As this year comes to a close, I’ve reflected a lot on the concept of “resilience” and what it means for marginalized communities and communities of color. The word ”resilience” seems to have become a new buzz word when groups speak of climate change, and in some spaces, it’s being used without any thought or understanding to its meaning.
I’ve been asked several times to “define resilience” and “how do we build resilience?” and “Hey, join our new Resilience network!” Even the US Government has a Climate Resilience Toolkit. I recently learned about the 100 Resilient Cities (100RC), an initiative pioneered by The Rockefeller Foundation. That program will “help cities around the world become more resilient to social, economic, and physical challenges that are a growing part of the 21st century.”
But I believe we in the grassroots need to take back “resilience,” a concept that originated with marginalized communities.
Here are 6 reasons we should reclaim “resilience” from the ground up.
1. Our communities are the original resiliency experts.
Resilience is an appropriation of what communities of color and poor communities have been doing for decades. The concept of resilience comes from the study of poor and oppressed communities — native people, black folks, disabled folks, LGBTQ folks and communities of color — who had to learn to survive against inequality, stolen resources and cultures and violent economic policies and structures. It is a worldwide phenomenon, even now people of color in poor countries (and neglected geographical locations) have to fight to survive in fighting climate change, from the islands of Maldives to the islands of Puerto Rico.
The practice of community resilience can be seen everywhere among targeted and marginalized communities. For instance, the Black Panther Party created free breakfast programs for African American communities to address food security. Other organizations and community developers provide elder care support and culturally relevant job training — all services that government is not providing.
In the climate field, indigenous people, communities of color and workers have been creating alternatives to the fossil fuel economy. You can find examples in the Our Power Communities pilot sites organized by the Climate Justice Alliance. Grassroots groups have done amazing work to create community-owned clean energy alternatives as well green jobs and infrastructure. These communities are nimble and innovative because they know what works and doesn’t work for their people. We know how to survive and improve our communities.
2. Our home is being torn up. Literally.
I grew up in Seattle, and have lived here for 33 years. But I barely recognize certain areas, such as Capitol Hill (the old gayborhood) and downtown, especially near the Space Needle. Construction is everywhere, as well as road closures, large cranes and re-routing of our public transit on blocks with construction. These daily disruptions cause confusion and frustration for many. For two years in a row, Seattle has had the most cranes in the skyline of any other U.S. city, and buildings are being torn down and replaced with new construction. Vanishing Seattle is documenting the every changing landscape of Seattle and loss of people and places.
The market-rate development with little to no regulation has caused a culture crisis in our city. It has stripped us of community spaces, cultural hubs and long-time neighborhood businesses. This “rat race” of finance capital-driven development is one of our biggest threats to community resilience. The tearing up of Seattle means the tearing up of our homes, with it our connection to place, neighborhood culture and history.
3. Development for others means displacement for us
Seattle is a growing wealthy green city — but only for some. With the rise of the tech industry, the hot housing market, the new light rail system and the lack of rent control, Seattle is a developers’ paradise. There are an estimated 1,000 people moving to Seattle every week and $72,000 for a family of four is now considered “low income” in King and Snohomish counties.
Today, people of color and working class households are being pushed out at an alarming rate. According to the Seattle Times, the Central District neighborhood was 75 percent black in the 1970s. Today is is 19 percent and by 2020 it will be 10 percent.
And, just to be clear, 98118 is no longer one of the most diverse zip codes in the nation.
In the past, people of color were redlined to certain neighborhoods, and now they are dispersed to the edges of Seattle and to other cities such as Kent, Federal Way and Tacoma. Without stable housing and access to services, resources, jobs and social safety nets, our communities cannot survive in the city.
Transit-oriented development has become the current battle ground. Mainstream groups and policy makers want to build housing, retail and other amenities around mass transit. But inequitable transit-oriented development often means displacement of existing working class and low-income communities who are pushed out from construction or can’t afford the new buildings that go in.
It doesn’t have to be that way. The alternative is development that ensures low-income community resilience instead of destroying it, or what Got Green calls GREEN JUSTICE. This requires that governments create anti-displacement policies for developers to protect lower income and people of color residents.
