FROM THE FIELD
Five Tips for Taking Climate Action in Your Community
There are many individual actions you can take to help the environment this Earth Day, but engaging in climate action within a larger community may have an even bigger impact.
Christine Appah-Gyamfi, a public interest lawyer who focuses on environmental justice and teaches a course on the topic at the Columbia Climate School, shared some advice for anyone uncertain about what role they can play in advocating for climate and environmental justice, as well as pointers on where to begin.
Climate and environmental justice issues are complex and multifaceted, and they will require stamina to stay involved and to figure out ways to advance resolutions, Appah-Gyamfi said. From the local level to a more global one, people from all backgrounds and experiences have something to contribute.
1. Start small—become an advocate in your own local community.
“If I had the opportunity to sit down with somebody who is new to this field, I would begin with appreciation for their interest,” Appah-Gyamfi said. She acknowledged the sense of overwhelm some people may feel because of their concern for the environment and offered encouragement: Start with what you can change.
“Even the smallest campaign is important—maybe it’s facilitating more effective composting practices within your community, starting a community garden, working to preserve greenspace, or helping people to get an understanding of the connection between extreme heat and the importance of having resources available for vulnerable communities,” she said. All these small changes and small campaigns add up in significant ways.
2. Amplify underrepresented voices to ensure people with lived experience are part of the conversation and that their concerns are central to the direction of the advocacy.
Use your platform to amplify the voices of those who are underrepresented to ensure their lived experiences and concerns are heard and considered, Appah-Gyamfi said. Their voices should guide the direction of the advocacy; this is one of the core principles of community lawyering that Appah-Gyamfi teaches her students.
3. Even if you may not have personal experience with the cause, find a seat at the table and encourage your networks to join you.
“People often worry that if they’re not part of an affected community, do they really have a voice or should they be at the table? And I implore them to remain active because we need voices of people who may be from outside of affected communities to connect with their own community and to bring more people to get involved,” Appah-Gyamfi said.
For those who may not feel like they have firsthand experience with particular climate issues, it’s helpful to remember they can still bring the empathy that comes from learning about someone’s story, and then transfer it to someone else who also may not think they have anything to do with the issue, she added. Empathy plays an essential part in building connections and propelling advocacy work.
4. Become part of the legislative process by participating in regulatory comment periods.
“I introduce the students in my classes to Regulations.gov for federal policy initiatives. For local policy, I discuss the opportunities that are available to follow the work of the New York City Council. I teach them to submit regulatory comments, which gives them the power to literally be a part of the decision-making process because every regulatory agency is supposed to review every comment that comes in,” Appah-Gyamfi noted. “It means they’ll be part of the record.”
In her classes, Appah-Gyamfi also talks about ways her students can testify locally at City Council hearings and the best practices for effective regulatory and legislative commentary.
5. Engage in participatory design and channel your own experience to contribute to advocacy in creative ways.
Appah-Gyamfi encouraged individuals to use their own discipline—whatever it may be—to find new connections to environmental justice.
“I’m a great fan of this concept called participatory design, which basically involves cooperating with different fields that, at first glance, don’t necessarily go together, to create solutions,” she said. For example, certain experts like community lawyers and journalists clearly work together well. “But maybe you are a computer scientist. How can you use your expertise in developing programs to help advance how we process and use data to inform our advocacy?” she said.
The key is to be creative and to find ways to contribute that don’t involve following traditional paths. “You can decide to become a public policy advocate from whatever area you are coming from—architecture, medicine, education, fashion, engineering, culinary arts, or any other profession that can touch and shape advocacy for environmental justice,” Appah-Gyamfi said. “Your insights are valuable and your efforts are appreciated.”