wealth and power, generations of people, communities and environments are suffering from enormous trauma. We must acknowledge our collective trauma before any healing can begin.

Dr. Shadiin Garcia, executive vice president at Metropolitan Group, connected the erasure of Indigenous people to the environmental justice movement. Indigenous communities, in particular native women, have been and continue to be erased, raped and violently impacted at unprecedented levels by genocidal policies at local, state and national levels. Shadiin explains that decoupling people from land and water leads to practices of dehumanization. The historic, systematic abuse that White America has inflicted on Tribal communities has manifested in the form of assimilation and the disruption of matrilineal societies. Shadiin reminds us that the path to our collective liberation includes centering the rights and ecological knowledge of these peoples. By learning from their stewardship and being in right relationship to land, air, water and earth, we will begin to feel that we are not just part of nature, we are nature.

This was just the beginning of the conversation. Check out the full recording to watch this exciting discussion unfold. If you’d like to connect with us, please email publichealth@metgroup.com.

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