As many of us contemplate what action we will take to demonstrate our solidarity with the youth of the world and nation leading today’s climate strike, I urge you to think about what voices are not being heard. As the young people leading this day of action themselves articulate, part of the reason they are striking is because “marginalized communities across our nation —especially communities of color, disabled communities, and low- income communities— are already disproportionately impacted by climate change.”
In some cases, those may be the people least able to take time off of work, join marches, or even find the time to acknowledge the impacts of environmental destruction in their lives. But those impacts are there. And they are certainly here in Vermont.
We often think of those most impacted as the global downtrodden with failing crops and rising sea levels, or our brothers and sisters in cities who face higher rates of asthma and heat stroke. Their struggles must be uplifted. But so must those of rural Americans. We don’t often think of those who face rural environmental injustice, who often struggle in isolation and silence.
Here in Vermont, those most impacted by climate change are mobile home park residents, who make up eight percent of the state population, but forty percent of those who experienced flood damage and loss in Hurricane Irene. Low-income families especially are still struggling to rebuild their lives after being displaced. Those most impacted are the indigenous Abenaki communities who are witnessing the land that their families have stewarded for thousands of years change irreparably. Those most impacted are migrant farmworkers who are seeking dignified, safe working conditions on our dairy farms and make up the backbone of our rural economy while lacking basic access to transportation and health care.
Many of those most affected may be unable to attend the strikes today, but their voices and their stories need to be heard — and I encourage you to listen. In fact, in Vermont, as we lament the lack of overall action and legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we are also woefully behind on identifying and rooting out environmental injustice. We are one of just eight states left that has no policies to specifically address inequities in how environmental regulations and land-use planning affects low-income communities and communities of color.
In a partnership between Center for Whole Communities, Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity (CVOEO) Mobile Home Program, Toxics Action Center, the University of Vermont Rubenstein School, and Vermont Law School, we are endeavoring to identify those environmental injustices in Vermont and uplift those most impacted through a rural environmental justice initiative called REJOICE. REJOICE stands for Rural Environmental Justice Opportunities Informed by Community Expertise, and this collaborative is working to advance community-led environmental justice policy in Vermont.
Over the summer our partnership traveled the state — from Bennington to Canaan — surveying Vermonters about environmental injustices and interviewing community experts. But this is just the beginning. While reducing barriers to providing public input is often discussed in the halls of government, it is rare that the resources are there to compensate participants for their attendance and insights, provide food and childcare, and host meetings at a convenient time and place for working families. Our first Community Conversation in Rutland provided all of those things thanks to a grant received through Vermont Law School. These supports made it possible for a cross-section of participants that the political and regional leaders who attended had otherwise rarely seen. We recognized that the participants are the experts in their experience from the air they breathe, to the streets they walk, the food they can access and afford, and the neighborhoods where they live. The feedback was powerful. As one participant wrote: ““Food, childcare, requests for information…liked small table communities, accessible language, and inclusion of timeline feels like we are in it together.”
We are working to bring the wisdom of community to the Department of Environmental Conservation to help craft the beginnings of an environmental justice policy for Vermont. In order to be “in it together,” however, it is important that we not just take our work and recommendations to the halls of power, but back to the communities whose expertise we have incorporated. They need to know how these policies will work for them. And they need to be met in their neighborhoods where the real work begins.
In the lead-up to the youth-led global Climate Strike today, my friend and 350 climate leader, Jamie Henn, is sharing moments from some of the most significant hearings of the 21st century. Young people on the frontlines of climate change are speaking in the halls of Congress about the urgent need for political courage and action. One such moment highlights Greta Thunberg putting her arm around Tokata Iron Eyes of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
For all of the powerful truths Greta Thunberg has been speaking to power, her actions speak even louder. From striking every Friday outside of the Swedish Parliament to her searing looks at patronizing world leaders to the embrace of a fellow climate leader, her ability to listen to those least heard has been as impactful as her own speech. If you want to follow the trail that Greta is blazing, I encourage you to start by listening.
Kesha Ram graduated from the University of Vermont in 2008 with degrees in Natural Resource Planning and Political Science. That same year, she ran for the Vermont Legislature and won, serving at the time as the youngest state legislator in the country. Kesha served four terms in the Vermont House of Representatives on behalf of Burlington. After leaving the legislature, she pursued a Master of Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government with a focus on local government law, income inequality, and health care economics.