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At front lines of climate battle, a Miami course prepares women of color to lead the fight

Nayshma Jones, director of the CLEO Institute’s Empowering Resilient Women program, embraces one of the cohort members as she arrives.
KELLY SANCHEZ/SOUTH FLORIDA MEDIA NETWORK
/
The Miami Herald
Nayshma Jones, director of the CLEO Institute’s Empowering Resilient Women program, embraces one of the cohort members as she arrives.

The women filing into the backyard of a house in Liberty City came from all walks of life and in a wide range of ages, 22 to 79. But they had some important things in common.

They were all women of color. And that puts them on the front lines of climate change impacts and a campaign run by the Miami-based CLEO Institute to better equip them to do something about the many social and economic challenges ahead.

But that also makes them the best candidates to make a difference in the battle, said Nayshma Jones, program director of the CLEO Institute’s Empowering Resilient Women program.

“[The women] are already extremely active in their communities. They are extremely vocal,” said Jones. “They are activists and advocates prior to entering into the Empowering Resilient Women program.”

Empowering Resilient Women program director Nayshma Jones speaks to the cohort.
Kelly Sanchez/South Florida Media Network
/
The Miami Herald
Empowering Resilient Women program director Nayshma Jones speaks to the cohort.

Over the last six months, the latest cohort of 22 women to run through the program has found lots of common ground, said Solamia Ortiz, 29, a communications assistant at the Miami Foundation.

While some of the women work in business and others are students, they all are part of communities centered around shared struggles related to the environment — and the critical quest to win more support, including at the voting booth. In the backyard, after all agreeing to avoid the bitter diet green tea, they talk issues over lunch platters laid out across standard white fold-out tables like those you’d see at a family gathering, which is part of what this group has become in the last six months.

“So it’s really great to build community,” said Ortiz. “Honestly it’s just insanely empowering, especially because there are a lot of systemic injustices that cause all of these disparities and unfortunately, women are interconnected in many of them.”

“We are each other’s number one resource,” said Ortiz, who ticked off just some of the issues on the group’s collective mind.

“I’m worried about climate heat, sea-level rise, and plastic pollution to name a few,” she said. “Climate heat directly impacts all women due to hormonal reasons, sea level rise because Miami is ground zero and plastic pollution because it affects agriculture and is linked to cancer.”

The CLEO Institute, an environmental organization founded in Miami in 2010 and run by women, focuses on advocacy for climate change solutions. CLEO stands for “Climate Leadership Engagement Opportunities.” Members lobby for environmental change and offer outreach programs for young people and women.

Empowering Resilient Women is one of those. It has included one-off classes that have taught everything from the basics of the climate crisis to hurricane preparedness and how to respond to environmental stresses.

The program is designed to help women, many of whom are heads of household and natural leaders in communities, to prepare for the challenges climate change will bring to South Florida, according to CLEO Institute executive director Yoca Arditi-Rocha.

“We’re trying to empower the leaders that are really holding on to the social fabric of these communities to be more resilient,” said Arditi-Rocha, “whether it is financial preparedness, hurricane preparedness, wellness and mental health or food security.”

Olivia Collins, program director at CLEO, has been a part of it since the very beginning, starting out as a program manager.

Empowering Resilient Women participants sit and listen to a presentation from FIU’s Neighborhood Health Education Learning Program.
Arianna Otero/South Florida Media Network
/
The Miami Herald
Empowering Resilient Women participants sit and listen to a presentation from FIU’s Neighborhood Health Education Learning Program.

When ERW started, there were four pillars: looking at climate change through the gender and justice lens, looking at hurricane and financial preparedness, increasing civic engagement and building leadership skills and confidence.

“We first started in 2018 and in the beginning we did cohorts in Overtown partnering with different organizations,” said Collins. “The program has evolved quite a bit since 2018. We had to do virtual versions during COVID but this year we wanted to go back in person.”

This year, CLEO tried something different, turning it into a full course where, from October to March, the latest group is also involved in hands-on classes to build their own gardens.

“[The women] really like the kinesthetic portions of our program like urban gardening,” said Jones. “All the women have the opportunity to get a free garden installed in their homes. They’ve really enjoyed being outdoors and planting.”

“[The women] really like the kinesthetic portions of our program like urban gardening,” said Jones. “All the women have the opportunity to get a free garden installed in their homes. They’ve really enjoyed being outdoors and planting.”

“Women of color have always been green, we have always been connected to the earth,” said Jones. “The benefit [of the gardens] is not just re-engaging in practices with the land, but it also connects us back to the community and this idea of mutual aid. You’re my neighbor and I have a bag of mangoes and you have a bag of tomatoes, so we trade.”

The gardens, while being a solo project throughout the program, lend themselves to conversations for these women to learn about food waste, sustainability, ways to give back to the Earth and how to focus on themselves and finding creative outlets.

The gardens also help keep everyone connected in their group chat, giving progress reports, talking about their newest plants and even sending photos of dishes they’ve created with their harvests.

The gardens are one of many ERW resources that provide tools to fight the climate crisis and advance social justice issues. Other resources include educational seminars where the women discuss pressing matters, such as voting, or learn about community outreach programs, such as FIU’s Neighborhood Health Education Learning Program.

Through their programs, the CLEO Institute hopes to help these women become community leaders and give them tools to tackle these pressing issues.

Jones said that she wants members of this cohort to feel more confident in their abilities as leaders.

“My biggest hope is that they see themselves as more empowered, whether that’s through education or an enhancement of the leadership they are already doing,” said Jones. “Women are born leaders, so my hope is that they feel more empowered in the sense that they have more verbiage, education and resources around these topics.”

This story was produced as part of a partnership between the Florida International University Lee Caplin School of Journalism & Media and the Miami Herald. Arianna Otero is an FIU journalism student.

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