“You don’t need a degree to understand who to vote for.” Esther Sosa sees the world through the lens of climate justice.

Esther Sosa

Esther Sosa sees climate justice at the center of the conversation. Which conversation? All of them. When Esther Sosa talks about bringing people to the table, she means it in more ways than one.

You break bread together. That’s how you engage people.

In one of her earliest environmental campaigns, Sosa and her allies set up tables in the only park available to the 200,000 residents of Sunset Park, Brooklyn, New York, where she grew up. They invited people to try food they had set out to share and answered their questions.

Introducing people to unfamiliar ingredients might lead to a conversation about the economics of an area that had limited healthy food options. Telling people the food was organic might lead to an understanding of the impact of toxins on their health and the environment.

How do we get different groups to align, to understand how climate change is central to their work and issues they are fighting for?

Sosa does not believe climate change is the only immediate issue, but she does see how it connects to just about every other challenge communities face. Whether it is health inequities, jobs, or immigration, understanding how a problem links to climate change is part of the solution.

But Sosa doesn’t “helicopter in” to a situation pretending she has all the answers. “Be humble about what you do not know,” she says. In her current work with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Sosa starts by opening up a conversation. A relationship based on what she can share about climate justice, and what she can learn about the goals of the people she is talking to, is more likely to succeed on all counts.

As more voices are heard, the solutions become more clear. This year alone, Sosa has watched as the Black Lives Matter movement opened up national conversations on racial justice: this in turn put more focus on equity and climate justice. “We need more people really asking for change from the grassroots to really elicit the type of national response that we need in terms of climate. Communities have already thought of solutions: they are just waiting for the right political moment.”

You don’t have to have a degree to make an informed decision. You know what you are experiencing.

While Sosa sees the people as the driving force behind change, when asked about this year’s election, she answers that we “definitely need the top.” There is a lot on the line as we go to the polls, and people can be overwhelmed, and afraid to make the wrong decision. But we all know enough to make the right choice. “Your experiences are valid,” Sosa says. “You don’t have to have a degree to make an informed decision. Your lived experiences are more than enough.”


Hope for the future

It can be easy to get overwhelmed by the big challenges of climate justice, especially looking at the powerful interests vested in influencing our government. But communities have a vested interest in their home and their health. Esther Sosa’s work with EDF at the community level is her solution, and what keeps her going. She finds hope in “people that are organizing within communities and really trying to push for something.”

The members of Sosa’s home community of Sunset Park — as a result of a great deal of work and community organizing — were able to stop a massive redevelopment on the largest piece of waterfront land currently available in New York City. When corporate interests tried to build a new hotel complex, “we knew that wasn’t the answer…that could really be used for coastal resiliency, and as a hub for green technology.”

“That’s what gives me hope,” Sosa says. “These small battles that everyone is fighting every day in their communities to really see a better future that they envision for themselves and their communities. And they’re winning that fight. And they’re not being highlighted by the media as much as they should be.”

Esther Sosa’s long road to get to where she started

Esther Sosa

Esther Sosa’s story is a series of adventures and discoveries, most of which seem to lead her to a greater understanding of issues to which she returns again and again.

She grew up in New York’s Sunset Park, a melting pot community of largely Mexican and Chinese immigrants and their families. It is also one of the most heavily polluted parts of the state. A first-generation Mexican-American, she was exposed to lead as a child, and her brother suffers from asthma, but she did not make the connection between toxins foisted onto marginalized communities, heightened health risks, and environmental destruction until she was in Maine’s fresh air.

Sosa’s first camping trip was part of an orientation program with the other students before their first year at Bowdoin College. “I did not know what fresh air smelled like and wanted to learn more about it.”

She majored in economics and environmental studies. Having grown up in New York City, Sosa had never thought of herself as a minority. But now she struggled to see herself fitting into the homogenous environmental movement.

Bringing it home

Esther Sosa

After college, she returned to Sunset Park. One of her first projects was to help create study groups that connected students of Mexican heritage with their cultural history. “That was the first time that I ever learned about how to be proud of who I was, and understood what I brought to the table.”

Her next adventure was a backpacking trip through South America. “People that I met were already experiencing the effects of climate change.” Sosa found this everywhere; in the cities, on the coast, in the mountains. And everywhere, people, “were thinking about how much longer they had until they would be displaced.”

As a member of an immigrant community, Sosa had experienced the “end result of displacement.” In South America, she saw the environmental factors that displace people in the first place — factors that are already beginning to drive a mass climate migration. And while she might not have seen herself in her college environmental program, Sosa did see herself in the faces of the people most impacted by the climate crisis.

Coming full circle

Esther Sosa

Coming full circle also meant asking herself a question all Americans should ask themselves: “What am I doing?”

Those most affected by climate change are often those who have very limited impact, both in terms of causing climate change and in their ability to fight it. Industrialized nations that have done the greatest damage to the environment are the ones able to make the largest contributions to environmental recovery.

The answers come from people at the frontlines.

Sosa looked for answers in a graduate program, one with brilliant minds, including some who had helped shape the Paris Climate Accord. “I thought that the Yale School of the Environment would have answers for me, would tell me how to solve the climate crisis.” What she discovered was that no single program has all the answers: “The answers come from people at the frontlines.”

This led Sosa to EDF, and her current work with groups to bring an understanding of the climate crisis to their issues, and vice versa. All of her journeys, activism, and education have come together in Sosa’s mission. “To align all of the intersecting issues into one coherent narrative that really puts climate change and climate justice at the center of the conversation.”

Are you ready to join the fight?

Climate protest

Flickr / Takver

Are you ready to follow in Esther Sosa’s footsteps and fight for science-based climate initiatives?

Your fight starts with your vote.

We all have the power to protect the planet. Make a Pinky Promise to the future generations that you will back candidates with science-based plans for combatting the climate crisis, and then make your plan to Vote Like A Madre.

Early voting has already started! Do you have a plan to vote yet?

Disclaimer: This sponsored article was produced and distributed in partnership with Latino Victory Project, in support of the Vote Like a Madre campaign.

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