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50th Earth Day: Inspiring FL Voices Rising to the Challenges

May 11, 2020

By: Sierra Club Florida News

Voices serving frontline communities both disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus crisis and vulnerable to the impacts of the climate crisis came together from across Florida on the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day. Stories of struggle and hope, from activists rising to overcome these challenges and the environmental and social injustices they expose, made clear how these issues are interconnected, how the pandemic has laid bare our vulnerabilities, and what system changes are needed to secure a just and livable planet Earth for all.

Panelists:
Farmworker Association of Florida: Jeannie Economos (Coordinator, Pesticide Safety and Environmental Health Project)
Coalition of Immokalee Workers: Oscar Otzoy (translator: Natalia Naranjo)
The Smile Trust: Valencia Gunder (Co-Director)
Catalyst Miami: Mayra Cruz (Climate Resilience Program Manager)
Sister Robin Haines Merrill: Upper Room Art Gallery
Dr. Jennifer Taylor (Coordinator of FAMU’s Small Farm Programs, Florida’s 2019 Woman of the Year in Agriculture)

Moderator: Diana Umpierre, Sierra Club

To watch the full livestream, click here. To watch coverage by Go! Latinos Magazine, click here.

To support the work of these frontline community leaders, navigate to this bookmark.

Summary of what we heard

A reflection on the 50th Earth Day would be amiss without noting that while air and water are cleaner in some respects in many parts of the country (though not all) we are now dealing with other threats, some which are more harmful than we imagined 50 years ago, including human-caused climate change. The 50th anniversary of Earth Day should be a turning point, when we stop business as usual and together rebuild an economy that protects people, wildlife and the planet, from pandemics and the climate emergency.

How do we do that? Sierra Club Florida invited a number of strong frontline leaders to share what this moment is teaching us:

Jeannie Economos with Farmworker Association of Florida pointed out how the current pandemic and the climate crisis disproportionately affects farmworkers: “One of the things that this pandemic has pointed out is how crucial and important our food supply is…that for decades and decades farmworkers, the people that harvest the food that gets to our table, have been called the invisible workers and all of the sudden now they are the essential workers… They’ve been the essential workers all along… They are the first line on the food chain that gets the food to our grocery stores.” She also pointed out that (1) many farmworkers in Florida are undocumented and as a result they are unqualified for assistance like coronavirus-related stimulus programs, (2) farmworkers “have some of the worst housing conditions, the worst pay, the worst working conditions,” (3) they are exposed to toxic pesticides and fertilizers, (4) and sometimes they are left without hand-washing water or drinking water in the fields.  Jeannie said “with climate change, we’re finding that heat stress is an increasing problem”.  She reminded us that “the first farmworkers in the US were enslaved people from Africa and [that]… there is a direct line from the horrors of slavery… to farmworkers today.. many… live in a kind of indentured servitude or kind of a modern-day slavery… This moment is showing us what we’ve been trying to say for years, that there’s something fundamentally, institutionally, systematically wrong.. because our entire agricultural system is based on exploitation of labor and exploitation of our planet.”

Oscar Otzoy with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), assisted by translator Natalia Naranjo, recounted how the coalition has been helping farmworkers in southwest Florida to improve their wages, benefits, and working conditions. CIW educates and empowers farmworkers to defend their own rights while working in the fields. They provide educational materials in at least three languages devoted to preventing problems that commonly afflict farmworkers. Oscar shared that they have been distributing facial masks and doing outreach via local radio and flyers so workers understand the risks and how to protect themselves during the coronavirus pandemic. Other important CIW initiatives include worker to worker education, public education to consumers and the Fair Food Program that is motivating retailers to buy from farms that respect the human rights of farmworkers. Without farmworkers, agricultural producers cannot feed the nation.

Valencia Gunder shared how The Smile Trust has been helping vulnerable populations in urban Miami, including unsheltered homeless and others experiencing food insecurity, many of whom are black and brown. She pointed out that climate change, pandemics and natural and man-made disasters multiply the threats to communities already experiencing social hardships. With the assistance of a local physician, unsheltered folks are being tested for COVID-19 and provided tents. They also have a mutual aid fund that is providing food stipends to people in need, including the undocumented. With the help of volunteers that speak different languages they are also phone banking vulnerable senior citizens to make sure they are okay and to identify unmet needs. The Smile Trust does not get any funding from the government. Valencia looks at their work as “solidarity not charity.” She pointed out how America is a first world country that creates second class citizens who have to live in third world situations.

