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Something that gave me hope this week: my conversation with three people who organize, educate, and work on the ground every day in rural America.

Rural Assembly, Deesmealz and Southerly hosted a panel about how rural communities in Texas, Louisiana, and California are adapting and responding to extreme weather and the pandemic, while ensuring the solutions are racially and economically equitable.

The panel was Shirell Parfait-Dardar, traditional chief of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe in coastal Louisiana (Barry Yeoman wrote last month about how the tribe has adapted their food systems in ways that helped them prepare for the pandemic and chronic flooding); Dr. John T. Cooper, who is director of the Texas Target Communities program at Texas A&M; and Steve Wilensky, president of Calaveras Healthy Impact Product Solutions (CHIPS) and former supervisor of Calaveras County, California.

All three spoke about their efforts to get funding and help people navigate climate change effects — and to do so in a way that ensures people have a say in what happens to their local economy, culture, and social fabric.

“Hurricane Katrina was the first time that this phenomenon caught the nation’s attention. People who studied disasters and work in disasters had known about this for a long time. And that’s not to say that disasters discriminate. But there are certain comorbidities, if you will, like they talk about in public health, that make certain populations more vulnerable to environmental disasters,” Cooper said.

“Again, poor, elderly, people who have a much harder time preparing for disasters in advance. So the challenge for me in my work is, how do you build capacity, get people into position, so that they’re better able to prepare for, survive, and recover from disasters on their own?”

We talked quite a bit about these racial and economic disparities, about learning from Indigenous knowledge for land use and protection, and about wildfire and storm preparedness and adaptation. The work is tedious and difficult at times — these folks are dealing with federal, state, and local stakeholders and agencies — but they see progress.

“It’s happening very, very slowly. But all in all, in my 11 years in representing my people as Chief, I am really, really proud of all of the people that I’ve had the chance to work with, even our elected officials. Maybe they were looking at it one way, didn’t see the bigger picture. When you show it to them, they’re like, ‘Oh. Okay.' So it’s heading in the right direction, right?” Parfait-Dardar said.

“And I think the more we open our arms to work with everyone across our great nation, and even across the world, the better off we’re going to be. And I see that happening.”

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