Jacqui Patterson, Kimberly Wasserman-Nieto, Vivian Huang, Rosemary Ahtuangaruak and Chieftess Queen Quet 

Everything is connected. That was the message from today’s Closing General Session speakers, who offered a powerful reminder that matters of climate change are intertwined with and inseparable from systems of oppression.

“The powers that be would like us not to make those connections,” said closing session speaker Vivian Huang, campaign and organizing director of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network. “But really it’s the less obvious connections that are the ones that connect all of us across many units and sectors.”

Huang was joined on the stage by fellow environmental justice activists Kimberly Wasserman-Nieto, director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization in Chicago; Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, an Inupiaq activist, community health practitioner and environmental justice advisor for the Alaska Wilderness League; and Chieftess Queen Quet of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, which runs from Jacksonville, Florida, to Jacksonville, North Carolina, encompassing all of the Sea Islands. Hundreds of attendees at this year’s APHA Annual Meeting and Expo, which welcomed 12,000 public health practitioners to Atlanta, nodded and murmured in agreement as the four women described the connections between climate change and social justice.

For example, Ahtuangaruak, whose Alaskan community sits on the Arctic Ocean, told audience members that “changes in your lands and water are changing my lands and water.” When you get a new building or road in your community, she said, the energy underpinning that new development comes from digging more oil and gas wells in her community. And with those wells comes new and destructive health problems for her people and for the animals that sustain their way of life. Today, Ahtuangaruak said, her community faces the prospect of another new well within only miles of her village.

“Unless each of you get engaged…we have a bleak future,” she said of her community. “Your values are important to our values.”

In Chicago, Wasserman-Nieto led a mobilized community in successfully shutting down two coal-fired power plants. It was a hard-fought accomplishment, but “little did we understand that through winning, we were having a hand in displacing our community,” she said. In addition to shutting down the plants, the mostly Hispanic community of Little Village fought for and got a new bus line and a new park. But with cleaner air and more amenities, the “poor brown people who lived there were no longer the ideal resident,” she said. The unintended consequences forced Wasserman-Nieto and her colleagues to expand their conversations of environmental justice to include gentrification as well as economic and social injustice. It forced them to ask: Did improving the community’s health determinants only heighten the risk that the people who called Little Village home would eventually be displaced?

“As individuals in this movement, we can’t shy away from the hard conversations,” she told closing session attendees. “We need professionals to name these systems. …You need to be naming white supremacy as the issue.”

In California, Huang works with Asian and Pacific Islander communities in the Bay Area to develop an alternative agenda for environmental, social and economic justice and ensure all people benefit from the state’s climate change investments. One of those communities is Richmond, where thousands of Asian and Pacific Islander Americans live in the shadow of a Chevron oil refinery. Not surprisingly, Huang reported that Richmond is home to higher rates of cancer, asthma and respiratory diseases than other Bay Area communities. It’s a David-versus-Goliath scenario — consider, Huang told attendees, that Chevron will make millions of dollars in just the span of today’s closing session — but the oil giant isn’t unbeatable.

She said when Chevron wanted to expand its Richmond refinery operations, which would add more toxic pollutants to the air, it pulled out all the stops. The company bought billboard ads, sent out mailers, gave out T-shirts, even hosted BBQs in neighborhoods. The company won, but that wasn’t enough — it wanted to make it even easier to get its way. In turn, Huang said, Chevron spent $3 million backing candidates in the local city election. This time, however, the company faced a groundswell of grassroots organizing and every candidate it supported ended up losing.

“The biggest barrier (to change) is there’s not enough analysis of power,” she said. “When we talk about climate change solutions, we also need to analyze power and how we distribute power.”

All four women talked about the need to engage community members and come with an open mind. Little by little, said Queen Quet, sit in with other communities and learn to appreciate traditional knowledge. Be open to learning, no matter the number of big degrees after your name, she told attendees.

“Be open to knowing that your community does not corner the market on common sense,” said Quet, founder of Gullah/Geechee Saving Environmental Actions and Marine Environment, or SEA & ME.

In fact, “come correct” and engage communities from the start, said Wasserman-Nieto. She told attendees that she often gets calls from grant writers wanting to give her organization funding — “I spend hours fielding calls from people with good intentions” but these are false solutions, she said. Instead, solutions to environmental injustice need to come from the ground-up. Going back to the grant example, she said involve the organizations you want to fund in actually writing that grant in the first place.

“If you’re writing policy and you don’t have community in the room, you’re writing the wrong policy,” she said.

It’s also important to stand with communities that are facing injustice, said Ahtuangaruak, who called on attendees to reach out to their representatives — “I can’t reach all of your decision-makers, but all of your decision-makers are making decisions about the Arctic,” she said.

“The Arctic needs your help,” Ahtuangaruak said. “Take your blinders off, connect with us, raise the volume.”

As Quet said: “Help my community expand our circle.”

And don’t forget that we all have a role to play.

“Show up,” said Huang. “Stand on the side of resisting oppression.”

See everyone next year at APHA’s 2018 Annual Meeting and Expo, Nov. 10-14 in San Diego, with a theme of “Creating the Healthiest Nation: Health Equity Now.”

Above photo from left to right: Panel moderator Jacqui Patterson, director of the Environmental and Climate Justice Program at the NAACP; Kimberly Wasserman-Nieto; Vivian Huang; Rosemary Ahtuangaruak; and Chieftess Queen Quet. Photo by Jim Ezell/EZ Event Photography

Unable to attend in person? Catch up with the APHA Annual Meeting and Expo virtually with APHA Live. View top sessions, including the Closing General Session, via live streaming or on-demand video. You can also earn continuing education credit.