“If you’re not centering justice you’re not going to solve the problem”

Mayra Cruz on Building Climate Leadership

Surviving the climate crisis will require collective action on a grand scale; but this action must be led by the communities facing firsthand the impacts of climate change. It is these voices from the frontlines who are most valuable to the movement, and community leaders who are best positioned to make a change and have lasting impact in correcting for overlapping justice issues and lead us to a planet that is not only livable, but just.

Mayra Cruz works to build and foster leadership on climate change and climate resiliency in Miami. As the Climate Resilience Program Manager for Catalyst Miami, Mayra works with communities to solidify leadership and advocacy skills in order to advance justice and equity in the county. In this week’s episode, we talk with her about building resiliency from the local level, and creating a strong civil society that is equipped to address climate change along with other, most pressing social justice issues.

Below is a transcript of the podcast, edited and trimmed for clarity and brevity. 

Maria Virginia Olano (MVO): Thank you for making the time to speak with us today.

Mayra Cruz (MC): No problem!

MVO: How are you doing? I know that you’re based in Miami and things with COVID down there are a little bit terrible right now, so how have you been through this?

MC: It’s been kind of a roller coaster. It’s been an adjustment working from home. We’re doing the social distancing as much as possible. We’ve been doing it from the start, but now with how badly things have progressed we’re really buckling down on that and trying to avoid public spaces as much as possible. It’s a bit disheartening just seeing how we’re not improving and we keep piling on the cases everyday, so it’s a mixture of frustration, disappointment, and worry about where this is all headed for us.

But we’re okay personally and family is okay, so that’s the silver lining there I would say. 

MVO: Good! I’m really glad to hear that you’re still working from home and being able to distance yourself. We are too. We started working from home back in March. We’re in Boston and starting to reopen slowly, but we’re still working from home, which makes me feel better.

MC: Definitely, very grateful to be able to do that.

MVO: I’m also glad to hear that you and your family are doing okay, so that’s good. I wanted to start off the interview with having you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background, and how you came to do the work that you’re doing?

MC: I guess it’s a fun story. The way I usually start this is just by going back to what I studied in school, because I think that’s where I started to figure out my place in this whole fight to combat climate change. I studied public health as an undergraduate and did a sustainability minor at the same time. I have a mindset that the environment is important in how it dictates our lives and whether we have a safe, healthy environment to live in matters a lot to our outcomes. Public health really helped me in connecting the dots a lot and thinking about the environment, but also the wider societal issues we do have and how all of that is very interconnected. In many ways, I feel like that’s prepared me for the pandemic, having the public health background, but also none of this has been a shock. To me, it all makes sense about how things have played out just from what I know about behavioral science and how people tend to act in these situations. 

After that, it really became clear that I wanted to be at that intersection of climate and health specifically. That led me to getting my masters in public health at Columbia, which had a really good program that actually allows you to get more specific with your degree. I had an environmental science degree but specifically focused on the intersection of climate change and public health, looking at how climate change impacts health outcomes of individuals and the wider public. I had this sense that it was really important to know the specific impacts on the ground before thinking about any other work that would have wider reach or impact, thinking more about policy and stuff like that. 

I happened to end up in Miami through funny circumstances. My partner ended up getting a job offer here and we ended up moving. It just so happens that Miami is one of the frontline cities when it comes to climate change, so it ended up working out that there was a lot of need here for someone with that background. I was fortunate that things worked out the way they did and was able to get the job I have now with Catalyst at the same time that we moved. I’m glad that things worked out the way they did.  Catalyst has really been a great opportunity to do the work that I set out to do in graduate school. I told myself that it was really important to know what people are going through. I think oftentimes with the work I’m doing now, I see elected officials making broad statements, saying things that aren’t necessarily backed up by science or lived experiences.

By doing the work that I do now, which is often community-facing and working with community members through our leadership program or the services we provide at Catalyst, I do feel that I have a very good sense of what the on the ground issues are. But also, I have a good sense of what solutions community members are really advocating for and being able to uplift that personally through the work, or even better having community members speak for themselves about what they see as places for improvement.

