System Change Not Climate Change

“We are the ones with the solutions. It’s in our blood. We had them to begin with and that was taken away from us.” – Rossmery Zayas, Youth for Environmental Justice

It Takes Roots to Weather the Storm

In a recent event hosted by Communities for a Better Environment and the Climate Justice Alliance, I got the opportunity to hear about last December’s COP21 U.N. gatherings on climate change. Although I am an environmental educator, I tend to turn my brain off to these multinational agreements – I’m cynical and don’t expect world leaders to actually commit to changing the systems that got us here in the first place.

What was inspiring was hearing how over 100 indigenous people – a majority womyn – from across the Americas and the world joined in Paris to show not only how indigenous folks are the first to be affected by climate change, but are also at the forefront of solutions. Three of these womyn, Jihan Gearon, Cindy Wiesner and Rossmery Zayas, reported back on the “It Takes Roots to Weather the Storm” delegation to Paris in a bilingual event at Communities for a Better Environment’s offices in Huntington Park.

CBE Climate Talks Speakers

Jihan Gearon, Executive Director of the Black Mesa Water Coalition, lives in New Mexico developing Navajo leadership, helping transition from coal extraction to solar energy and build restorative economies. As Southern Californians acknowledge the drought we have spent time learning where our water comes from, but much less time researching our energy sources. She asked us if we knew the Mojave Power Station, fed by coal mined on Navajo and Hopi land (I didn’t). This and other coal-fed stations generate electricity for cities like Los Angeles and Phoenix – our consumption is directly connected to the pollution of the water and air on Navajo land.

With high unemployment rates and thousands of homes on the reservation with no electricity or running water, Jihan illuminated how natural resources have not translated into economic resources: “We should be billionaires seeing how much water and energy we have given to these cities.” She asked us to imagine: what if grandmothers were in charge? How would decisions that affect indigenous people and future generations be made differently?

Cindy Weisberg represented the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance and shared how the It Takes Roots delegation to Paris centralized womyn of color, convening 112 youth and elders from 30 organizations across the US and Canada, as well as around the world, to bring on-the-ground issues to the forefront in a series of actions during the COP21 talks.

Although it was significant that 21 world leaders did come to an agreement, she pointed out its serious shortcomings. 1) The agreement doesn’t require reduction at the source, allowing instead for pollution trading, 2) it relies on harmful alternatives such as nuclear, agrofuels and fracking, and 3) it’s missing a commitment to addressing inequality and indigenous rights. She stressed the importance of a delegation that centered womyn of color – not just as the behind-the-scenes logistics coordinators but in front of the cameras, leading actions.

Rossmery Zayas represented Southeast Los Angeles, a community leader in CBE’s Youth for Environmental Justice. She started with acknowledging how difficult it was for her to even apply for the It Takes Roots delegation – as a young person, a womyn, a womyn of color, she questioned if she had enough to say, if she could represent the organization and her community on the international stage. She said, “You’d think people know our communities are suffering. But in Paris people think climate change is just about polar bears and fish and penguins. People are getting sick from policies that Jerry Brown is supporting.”

She stressed how environment is linked to poverty, housing, food security, gender equality, racism and more. That these issues are interconnected is so obvious in her community of Southeast Los Angeles. “I was supposed to be taking my finals at school and instead I’m here in Paris trying to explain to people what is so simple to us.”

One story she shared highlighted the absurdity of who she called “rich white straight men in suits” representing her communities, and why it was so important that she and other womyn of color organizers represent themselves at these events.

GGJ_Rossmery_Zayas_FINAL“I go to this posh hotel in Paris where Jerry Brown is speaking. I’m thinking, ‘Here’s my governor in Paris. I’ve tried so hard to talk to him, taken selfies in front of his office.'” He was being celebrated internationally for his environmental policies in California at an event called An Evening in Celebration of Subnational Innovation.

“We stand up and say, ‘No, that’s not what’s going on!’ He walked out and made us seem like rude activists, but all we were saying is, ‘We’re from California and let us tell you the truth about what’s happening in our communities.’ I’m frustrated at people trying to represent us.”

She concluded with this: “The work we do here is important. I got involved because my older sisters got me involved. They helped close down a nuclear plant. My generation shut down Exide. My little sisters ask me, ‘What are we going to close??'” Rossmery hopes that because of her work now, her sisters won’t have to keep fighting polluters.

How can on-the-ground community organizing connect with international policy in a meaningful way? It’s amazing that so many organizers were able to make time and space to represent their voices in Paris, and come back to share their learnings with community members. It is yet another reminder that we are all connected, and that indigenous folks and womyn of color are truly at the forefront of creating community solutions to climate change.

Further Reading

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