When it comes to the climate crisis, there is a stark divide between who is most affected due to the structural inequalities caused by the legacy of institutional racism. In “The First Responder”, we chat with David Heppard, the Executive Director of the Freedom Project Washington - a Seattle-based organization that works to dismantle the system of mass incarceration and heal its traumatic effects. Last year, the Freedom Project shifted its priorities to meet the community's immediate needs in the face of a devastating heat wave, with temperatures reaching a record of 115°F in June of 2021.
A recent study in Nature found that in nearly every major city in the U.S., people of color are exposed to more extreme urban heat than white people. Seattle’s neighborhoods nestled in abundant green space found reprieve from the intense heat. However, the communities of color closest to highways and industrial zones faced disproportionate health impacts and significant barriers to mental health care.
David's particular experiences, as a first responder in his community, is a powerful example of community investment and transformation. The Freedom Projects' counseling services and ability to provide water, fans, and space were instrumental in offering both mental and physical support during times of intense heat.
This season, we’re honored to join forces with Prism - a nonprofit newsroom led by journalists of color to go deep into the stories behind environmental racism. Our co-founder and host Shilpi Chhotray and Prism’s climate justice reporter, Ray Levy Uyeda, explore the historical significance of how neighborhoods have been shaped and built, to better understand the disparities that exist when it comes to extreme heat.
Key Themes explored:
What is the urban heat island effect and what does it have to do with systemic racism?
What is the link between redlining and environmental injustice?
Why do low-income BIPOC communities have more barriers to mental health care?
Why does the non-profit industrial complex incentivize top-down approaches to environmental and social issues?
Tune in to the latest episode, The First Responder, to find out.
Visit People over Plastic’s website to learn more about us and continue the conversation by sharing this episode on Instagram and Twitter.
INTRO [00:00:01] We can't buy more clean air. We can't buy more clean water. I don't care what you have to say, but we have to adapt or we die. The voice of the people is the voice of the advocates. It is the power of organizing. That's what creates the initial change.
Shilpi [00:00:19] This is people over plastic. I mean, welcome to the People Over Plastic podcast. I'm Shilpi Chhetri, your host, plastic pollution activist and media maven. This season, we're honored to join forces with PRISM, a newsroom led by journalists of color. Ray Levy, wadah prisms, climate justice reporter helps me break down the facts. We believe you deserve to know the real stories behind climate chaos and society's most pressing injustices. It's time to set the record straight. Hey, y'all. Welcome back. I'm really excited to share this week's episode with you. Sometimes we forget to think about the intersectional nature of climate change and mental health. The compounding effect that systemic racism has on low income communities of color on top of years and years of oppression is now further exacerbated by the impacts of climate change. As we talked about in the first two episodes of the season, access to mental health care and greenspaces are critically important for well-being and safety. In this episode, I had the honor to speak with David Shepherd. He runs the Freedom Project, a Seattle based organization working to dismantle the system of mass incarceration and heal its traumatic effects. Let's get into it. Tell us a little bit about the Freedom Project and how you got involved. You bring so much important wisdom to the table that's not currently in the climate change dialog. And I really want people to to hear from you why this is so important.
David Heppard [00:02:05] When I came up, I came up in a lot of trauma and bleeding out in that trauma and community. And I got thrown away at 16 years old and they gave me forever. I was getting negative messaging my whole life. You know, a lot of abuse and stuff was happening in the household. And when you go to school and it's not trauma informed. And so they have this expectation of you to show up in a way that is attentive and productive but don't really understand what it looks like when a person is in trauma. So that was consistent messaging that I got throughout my life and culminated into me getting thrown away at 16 in the early nineties. It was tough being thrown away like that. I'll always say that because what that does to you emotionally. I had a whole lot of time to do and I was navigating through my circumstances in a way in survival mode. I'm a child in a man's system, and I'm trying to navigate in the best way that I know how. I turned 18 in the penitentiary. I turned 21 in the penitentiary. I turned 30 and 40 all in the penitentiary. I was raised there. I remember there were some volunteers that came inside and they gave me empathy and it was real powerful for me, somebody to really make space for my voice and make me feel valued in a world that consistently message to me that I wasn't a value. And so I started to do a lot of internal work on myself and self educate myself. I was on my healing journey and then the juvenile research came out, the juvenile research that said that the juvenile brain isn't fully developed and so they're not as culpable and which really started a domino effect. And in our state in 2014, a law was passed giving me the opportunity to petition for my release. After 20 years, I petitioned for my release and inevitably they released me and I really appreciated the opportunity to be back in society. But while I was incarcerated, I took freedom. Project programing on the inside is really about just making space where empathy is possible.