MVO: That is such a crucial point that you bring up. It’s truly understanding the lived experiences of people on the ground because more often than not it’s them that understand the solutions the best as well. It’s a grassroot effort and the only way we’re going to be able to solve all these very overwhelming issues, and it’s something that, as you mentioned, elected officials and people in power don’t always necessarily always rely on to the extent that they should. 

Could you tell us a little but about Catalyst Miami and the kind of programs that you oversee there?

MC: Catalyst has been around since around 1996 I believe, so we’ve been around for quite some time. We started as the Human Services Coalition, that was our original name, but eventually changed to Catalyst Miami. That felt like a more appropriate name for the work that we do, trying to catalyze change.

We primarily focus our work with low and middle-wealth communities — that’s really who we aim to serve and provide our services too. The way that plays out in our work is that we do provide direct services in free tax preparation, credit building, helping get out of debt in a way that works for them and improves their credit. We really try to ensure that people are financially stable, but even better if we can get them to be prosperous. We call it our Prosperity Team for a reason. 

On the other side of things we have our policy and engagement work, which is where I fall under in that department and that’s where we have our community engagement team and where we lead out our climate resilience work, and our advocacy work around affordable housing, for example. We also do some healthcare access advocacy as well, so it’s a mixture of things. It’s the issues that we care about, but we care about them because we know that our community members care about them and they’ve told us that those are the issues that they really care about and are passionate about.  

I specifically lead out on our leadership programs. One of them is called CLEAR, which is our climate leadership training program and it’s been ongoing since 2016, so that was before I started work at Catalyst — I’ve been on since the beginning of 2018. It’s kind of crazy, I had to think back about how many cohorts we’ve done. We usually try to do three a year, and we just graduated our eleventh cohort so I had to go back in my spreadsheets and figure that out because it’s actually been a while. That was kind of mind-boggling to realise that and the number of people we’ve had come through that program. We also have HEAL, which is our affordable housing training program, modeled after CLEAR, but focused on issues of affordability when it comes to housing because that’s another huge issue we’re facing here in Miami-Dade county. Both these issues really intersect completely. We have those two programs, and combined we’ve graduated more than 300 people at this point. It’s an amazing way to get to know people.

One of my aims was to really understand where people are coming from and the issues they are facing, and those two programs really provide that outlet. It’s also an outlet for them to talk about the solutions that they want to see and implement and those programs are meant to help them shape that along the way and really use education and knowledge to really build that leadership up. That’s already there, but it’s like growing the embers.

There’s other wider climate resilience work that I work on too. Some of it’s on the intersection of climate and health, looking at ways to improve extreme heat here, for example, or being a part of wider resilience efforts within the city and the county. Really looking at ways to collaborate and come together to think through some of these really big questions about how do we do this work in a way that provides co-benefits that are equitable, that center those that have been left behind, how do we center them in all this? It’s fun work, it’s hard work, it’s never done, but it’s very important. 

MVO: That’s fascinating, I want to come back to some of those leadership programs and ask some specific questions a little later on. If we can touch on this intersectional perspective of well-being. I think for a lot of people who work at the intersectionality of issues of wealth gaps, economic inequality, public health, and the climate, these things can be very self-evident on why these things need to be tackled in a comprehensive manner that addresses overlapping challenges and issues.

However, as I’m sure you’ve experienced, there’s a lot of people who tend to push back on that. Even if they see climate as an issue, and as a real issue that needs to be tackled, and a response we often get is ‘why do we now need to make this into a social issue, a racial issue, an economic issue?’ What do you say to those people, or how do you explain at the core of why we need to take this intersectional perspective?

MC: Unfortunately, and especially now with the pandemic, I don’t think it’s a surprise that we have climate change, a more active hurricane season than normal, and the Black Lives Matter Movement happening as well. I don’t think it’s a surprise that you have a convergence of these things happening at the same time. What I would do in that situation is to go back to history and explain the history of inequalities that have been created through the different systems. The way that we run our government, the way we run our education system, all the big institutions are very much rooted in white supremacy and in an extractive economy.

