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A Climate Resilience Lab with a Racial Justice Lens

April 29/2021

by Françoise Makanda, Communications Officer at DLSPH

A new lab at U of T will bring together lessons from climate change research and the future of community-based resilience work with a racial justice lens.

The lab will officially launch in Fall 2021.

Imara Ajani Rolston

Assistant Professor Imara Ajani Rolston

“It’s tragic that the bodies that built the industrial complex that ushered forth the climate crises will bear the brunt of climate change,” says Prof. Imara Ajani Rolston and lead of the Community Climate Resilience Lab (CCRL) within the Healthier Cities & Community Hub at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

The lab brings together U of T academics, policymakers and community actors to build community-led climate resilience from a racialized grassroots standpoint, a need given the disproportionate impact of COVID on Black communities.

According to recent statistics, pockets in Toronto that host a higher percentage of Black people are 3.5 times more likely to be food insecure despite making up only nine percent of the city’s population. Black people also made up 20 per cent of the COVID-19 cases at the height of the pandemic.

“It’s important to see COVID-19 as a portal for what a climate crisis could look like. We only need to look at cities like New Orleans and Katrina to know that through past experiences, prioritizing this kind of work as an institution in this city is important.”

While the CCRL brings together researchers, he hopes to garner multi-sectoral input with an advisory circle that will hold the lab accountable and root the evolution of the lab’s vision in the community.

In the lab’s first phase, researchers plan to launch an environmental scan on racial justice-oriented resilience in North America and partner with not-for-profit and grassroots leaders.

Rolston began to first see the connections between health, climate and race years ago through his work advancing health justice in during the AIDS pandemic. “You can’t work in HIV without confronting the accelerating impact of climate change,” he says.

His doctoral studies focused on HIV prevention in South Africa where he dug into the history of the Eastern cape, HIV pandemic and apartheid. The creation of apartheid South Africa also produced the pathways that created an opportune environment for an HIV/AIDS epidemic that affected historically Black marginalized communities, says Rolston.

These same places with the highest rates of HIV also had the highest rates of food insecurity and were least resilient to climate change induced drought and flooding. Rolston continues to see this story play out in his work with the Stephen Lewis Foundation supporting HIV/AIDS programming across Southern, Eastern, and Central Africa.

“Over the last five years, I’ve heard folks from country to country say over and over again that ‘the rains aren’t behaving the same.’ The droughts are getting longer and more unpredictable and the systems we built to make us resilient in the face of the pandemic are failing. I’m hearing this across Southern and Eastern Africa,” he says.

The problem is not unique to the continent either.

In 2013, The Rockefeller Foundation chose 100 cities including Toronto, to help fund its first climate resilience strategy. The fund’s goal was to help cities around the world become more resilient to physical, social and economic shocks and stresses.

As the ResilientTO Neighbourhood Resilience Officer, he advocated for equity to be at the forefront of its city strategy like in Tulsa and Boston, two of the 100 chosen cities. Given Toronto’s history with racial inequity, it needed to prioritize equity and address inequality, he says. He designed and implemented a neighbourhood resilience engagement process that prioritized engaging residents in Neighborhood Improvement Areas across Toronto.

For now, the pandemic is a crucial moment to learn from the current crisis and address the need for a more racially just and climate-resilient future for Toronto, says Rolston.

“There is no climate justice without racial justice,” he says. “The lab is here to incubate, magnify, and catalyze new and impactful transformative climate resilience work with Black and racialized peoples and communities that should be centered in and lead the advancement of the climate justice agenda.”