Each year, New York City plays host to top change-makers who come to town for the United Nations General Assembly and related gatherings. It’s a heady time for setting agendas.
At the Church Center of the United Nations on September 29, The Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network (WECAN International) presented a four-hour symposium entitled, Women Speak: Climate Justice on the Road to Paris & Beyond.
The voices were dynamic and there was a palpable sense in the room that women in unison could create a tipping point on moving the climate change needle.
WECAN co-founder and Executive Director Osprey Orielle Lake set the tone for the event, both in her opening remarks and through insights delivered during the proceedings. She had no reticence about calling out what she qualified as an “old construct” — the “institution of patriarchy. How we treat the earth is how we treat women. It’s a violent paradigm.”
Lake believes that what ensues after Paris will be critical:
“Women’s voices are key to changing this equation. Our red line is to protect future generations. We’re not going to stop speaking out.”
Drawing a correlation between women’s “love for their children” and the “emotional and spiritual selves women bring to the table,” Lake pointed to how “bottom-up action can scale.”
“Women tell me all the time, ‘We are the solution. We are the key to sustainability. We need to get women in the driver’s seat — at policy level.”
Lake accentuated two facts reiterated by the other speakers:
- The effects of climate change impact women tremendously.
- Women are not just victims. They are leaders.
In addition to referencing the “healing nature of women,” Lake was quick to pronounce, “We also have a sword in our hands.”
A key piece of The Women’s Climate Declaration (ratified September 2013), is a sentence in the preamble declaring:
“Among the most severely vulnerable to climate change are women, Indigenous Peoples, and those who live in extreme poverty.”
These words are a clarion call to the “moral imperative” piece of the climate crisis. It focuses on structuring a response to challenges through an environmental justice prism, which clearly identifies the damage being done to “frontline communities.”
Women activists from affected populations were front and center on the first panel.
Melina Laboucan-Massimo, from the Northern Alberta area in Canada, is Lubicon Cree. She spoke about the tar sands extraction devastating her region. It has been the source of oil spills, “dead zones” that remain contaminated, and water systems being used as dumping grounds. Her documentation included photos of deformed, mutated fish. Showing slides of solar panel installations being installed to power a local health center, she said, “We’re using energy that is not devastating to our planet.”
Director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program, Jacqui Patterson, told of her experiences growing up in Chicago in close proximity to three coal-fired plants. She pointed to the linkages and intersectionality of issues like food justice and the siting of poisonous sites. She asked rhetorically,
“Who is making the decisions? Who are the drivers of these environmental inequities?”
Indigenous Kichwa leader, Patricia Gualinga Montalvo, communicated through an interpreter about her fight to protect the integrity of her people’s land in Ecuador against a slew of international oil companies.
“We are thinking about our survival, our existence…There’s nothing to negotiate when it comes to global warming.”
Repeating that premise in an emotionally charged delivery, Cherri Foytlin talked passionately about conditions on the ground in South Louisiana, an area hard hit by elevated cancer rates brought on by industrial toxicity.“
I’m living in a sacrifice zone, which means my life and my kids don’t mean anything.”
Reflecting on the oil infrastructure that is impacting her neighbors, Foytlin delivered a strong statement:
“This world is driven by extraction. It’s part of rape culture and colonization. We have to shift the power back to the people. It’s a time of choices and changes. Find your resistance story. Find a way to dismantle and reconstruct. Find your power. Make a plan.”
Women around the globe need to be made aware of all the narratives.
The reason is simple.
We are all interconnected. Women must recognize their commonalities as they search for solutions. Every story is valid. They all need to be heard — individually and in unison.