If we look back to the very beginning of how this country was made, it’s the same people that often are left behind and are not included in very important conversations. Look at who is often being more impacted by coronavirus, it’s black populations, it’s immigrant communities, it’s Indigienous communities. Who’s often impacted the most by climate change? It’s black people, it’s Latinx populations, it’s Indigenous communities. Once you start to look at it from that lens of who’s having the most burden at this time, it’s the same groups of people. After a while, even if you’re still not getting it, if you start to look at it from that perspective, is it coincidence at that point? Or is there something bigger and wider at work here that’s leading to the same groups of people having disproportionate impacts.

That’s probably what I would pull from. Like I said, I think the pandemic especially has brought to light how we’ve failed people every time when it comes to providing safety nets. The fact that Florida still hasn’t expanded Medicaid here, as other states have done that, how many people would have more access to healthcare if we had passed that amendment a couple years ago. You can keep unraveling the web that way and it’s not hard to see how historically we have just really fallen short for groups here in the country. That’s how I would start to paint the picture and connect the dots for someone. For any of these issues, if you’re not centering justice in the work and equity, you’re not going to solve the problem when it comes to climate change, when it comes to health inequities, when it comes to racial justice, any of those big issues.

MVO: Absolutely. That’s why solutions that don’t take equity and justice into account are at best bandaids that just perpetuate the systems that cause the problems to begin with. It is, in that line, exciting to see what is happening now and seeing so many more people mobilized around all of these issues in a holistic way and understanding that, as you say, the big picture of we need systematic change and systemic reform because so many things just aren’t working. We saw the collapse of our public health systems, we’re seeing issues around our justice system as well.

I’m curious to hear from you, and from the people that you interact with and train, in how you’re thinking about this particular moment as, and pardon the pun, a catalyst for the work that you do?

MC: For Catalyst and the work that we do, we see ourselves as a social justice organization and we definitely see the importance that it’s two sides of the same coin. We’re very aware that it’s difficult to ask people to invest their time in a leadership program when they’re not able to pay all their bills, or when they’re working multiple jobs, or when they have to look after their kids and there isn’t childcare available to them. We’re very aware that if people’s basic needs aren’t met, then it’s very difficult for them to think about ways to better themselves through something like a leadership program.

Learn more about Catalyst Miami and their efforts to improve the lives of communities in Miami-Dade County here

In that way, I think it’s helpful that we do often have clients that go through our program and services and then end up in our leadership programs, or vice versa. That’s a model we have in place and something we always want to keep expanding and have that back and forth from both ends of the organization. Looking at the current moment for us, we feel that the work we do is important, we’ve always known that, but we’ve just gotten this reassurance that it really is meaningful. The work that we provide — from the financial services to the healthcare access work to our CLEAR and HEAL programs for example — all work together to get at the root of the issues we’ve been discussing.

For our leadership programs, we’ve had CLEAR happening before coronavirus. We were five weeks in, and had another five to go, then we had to pause, and then we had to pivot to offer the program virtually. Something that we talked about was, what does this mean now? Do we think that people still want to go through a program like this? Is there still a hunger for this because we know that there is so much else going on? But there still was, there was still a need for that. What I’ve noticed is that people feel really empowered right now to do more and to get activated to be part of the fight, whatever that means for them. Whether that’s getting into the climate fight or the housing fight here or trying to defund the police, whatever that means for them. I’m glad that we can provide an outlet for that in a way that provides structure for those conversations, but it’s things we don’t shy away from. 

The Community Leadership on the Environment, Advocacy, and Resilience (CLEAR) and the Housing Equity, Advocacy and Leadership (HEAL) programs teach individuals how to harness their power in the community to advocate for change. Learn more here

Our first class we talked about an intersection of all of this. We talked about the Dakota Access Pipeline and the fact that that looks very similar to what we’re going through now; where you had indigenous communities trying to fight a pipeline going through their lands and having to face police brutality in that case, and how basically an army was deployed to try and stop them from peacefully protesting something that should’ve never been happening in the first place. We spent time talking about that and connecting the dots to how that doesn’t look all that different from what we’ve been seeing the past two months here. Those are some of the ways that we try to tackle that within our programs, but they’re very much rooted in that we don’t shy away from calling out racism as a root cause for a lot of these issues. Especially when we talk about environmental justice and why certain communities benefit from certain environmental initiatives and others don’t, and the same with affordable housing. The first class we talk about redlining and how policies rooted in racism have really created massive issues decades later for communities of color. We know to have those conversations and call that out at the start as a way to start those conversations.

