Today is the final day of Black History Month, and The Pōpolo Project is hosting a Black Futures Ball to celebrate.

“In recent years, a number of community groups and activists have advocated for this concept of Black futures, not in contrast to Black history, but together with Black history,” said Dr. Akiemi Glenn, founder of The Pōpolo Project. “It’s a way to acknowledge that for many Black people, we don’t have a clear connection to some of our history, but we do have agency over imagining our future. For us here in Hawaii, we’ve really seized on this idea as a way to imagine our relationships with this place and for other people in our community here.”

One of the honorees at the Black Futures Ball is Dr. Maxine Burkett, professor of law at the University of Hawaii, Global Fellow at the Wilson Center, and executive director of the Institute for Climate and Peace.

KHON2 talked to Dr. Burkett about her involvement with climate and environmental justice, as well as how she envisions Black futures in Hawaii.

KHON2: How is climate change related to Black, indigenous, or communities of color?

Dr. Burkett: It’s important at all scales to understand that emissions have largely been from wealthier countries and individuals, and the impacts of those emissions in terms of changes to the climate and extreme events, are disproportionately impacting poor communities and people of color. Despite the fact they haven’t contributed much to the climate crisis, they’re getting most of the impact.

What’s an example of those impacts?

Extreme heat is occurring in black communities and it’s affecting many of the population centers for Black communities. It’s also exacerbated by redlining. There are negative health outcomes from those extreme heat events for African-Americans and lower income communities.

There’s also the problem that the poorer the community is the less adaptive they are. 

Communities that have been redlined are 12 degrees hotter than the rest of the city. You have those impacts very much based on redlining, even decades after redlining you still experience those impacts

The correlation between heat and redlining is 94%.  94% of formerly redlined areas displayed elevated temperatures. They experienced spikes as high as 12.8 degrees, 5 degrees on average.

How did redlining lead to higher temperatures in those communities?

What happened is there were certain communities who were redlined, predominantly Black communities, and they had their housing values diminished. The amenities they received were deferred from white communities. In those communities there are not as many green spaces or trees, and there is a lot of concrete. The result of that is you have these gray spaces that don’t have the capacity to cool themselves. With that they have a spike in heat. 

It’s really important to note the Fair housing Act was passed in 1968. We tend to think that’s in the past: redlining happened in the 30s and stopped in ’68. But these kinds of disparate impacts are locked in for generations. Decisions made almost 100 years ago have set up communities to be far more at risk. That’s terrible and we need to acknowledge that, but the cautionary tale is that the decisions we make now could have an impact 100 years from now. We need to be aware of climate change in these communities, and think about our ways of adapting to them in equitable fashion.

Climate change is a big concern for island communities as well. When it comes to environmental justice, what connections do you see between Black history and Hawaiian history?

When we think about a climate disrupted present that’s worsening, how do we imagine preferred futures, the future where everyone is thriving and there’s abundance and greenery and vibrancy in life in all spaces? We can look to African-American culture for resilience and cultural resurgence and art. So I see the intersection in the work that necessarily has to happen for us to have a preferred future. How can the African-American culture and experience of resilience really guide us to a more abundant and kind and regenerative future? That’s where I see the real intersection.

In a place like Hawaii that has its own story of struggle and resilience, how do these cultures inform each other so we have a beautiful horizon to look forward to? With climate change there’s this vision of collapse, but what does it look like to survive and thrive? 

It’s not just resource scarcity of the islands that’s the north star for Hawaiians, it’s also the fact it’s family, it’s a relationship. The natural world is kin. That connection to a more holistic understanding of relationships is a more powerful connection and message for us. Culturally African-American communities might readily embrace that given our understanding of interconnectedness. 

I’m an immigrant. I’m originally from Jamaica. The contemporary expressions of independence, of strength, and cultural resilience have been woven into music and art in powerful ways, and that’s going to continue to be a key part of fellowship and imagining a preferred future together. 

This is the ninth installment in a month-long series for Black History Month, about Black history and identity in Hawaii. The previous stories are linked below.
A word, a plant, a group of people: unpacking “pōpolo”
The Pōpolo Project: building a space to ask questions and challenge ideas
Black History in Hawaii: from whaling ships to royal courts
Black History in Hawaii: visible and invisible Blackness
Black music in Hawaii: reggae grows Hawaiian roots 
Local musician perpetuates the culture that adopted him
Black music in Hawaii: hip-hop’s Hawaii connection
Black identity in Hawaii: the conflicting experiences of being Black and local