Mayra Cruz with Catalyst Miami shared how they aimed to build the health and wealth of low and middle income individuals and families in Miami.  Catalyst Miami provides financial literacy training and leadership and advocacy training, including on issues related to climate and affordable housing. They have shifted how they deliver these services due to the coronavirus pandemic, including a hotline that provides advice with housing issues and navigating the unemployment benefits website. With the hurricane season nearing, they are also looking into how people can safely shelter in place while social distancing and have safe access to food supplies. They have organized demand letters and petitions to the Governor and Florida Power & Light (FPL) to call for a moratorium on utility shut offs. Mayra said “we already knew that a lot of these systems that are in place have been failing our most vulnerable… [and] it’s really important… to connect the dots for people: climate change and coronavirus have a lot of similarities. People that are feeling the most impacts are the same ones that have been feeling the impacts of climate change already.” She also warned to not be fooled by the fact that as soon as these economies open up again the assistance people are getting will go away:  “We should be asking… local officials.. how do we come back in a way that’s stronger, more resilient?”

Robin Haines Merrill from Fort Lauderdale shared how she was inspired to start a street market initiative to help local farmers and folks in the food and entertainment service industry affected by the pandemic. She said: “I’m basically a recycler…when I saw on social media these huge mounds of green & yellow squash being dumped… I just decided .. I’m gonna go down and just fill up my car and give it away. So that’s how it started.” Robin is now using donated funds “to buy from the farmers… because they’ve lost their orders of cruise ships, theme parks, school boards and the restaurants that are closed.” She’s been loading up her SUV, going up to a local farm about three times a week and then hosting a “street market” where she gives away the produce for free to those in need. She’s particularly focused on helping those who have lost their jobs in the hospitality and entertainment industries, including restaurant workers, housekeepers, and janitors. She has also been giving produce to “Food Not Bombs” in Fort Lauderdale, who cook it and give it out to the homeless in the area.

Dr. Jennifer Taylor is a university professor at Florida A&M University (FAMU) and an organic farmer who grows vegetables and fruits and models the type of organic systems she teaches about. She coordinates  FAMU’s Statewide Small Farm Program which among others provides hands-on training opportunities to farmers on regenerative organic farming practices and alternative market development via participatory capacity building that helps identify needs and develop solutions. They work to equip underserved farming populations, including indigenous, minority and small-scale farmers. Farmers learn about food sovereignty and organic sustainable living and how to be good stewards of their own farms, their community and the ecosystem. During the current pandemic, they provide guidance so farmers can offer healthy organically-grown produce using social distancing, gloves and masks. Farmers have been experiencing a resurgence of interest from many customers who have found empty shelves at the grocery store. “It’s really important for us to reexamine our food system… building in agroecology… providing healthy environments for our farmworkers…and the local community at large…[It’s] a time of reflection.. at seeing how we can do things differently.”

Panelists were asked to reflect on how some say to stay in our lane, to focus on just environmental issues, and that social justice has little to do with environmental advocacy.

Valencia responded by quoting Audre Lorde: “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” She reminded us how the environmental justice movement started because black communities were getting waste dumped in their neighborhoods and how environmental injustices started with slavery. She said: “I don’t even understand the ideology of the separation… Environmental advocacy has to align with social justice because who are you advocating for? What are you pushing if you’re not responding to people, to human beings?.. There’s no environmental advocacy without it being tied to social justice. It must be, and it always should be… It ain’t no lane to stay on when it’s only one.”

Oscar replied that he finds it very interesting when people not directly affected are talking about climate change. Farmworkers are directly living the consequences of corporate decisions, which is why it’s important for farmworkers to share how they are directly impacted by climate change.

Mayra reflected that “the people that might think that social justice and environmental justice aren’t linked don’t recognize their privilege…They might be blind to the fact that climate change impacts certain populations disproportionately…You have to humanize these issues.”

Ways to support these frontline groups and community leaders

Farmworker Association of Florida

Coalition of Immokalee Workers

The Smile Trust

Catalyst Miami

Robin Haines Merrill

Dr. Jennifer Taylor

For other ways to volunteer online to help FL vulnerable communities during the pandemic, click here.

This story originally appeared in the Sierra Club Florida News