Institutionalized racism has impacted people and communities of color in a myriad of ways for decades. Read more about how systemic racism and zoning practices have impacted the health of communities of color. 

MVO: I imagine it’s incredibly empowering to have that space and to share that reality and histories of lived experiences in many ways. What have been some of the most rewarding parts about leading these programs for you in your experience in seeing the graduates and participants go off with these newfound tools and empowerment to make change in their communities?

MC: It’s probably one of the most rewarding things I’ve done. Whenever we finish up a cohort, there’s definitely times where I’m so tired along with the work, and then we get to graduation and we hear our elected class speakers talk about the impact the program has had and the way that they hope to carry the work moving forward. It gives me that added boost to continue the work. We’ve had such great reach with the program and we have graduates that are now climate justice organizers at a nonprofit, or something similar. We’ve had others that have gotten really involved in coalition work now and are speaking up. There’s been a lot of commission meetings that have taken place, and I’m always happy when I hear a familiar voice and it’s someone who’s been through our programs and are speaking up for or against something being proposed in meetings. 

Especially now as of late, I keep seeing them out and about — virtually of course — but it’s just been really reaffirming that the program has a wide reach. I can keep going on about the ways I’ve seen them really take the work forward. We’ve had people reconsider their career paths. There’s someone that’s featured on our website, her name is Lauren, and she went through the effort of going through our program during the summer last year and she lived in one end of the county and was driving to Homestead, which is the most southern part of our county, to take the program. Then, because of her enthusiasm and her experience with teaching, we hired her to be a facilitator and had a blast doing that and had such a great impact on our participants. Now she’s deciding to pursue a masters of public health after seeing the impact, the intersection, and how she can really hone in on the skills she picked up in CLEAR and her experiences to carry that out in a program and pursue a career in that field. There are stories like that which are very inspiring and really show us that this does provide meaning to people and that it is worth their while. I think it’s a model that definitely works. Some of it you can’t really quantify — how do you quantify someone deciding to completely change their career path? I have no idea how you start to put that into numbers, but it makes me incredibly proud to see them applying this in their lives in whatever sense it makes for them. 

MVO: It’s a huge impact multiplier because that one person then can go on and change their focus in life and disseminate these ideas and impact further, so that’s really fascinating. Especially finding talent from communities themselves that are living through this impact.

In that vein, I wanted to talk to you about resiliency and what that means for different organizations and institutions because it’s become a bit of a buzzword. It’s often classified as very massive projects. For example, ‘we’re building resiliency’ often translates into ‘let’s build a massive sea wall along the land to protect from storm surges and flooding,’ or ‘let’s just revamp our buildings so that we can have floodplains.’ I know that you had said that these big engineering projects don’t usually reflect the actual needs and desires of communities, and we actually know that they might even have a negative toll and not be as effective in solving some of these things. 

Different ideas of resiliency emphasize human and community level resilience and how we build social bonds and trust. I’m curious to hear from you, what does resiliency mean and how can we get to community led effort in building resilience?

MC: You’ve done your research. You’re referring to the back bay study that’s been an ongoing thing now, and a lot of different groups are involved and providing comments and figuring out the steps moving forward for them in particular. But for us — and I’m speaking for me personally but also the way Catalyst thinks about it makes a lot of sense for me — is that you often hear people say ‘resilience is bouncing forward or bouncing back to where you were before.’ Some people use that definition. For me, it’s not necessarily bouncing back to where you back before because if you were to tell a community member that we work with that you want to get them back to where they were before after some major disaster happens, for a lot of them that’s not a great place — it means being financially unstable, it means living in a higher risk area for climate change impacts.

