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What happens when NAACP leaders becomes climate activists?

A changing climate means a changing society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, supported by the Kresge Foundation, is committed to a greener, fairer future for all.​ This post was originally published on

Kathy Egland was one of the first black students to desegregate her high school in Hattiesburg, Miss., in 1967. As a child and young adult, she marched for the right to vote and against segregated buses and drinking fountains. Now she’s fighting for the right to a clean, safe environment, serving as chair of the NAACP National Board’s committee on environmental and climate justice.

Egland has a long history of concern for environmental justice. Growing up in the shadow of a chemical plant, she and her family suffered from the unbearable smell — and also from asthma, headaches, and nosebleeds. As an adult, Egland moved to Gulfport, Miss., where she again faced environmental hazards — this time from a toxin-spewing, coal-fired power plant. Thanks to activism by Egland and others — and a path-breaking partnership between the NAACP and the Sierra Club — that plant stopped burning coal in April 2015.

But what really turned Egland into an environmental justice activist was Hurricane Katrina, as she explains in this interview.

Q. How did you connect the dots between civil rights, environmental justice, and climate change?

A. I always felt that I was environmentally conscious — doing my part with recycling and being aware. But Hurricane Katrina was a revelation. It made it something more. It made it one of my life’s priorities.

Q. Now it’s personal.

A. Yes, very much so. Because in the back of my mind, I knew it was going to happen, but I always thought it was going to be somewhere else. It never dawned on me that it would literally happen right here in my community. So that made it real. It took what was more of a casual awareness to a whole new level for me.

Q. Your city — Gulfport, Miss. — was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. And of course, those impacts were layered on top of the other challenges you’ve been fighting for years, like inequality and poverty.

A. I saw firsthand the inequities during the relief efforts. There was absolutely no sensitivity around having relief centers or distribution centers accessible to the people who didn’t have the transportation or who didn’t have money for gas. The Salvation Army would drive around in the food truck, but they weren’t going in the neighborhoods where people didn’t have cars.

Of course, people say disasters don’t discriminate. “Well, we all suffer.” Yes, but we all have different levels of how we’re able to recover. It is certainly income-based, which is usually racially based because if you look at the demographics here and you look at the people who are living in poverty, it’s a disproportionate number of minorities.

Q. What have you been able to do to prepare for the next one, to help reduce some of that vulnerability?

A. We at the NAACP called out the relief agencies, and they realized that they were not serving all of the communities. So we were able to get distribution centers set up in areas where they would be accessible to those who needed them most.

We have also been trying to raise awareness about climate change and sea-level rise. Everyone in this area has a heightened awareness of hurricanes, but what a lot of people did not understand until now is, when it floods in places where it hadn’t flooded before, that is due to sea-level rise.

We worked with NOAA and Climate Central to co-host a training on sea-level rise. We learned how to use Climate Central’s Surging Seas Risk Finder, an interactive tool that lets us map the vulnerability of our neighborhoods. People who attended were so interested that everybody signed up for a follow-up training.

Once you have that knowledge and you’re empowered by that knowledge, you want more knowledge, you want more empowerment. I always tell people you have to have a seat at the table where the decisions are being made, because if you’re not at the table, you might end up on the menu. But, when you get a seat at the table, you have to have the information.

Q. So, understanding the risks of sea-level rise is drawing new attention to climate change?

A. Yes. These intense storms and droughts and wildfires are going to increase unless we address global warming globally. But we also have a lot of work to do here at home. So we talk about energy savings, practical things we can do to reduce energy consumption. We have worked with the local energy company, doing weatherization in low-income and minority communities.

And we’ve been working to increase access to healthy, fresh food. If people are receiving food assistance and they don’t have access to grocery stores where they can purchase things more cheaply, then they’re going to the convenience stores because they’re more accessible. Before they know it, they’ve used up their allowance on their food stamp cards. This affects people’s ability to prepare for emergencies, too: If you’ve spent your food allowance, you don’t have the money to purchase emergency food supplies during a storm or you don’t have the money to evacuate. Because Hurricane Katrina hit at the end of the month, people had no money left on their EBT cards to go out and buy canned foods and water.

So if you have more access to healthier foods and fresh foods, then that will allow you some savings and you’ll be able to maximize the benefits that you get from food assistance. That’s why we’ve been talking to our mayor and city manager about assistance with irrigation to create some community gardens.

Continue reading the full interview here.