Black Lives Matter began as a response to police brutality. But today, the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) works for justice and liberation across a range of issues, including climate change.
Valencia Gunder, the national organizing lead at M4BL, is working on the Red, Black, and Green New Deal — a soon-to-be-announced suite of policy recommendations that have arisen from Black climate advocacy. As Gunder notes, Black lives are threatened by more than the police. Black people, Indigenous people, and other communities of color face disproportionate impacts from climate change, which means their lives depend on advancing real, game-changing solutions that put equity first.
Gunder also started the Smile Trust, an organization that provides direct assistance to meals, clothes, and showers for those in need in the Miami and Atlanta areas. She and Zelalem Adefris, the VP of policy and advocacy at anti-poverty nonprofit Catalyst Miami, took to Grist’s Instagram account last week to talk about why poverty aid is crucial climate-resilience work and what they’re organizing for in the near future. In these excerpts, which have been edited for length and clarity, the two climate justice leaders talk about the inspiration and lessons they’ve drawn from their shared experiences in Miami.
Watch the full conversation on Grist’s Instagram.
This is one of a series of Instagram Live conversations between members of this year’s Grist 50 list and the people who nominated them. The Grist 50 recognizes emerging leaders in climate, sustainability, and equity — we call them Fixers — who are advancing new ideas and new approaches to a better future. Follow Grist on Instagram to get notified when the next live event happens!
On coming home to ‘a whole different Miami’
Adefris: I met Valencia, aka Vee, the first weekend after I had come to Miami. We were in the Everglades together. She was like, “Hey, I’m the climate justice organizer at this organization. You’re at that one. We should be friends!”
Gunder: That story is very accurate. Y’all know the climate space is not the Blackest space. So when we see each other, we see each other. I am so happy that Zelalem has chosen Miami as her home and for us to be in the fight together, on the frontlines together.
Adefris: Absolutely. I love Miami. I’m a transplant from Minnesota; right now I’m sending much love out to Minneapolis. My whole family is there. You never want to hear negative things about your hometown in the news. It hits differently. And I think that relates to Miami and climate change. We see a lot of negative stuff out there, and we have a lot of challenges to meet and to surpass. I’m wondering if you can tell us, as a Miami native, what motivated you to do climate justice work and how do you approach it in the community?
Gunder: I had left Miami for college in 2002. (Don’t call me old — I’m an older millennial!) When I came back home, I saw a whole different Miami. I noticed a lot of things like the hotter summers, the nonexistent winters — for those who are not from Miami, we used to have something of a winter. Maybe not from the point of view of you Northerners, but it used to get pretty cold here at one point. I also knew that while I was gone, Miami had been torn through by hurricanes. I was thinking, “What’s going on here?”
Miami is being impacted on so many levels. When you add race and class to that — oh, my God. It’s common knowledge among Miamians. They may not have all the scientific words and the data, but people know how to survive hurricanes. They understand disaster response and preparation. Whether they have access to the resources to do these things is another question.
I was already doing outreach with unsheltered communities around food insecurity. I then learned that climate change will impact our food system. It will impact our water system, it will impact our health care system. I also learned that, at any given time, the whole of Miami could be underwater if the storm surge is high enough during a hurricane. And I learned about how climate change was impacting our housing market.
I always tell folks about when my grandfather would say, “They’re going to come take Liberty City, because it doesn’t flood.” And I used to be like, “Nobody wants this place! I’m trying to leave.” But he was right. Neighborhoods like Liberty City, Overtown, and Allapattah are quickly being gentrified because of climate change. I realized this thing was impacting every part of my life, and I had to do something about it. That’s why I’m here.
Adefris: I totally agree with you that people here in Miami know the impact of climate change like the back of their hand. You can’t teach them anything new. But it’s the finances and the inequitable distribution of resources that stops people from preparing adequately for hurricanes and other climate impacts.
On getting community buy-in to climate solutions
Adefris: I work for an anti-poverty, economic justice organization, Catalyst Miami, and I’ve had the pleasure of volunteering with the Smile Trust a couple of times. Could you share more about that work, and about the intersection of poverty and climate change?
Gunder: I started the Smile Trust in 2014. This was a direct response to my own experience with homelessness. In the midst of my trials and tribulations, I was like, “I’m going to help some people when I get on my feet.”
We’ve been out there seven years, across two states now. And we don’t just share our resources with the unsheltered; we share our resources with those who are impoverished, or hell, those who are just going through a rough time.
In the face of Hurricane Irma, we fed 23,000 people in six days. The community came together, including other organizations, like Catalyst. We did pop-up kitchens, and we were passing out food, hygiene products, whatever people needed. We had contractors who were helping with debris cleanup. We had the Community Justice Project stepping up and capturing stories, and they led on a lot of the lawsuits to hold the state accountable for the lack of response. And then we went right into the budget hearings and held that county to task, honey.
And we’ve been doing that every year. When hurricane season starts, we start to prepare for our community. When we make solutions and the community leans in, then we can truly respond for ourselves. It’s good that we have this platform to talk about the issue, but it’s even more amazing when we create solutions, implement them, and share them.
Adefris: Absolutely beautiful. The climate crisis is caused in part by greenhouse gas emissions, but that’s not only it — it’s the greed. That’s what causes us to disrespect the environment, and disrespect laborers and other communities. It’s that greed that we ultimately need to address if we want to come out of this crisis. So addressing poverty, providing services should not be frowned upon. It is advocacy, and it’s how we help people here in the now as well as for what’s to come in the future.
On M4BL’s ‘Black, radical climate agenda’
Adefris: Before we wrap up, I wanted to know if you could tell us more about the Red, Black, and Green New Deal, and your work with the Movement for Black Lives?
Gunder: The Movement for Black Lives is this amazing ecosystem of Black leadership that is looking at solutions for Black liberation, here in the United States but also globally. I am so honored to be working in this space, and working directly in partnership with Colette Pichon Battle from the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy. Colette has been a longtime mentor of mine.
We are creating the Red, Black, and Green New Deal, which is a Black, radical climate agenda for and by Black people. We’re focusing on the analysis of how climate change is directly impacting Black communities, and also how we can use it as a tool for our liberation, for us to create solutions for our communities at large.
I will give a small hint: Y’all should look out for something very soon. People should definitely perk up to hear that Valencia Gunder and Colette Pichon Battle are in the same place — and the fact that M4BL is really taking climate change on and prioritizing it. We know, just as Black people are being murdered by the state in the form of police, Black people are dying by the state due to climate change. We see what’s happening in Cancer Alley. We saw the snow in Mississippi and Texas, how that impacted water and electricity, and all the disparities that arose.
These things need to be uplifted, and they need to have solutions tied to them in response. Black lives matter when the police kill us, and Black lives matter when storms take our community by surprise, when our people are hungry, when they die from heat strokes.
We are focused, prepared, and ready to fight. I can’t wait for everybody to see what we as a collective have been working on. You’ll find more information here on the Movement for Black Lives page — hit us up if you want to throw down and be a part of these conversations.
- Read more about 2021 Fixer Valencia Gunder
- Read more about 2020 Fixer Zelalem Adefris
- Explore the full 2021 Grist 50 list to discover more Fixers making a better future happen today