Extreme weather events, such as floods and wildfires, have become increasingly more frequent and severe as the effects of our changing climate move from theoretical to real. Their impact on the well-being of the communities we serve demands that work be done to build long-term resilience that supports equitable recovery. But what exactly does this approach to environmental justice work look like for the human services sector?
In this blog series, we hope to explore the perspective of those working in the sector to learn what the intersection of environmental justice and human services currently looks like and, perhaps more importantly, what it can be. We recently talked to Senchel Matthews, a passionate advocate for environmental justice and an Associate Director at Full Frame Initiative, to learn what environmental justice means to her. She’s working to address the disproportionate impact of our changing climate felt by communities that have been historically underserved. With a background in city and regional planning, Senchel brings expertise in creating equitable systems and promoting well-being for all.
Our conversation began with her recognizing the need for collaboration within human services, “It’s about understanding the importance of climate change and environmental justice, and how, human services need to plan with other industries to come up with solutions to help communities overcome some of the challenges that climate change bring. These are areas that are already under-resourced and don't have a pathway to well-being, to being whole and thriving in their communities.”
When discussing the changing environment, Senchel mentions that being an advocate for environmental justice is deeply influenced by her personal experiences. Having lived through the devastating impacts of three major hurricanes, “I was born and raised in Miami, FL, and I remember when I was a little girl how Hurricane Andrew came and devastated our region. Experiences like that motivated me to become a city and regional planner. When I got older and went to work on my master's in Houston, I went to help build after Hurricane Katrina hit. Later I was there after Hurricane Harvey hit. So, I've been in three major, life-changing hurricanes and I got to see firsthand how natural disasters can destroy lives and bring people together.”
Working on creating systems change to help with flood mitigation, Senchel also understood how essential it is to make sure every family could retain both the tangible things that support their well-being, such as their life savings, together with intangible things like memories and traditions.
Within that intersection of environmental justice and human services, being proactive starts with focusing on the community. “Talk to people closest to the pain, they have some of the best solutions.” That also means understanding what obstacles people face as they navigate human services systems. “Right now, the way the system is set up, some of the people that need help the most, oftentimes don't have an opportunity to receive that help because the systems are so cumbersome, so complicated, or the people at the top are not talking to each other, and they don't know the realities on the ground.”
In that challenge, Senchel sees openings to create a system that's equitable, easy to navigate, and makes people whole again after facing either slow- or fast-moving environmental catastrophe. This method is particularly necessary for low-lying, underserved communities, which may be at higher risk than others. “Once we're able to call that out, it’ll become clearer what programs, systems and supports can be put in place. I think oftentimes we think about repairing the physical building, but we don't understand that communities have social infrastructure.”
As climate events displace those communities least able to cope, they lose the social infrastructure they’ve built over the years. Senchel's work reflects her dedication to ensuring that all have the support needed to maintain those crucial connections while also driving structural solutions that increase their ability to thrive in the face of our changing environment.
To listen to Senchel Matthews’ full interview, click here.