As climate change intensifies, sea levels rise, and hurricanes become more severe, communities across the country are facing devastating floods. These disasters are hitting the poorest and most vulnerable first, exacerbating the issues of industrial pollution and toxic exposure these communities already face.
The Grassroots Leadership Fund (GLF), in partnership with the Kresge Foundation’s Climate Resilient and Equitable Water Systems (CREWS) Initiative, supports local activists across the country, and the small groups they lead, with immediate resources to address climate-driven urban flooding. This two-year long grant goes beyond basic funding, offering a peer-learning cohort, training opportunities and coaching support to help grassroots leaders build the capacity of their organizations and fight for solutions to the flooding in their communities.
The 14 organizations in our 2022 – 2023 GLF cohort, the majority led by women of color, are building climate resilience one community at a time by installing green infrastructure to capture flood waters, protecting wetlands that provide natural buffers, and preparing their neighborhoods to survive when disasters strike. Read on to learn about these community leaders whose persistence, grit, and commitment are changing the world.
Flooding is more severe in the lower-income, BIPOC neighborhoods of Jersey City (NJ) where there are fewer trees and green spaces to absorb the runoff. The community has a combined sewer system, meaning the wastewater and storm water flow together. Consequently, when the neighborhood does flood, it is exposed to toxic health-threatening water.
Sandra Lovely of Greater Neighborhood Alliance of Jersey City (GNA) is educating residents about their combined sewer system and why there is so much flooding in their communities. Using GNA as a platform for collaboration and change, residents of Jersey City are working together to enhance the quality of life in their communities. GNA is planting 30 trees to reduce flooding and developing a community garden where residents can grow and share food. By focusing on residential quality-of-life issues, GNA is building community power to push for change.
Like Jersey City, Atlanta, GA has a combined stormwater system. When it rains, the water combines with sewage and floods the nearby river and Black neighborhoods with toxic water. The community is also contending with a loss of greenspace and increase in impervious surfaces due to development. With heavier and more frequent rains due to climate change, this combination has resulted in increased flooding and habitat destruction.
Over the past ten years, Jackie Echols of South River Watershed Alliance has engaged in recreation-based advocacy, connecting outdoor programs to the river’s restoration. She leads kayak/canoe outings, river cleanups and monthly water quality monitoring to energize the community and push the government to fix its stormwater infrastructure and protect the South River. In connecting her community to the water, Jackie teaches them how and why it must be stewarded.
In 1997, Rebecca Jim co-founded Local Environmental Action Demand (LEAD) Agency in response to the legacy of pollution left behind in the Tri-State Mining District of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri. Built on top of an aquifer in the early 20th century, the mines were pumped dry during operation. Once closed, however, the mines began to overflow with water, releasing ore, zinc, cadmium and other heavy metals downstream. Tar Creek, historically a site for local recreation and fishing, turned orange and in 1983 the EPA declared the area the Tar Creek Superfund site.
Witnessing pervasive lead poisoning in children, Jim, a school counselor at the time, began taking students on toxic tours to help them better understand the risks. These tours soon became the basis of LEAD Agency. LEAD continues to conduct toxic tours to educate and empower residents on the environmental concerns that affect them. It also pushes for more cleanup funds and connects residents affected by contaminants with the agencies tasked with addressing those issues. Over the years, Jim has built a network of universities, federal and state agencies, and tribes to ensure the people of Tar creek are not forgotten. For Jim, this means no more mine waste, and water that children can play in again.
Marin City is a majority black unincorporated community in the Bay Area. Unlike its wealthy neighbors, Marin City has been plagued by aging stormwater infrastructure and poor local drainage facilities. This storm water carries high sediment or mud which heavily impacts local businesses and homeowners. The increase of extreme weather events due to climate change has resulted in the frequent flooding and closure of the one road in and out of Marin City.
As an unincorporated community without a local government, Marin City People’s Plan, led by June Farmer, is stepping up to address flooding and the impacts of climate driven extreme storm events. The group’s two programs–Watershed Steward Training and the Watershed Steward Project—are training community members to design and implement a model resiliency project to mitigate Marin City’s climate vulnerabilities. By prioritizing community-led, nature-based solutions, Marin City People’s Plan is bringing climate resiliency solutions that represent the needs and wants of the community.
Northeast Houston is a majority BIPOC community that has flooded many times in the last 20 years. The community is filled with environmental hazards including truck yards, refineries, and rail depots that make the flood waters dangerously toxic. Despite being one of the hardest hit communities by extreme weather events (Hurricane and tropical storms Harvey, Imelda, Allison), the state of Texas has consistently withheld the necessary support and aid for Northeast Houston to properly recover.
Doris Brown and her neighbors began asking, “why does this keep happening to us?” To advocate for solutions, she and her neighbors formed the Northeast Action Collective (NAC), a multiracial and multilingual community group, organizing against flooding, disinvestment, and inadequate drainage in Northeast Houston. The group has initiated campaigns to push government agencies to respond adequately to the disaster, environmental, and climate issues their neighborhoods face and demands real investment from the City for street drainage and maintenance infrastructure. Through persistent community advocacy, Doris and her neighbors are ensuring Northeast Houston gets the attention, support, and funding it deserves.