Report Back from the Climate Reality Corps Leadership Training

by Elizabeth Allen, Trinity College 2020

On March 14, hundreds of soon-to-be Climate Reality Leaders filed into an Atlanta conference room and accepted an invitation to learn about climate change and climate justice from the experts that work on these issues every day. Duke undergraduate, masters, and PhD students interested in the environment attended this training to engage with climate change issues in a new way and meet practitioners working in the field right now.

The training was a whirlwind of speakers and information that combined to impress upon us students the importance of our chosen work. Al Gore explained the urgency of change and the hope for a renewable future. Activists painted a grim picture of the fossil fuel industries that disrupt communities, cause negative health effects for community members, and endanger lives. Interfaith leaders called on us to respond to this climate crisis that not only negatively affects groups of people disproportionately but also threatens the gift of the planet that humanity has been given. Experts taught us tools we can use to communicate about climate change, advocate for change in our communities, and build grassroots power. Breakout sessions let us discover new information about topics we are passionate about including sustainability, environmental justice history, communicating about climate, and shaping social impact.

We learned from speakers, but we also learned from each other. We discussed environmental issues with other participants at our tables from the Southeast who were doing similar work in their own communities. This training provided many unique networking opportunities where we could begin to make professional connections with leading environmental justice and climate change leaders.

Three of us used this network to further a Bass Connections project we are working on with Catherine Flowers–prominent Alabama environmental justice advocate, Duke Human Rights Center practitioner in residence, Climate Reality board member, and conference moderator. We set up interviews with Robert Bullard, known as the father of environmental justice, Cherri Foytlin, an important indigenous water rights activist, and General Honoré, an environmental justice activist in Louisiana. These interviews will be added to a digital environmental justice timeline.

Overall, this training provided a chance to learn, connect, and become inspired. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for students like us to jumpstart our environmental work.


Climate Reality Leadership Corps Training: A Journey to Environmental Justice Activism

by Mackenzie Cook, Trinity College 2019

This Spring break, some partners from my bass connections research team and I had the opportunity to go to the Atlanta Climate Reality Training to learn how to approach the issue of climate change and environmental justice. Growing up, I recycled and tried to shut off the lights when I left a room. But, I have never been a big environmentalist. Besides the little bit of information the common core mandates high school science must teach, no one taught me about climate change or environmental injustice in-depth. I walked around with the notion that as long as I unplugged my electronics and shut off the common room lights after I left, I was safe from the “real” climate change effects. The term ‘Environmental Justice’ wasn’t even an idea to me until my junior year of college. I had no idea how wrong my mentality was and how much there was still left to learn.

I took Robin Kirk’s Intro to Human Rights course in the Spring of 2018. Professor Kirk brought in Catherine Flowers with the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise to talk about the Human Right to Water and Sanitation. Catherine spoke about her hometown Lowndes County, Alabama where sewage flows back in to the homes of poor, black folk when it rains. Kids aren’t able to play in their yards because of toxic waste ponds that come up from the ground all year long. As I listened to Catherine talk, I was shocked. What shocked me most was the fact that no one, especially not the politicians, seemed to care about this rural little community.  I couldn’t believe that this “back-yard-injustice” was happening right now in just a few states over. As a pre-health student, I had endless questions about the physical and psychological health concerns of the Lowndes community. Catherine mentioned during that talk that Duke was partnering with ACRE to investigate the issue of sanitation in Lowndes. After that class, I was inspired to join the Bass connections for the following year in the hopes that my questions might be answered.

This past school year, our bass connections team has been involved in environmental justice research that chronicles the history of environmental justice in the United States. Our partnership with Catherine Flowers and ACRE ensures that our research is relevant to current environmental injustice issues. My portion of the project focuses on an EJ timeline that includes specific injustice events and interviews from activists and/or community members involved with the events. I originally signed up for the Climate Reality training in the chance that I might interview activists for the purpose of this project. Our Bass team was very successful in doing so! The Climate Reality Training was an excellent time to meet with many incredible EJ activists, hear their stories, and ask for their advice on how young people can continue their work. During our time at the training, we interviewed Dr. Robert Bullard (author of the first textbook on environmental injustice and father of the environmental justice movement) and Ms. Cherri Foytlin (Native American activist from Louisiana) and were connected with so many other big names in the EJ movement. Had we not been at the training, we may have never been able to make the connections so vital to our project.

The Atlanta Climate Reality Training was the biggest training they have had to date. The 3-day conference includes lectures and breakout classes by policymakers, scientists, social and environmental justice activists, and so many more. Former Vice President Al Gore gave his famous lecture from an An Inconvenient Truth, which he is constantly updating to present the most current stats and case studies. The panel discussions allowed us to hear from activists on the front lines of the EJ fight and inspired us to get involved. The training is grounded in the scientific reality of climate change but the goal is to train you to communicate this knowledge in a way that’s accessible for everyone regardless of education or background. They also teach you how to take the social and political steps needed to make change in the current trajectory of climate awareness. I was astounded at my lack of knowledge about the current climate crisis. But, I was also inspired to find out that there is a way to change. In a crazy fortunate turn of events, we have all the tools necessary to do so! This conference has inspired me to be much more aware of my own sustainable practices and to teach others about the climate crisis. As a Climate Reality leader, I have signed up to do 10 little acts of climate awareness throughout the year. This means I plan to give a mini-presentation on climate change, write to a politician, or participate in climate change volunteer activity. Everything I have learned this year about climate change and environmental justice has given me a new outlook on how I interact with my environment and my community. What turned into a conference for a research project has become a newfound passion for climate change and environmental justice. Even though my time at Duke and my Bass class are coming to an end, I hope to continue my education on these topics and hopefully inspire a few others along the way.