Climate Anxiety Counseling: Cranston Health Equity Zone Speak Out event, 11/23/19

Weather: We were inside the Arlington Elementary School cafeteria. Outside it was mild, in a post-frost way.

Number of stoppers: 15

Number of walkbys: None (see below for why)

Pages of notes: 15.5

Pictures taken with permission: 1

Conversations between strangers other than me: 6 or 7; again, see below for why

Observations:

The purpose of the Speak Out was to listen to people living in the three neighborhoods covered by the Cranston Health Equity Zone about the factors that contribute to, or tear down, their health and well-being. There were other stations about food access and quality, transportation, housing, trauma, education, affordability and expenses, and a few other things, and the event was set up so that people could enter a raffle if they got a paper signed at every station. So a lot of people stopped to talk with me who might not have otherwise.

Also for this reason, I was talking with people pretty much constantly except at the very end when the crowd thinned out (after the raffle, I think). So if there were walkby comments I didn’t hear them, and because it was inside and no one had a service dog, there were no dog sightings. I didn’t collect money today, although I did tell a couple of people about the Tooth and Nail Community Support Collective, where other donations have gone this season.

The HEZ set me up with a Spanish-English interpreter (plus a floating Khmer-English interpreter, who also translated some signage for me) and a note-taker. As the conversations went on, both of these people talked with the people who were talking with me—sometimes with me involved, sometimes while I was talking with someone else. I loved this and want to do it all the time now! They both appear in these conversations: N is the interpreter, and C is the note-taker. K is me.

My signage was different today, based on conversations with a few people in and outside the HEZ, and I’m kicking myself for not taking a picture! The front of the booth said, “Climate Anxiety Counseling 5¢” and then, in Spanish, English and Khmer, “Are you stressed? Angry? Worried?” and then, in English at the bottom, “Here to listen.” Instead of a blank map of Rhode Island for people to write their worries on, I drew a map of some of the climate change/health connections specific to Cranston (there’s a picture below). All the RI organism cards I gave out were food or medicine plants that grow wild in the city, and one person recognized one of them, which was my secret dream!

No Batman sightings today either, but the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, who was maybe about 6, helped me pump up the handtruck tire that won’t hold air.

Some conversations:

It’s not something I really pay attention to. You live in New England, you get what you get.

K: [I said something about high heat days, and she took it a different way than I meant it.]

Oh, yeah, the heat. Definitely heat. My daughter gets assistance for heat.

K: Or I don’t know if you remember the flooding back in October—

Oh yeah. Yeah ,we live right on Pontiac. … I work for the school department, and I have five grandkids that I pick up every day. I don’t have time to breathe. My husband’s retired, so he’s sitting around all day and I’m doing all this. But I can’t sit around doing nothing. But yeah, my daughter had to move, and she went from gas to oil—now she’s back to gas, and we had to fill out the paperwork again. She’s a single mom with three little girls—seven, six and four, the baby’s almost five.

So it sounds like—obviously you want to do it, but it sounds like that takes a lot out of you.

Yeah, but like I said, I need to be doing something. And she does have enough support. When it’s too much, I call my sister, she’s in Ohio, and we just vent. She vents to me too—she just found out my brother-in-law has prostate cancer, and they can’t operate because he’s already had so many surgeries. But life is life. You gotta have a positive attitude, you can’t go around every day down in the dumps.

*

Every day there’s a reminder of the fact that we’ve got twelve years, ten years, before we can turn the clock around.

K: Sometimes like to ask people how they know what they know about climate change—where have you been seeing that?