The way I think about it is bouncing forward and getting to a place where it’s not just about stability, it’s about prospering and feeling like you’re moving forward, and there’s upward mobility, you’re able to have a better outcome in life. Whether that’s financially, educational attainment, being able to stay put in one place, and not have to worry about a hurricane destroying your home. For us, it’s really looking at it from a holistic point of view. It’s not just the infrastructure, it’s thinking about someone’s whole life and what goes into that, and it’s not a life threatened by all these outside factors. I know other people don’t necessarily think about it that way or don’t have such a wide view for it, but I think that’s also why anything can be related to resilience.

There’s a reason why the Resiliency 305 strategy that we have for Miami-Dade county — for the City of Miami and for Miami Beach — there’s a reason why that document is a behemoth of a PDF file. Thankfully, they realized that if you don’t’ talk about education, if you don’t’ talk about housing, if you don’t talk about access to parks or greenery, if you don’t talk about access to mental health services, then you’re not getting at the root of what resilience means for someone. That’s really how we try to approach it and that’s why it’s great that Catalyst is able to provide financial services, but also the 2.0 of our leadership and community engagement work that we do are ways to further get involved in the issues. 

It’s kind of like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Thinking about it that way, as I mentioned before, if you’re unable to meet your most basic needs it’s harder to ask someone to go above and beyond. Go and ask them to vote, call on behalf of a campaign, or to sign a petition, it’s not necessarily fair to make that ask of people if we’re not able to help them out with what they need the most at that time. I know a lot of people face that issue when we think about climate change, ‘why don’t more people get involved?’ There’s just a lot of barriers sometimes.

MVO: It’s in line with a lot of the thinking we’re seeing now with people saying, from this pandemic, it’s simply not enough to want to go back to normal because we already had a housing crisis, a policing crisis, and a racial crisis in the country. More and more people are recognizing that the well-being and resilience of communities isn’t just living through a pandemic or not living through flooding, it’s how we’re able to thrive and prosper, as you say, always and not just in the face of horrific disaster. 

We were actually talking in another podcast that we were recording and Lauren, our guest, was saying how she’s been thinking about this pandemic as a dress rehearsal for what’s to come with climate change — which is a real horrifying prospect, but i think in many ways it’s true. We are seeing the cracks in the system and the vulnerabilities already these past couple months and the dire consequences they have for so many of us already living at the intersection of these issues.

Listen to our episode with Lauren Kurtz, Executive Director of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, here

MC: That’s a really good way of putting it, I’m going to have to use that now — thank you, Lauren.

MVO: Is there anything that you are particularly excited about in your work that is coming up? What’s next for Catalyst Miami?

MC: Well, we’ve all had to pivot. From our services side to our community engagement work to our leadership programs, we’ve all had to pivot to fit the new normal now of quarantining at home. There’s been some road bumps here and there, but overall I’m really impressed with how we were able to transition so quickly. We were in the midst of tax season when all of this happened and thankfully were able to convert our systems to online.

Our leadership programs have always been offered in-person because there is something special about being in a room with people you wouldn’t necessarily be with sometimes. You get such an amalgamation of people from all over the county taking these programs that come from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, different educational backgrounds, it’s just a very diverse group in many ways. It’s nice that you get to have that face-to-face interaction, so for many reasons we’ve always done them in person and never offered them virtually so that was a new endeavor.

We’ve also been doing census work. That’s something our community engagement team is tackling because typically here we don’t have a lot of engagement when it comes to filling out the census, so that’s still ongoing. I’m doing my plug on behalf of my co-worker to remind people to fill out their census! We’re trying to get to 70% I think is our goal, which is higher than years past. But looking to the future, a lot of us are still pivoting and noticing that there are a lot of fights that need to continue. I’m thinking about the continuing work on the eviction moratorium here in the state. It’s a frustrating process, but every month at the end of the month is a big fight. That’s something we were working on before, but not to this degree or it didn’t look this way — a monthly fight basically. For me specifically, we’ve been doing a lot more work around the utilities shut-offs that have already been happening around the state. 

