In the fall of 2012, when hurricane Sandy made landfall in the Rockaway peninsula in Queens, New York, the Rockaway Youth Task Force (RYTF) was ready to lead rescue and recovery efforts. Remarkably, the volunteer group was less than a year old. But members of this youth-led task force were reportedly among the most efficient responders to the crisis that followed Sandy.
The group was ready because earlier that year, Milan Taylor, the 21-year-old founder of RYTF, and friends, started mobilizing young people in Rockaway’s neighborhoods to get them more involved in local politics and civic life.
Taylor had been appointed to a community board in 2010 and the lack of representation of people his age unsettled him. There were many problems such as inequity in schools, discriminatory practices in the criminal justice system, and low voter turnout in Rockaway that needed young people to engage and lead solutions, Taylor said. Far Rockaway in the Rockaway peninsula is also a federally-labelled food desert. An entire generation of future leaders needed nurturing.
Once organized, the group began implementing solutions — from neighborhood cleaning drives to a meticulously planned campaign to increase voter registration. “We realized there were like-minded young people all around wanting to participate,” said Taylor. “They just didn’t know how.”
By the time hurricane Sandy hit in October, this youth volunteer brigade was 50-members strong. There was a leadership team in place and the expanding team met every week.
Nearly seven years after Sandy, the organization continues to support recovery efforts through several programs including running New York City’s largest urban farm, youth-led community garden, and farmers market. RYTF has also built out well-linked networks of young adult advocates to address discriminatory policing practices that target young people, especially those of color. They are a full-fledged nonprofit offering internship and volunteer opportunities. But most importantly, they’re trusted members of the community.
Vibrant and proactive civil society groups play a vital role in developing the resilience of communities, particularly in the face of climate change and increased disaster risk. Research suggests without social cohesiveness, some communities have a harder time recovering from a disaster.
Moreover, policymakers and scientists in the United States and elsewhere are increasingly aware that riding out future storms and rising sea levels will require significant spending. In many cases, this will be more than cities and governments can afford. As a result, communities, even sizable ones, are bound to be left behind, experts say.
In the face of the growing uncertainty about the extremities of disasters, resident-led initiatives to build resilience in their own communities are gaining momentum in North America, and across the world. Here are five examples:
1. Mobilizing the community in Flagstaff, Arizona, to build resilience towards wildfire risk
The city of Flagstaff in Arizona sits in the midst of the world’s largest ponderosa pine forest putting its community of 65,000 at a high risk of wildfires. In 2006, when the Flagstaff Fire Department began campaigning for the city’s communities to unite in adopting its version of Wildfire Urban Interface (WUI) code, it was among the first few wildfire-prone cities in the U.S. to take the lead on adoption of policies. The WUI is designed to mitigate the risks from wildfire to life and property.
Over a decade later, in 2018, Paul Summerfelt, Flagstaff’s wildfire management officer, told the New York Times how he had slowly seen the perception of fire among Flagstaff residents shift from “scary” to “necessary.”
It took 18 months of extensive outreach efforts in Flagstaff for standards around infrastructure, vegetation management, and other compliance clauses within the WUI code to be adopted and enforced. The stakeholders in this process included home builders’ associations, real estate and insurance agents, community leaders, engineering firms, and developers, among others.
Research suggests that the diversity in the land management community in Flagstaff presented a unique challenge to the city in the design and planning stages of wildfire policy making. It involved bringing into the fold members of the U.S. Forest Service that manages the areas of the Cococino National Forest. In addition, two national monuments in the region — Walnut Canyon and Sunset Crater — are managed by the National Park Service. The Arizona State Land Department manages the nearby State trust lands.
Recent news reports say that the WUI code has been highly effective in guiding and driving all members of the community — from homeowners, to businesses and local agencies — to comply with the requirements such as using fire-resistant building materials for homes, clearing small fuels away from homes and buildings, and designing neighborhoods for fire engine access. This has reportedly been helpful for firefighters in combating wildfires since the adoption of the code.
2. Learning to build flood resilience in Gorakhpur, India
Sitting at the confluence of India’s Rohini and Rapti rivers is Gorakhpur, a city with more than 650,000 people. Gorakhpur has long been vulnerable to flooding and waterlogging, including areas that flood in 24 hours even after relatively small amounts of rain. The city is also susceptible to severe and periodic drought.
Voluntary organizations like the Gorakhpur Environmental Action Group (GEAG) have been steadily working with farming communities, particularly marginalized women farmers working on farmlands on the city’s borders.
Between 2012 and 2016, GEAG led programs in villages and districts around Gorakhpur, encouraging farming communities to adopt practices like growing flood-resistant crop varieties, diversifying their produce, and using techniques like multi-tier cropping that could allow them to grow vegetables on platforms above heavily water-logged soil.
By mitigating the risk of crop loss and simultaneously working with the urban farming community in Gorakhpur to expand agricultural land under cultivation, GEAG’s resilience-building efforts led to more than doubling of the average agricultural income of some of the farmers it worked with, according to one evaluation report.