Well, the media, but I’ve also been reading a lot of reports, studies, that say realistically we need to start changing it around now. But I don’t know what, if anything, we’re really gonna do. Obviously we do things in our own communities that are helpful, but what governments and corporations are doing—I generally try not to be stressed out about it. I do worry about other people, in my community and elsewhere, who don’t have the resources to deal with it…

…There just needs to be better allocation of resources. I don’t want to get too political, but Mike Bloomberg bought $30 million of political ads for one week, and he’s got [billions of dollars] total. The UN released a report that the food crisis could be solved for $30 bilion. It’s just really bad allocation of resources. [Climate change] does have real life consequences, but it’s hard for people to conceptualize how to address it on their own local level. There’s this LNG plant they want to build in Providence, down on Allens Avenue … If that thing ever blows, not only is the whole community affected but Cranston and Edgewood are gonna go just like that.*

C: What makes you so involved?

I started when I was eighteen or nineteen, but when I bought a house and I realized I was gonna be staying for thirty years—that’s why housing is so important. That’s what gets you invested in the community—well, there’s family ties, but a lot of people don’t like their hometowns.

*The Univar chemical tanks, which are within the explosion range of National Grid’s LNG facility, have a 14-mile disaster radius.

*

One of the things, for example—it doesn’t have to do with climate change—but where I live, I try to grow things over the summer, and animals come over the summer and they don’t have food, so they eat it, so I never get to grow any food. Sunflowers, tomatoes—these animals, the little chubby ones, they created this tunnel underneath the house. And something that worries me—where I live now there hasn’t been a problem, but at the time when I lived around this area, we had a problem with rats. I worry that they might come through the pipes for the laundry.

*

I’m pretty sure the school that I live next to has radon in the basement. Supposedly they’re knocking it down in the next few years, so I don’t know what’s gonna happen then.

K: Is it something that people talk about in the neighborhood?

I know the kids are scared to drink the water at school. It’s kept pretty hush-hush, but the parents all used to go to the school.

K: Is it the kind of thing where parents might be willing to get together to ask for some kind of action?

I used to do after-school programs there, and the problem with any kind of action is that there’s a lot of languge barriers. A lot of the parents are immigrants coming from other countries, they’re scared to say anything—people don’t know that we live in a democracy [sic] and that they can speak up. And there’s a lot of grandparent-raised families and multi-job families. I work for One Cranston, and we ask people what they would change about their communities, and a lot of people don’t know what they would change about their community.

*

Climate change, that’s an issue. I’d say I’m pretty worried. I like what Providence did, with no more plastic bags.

When do you think about it, what gets you started worrying about it?

Randomly. Or I’ll start thinking about it over the summer when it gets really hot, or when weather changes too drastically.

C: What kinds of things do you worry about?

How animals are gonna get affected. They don’t really have a choice. I’m a big animal person—I like them more than people.

Do you try to look out for animals or help them survive?

In Guatemala I saved a lot of turtles. My family’s from there, so we go down there every year. We were at this restaurant and there were baby turtles in cages, I guess because the bigger turtles [in the pond] wanted to eat them. But there was a little hole in the cage and the baby turtles were getting into the pond. So I was like to the guy at the restaurant, “Do you have a net or anything?” and he got me a long net and I caught them and put them on a little dock. My family’s like, “[NAME], come, the food’s on the table and it’s getting cold,” and I was like, “I don’t care, I’m fishing out turtles.” … I would love to save animals 24/7.

*

Just, like, the timeline– “We’ve got twenty years and then we’re all dead.”

K: How does it feel to see people saying that?

I just stopped going on Facebook. But anytime I make—I just graduated from college, so anytime I’m making large life choices, I’m like, “What’s the point?” [laughs]

K: You’re laughing but I’m guessing you don’t really think it’s funny, so—what is the feeling?

I don’t know if I have a good word for it. It’s not one of those stresses that come up every day.

K: How does it affect your decisions?

I don’t know if it’s made a specific or conscious choice that I’ve made. There’s just so many big things [happening] and it’s just like, what’s this big thing.

*

I feel like I don’t know enough. I’m embarrassed to say that.

K: [I pointed her towards the map I had made, which you can see below.]

I can say this, I’m sensitive to high heat days in terms of my workplace. OSHA doesn’t govern schools. There are days where I can’t even walk up the stairs, let alone be in that building for six hours. Sometimes people will pass out.