Humbows not Hotels (Chinatown-ID Coalition) and the Neighborhood Council of Beacon Hill have been calling for such changes, including community control of land, resources to avoid evictions and support for small businesses to maintain access to affordable commercial space, and to help ensure that Seattle doesn’t just become a resilient Green city for the rich, but for all its residents.
4. State violence threatens resilience
This summer we were reminded that even as we fight to survive, systems remain in place to kill our people. Police killed Charleena Lyles and Tommy Le in June. Our people will continue to die at the hands of systems, institutions and corporations unless we create a world that values Black and nonBlack people of color equally to white people, and also values the earth equally to us all.
Gentrification has led to increased policing and racial profiling. Because law enforcement focuses on us as suspects, we feel unsafe in our own communities.
We’ve already seen how something as common as fare enforcement can turn deadly. In 2014, 23-year old Oscar Perez-Giron, didn’t show proof he paid the $2.50 fare and refused to show his ID. King County Sheriff’s Deputies were called to the scene, the situation escalated and Perez-Giron was shot and killed by a deputy.
Use of force in cases like Perez-Giron’s — as well as immigration raids, detentions, deportations and Trump-style militarization — are not the answers to keeping us safe.
Seattle could set the example, by instilling true police accountability demands, citizen oversight, restorative justice and stronger sanctuary city policies. Human-rights oriented reform of our justice systems are an overlooked but essential part of building resilience, and another cornerstone of Green Justice for our city.
5. Top-down “resiliency” could be the new greenwashing
Last year, the group Carbon WA pushed for a revenue neutral carbon tax swap which a lot of Seattleites thought was a good idea. Carbon WA, which was founded by white economists, pushed Initiative 732 as “climate justice action.” However, many climate justice groups were against the initiative, and others, including the Sierra Club, declined to back it.
The initiative offered a $80 million tax break to manufacturing companies like Boeing, generated no revenues for a green energy economy and would have cut into other programs in our statewide budget to fill the financial holes.
National Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza called out Carbon WA’s Initiative 732 for “prescribing solutions on our behalf,” by ignoring their call for green jobs and a just transition away from fossil fuels, and accused Yoram Bauman of “blackwashing.”
Communities of color and poor communities hit first and worst by environmental crises; it can be nothing more than greenwashing when they are not included. Top-down “resilience” policies that come from Big Business and mainstream groups will not work for our communities. Institutions must follow the lead of community based-organizations. Resources must move to the grassroots and fund resilience work from the ground up.
6. We need to lead
Today, your neighborhood, race and income can predict your life expectancy. We are slowly being killed by health impacts of pollution in our neighborhoods and the stresses which come from lack of economic opportunities and basic needs, like food and housing security. Trump is making all of this much worse.
We also are experiencing the effects of climate change. We have watched communities in Puerto Rico and Texas deal with their homes being destroyed by Hurricane Maria and Harvey, with relief coming too late and families not having access to drinking water. On the West Coast, record high temperatures and a heavily worsen air quality from the wildfire smoke hit Seattle and surrounding cities, causing many to grow sick from the heat and haze.
Neighborhoods that have the highest concentration of people of color, also have the highest levels of pollution and less access to air conditioning and cooling centers. Communities of color also have higher asthma rates, diabetes, and chronic illnesses, and are less likely to have access to healthcare. Without a doubt, climate change is our biggest threat to our community’s survival, and climate displacement is already happening.
But residents and community organizations in South Seattle have an abundance of solutions for making life better and healthier, as Puget Sound Sage uncovered in its community research project Our People Our Planet Our Power. These include food districts, community-controlled development, local green jobs and affordable housing close to transit. All of this adds up to Green Justice, which creates true resilience from the ground up.
This is a call to the action
Reading this piece could be overwhelming, but hopefully it is also inspiring. It’s not just about the survival of our communities to bounce back, it’s also about our capacity to bounce forward and address the unjust systems that put everything we care about at risk. If we don’t reclaim resiliency, communities will continue to be pushed out, priced out, and even killed. To the entities making all these plans: remember, we hold viable solutions. Don’t just invite us to the table, view us the leaders we are, and allow us to both benefit from the resources and shape the decision-making of all resiliency work. All of our futures depends on it.