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Opinion | Black Women Are Leaders in the Climate Movement

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I grew up in the Mississippi Delta, mere blocks from the river. As a child, I both feared and respected it. I was raised in a community of elders who told stories of how women and children were evacuated and more than 700,000 were made homeless by the treacherous 1927 floodwaters. Black men were forced by white landowners and law enforcement — at gunpoint — to build barriers. Black women could get food for their children only through a white person to whom they “belonged” or for whom they worked on their plantation. An estimated 10,000 farm families were stranded near my hometown while they watched in horror as the river kept rising.

Our elders and ancestors lived through emergencies. The 1928 Hurricane of Lake Okeechobee is rumored to be the greatest loss of black life in one day before Hurricane Katrina. At least 2,500 souls perished in that flood, mostly black migrant workers from the Caribbean. The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 and the Eastern Seaboard Heatwave of 1911 both saw significant loss of life, but also the survival of those who made it through.

When I became mayor of Greenville, Miss., in 2004, I grew from revering the river to respecting its power and understanding the need to protect it. Over the course of my eight years as mayor, Greenville experienced two 500-year flood events.

Despite hearing the Republican rhetoric of “climate change ain’t real,” people knew that something more than a rising river was changing and amiss. Deer and duck seasons weren’t the same as in years past. Cotton and soybean crop yields were different; increased heat, droughts and floods meant more pests and decreased yields. The river waters were coming faster and stronger from the increased snow from the Northeast. It felt like no one was listening to the voices of the poor, of rural folks, of Southerners. We knew then just as we do now: Climate change is a threat to black life.

Earlier this year, I attended the Women’s Auxiliary meeting of the National Baptist Convention in Jackson, Miss. A group of us from Moms Clean Air Force had produced a climate-focused Bible study, but we’d made a miscalculation. In a room of more than 350 black church women leaders, we ran out of the 150 Bible study books we had on hand.

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These studies include scriptures, lessons and actions that activate a community to engage on climate. Each lesson included actions that members could take either individually or collectively as a congregation. From simple nature walks with a Sunday school class to calculating your ecological footprint to discussing air pollution and asthma among members; each section of the Bible study ends with an action.

One woman wasn’t leaving without the assurance of getting a study book.

“Listen baby, stick this in your bra, I want to make sure you don’t lose it,” she said to my colleague Shakeila James. We smiled as we knew exactly what she meant.



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