*

[This person spoke quietly and it was hard for me to hear them well, so there are some gaps.]

I’m a little bit worried about myself—from the war, I went through a lot. From 1970 to 1975. I left my country. I’m here helping people, especially with education for people from poor countries. People in my country who were educated were killed by [the Khmer Rouge]–professors, doctors, police…

…I’m still too much in my mind. All the worries for everybody, many things with my job. [He named the schools he worked at.] I retired Friday, June 26, 2015, almost five years now. I’m still thinking too much. My family all graduated from high school, Classical or Central, [I think he also said where some of them were going to college]. Myself, I’m still worrying about living here. I’m healthy, but my mind still misses my country. I want to fight for freedom—not to arrest good people.

[C asked a question about how he thought the Cambodian government would respond if there were bad storms.]

They’re selfish. They didn’t care. The government doesn’t come up with a solution. They take your family from the ground to the top. Day by day, I’m safe but I’m thinking about them.

K: When you feel like it’s too much for you, what do you do? Is there someone you talk with, is there something else you do?

I went to the doctor. The doctor told me I need counseling, but I can control it myself. Sometimes I get headaches, I take a pill, one aspirin. I exercise sixty minutes every day. I don’t know what the solution is.

*

[Person 2 was Person 1’s mom.]

Person 1: Does it affect us? Not really.

Person 2: Yeah, it does.

K: I like it when people who are talking with me disagree, because it means we can try to figure out whether you really don’t agree with each other or whether you’re reacting to different things. So can you tell me why you think it won’t affect us?

Person 1: It’s natural—well, all the gases in the air coming from cars, and coming from factories, causes climate change, that’s not natural. But it wouldn’t affect us directly.

Person 2: It’s affecting us right now, ’cause we have more hurricanes because of the things that we’ve done to the environment. It’s affecting the climate—the air gets trapped and it causes natural, what we call natural disasters.

K: Does it stress you out to think about it?

Person 2: Yeah it does, because it makes me think, what’s the future gonna be like? All these things we call natural disasters, but it’s not natural. If you call it natural—but it’s something we can do something about.

N: So in a sense we’re building it up. We’re like, “Oh, where is this coming from?” But we built it up.

Person 2: We’re living in this earth—it’s gonna affect the generations to come. We’re all human and we’re all connected! We’re gonna feel something. … I try to use less vehicles, walk places, riding a bike.

K: Also there’s things like—if the bus was better and went more places, then people would use their cars less.

Person 2: But the bus is costly for someone who can’t afford it. If it’s free—then the bus company doesn’t make money, so then we pay for it out of our taxes. But it could be less costly.

Person 1: They do offer it for free when it’s too cold.

Person 2: When we really think about it, everything is connected to climate change.

Person 1: I understand it from that perspective too—but before climate change we have to get into other things as well. We have to take care of ourselves as a people before we can worry about the climate.

*

I’m a science teacher. This is in our curriculum, and we spent most of the first quarter talking about it. I know a lot about it, and it does make me anxious.

So I have two questions. How do you deal with that anxiety with your students? And how do you deal with it when you’re by yourself?

It’s hard to hide it, because stressing how important it is is what makes it worthwhile. I try to spin it as an optimistic thing: you are the next generation, you have the power to change things.

K: What about when you get home?

It’s peaks and valleys. It can be pretty optimistic and moving to hear things that my students have to say. But it can be pretty depressing knowing that some people are out there actively doing things to spot progressive change. What kind of world—I don’t have children, but if I have children—will they be living in? …. It feels like it would be kind of selfish to [have children]. I studied environmental science, it was my major in college, and I’ll never forget, the first day of class, Environmental Science 101, the professor said, “This is a depressing major …” So it’s always in the back of my mind. It makes me more conscious of trying to make better decisions. I carpool to work … There are so many aspects of the world today that are heavy and depressing.

*

I’m in Sunrise, I’m on the recruitment team. I’d really appreciate it if you could send people my way for the next strike, on December 6th.

