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Color of Climate: How Black Activists Are Preparing South Fla. Residents to Weather the Storm of Climate Gentrification

Phalange Brutus (Jessica Moulite/The Root)


August 18, 2017
By Jessica Moulite
From the Root

Phalange Brutus never thought that joining a Facebook group could change his life. When the 36-year-old joined Outdoor Afro-Miami in January, he didn’t expect to see a post about climate change that would pique his interest.

Outdoor Afro encourages black people to spend time in nature together and change the face of leadership in the great outdoors. And in the midst of people sharing links and thoughts on the public page, Brutus’ desire to attend one specific event grew clear. CLEAR Miami, to be exact.

CLEAR Miami—Community Leadership on the Environment, Advocacy and Resilience—is an 11-week leadership-training program focused on climate resilience in Miami. Catalyst Miami, an anti-poverty organization, launched the program with the hope of addressing climate threats with the low- and middle-income communities it serves, and building different solutions to address their problems, while also developing leadership skills.

“Crazy enough, I actually did CLEAR [Miami] before I did any outing with Outdoor Afro,” he told The Root.

And what he learned during those various sessions really left an impression.

“Once I started learning the science behind a lot of the stuff that’s going on, it was just amazing,” Brutus said. Stuff like climate gentrification, a concern of Brutus’, since he was born and raised in Little Haiti. Little Haiti sits 10 feet above sea level and is feeling the effects of gentrification. Many believe it’s because of this higher elevation that residents are being pushed and priced out by developers and investors.

In the third of a three-part seriesThe Root spoke with community leaders about climate’s impacts on low-income communities of color and with decision-makers about what Miami’s future may look like in the face of rising sea levels.


After completing CLEAR Miami, Brutus continued attending different events offered by Catalyst Miami, ranging from anti-poverty summits to speaking with legislators in Florida’s state capital.

He now works with Catalyst Miami as a network coordinator with the Common Good Initiative, where he aims to raise civic engagement in Overtown, another historically black Miami community, which is about 8 feet above sea level.

“I would have done all of this stuff for free, but they put me on staff. So I’m with it!” he joked.

Zelalem Adefris, a climate resilience program manager for Catalyst Miami, says that one of the things she loves most about overseeing and facilitating CLEAR Miami workshops is empowering people to receive climate information in a way they’ll understand. Whether it be by providing translators—which will be available for the September program in Little Haiti—or partnering with community leaders, education is the goal.

Zelalem Adefris (Jessica Moulite/The Root)


“I really enjoy it when a lot of people walk away and might not have cared about the environmental issue, or they didn’t really understand how important it is, but just knowing this is going to affect every facet of life here,” she said. “It’s something that we really do have to push for action on.”

Jane Gilbert, the chief resilience officer for both the city of Miami and Resilient Greater Miami and the Beaches, says that she and CROs of the county and Miami Beach are trying to build the city’s collective immune system by developing a unified resiliency strategy for the area.

By that she means addressing the holistic concerns of the communities she serves, including pronounced poverty, lack of affordable housing, lack of high-quality and diverse job opportunities, transportation challenges, as well as sea level rise and climate change.

Through listening and learning sessions in different neighborhoods, including Liberty City, Overtown and Little Haiti, she is ensuring that the voices of all citizens are taken into account and not just a select few.

“You can’t fight for climate justice without equity. That is the fight for climate justice,” Gilbert said.

Nicole Hernandez Hammer, an academic-turned-activist who works at the Union of Concerned Scientists as a climate science and community advocate, says that the impact of climate change is real and that there are people being moved from their neighborhoods to places that are at lower elevations.

“In the case of Florida, a lot of folks are moving down to the Homestead areathat also has a nuclear power plant there,” Hammer said. “So that’s potentially a scary scenario.”

She says when there is a lack of resources, it makes it even more difficult to adapt to climate change. That’s why Hammer has a strong sense of urgency when it comes to education and creating awareness surrounding climate change’s impacts.

“The more we can give our communities a heads-up about the impacts of what’s coming, the more likely it is that people will be able to avoid a catastrophic life event when it comes to things like sea level rise and more intense storms,” she said.

Hammer knows this personally. She and her family lost their home during Hurricane Andrew and as a result had to relocate.

“I worry that as much as we can do on the ground, we still need the support at all levels in order to be adequately prepared,” she said.


“Little Haiti is prime estate,” said Brutus. “You see all of this development happening. I think the residents of Little Haiti are not benefiting from it.”

Tony Cho, one of the developers of Magic City—a $1 billion innovation-district project in Little Haiti—has been investing in Miami’s urban core for almost 17 years. He says he’s trying to help the community not displace its residents.

“We want to create jobs, we want to revitalize the area and we’re not interested in pushing anybody out. We want to find ways that people can stay and participate any way they can,” he said.

Cho says he’s met with leaders in Little Haiti and is listening to what community members have to say in order to “activate the neighborhood and bring cultural programming and opportunities for small businesses.”

“Little Haiti has a rich Caribbean culture that has been here a really long time, so the idea is to preserve it and enhance it,” he said. “The last thing we want to do is see it go away.”

When asked by The Root about whether rising sea levels were a factor in his decision to invest in Little Haiti, he said that although he is an advocate for “sustainable real estate practices,” he looks at the whole area as the same region, whether he is investing in Miami Beach, Wynwood or Little Haiti.

“If I really believed that sea levels were going to rise that rapidly, do you think that I would even invest in Florida? Forget higher elevation in Florida. I’m out of here altogether,” he said.

But Phalange Brutus is scared for the people who wouldn’t be able to leave at all, similar to what happened to some residents of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. And with the knowledge he’s gained, Brutus says he’s going to keep doing what he can to ensure a sustainable tomorrow—no matter what the future holds.

“People have been getting educated for a long time, but [climate justice] needs to be taken more seriously,” he says.

This article was made with support from Participant Media, the creator of An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power.


This article was originally posted in The Root.


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