First Person

America’s first climate witness comes to Copenhagen

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Constance Okollet, from Uganda, and Sharon Hanshaw, from the US, bonded this week at the climate talks in Copenhagen. Photo by Emily Gertz.

Emily Gertz is a freelance journalist, editor, and blogger covering the environment, technology, science, and sustainability. She reported on the Copenhagen climate talks on behalf of Oxfam America.

When Sharon Hanshaw walks into the lobby of the Hotel Copenhagen, Constance Okollet’s face breaks into an enormous smile. In a minute she is standing up from the sofa to fold Hanshaw into an enormous hug.

Soon they are sitting on the couch with their heads together, Okollet’s wiry black hair touching Hanshaw’s bright blond bangs. They trade news of their families and homes, and then move on to strategizing about how Okollet might do fundraising for the community organizing group she founded, the Osukura United Women Network.

Okollet is a farmer from the rural Tororo district in eastern Uganda. Hanshaw is a cosmetologist from East Biloxi, Mississippi. The two women have become close friends while traveling long distances to bear witness to the devastating impacts of climate change on their communities.

While talking on the couch, Okollet gets a call on her mobile from her husband, back home in Uganda. She passes the phone to Hanshaw, who jokes with him like she’s known the couple forever. In her Mississippi drawl, she offers to send him a package of her signature confection, homemade pralines.

Watching them laugh and joke together with so much fun and affection, it’s surprising to learn that the two women met only a few months ago, in New York City. They came in September 2009 for the United Nations Climate Summit, to make the case for funding to help poor nations adapt to climate change. Hanshaw is the first “climate witness” in this program who is from a rich, industrialized nation.

A lifetime member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), she speaks easily about racial and class prejudice, and the unique position she is in to bust some stereotypes.

“Everybody feels that they’re so rich in America, they can’t have poverty. They can’t have poor people,” she told me. But the reality of class in America is that “my uncle is rich, but he didn’t give me the money,” she says.

As both an American and an African American, she perceives that her presence can be challenging to many of the people she meets as a climate witness, both in the United States and abroad.

“What I need people to understand [is that] we have people who are outside. And I feel that outside is outside,” says Hanshaw. “You outside in the U.S., you outside in Africa, you outside in Uganda — you still outside.”

“I just want people to really understand that…poor is poor in any language, in any country, and be fair to all parties.”

Hanshaw’s story shows just how little climate change respects borders, as well as race or class. As described in Hanshaw’s bio on the Oxfam America web site,

Hanshaw was out of town on August 29, 2005, when Katrina’s winds drove the Gulf of Mexico into her neighborhood. Thirteen feet of water crashed through the streets that day, filling her house with mud, scattering her belongings, tearing the bumper off her car. The waters swept inland to downtown Biloxi, flooding the hairdressing business she’d run for 21 years.

Over four years later, the neighborhood is still struggling to rebuild. The challenges include the relatively low income of its residents, the scope of damage from Katrina, and also the might of Mississippi’s gambling industry, which had its own uses for the land populated by coastal neighborhoods like East Biloxi:  Months after Katrina hit, Hanshaw’s block was bulldozed and replaced with a parking lot for the nearby Imperial Palace casino.

Further, aid dollars intended to help people rebuild homes and small businesses in Gulf Coast Mississippi have been diverted to the casino industry, and to finance an enormous expansion of the state-owned port at Gulfport.

Despite all this, Hanshaw believes that communities hurt by climate change can help each other re-organize and survive. “They say Katrina, I say, tsunami,” she says, speaking of a trip to meet women in India whose lives and communities were disrupted by 2004’s catastrophic Indian Ocean tsunami. She met people living in temporary dwellings made from a material containing asbestos.  That was form of “aid,” in her mind, to the trailers contaminated with formaldehyde that FEMA gave to Gulf Coast residents after Katrina.

“The people who got hurt the worst, get hurt the worst again,” she said.

Over four years after Hurricane Katrina, Hanshaw still cries when she talks about losing her neighborhood, about how hopeless she and her friends and family have sometimes felt.  “I cannot control my emotions when I think about my children, and my house, and my family and my community gone. It just comes,” she says. “I just have to be real with what’s going on. And what’s real is that it hurts.”

Hanshaw harnessed her pain and her hope by helping to found Coastal Women for Change in mid-2006, and then becoming its executive director. As described in a November 2009 profile of Hanshaw in Yes! Magazine (which dubs her a “climate hero”),

“…the group has started programs to help the community and local economy recover, including child care for working women and computer training programs for seniors. And they are working to help residents respond to future disasters by providing emergency preparedness training. More than anything, however, the group’s mission is to empower residents to take part in their local government. CWC members have won seats on the mayor’s planning commission, and the group has organized public forums on federal emergency management, education, affordable housing, and how to elevate the voices of poor and minority communities in the wake of an event like Katrina.”

Hanshaw faced a setback in Copenhagen: Expecting to join fellow climate witnesses and tell her story at an Oxfam “climate verdict” hearing at the conference center, she instead got stuck on one of the appallingly long registration lines that have plagued conference-goers at Copenhagen’s semi-surburan Bella Center, the site of the talks. Oxfam’s Judy Beals filmed a short hand-held video of Hanshaw as they waited in line:


Stuck outside in the cold for six hours, Hanshaw missed the hearing, and with it the chance to talk personally, however briefly, with prominent human rights and climate advocates like Mary Robinson, Desmond Tutu, and Yvo de Boer, as well as to present a united front with her fellow witnesses at these highly charged negotiations. It was clearly an enormous disappointment.

By the time I met up with her a day later, Hanshaw was bouncing back, however.  She was taking on a packed interview schedule with all sorts of journalists — from a reporter connecting up via online telephony, to me with my computer and digital recorder, to the Stupid TV camera crew that caused her to cry once again as she described what she’s lost to global warming.

Hanshaw always has the bigger picture firmly in front of her, and seems to be a natural optimist. The proof is that she has managed to carve some meaning out of the registration debacle:

“I hope that the takeaway is that this is so powerful that people from all over the world came, and were willing to stand in a line indefinitely, because of it,” she told the TV interviewer. “People do believe in climate change.

“This told me, oh, this is not just a haphazardly thing. People really believe in it. I mean, scientists are here. Environmentalists are here. Activists are here. Grassroots people are here. People who went through all types of devastations: fires, typhoons, tsunamis, droughts.

“They’re here to say, ‘Look what’s happened to my land. Look what’s happening to us. How can you feel okay and your neighbor in Peru…in Bangladesh, is suffering? It’s not just. We should be connected through climate change.'” Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+