How’d you get involved with Sunrise?

I was at Wyatt Detention Center at a protest—that was the first action, the first activism I’d ever done. I was like, “Hey, let me actually do stuff.” There was a Sunrise person there from Philly, and they were like, “Actually, there’s a meeting tomorrow.” So I went to it. I’ve been doing other activist work as well … Climate change is just a bummer. Just doing work about it—I probably don’t dedicate as much time as I should, but doing work around climate-change-adjacent things, it helps keep me not as anxious. It feels like I have nothing to feel bad about. Even if in twelve years Delhi is uninhabitable, it’s 200 degrees in Death Valley, I have the satisfaction of the knowledge that I tried, I did what I could, I tried my hardest. I can’t just not do social justice and climate justice.

*

I really don’t know that much about it. I have asthma. But it isn’t as bad as it used to be, so maybe the pollution isn’t as bad. I heard about plastic, I heard that in Providence you can’t have plastic bags.

What have you heard about plastic?

… How animals are gonna die—it’s making it [easier] for it to kill the sea animals. People are taking action upon it though.

[We also talked a little bit about relationships between humans, plants and other animals in ecosystems, like how ocean algae produces 2/3 of the oxygen we breathe.]

*

Climate change affects our mood. I do see people’s mood change when it’s colder, they’re depressed and down. I see a lot of people being affected, especially people who are away or apart from their families. In summer I see more people getting together, depression seems to get better with summer being around. Stress is worse during the winter—people are worried about paying for heat. People are coming more for assistance so they can be able to afford heat, or for National Grid to extend services because of heat.

C: In your work with people and families, do you hear them concerned with big storms, or power outages, or stuff they hear about the environment in the news?

I haven’t heard much of that. It’s more people filling out paperwork for National Grid to say they can’t shut off their electricity or heat.

K: And that’s so wild because that’s the same people, we have to pay money to the same people who are making the climate worse.

C: Do you think that people realize that?

I don’t think they’re aware of it—I don’t think people realize that many things are part of the same thing.

K: So your job is really helping people survive. Is that a strain on you? What about when somebody gets turned down?

That’s a terrible feeling. I see the frustration in their face, that they’re not going to be able to survive living here when it’s actually cold.

N: Let’s say they get turned down, and you see the person’s frustration. How do you deal with it? Do you allow those reactions to get to you? Like with situations I’ve encountered at my job, I don’t want to get too attached because it’s going to affect how I make a decision?

I’ve never gotten frustrated with them. I’ve felt disappointed, and frustrated with National—with the system, when I have my hands tied. It never gets easy to say, “I can’t get the extension and there’s nothing else I can do for you.” It’s not an easy answer…

N: We’re in a sense creating a barrier, to not allow these emotions to get through.

It takes time … [But] otherwise you would not have a clear mind to assist them and help them. It’s not that I have less feelings. If a child comes to you and tells you they’re being sexually abused, you want to kill that person. But [over time] you become able to say okay, we’re gonna get you help and here are the services you need.

C: With the HEZ, there were some mixed feelings about whether people would be concerned about climate change to have it be part of where the investments in resources are made. Is it or is it not a concern? And why do you think that is?

It is, but it’s not until it starts affecting them.

N: It’s like knowing that the issue is there, subconsciously, but then it gets cold and then your mind is actually talking to you.

It’s the same thing like if somebody needs new brakes—you don’t do anything about it till you hear the sound. People are like “I gotta go to work, I gotta make sure there’s money coming in, I don’t have time to worry about electricity. I gotta make sure I have my medications.”

C: That’s the insidious part of this. The large companies that create this issue make sure people can’t put the bigger picture together so that they can continue [making money].

N: In school they teach you how to not question these things—it’s more like they’re teaching you how to get a living, so you can just go through life.

[IMAGE: A hand-drawn black-and-white map of Cranston, with a few major interactions of climate change and health–high heat, air pollution and asthma, food supply chains and flooding–marked on it.]

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