Just about a year ago, the United States saw the largest single-day demonstration in its history. The groundbreaking Women’s March on Washington (for which NRDC was a presenting partner) united millions of advocates for human rights, environmental justice, and other causes. The remarkable event came together after about 10 weeks of organizing that began in response to the election of Donald Trump and the anti–human rights, anti-environment, and anti-women values he espoused. But it’s worth noting, as NRDC project manager Sasha Forbes does, that females have been spearheading the movement for the environment for decades.
“Women across the globe have been leading environmental work for generations and will continue to lead,” she says. “We have been conditioned from birth to fight, because we are stewards of our homes, communities, and neighborhoods and because of the interaction we have with nature and the earth.”
Forbes is one of those community builders, and one of those fighters. Of all the places where she’s lived, including Jamaica and New York as a child and later Ghana, Washington, D.C., and South Florida, where she currently resides, she’s been quick to settle in and find sister advocates in her quest for justice. In the many urban centers she’s called home, she notes, low-income communities of color face the same basic struggles—unaffordable housing, racial and economic inequality, lack of viable transportation options, and disproportionate exposure to pollution, to name a few. She also knows that the people challenging these inequities are often women, many coming from low-income areas and communities of color.
Forbes joined NRDC’s Urban Solutions team in 2014 specifically to support the residents of these frontline communities. Armed with broad experience in urban planning—from private, local-level projects in Florida to international work in Ghana—she is helping change the shape of the environmental movement. Increasingly, she notes, “the environmental fight includes the fight for climate justice, the fight for housing justice for those suffering displacement, and the fight for health justice for those continuing to suffer impacts from environmental degradation and pollution in their communities.”
Guided by the mentorship of her colleague Shelley Poticha, first at the Washington, D.C.–based organization Reconnecting America and now within NRDC’s Resilient Communities program, Forbes has found a way to connect these dots. Working with a range of partners, she and Poticha integrate advocacy for affordable housing, equity in decision making, and access to healthy food and safe and affordable transportation, with issues more traditionally thought of as environmental values, such as lowering urban emissions and supporting a city’s climate resilience.
“Seeing the connections between issues—environmental, social, economic—is Sasha’s specialty,” Poticha says. Together, they’ve helped expand equitable and affordable housing options near transit service in ways that have mitigated the displacement of longtime residents that often accompanies neighborhood redevelopment. “Through this work, Sasha has built a remarkable ability to identify common ground among stakeholders and craft policies that simultaneously help communities thrive and improve life opportunities for everyone,” Poticha says.
When she joined Reconnecting America, Forbes knew right away she’d found her calling in the world of equitable community development. She has since broadened that experience at NRDC as a state and local policy coordinator for SPARCC, the Strong, Prosperous, and Resilient Communities Challenge. The $90 million initiative—a partnership among NRDC, Enterprise Community Partners, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, and the Low Income Investment Fund—invests in and amplifies locally driven efforts already underway to improve life for residents in six metropolitan areas: Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Memphis, and the San Francisco Bay Area.
With her SPARCC colleagues, Forbes strives to foster the active participation of residents and community advocates in uplifting their neighborhoods. In Memphis, for example, she worked with local community members to organize an energy justice workshop focused on addressing high utility costs and bringing low-cost energy efficiency measures to their homes. The event not only helped to “push institutions on energy,” she says, “but opened the door for conversation on the various forms of inequities that needed to be addressed.”
Forbes considers herself fortunate to have an all-women team on the NRDC SPARCC project. “It has been inspiring for me because of the level of professional and personal support that it brings, and the continued affirmation of how influential women are in our work,” she says.
In her own home base in South Florida, Forbes is keeping a close watch on how local governments grapple with planning for the impacts of climate change on both physical infrastructure and human lives. Extreme weather events will inevitably yield more flooding, more displacement, and more vector-borne diseases such as Zika. Despite some discussions at the national level on retreating from shorelines, Forbes points out that evacuating and relocating aren’t top of mind for many residents facing these impacts. “The fact is, in South Florida we are fighting. Local coalitions like the Miami Climate Alliance and others in the Gulf region use the phrase ‘The seas are rising and so are we,’” she says. “We aren’t going down without a fight.” With so many factors to consider, Forbes stresses the need to think about equity. “We have to build our homes, schools, and offices in more resilient ways and simultaneously deal with how we provide for our families and the people most vulnerable in the region.”
In Liberty City, for example, climate gentrification is a serious concern. As rising sea levels threaten shoreline properties, higher-income residents will move into areas of higher elevation, many of them home to African-American families originally relegated there by Jim Crow–era zoning laws. This trend puts pressure on housing values and could force many longtime residents out. Groups like the CLEO Institute, New Florida Majority, and Catalyst Miami are working with residents to mobilize against these threats, Forbes says, training residents on understanding climate change science and how it impacts neighborhoods, and helping them to organize and have a voice in the climate discussion.
The more we actively strive to include everyone in the environmental fight, Forbes notes, the more successful we will be. And to the policy makers shaping the future of our planet, we must repeatedly ask, “Who is being impacted, who benefits, and who burdens from the policy we’re creating?”
No doubt, many of those asking the questions—whether via protest signs in the street or at the mics in town hall meetings—will continue to be women, determined to protect their families, their homes, and their communities.
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