‘Solidarity, not charity’: On the front lines of climate change in Florida, women leaders address environmental justice risks

Madame Renita Holmes believes gardening is a powerful antidote to trauma.

A longtime Miami resident and activist who uses the honorific “madame”, Madame Holmes grew up in foster care, where she experienced and witnessed abuse. As a teenager, she started her own landscaping company, later hiring women who had been incarcerated so they would have a way to support their families.

“Taking up my gardening tools became therapeutic,” said Madame Holmes, who is now in her 50s. “I was living in a dying place and it became a living place.”

Women experience higher rates of poverty than men, which makes it harder for them to prepare for, and recover from, hurricanes and other extreme weather. Globally, women are often responsible for providing their families with food, water and fuel, meaning they are disproportionately affected by droughts and floods that are intensifying with climate change.

Madame Holmes is one of 36 Florida women participating in a CLEO Institute program that helps women in frontline communities build capacity to address hurricane risks and environmental justice issues like air pollution, urban heat and climate gentrification. The “Empowering Resilient Women” (ERW) program brings women together to connect over shared challenges and envision solutions.

Participants in the Miami cohort of Empowering Resilient Women. (Credit: Amanda Molina)

“Women are the best nurturers, healers and restorers,” said Madame Holmes. “This is a women’s movement.”

She and other participants say Empowering Resilient Women is a promising first step toward expanding their capacity to advocate for themselves and their communities. But more must be done to ensure women from frontline communities are looked to as leaders in addressing climate change and environmental injustices.

A ‘tale of two cities’

Hurricane Irma in 2017 highlighted vast disparities in Floridians’ capacity to prepare for hurricanes. Most middle- and upper-income residents were able to stock up on supplies and, if needed, evacuate via car or plane. But many residents living on low and fixed incomes struggled to afford extra food and water and didn’t have a way to leave town. After the storm, lengthy power outages caused food to spoil, and thousands of Floridians who depended on electronic food stamps were unable to buy groceries or had to wait in line for hours for federal disaster aid.

Natalie Rivas, a program manager for the Miami cohort of Empowering Resilient Women, describes Irma as a “tale of two cities.” In Florida, the people most vulnerable to hurricanes are the 13.7 percent of women who live in poverty and the 12 percent of Floridians who are food-insecure. After Irma, CLEO staff focused their community outreach on women in frontline communities, inspired by a growing awareness that educating women and girls is one of the most powerful solutions to the climate crisis.

Participants in the Empowering Resilient Women program work on a gardening activity at a community garden site in Apopka. (Credit: CLEO Institute)

Now in its fourth year in Miami, and its first year in Tallahassee and Orlando, ERW consists of workshops on topics such as hurricane preparedness, community health, mindfulness, financial management, civic engagement, food security and basic climate literacy. The program recognizes that in their roles as mothers, grandmothers and caretakers, women have massive potential to help their families and communities thrive in the face of hurricanes and other climate risks.

This year, a main focus has been food access: participants learned the definition of a food desert, an area that lacks grocery stores or other places to get fresh, nutritious food. CLEO staff said the definition resonated with mothers who had expressed concern about having fresh food for their children, and with participants worried about disproportionate rates of diabetes in their communities.

“It’s the introduction of a framework,” said Hayley Furman, assistant program manager for the Orlando cohort. She said as more and more women recognize their shared challenges, they can collectively develop responses, such as community gardens and advocating with policymakers.

Kristi Goldmintz, a participant from Orlando, said she’s looking forward to staying connected with her cohort.

“I feel like that’s the best way to learn, by learning from other people,” she said. “There were so many amazing women.”

Madame Holmes, the Miami resident and activist, said she thinks solidarity among women is key to addressing environmental injustices.

“If we connect, we can change how we are governed, how people maintain and sustain our living environment,” she said. “We can hold people accountable.”

‘Solidarity, not charity’

Deborah McCloud, left, a participant in the Miami cohort of Empowering Resilient Women, receives a hurricane resilience kit from CLEO staff member Natalie Rivas, right. The kits include a NOAA emergency radio, a flashlight, feminine hygiene products, masks, hand sanitizer and other supplies. (Credit: Amanda Molina)

CLEO staff coordinate the workshops and provide supplies, such as gardening tools and hurricane preparedness kits. But they say their primary focus is to ensure all participants have a space to share their stories, identify common concerns, and take the lead in developing solutions.

Orlando program manager Laura Betts says participants call this approach, “Solidarity, not charity.”

“‘I’m going to uplift you’ — that’s wrong because that says, ‘I’m better than you,’” Ms. Betts said. Instead, staff focus on stepping back so participants can share their stories. As conversations develop, they use guided questions to connect women’s experiences to topics like the climate crisis and decolonizing relationships with the land.

The key to making such conversations happen is getting participants into the Zoom room or, for outdoor gardening workshops, to the site where the workshop is taking place. But many of the women in ERW do not own cars, and some are single mothers with limited income to spend on child care. For each woman, CLEO offers a $30 stipend per workshop to cover these types of expenses.

Ms. Goldmintz, a single mother, said the stipend made it possible for her to engage without worrying about her daughters, ages 11 and 6.

“I could be fully focused because my kids were taken care of,” she said. “Each day after I got out [of the workshop], I was so excited to share what I learned with them.”

Rose Pierre-Charles, a participant in the Miami cohort, uses a framework developed by CLEO to create a personal climate action plan. (Credit: Amanda Molina)

CLEO hires interpreters for speakers of Spanish and Haitian Creole, and staff members said that if any woman had lacked computer access, they would supply her with one. As part of the gardening training, staff wanted to provide participants with gardens at their homes; ultimately, they offered in-ground garden beds for people who had land available for planting, and container-style gardens for those who did not.

“We wanted to get rid of any barriers” to full participation, said Ms. Rivas. “I did a lot of pre-pre-pre-pre-planning,” asking leaders of other community groups for their best practices to ensure accessibility.

Madame Holmes, the Miami resident and activist, said CLEO’s efforts are a promising start. But, she says, elected officials and others working on environmental justice challenges must do more to ensure Black women, and other women from frontline communities, hold leadership roles.

“I want to see these gardens grow, to see these stories told,” she said. “I want to see a bigger chapter on how we’re going to come back and be the people that took care of our land, took care of our resources and preserved them for our children.”

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