When Superstorm Sandy ripped through the eastern seaboard in 2012, the neighborhood of Sunset Park Brooklyn was hit hard. Power lines fell, internet wires were destroyed, and people had to wade through water that flowed into people’s homes from the East River, rendering many houses uninhabitable. Experiencing the intensity of climate disruptions first hand, Sunset Park residents, (already involved in fights for environmental justice in a community impacted by three fossil fuel peaker plants) understand intimately how critical climate resiliency is to the health of their families and the future of their neighborhood. UPROSE New York, Brooklyn’s oldest, Latino, community-based organization, has been organizing residents for environmental justice in Sunset Park for the past 50 years. In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, residents turned to UPROSE for a community organizing effort to adapt to the changing climate, prepare for the next storm and put the neighborhood on a block-by-block, building-by-building path to sustainability, adaptation and resilience.
Through investments in community capacity, UPROSE has put forth a bold community-driven vision to address the impacts of the climate crisis: work together to build a local, living economy rooted in environmental justice and equity in Sunset Park. Home to the largest Significant Maritime Industrial Area (SMIA) in New York, the neighborhood is well-suited to green industry. A self-sustaining local economy with well-paid jobs in climate adaptation and mitigation will allow Sunset Park to remain a thriving industrial working class community. Industries developed along the waterfront can promote renewable energy, storm water management, green spaces, carbon neutral construction, and other forms of resiliency infrastructure, while creating the kind of jobs essential to combating gentrification. As developers plan to build high rise condos and hotels along the waterfront, the community must organize to prevent massive displacement, a significant threat to climate resilience in Sunset Park.
One of the investments that has been key to Sunset Park’s vision for climate resiliency, and the community capacity to carry it out, was the launch of The Sunset Park Climate Justice and Community Resilience Center in response to Superstorm Sandy. Here, stakeholders create, implement and manage grassroots-led climate adaptation and resiliency strategies. A deeply democratic and participatory center like this makes it possible for community members to come together regularly over food, exchange resources and information, and break down barriers to collaboration. For UPROSE, visioning is not an isolated occurrence. Community visions do not sit on shelves or simply make for pretty walls. Through on-going community leadership, the bold vision they have developed serves as a unifying frame that brings youth leaders, parents, business owners, unions, clergy, regional coalitions, green infrastructure specialists, and city representatives together for affordable, accessible projects that strengthen the social fabric of the neighborhood.
Visioning is part of a community organizing strategy that seeks to balance the uneven power dynamics that threaten the climate resiliency of environmental justice communities like Sunset Park. UPROSE arms residents with the tools they need to assess land use proposals in their neighborhood and advocate for decisions that match their vision for climate justice and community resiliency. Block captains on every block are charged with gathering input from the community and educating residents on city planning frameworks and proposals. Through multi-stakeholder partnerships, they conduct participatory action research projects to assess residents’ exposure to harmful toxins resulting from storms like Sandy, investing in community solar projects, and carrying out business innovations for resilience and community health. Through whole systems approaches like this, the bold community visions that UPROSE facilitates amplify community voices, cultivate health and resident power, and increase community control over local resources -- all of which are essential to long-term climate justice and community resiliency.