Freedom to Breathe is a five-episode series that premiered this fall as part of the PBS project Peril and Promise:The Challenge of Climate Change. The series follows the journey of journalists from Nexus Media News, who set out on a 21-day cross-country tour of climate vulnerable communities, stopping everywhere from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Odessa, Texas to Miami, Florida. Their goal? To attempt to understand how climate change intersects with the racial, social, and economic challenges that Americans face every day. The episodes feature local leaders and residents across the country who are organizing for solutions and connecting the dots about how climate change threatens their communities.
Shravya Jain-Conti was a co-host of this tour and graciously agreed to answer some questions for our HCS audience. Shravya is a senior manager at Climate Nexus, where she works on strategies related to climate science, environmental justice and international policy.
Questions were posed by Dr. Mark Mitchell, Dr. Marva King, and Beverly Harp on the Health and Climate Solutions project team.
How did the “Freedom to Breathe” tour come about as a project? How did it get its name?
The Freedom to Breathe bus tour came out of a desire to spotlight environmental injustices and stories of communities in the Deep South because they often don’t often get the national attention they deserve. For some of us, it was also an incredible opportunity to educate ourselves on this subject by actually going to places and meeting people. The name invokes the Freedom Riders of the 1960s as the tour sought to confront the racial, social, economic, and climate challenges that Americans face and elevate community solutions.
Who was the target audience for the video series?
Our main target was the general public that has progressively become deeply invested in addressing the climate crisis. We also wanted to reach the climate community itself because there is still a disconnect in understanding how climate change intersects with social justice issues such race, gender, health and immigration.
What were some of the notable events that occurred at stops along the tour? How did the tour engage people of color and those living in low-wealth communities?
That’s a hard question! Each stop we made on the way was notable because they provided unique perspectives of historical and environmental injustice as well as inspirational stories of resistance and persistence. For example, in Miami, we walked through the neighborhood of Little Haiti to see how sea level rise is gentrifying the neighborhood while over in Africatown, AL, we met with residents who spoke about governments and corporations treating historically black neighborhoods like theirs as “sacrifice zones” for polluting industries. Over in Louisiana, we met with inspirational activists from black, brown and indigenous communities who spoke about working together to protect communities from growing climate and pollution impacts.
Such a rich experience was only possible because we partnered with grassroots activists fairly early on in the project. We relied on them to tell us how to shape our tour and what issues to examine. They organized the townhalls and they determined how best to tell their story — we provided support as was needed.
What were some of the issues and solutions highlighted on the tour that are available to low-wealth communities? What are the health benefits of these solutions?
I’d say the number one solution is organizing. Throughout the bus tour, we heard stories of grassroots leaders who raised awareness about some of the key issues affecting their communities, such as pollution, lack of affordable housing, lack of access to healthcare, declining jobs and so on. It’s never about one issue since all these problems intersect and solutions for each contribute to greater climate resiliency.
In the first Freedom to Breathe episode, we featured Hilton Kelly from Port Arthur, Texas who has been successful in negotiating pollution controls with refineries and securing safe housing for hurricane victims. We also saw the power of direct action where people literally put their bodies on the line to stop polluting industries or oil pipelines from destroying their homes, neighborhoods and towns. Are they always successful? No, because structural inequities continue to persist. However, even the smallest of victories matter if it can stop one more resident from losing their home or one more child from developing asthma.
Were there specific accommodations that needed to be developed to make these solutions accessible to low-wealth communities?
Some of the other solutions that can greatly benefit low-wealth communities are community solar, weatherizing homes, and community farms to combat food deserts. These can require government or financial assistance to reduce the burden on residents. Disaster preparedness is another aspect where government policies are essential.
One thing we heard over and over is the need for climate programs to take local needs and solutions into account. Top-down solutions don’t always meet the needs of communities.
Do indigenous communities support climate and health solutions? How? Can you give examples?
Indigenous communities are the original environmentalists as working with Mother Earth and protecting nature has always been part of their spiritual and cultural identity. These communities, since early times, have been careful to build systems that work with nature and maintain the environment, rather than be extractive. Clean air, clean water, healthy soil and healthy diets all lead to healthier lives.
During the tour, we met with farmers at the Tesuque Pueblo farm in New Mexico. They use sustainable and organic modes of farming to ensure a healthy crop and healthy soil for future generations. I was fascinated by their seed bank where they were preserving indigenous crop varieties, many of which are fairly resistant to droughts, flooding and weather changes. In addition to preserving variety from their own community, they had seeds from other tribes as well.
You can watch the five episodes from the Freedom to Breathe tour below and learn more about this project at https://www.freedomtobreathe.org/