Esther Sosa sees climate justice at the center of the conversation. Which conversation? All of them. When Esther Sosa talks about bringing people to the table, she means it in more ways than one.
You break bread together. That’s how you engage people.
In one of her earliest environmental campaigns, Sosa and her allies set up tables in the only park available to the 200,000 residents of Sunset Park, Brooklyn, New York, where she grew up. They invited people to try food they had set out to share and answered their questions.
Introducing people to unfamiliar ingredients might lead to a conversation about the economics of an area that had limited healthy food options. Telling people the food was organic might lead to an understanding of the impact of toxins on their health and the environment.
How do we get different groups to align, to understand how climate change is central to their work and issues they are fighting for?
Sosa does not believe climate change is the only immediate issue, but she does see how it connects to just about every other challenge communities face. Whether it is health inequities, jobs, or immigration, understanding how a problem links to climate change is part of the solution.
But Sosa doesn’t “helicopter in” to a situation pretending she has all the answers. “Be humble about what you do not know,” she says. In her current work with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Sosa starts by opening up a conversation. A relationship based on what she can share about climate justice, and what she can learn about the goals of the people she is talking to, is more likely to succeed on all counts.
As more voices are heard, the solutions become more clear. This year alone, Sosa has watched as the Black Lives Matter movement opened up national conversations on racial justice: this in turn put more focus on equity and climate justice. “We need more people really asking for change from the grassroots to really elicit the type of national response that we need in terms of climate. Communities have already thought of solutions: they are just waiting for the right political moment.”
You don’t have to have a degree to make an informed decision. You know what you are experiencing.
While Sosa sees the people as the driving force behind change, when asked about this year’s election, she answers that we “definitely need the top.” There is a lot on the line as we go to the polls, and people can be overwhelmed, and afraid to make the wrong decision. But we all know enough to make the right choice. “Your experiences are valid,” Sosa says. “You don’t have to have a degree to make an informed decision. Your lived experiences are more than enough.”
Hope for the future
It can be easy to get overwhelmed by the big challenges of climate justice, especially looking at the powerful interests vested in influencing our government. But communities have a vested interest in their home and their health. Esther Sosa’s work with EDF at the community level is her solution, and what keeps her going. She finds hope in “people that are organizing within communities and really trying to push for something.”
The members of Sosa’s home community of Sunset Park — as a result of a great deal of work and community organizing — were able to stop a massive redevelopment on the largest piece of waterfront land currently available in New York City. When corporate interests tried to build a new hotel complex, “we knew that wasn’t the answer…that could really be used for coastal resiliency, and as a hub for green technology.”
“That’s what gives me hope,” Sosa says. “These small battles that everyone is fighting every day in their communities to really see a better future that they envision for themselves and their communities. And they’re winning that fight. And they’re not being highlighted by the media as much as they should be.”