Roadmap Academics

Climate and racial justice talks inspire students, new course

After their fourth dialogue exploring the ramifications of climate change on disadvantaged communities, a University of Miami Laboratory for Integrative Knowledge team is ready to tackle its next goals.
Climate justice illustration created by Catherine Villalonga from (F)empower
Artwork for the Climate and Racial Justice Talk series was created by Catherine Villalonga from (F)empower.

Imagine a future where people of color can establish solar power cooperatives at the public school in their neighborhood. People whose communities were the last to be connected to the power grid and the first to be disconnected during the pandemic, who live closest to highways and waste sites but farthest from grocery stores and public transit, could benefit from the coming green energy wave. 

In this vision shared by Denise Abdul-Rahman, a staff member with the NAACP’s National Climate Justice Program, under-resourced schools would not only be able to spend less on utility bills but more on educating their students. They could contract a minority business to scale up solar energy across their broader community, creating new jobs and skills in a sector historically closed to African Americans. And, in times of crisis—like the crippling winter storm in Texas that killed, among others, an 11-year-old boy who froze to death in his mobile home—the schools would serve as “resiliency hubs.” 

“People could go there for safe haven, to be warm, charge up, take showers. So, now we are helping to create resistance and resilience to the impacts of climate change,” Abdul-Rahman said during the fourth and final Climate and Racial Justice Talk, which focused on the equitable transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. “No one should go cold in the winter, and no one should die of heat stroke in the summer. If we put it in the frame of ‘Let’s make human decisions, not economic profit-making decisions,’ then it makes sense to shift the model or the paradigm that finds a way to make energy affordable, to not allow people to ever be energy insecure.” 

The virtual discussions, which began in January with acclaimed medical ethicist Harriet Washington, were the cornerstone of a University of Miami Laboratory for Integrative Knowledge (U-LINK) project that aimed, in the short-term, to inspire a community of climate justice scholars and researchers who can partner with local organizations. Members of the U-LINK Climate and Racial Justice team also hoped the discussions, which cumulatively drew nearly 800 students, faculty members, and advocates, would provide a framework for a new climate justice course—a goal which they are well on their way of accomplishing. 

Slated to be offered next fall, the experiential course will place up to 24 students with organizations that already are working on the front lines of the climate crisis. “We’ll match the students based on their interests, background, and experience,” said Abigail Fleming, the Mysun Foundation Practitioner-in-Residence at the School of Law’s Environmental Justice Clinic. “They’ll learn about different forms of advocacy, whether that’s providing public comment to elected officials as a citizen advocate or evaluating the impacts of a potential policy as a professional advocate. The idea is to help local organizations build capacity and advance their initiatives.”

That idea resonated with recent graduate Natalia Brown, who, in essence, helped field-test the class concept last spring. The recipient of one of three grants the U-LINK team awarded to students who supported the mission of a local organization, Brown spent 100 hours helping the Miami Climate Alliance develop a structure for a Miami-Dade County Climate Justice Accountability Board that would ensure decision-makers implement equitable strategies to meet climate and energy-related goals.

“It was hard work, but it was great to be able to contribute,” said Brown, who earned her B.S. in Ecosystem Science and Policy in May and is now the first climate justice program manager for Catalyst Miami, which addresses issues that adversely affect low-wealth communities across Miami-Dade County. “I was able to do work that directly filled the needs and research gaps of a community-based organization without costing them a cent.”

Like the Miami Climate Alliance and Catalyst Miami, the U-LINK team’s longer-term goal is to compel decisionmakers to implement climate change strategies and policies that consider the uneven starting points of communities of color—already disadvantaged by historic segregation, redlining, and other unjust policies—that are more vulnerable to higher temperatures and rising seas. 

“A big part of these talks was to help our audiences understand that every part of life will be impacted by the changing climate, and that historic, government-supported, race-based practices have consequences that persist today,” said Jennifer Niemann, a research analyst with the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science’s Climate Risks and Preparedness lab. “People of color were relegated to areas with higher levels of pollution, fewer parks, less shade, and older housing, and they have less access to medical care, transportation, and other services. So, racial justice, health justice, energy justice, housing justice, and climate justice are all intertwined.”

In opening last week’s discussion, moderator Lynée Turek-Hankins, a Ph.D. student in the Abess Center’s Environmental Science and Policy program who focuses on extreme heat, acknowledged that energy justice may be a new concept to many people. Yet the panelists emphasized that communities of color have borne most of the burdens but few of the benefits of the nation’s energy systems for decades. According to Abdul-Rahman, African Americans pay $41 billion into the energy sector but hold only 1 percent of the nation’s energy jobs. 

Sanya Carley, energy economics and policy professor at Indiana University, noted that households of color have always been disconnected from their electrical service providers at far greater rates than white households—a trend that escalated during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Families that suffer from energy insecurity oftentimes face the impossible dilemma of heat or eat,” Carley said. “You put your money towards food, or you put your money towards utilities.” 

Khalil Shahyd, the managing director for equity and environmental strategies at the National Resources Defense Council, pointed out that both rural and urban Black communities were often the last to be connected to the power grid, which put their communities at distinct social and economic disadvantages that persist today. 

Effectively summarizing the message of the talks, Shahyd emphasized that climate policy must go beyond counting and reducing carbon emissions. “We need to think of climate beyond emissions policy,” Shahyd said. “It’s health policy. It’s work force policy. It’s housing policy. It’s transportation policy. It’s food policy,” he continued. “And that’s where that conversation needs to start—by addressing the social aspects of climate change as a key aspect of climate policy.” 

In addition to Fleming, Niemann, and Turek-Hankins, U-LINK’s Climate and Racial Justice team includes Dr. Armen Henderson, a community organizer and assistant professor of medicine at the Miller School of Medicine; Scotney Evans, an associate professor who focuses on community-engaged action research, and Margo Fernandez-Burgos, a Ph.D. student in counseling psychology, both at the School of Education and Human Development; and Katharine Mach, associate professor at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science who founded the Climate Risks and Preparedness lab.