Posted - 08/25/2016
Blue Heart Labs
blue_heart.pngBy 2016 ITP Grant Partners, Lindley Mease & Theo Gibbs, Co-Founders Blue Heart

Climate displacement—or the forced migration of people from their homes due to climate impacts such as sea level rise—is happening across the United States. Entire communities are being displaced from their land of origin due to rising seas, negligent federal aid, and steady degradation of social services. Homes in dozens of Native American coastal communities in Louisiana and Alaska are being washed away by rising seas, land subsidence (sped up by offshore oil and gas development), and coastal erosion due to increasingly frequent and severe storms. Low-income and communities of color in particular are being displaced, because their social safety nets are taxed and their ability to respond to emergencies is precarious. Vulnerable communities are made more vulnerable by acute disasters like hurricanes and chronic climate stress like drought, which ravage households from California to New Jersey. As climate events become more frequent and disastrous, displacement will only exacerbate the social inequalities that our current economic and social systems perpetuate, deepening the cycles of poverty that erode our individual and collective capacity to respond.

We are taking two “pauses” to identify and develop solutions that tackle climate displacement in the United States. Over the course of the first pause, we immersed ourselves in the beauty of San Juan Islands (Washington State). We researched and mapped how climate displacement is occurring in the United States, its disproportionate impact on marginalized populations, and how we might leverage our skills and resources to enable more resilient transitions among the communities most impacted. As we entrenched ourselves in the scale and tragedy of climate displacement, we enjoyed staying in tune with the wind-blown pines, spring wildflowers, and steady tides of the Puget Sound and absorbing nature’s powerful source of energy and inspiration. During the pause we nurtured both our commitment to our endeavor and the collaborative dynamic of our partnership, which we continue to draw from as we engage in the humbling process of remaking and reshaping the path forward to bring our ideas to life.

We came into our first pause unsure of whether displacement unequivocally needs to be stopped and prevented, or whether it may be a catalyst for re-visioning what our cities and towns look like in the face of a new climate reality. We familiarized ourselves with the existing literature on climate displacement and interviewed dozens of researchers, community organizers, environmental lawyers, and entrepreneurs connected to the challenge. Through these conversations, our understanding of what displacement is, and how it should be responded to, grew more complex. We heard the stories of people from Kivalina, Alaska and Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana--both communities in the process of uprooting themselves, re-imagining their land-based cultural practices, and migrating inland. We heard that the damage or destruction of one’s house is traumatizing, disorientating, and can be economically crushing for those without adequate insurance. And we also learned about what can be the deeper damage done to dignity, agency, and cultural identity when people are forced from their land. A house can be rebuilt, but what about a home?

We stepped back and began to think more broadly about strategies to enable a household, a neighborhood, or a city to gracefully and equitably adapt to climate change impacts—displacement being one of them. We noticed two things: first, there is a siloed, often narrow understanding of what “climate action” means (e.g., installing solar panels rather than investing in community-building). Second, we see a plethora of centralized top-down initiatives investing in climate solutions, mostly driven by large foundations (i.e., Rockefeller) or government agencies. While top-down action is undeniably critical in order to achieve national emissions reductions and infrastructure adaptation goals, there are very few scaled initiatives which seek to support the dignity, agency, and empowerment of the communities at most risk of severe impacts such as forced migration. There is, however, a tremendous amount of power-building work being done by community organizers and organizations which are giving voice to those often left on the sidelines of the conversation about climate solutions. In Miami, for example, the 2015-16 budget proposed budget had $0 allocated for sea level rise adaptation efforts. New Florida Majority, a political organizing group in south Florida, organized low-income Miami residents to vocally and visibly pressure the city council to reallocate the budget. They successfully redirected $300,000 towards sea-level rise adaptation research, planning, and action in 2016. Organizations like New Florida Majority recognize that the innovation and visionary advocacy needed to tackle climate change resides in the communities most directly affected by its impacts.

With these two observations in mind, we have focused our efforts on seeding and scaling community-driven initiatives to increase local resilience to climate change impacts, such as New Florida Majority. The concept of “resilience” is an increasingly popular—and increasingly contested—term in the world of climate action. We draw on Movement Generation’s framework of resilience, which places equity, justice, and interdependence at its core. We recognize that improving the ability of a low-income Miami neighborhood to collectively adapt and respond to climate change impacts is not just about installing more solar panels or seawater pumps—it’s also about tackling systemic barriers that prevent those residents from accessing adequate healthcare, education, and living wages.

We see community-based organizations—or the civic non-profits which are embedded and organizing within communities—as leveraged agents of community-level resilience. Whether these organizations build political power through field organizing or provide direct services to the urban homeless, they form the ecosystem which is both the safety net and the arena for marginalized peoples to respond to enormous social, economic, and climate change challenges.

As we build relationships and partnerships with community-based organizations, we are refining how our ideas might best create value for their programs. New questions emerging from these conversations include: 1) How might we support collective leadership to tackle climate stressors, alongside individual leadership? 2) How might we help support community-based organizations in connecting the diverse ways they are building climate resilience—from urban forestry management to anti-gentrification direct action? And 3) How might we redistribute resources from those with the greatest capacity to adapt to climate change to those who will be hardest hit and have powerful ideas for building resilience within their own communities?

Over the course of our first pause and now as we prepare for our second, we are building prototypes of solution concepts to test with our partner organizations. Our goals are to test our concepts (and their underlying theories of change) with diverse users so that we may iterate and improve them more quickly, and better understand what tools and resources are truly valuable to the organizations and communities we seek to serve. Through this process we are listening closely and continuously asking ourselves how we might better bring our skills to bear on the needs articulated by our partners.

During our upcoming second pause in Northern California, we will convene 8 diverse, creative thinkers and doers to strategize how to nurture community-level resilience to climate change. Bringing together artists, entrepreneurs, community and climate advocates, and social movement builders, we will thoroughly and candidly explore the strengths and weaknesses of our prototypes, and co-design a plan for implementing our solutions-- first in the Bay Area, then in other cities such as Miami and New York. We look forward to sharing the results of our creative gathering--both tangible and intangible--with the Invoking the Pause community!