We’re particularly focused on FPL (Florida Power + Light) and Miami-Dade county, so we’re undertaking a big campaign there and trying to make sure people there are getting the relief they need at this time. We were mentioning cracks in the system, and we know people that were struggling to keep up with utility bills before the pandemic happened and now this has completely worsened their situation even more by two-fold, three-fold, whatever the number is. That’s something that wasn’t necessarily a fight that we were trying to actually get a 100% resolution passed here, now we’ve had to pivot a little bit to really focus on the immediate needs we see right now. That’s work I’m excited for because I hope we can get people the help they need at this time. Then also use that as a way to build towards that 100% renewable future where we don’t have this situation happening where people are left at the mercy of these utility companies that have the complete power to say if someone has access to their electricity in the middle of the pandemic, and hurricane season, and very hot weather. When you put it into that perspective, it’s kind of crazy the stuff that we go through here. 

That’s going to be ongoing work. We’re not working on the election specifically, but we’re putting forums together and making sure that people are continuing to be engaged and that they know that local elections really do matter as well. We’re a 501c3 organization so we don’t speak out on particular candidates, but we do want people to be aware of which candidates are thinking about these issues and have plans for these issues and solutions. Ways that they’re hoping to tackle climate change, affordable housing, and the pandemic here, because clearly that’s not going away anytime soon so i’m sure a lot of our work will be focused around that. Making sure that communities we work with are not being left behind, that they have access to relief plans, and that their situation doesn’t worsen — for some of them, it has and it’s really disheartening. 

MVO: It’s such amazing and important work that you and your colleagues are doing. As I hear you talk through these issues, I’m like my god, this year is just crazy how much is going on — from the election to the census to the pandemic, there are so many fronts, the eviction crisis which seems to be impending. It’s brilliant work, it’s been brilliant to hear from you all of the hard work that you’re doing. In closing, I like to ask this question to end on a happier note, but what is an ideal and resilient future for you and your community?

MC: That’s a really good question. Oftentimes, I get into the rut of looking at the negatives so it’s refreshing to think about the positives about what things could actually look like. For me, I’m assuming I’ll be in Miami for quite some time, so what I would hope to see is that we have communities that are coming together that are not so segregated as they are now. That we have different groups from racial, enthinc, and economic backgrounds working together and you have that social cohesion in that you know your neighbor and you can go to others around you for help if you need it. That we do have clean energy all around us and as the sunshine state, we really are leading on solar energy and having solar panels everywhere. That people can afford to live in the city they grew up in, the city they’ve adopted. That I’m not seeing homeless people out and about. That we have these social safety nets in place and that really help people get out of situations and be able to be a part of the wider society. That we have access to the things we need and people can be able to live here if they want to. 

I hope that Miami is still around and that we’ve figured out how to adapt to the incoming water that will definitely be around. It is possible. If anything, what our leadership graduates have taught me is that the solutions are out there. The grand ideas are there, some are not far fetched. They give you hope that we can figure this out. There are certain things that need to be put into place, certain people that may need to be shuffled around, but it’s definitely there, it’s possible. The amount of people I’ve seen come out to protest together at this time for the police brutality that we’ve seen and these horrific murders, it’s the most I’ve ever seen in the history of social movements. It’s possible. It’s things we need to hold onto and keep building off of. There’s definitely hope and we can get there. Just right now, it’s tough to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but we do have the tools and solutions to make that happen, to make that resilient future happen.

MVO: Absolutely, and I think more and more a desire as well. People coming together and caring for one another in a way we haven’t seen in a long time, which is crucial for getting to this future is understanding the humanity in each other and the value and worth of each other and our communities. Personally, people like you and the work that you do are also what give me hope. I get to talk to all these brilliant people and have these conversations and I’m left with a renewed sense of hope for what we can accomplish. 

MC: Thank you. This is also part of the wider work and solutions, to get the word out and let people get a sense of what’s going on on the ground and it’s always great to have the opportunity to talk about work. Miami has a lot of issues, but there also is a lot of great work happening here and it’s great to highlight that as well. 

Photo Illustrations by Amanda Griffiths, Climate XChange; Mayra Cruz Photo courtesy of Mayra; Maria Virginia Olano Photo by Amanda Griffiths.