Similar to GEAG’s work in Gorakhpur, anti-poverty charity Concern Worldwide has been helping farmers in South Sudan adopt flood-resistant crop varieties. In Uganda, an international development organization called Mercy Corps is supporting farmers in building diverse sources of income that they can rely on during crop failures.
3. Building skills to adapt to climate change in Homer, Alaska
Despite a small population of about 5,500 people, the southern Alaskan city of Homer has been on a decade-long mission to set a precedent in climate mitigation and adaptation.
The inspiration to craft a national model for climate protection seeped into Homer’s social and political fabric in 2006 after James Hornaday, the city’s mayor at the time, attended a national conference on climate change about 200 miles north in Girdwood, Alaska. There, he heard from climate science and policy experts about the role local governments can play in helping communities better prepare for unavoidable climate fluctuations.
Upon his return to Homer, Hornaday immediately started work on creating a Global Warming Task Force in his town. Once formed, the city council officially commissioned the 12-member task force to make recommendations on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. By the end of 2007, the community was ready to draw up and adopt the Homer Climate Action Plan.
During the initial phases of identifying climate risk in Homer, the city’s agencies faced challenges due to gaps in knowledge about the finer details of climate impact at the local level. At the time, most of the scientific models focused on global and regional changes in climate. Still, city authorities proactively used available state projection data and identified local impacts of climate change, from disruption to commercial fisheries to infestation of spruce trees by bark beetles.
More recently, federally-funded scientific research collectives in Homer, like the Kachemak Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, have been designing education programs to translate complex and evolving climate science in the region local students and adult decision-makers.
Since 2014, KBNERR has been organizing trainings and workshops bringing together local residents of the community, science experts, and state government representatives under an outreach initiative called the Coastal Training Program.
A couple of years after the program was underway, Syverine Abrahamson, a program coordinator said that the local dialogue began to shift to adaptation as people started seeing increased impacts from climate stressors in their area.
4. Women finding solutions in drought-ridden Kenya
In agricultural communities most vulnerable to climate change across the world, men are being forced to move to cities to find work, while the women stay behind to care for children, the elderly, and themselves. Many women are leading households in increasingly precarious environments.
In Kenya, for instance, farming communities around Mount Kenya, the country’s highest mountain, have lost a crucial source of water for agricultural activities since snow caps on mountain tops started disappearing. As a result, women from these communities have to reportedly walk miles in search of water, firewood, or charcoal for domestic use. Women are worst hit by an ongoing drought in the country that has put at least a million Kenyans at risk of starvation.
Although women are disproportionately impacted, they have the potential to lead the way in finding innovative to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
In drought-ridden Kenya, international women’s rights organizations, like MADRE, are collaborating with women-led local agencies, like the Indigenous Information Network, to help organize indigenous and rural women to find solutions to climate-related problems.
Through MADRE’s efforts, women farmers like Paulina have access to training about rainwater harvesting that she’s been able to apply to her farm. The stored water has also saved Paulina and her daughters the effort of walking miles away to source water for drinking and domestic use. With stabilized yields come a steady income that has given Paulina something even more precious to her: an education for her daughters. Self-sustaining and financially-independent women like Paulina become leaders in their communities equipped with the knowledge of grassroots solutions.
Shibuye Community Health Workers is another women-led and focused community-resilience initiative in Kenya that began in 1999 in response to an HIV/AIDS epidemic in Kenya’s Kakamega county. Today, through its well-established network, SCHW is able to help women and children retain land, a shrinking asset due to climate change, by stopping illegal evictions based on gender.
5. Individual action in New Zealand to stay resilient in a changing environment
In 2014, the Tasman District Council, a regional authority under New Zealand’s local government, organized a meeting at a memorial hall in the coastal town of Motueka to connect with the community about the growing risk of climate change and mobilize towards adaptation.
“We are experiencing it now, but it will become more frequent. However, if we plan for it we will be more resilient,” said Rob Smith, the council’s environmental information officer to the 50 people that met in Motueka. The town and Tasman Bay are highly vulnerable to sea level rise. Since then, Motueka has seen many community efforts to adapt to the changing climate and growing hazards such as flooding.
Perhaps the people who stand out the most are residents and small business owners who are moving towards sustainability. For example, in 2015, Mathhew Galvin and Ruth Sicely, opened the KaiWaka cafe in Motueka with the intent to ensure sustainable practices in every aspect of their small restaurant business. Some of these included:
- Sourcing within 100 nautical miles of the cafe to cut down their business’ carbon footprint
- Managing not only food waste, but also packaging waste by making food and drink on site— using reusable glass bottles while sourcing milk and boxes with no plastic for other produce
- Selling water in glass and bio plastic bottles
- Choosing a 100 percent renewable electricity supplier
KaiWaka closed its doors in 2018, but it is one among many efforts being made by small- and medium-sized food and drink businesses in Motueka and the surrounding Nelson-Tasman region to adapt to climate change.
If you’re interested in learning how to keep a small food business eco-friendly, here are some tips from EcoFind, a New Zealand nonprofit that provides information for and about the sustainable business community across the country.
This article is part of our series on disaster collectivism. Download our free series ebook here.