Shilpi [00:04:34] So there's this one quote that really resonated with me in an interview I saw with you and you said, Inactivity keeps the system in place. And I thought that was so powerful because. The work is really hard. The work brings up its own trauma in a way.
David Heppard [00:04:59] What our community has to consistently go through to this day. I mean, I can't tell you how many funerals I've been through and trying to be support for somebody who's mom, who whose son who passed prematurely and all that stuff compounds that's just so difficult to deal with from day to day, being so close to the consistent oppression that we continue to feel. We believe that everybody is beautiful and amazing, and if given the opportunity to heal, they can show up that way.
Shilpi [00:05:31] What are the most important tools for healing?
David Heppard [00:05:35] I know a lot of times folks talk about healing like it's an individual process, but in my experience it's a collective process. We have these stories in our head and this trauma and unhealed trauma that we hold. And there's something healing when somebody makes space for you, when somebody values your perspective and your words and your lived experience. I think that the most important tool is to be able to have the space to heal. You don't need a501c3 to be able to make space for somebody.
Shilpi [00:06:11] It's this like nonprofit industrial complex that we're all kind of trapped in because we want to do the good work.
David Heppard [00:06:16] You're so right. And that's a lot of the work that we do is to separate ourselves from the nonprofit industrial complex. The irony over people over. Right. That's not that system. Right? It's production over people. Right. It's about feeding folks need to the guilt of having resources and living in a world where others don't and creating a system that makes you feel good about like when we gave out backpacks and but not really dealing with the root causes in the systems that create those inevitable results. We want to be intentional about not contributing to the harm that the nonprofit industrial complex has. Those power dynamics don't really make space for the contributions in the brilliance of everybody who's contributed to the inevitable result.
Shilpi [00:07:05] It is evident that physical well-being and mental health are directly connected to systems of power. And these are the same systems that cause catastrophic climate change and put low income communities of color at the greatest risk.
David Heppard [00:07:21] It's a very transactional system that prioritizes production over people and profits over people.
CLIP [00:07:31] We've left untouched the biggest segregation of all, but overwhelms everything else and hangs over our entire society. And that is that every metropolitan area in this country is residentially segregated. The neighborhoods where we grow up can determine the trajectory of our lives from the money we earn to how long we live. And it's not by accident. America was built this way.
David Heppard [00:07:57] And when you think about all the different systems, that's what it has in common. The lack of care for inability to see the humanity of those who are the most marginalized is the reason why our our systems are like this. The inability to see our humanity is the same thing that impacts us in the health care system and in education system. And just so happens, those who are the most marginalized in our society are deemed the bad people, the folks who don't have the resources. And that might be connected to our previous conversation are folks who feel guilty about having so many resources and others not having none and being able to feel good about criminalizing those who don't have some, which makes you feel better about the fact that they don't have them because you could make it. Well, that's their fault, because if they just tried harder, if they just pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
Shilpi [00:08:45] It is the most toxic narrative because it's a copout. So here's the thing. Extreme heat has profound impacts on mental health, and it's made worse for people of color who live in neighborhoods plagued by the urban heat island effect. If you're new to this term, it's a metropolitan area that's significantly warmer than its surroundings due to urban development. So think building, construction, asphalt, concrete. These are things that absorb sunlight rather than reflect them, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Many cities have temperatures up to ten degrees warmer than its surrounding natural land cover. This is why green spaces are so important.
CLIP [00:09:33] An unrelenting heatwave continuing to scorched the Pacific Northwest area right now. Tuesday saw record high temperatures in Seattle and Olympia, Washington. The heat met with an. Air quality alert for most of the area as several fires burn across. The state. You lots of people are going to be staying close to the water to try and stay cool on this weather alert day.
Shilpi [00:09:55] Most people know Seattle for being the city of of rain and cool temperatures. When did you start noticing that heat was a problem?
David Heppard [00:10:06] The most marginalized who don't have the supports or the resources that are necessary to protect themselves against something like heat. Drastic change in the heat or things like that. The way that the nonprofit industrial complex works is resources flow, but they don't flow to the most marginalized. Right. Because their goal is to check boxes off and success stories. And folks who are the most marginalized might need more help than they're willing to give. It thinks resources over relationships. So somebody could be handing out 300 backpacks in a community that might need support. They might not need backpacks. They'll just be real. But you you leave out with not one relationship.
Shilpi [00:10:50] It's very transactional.
David Heppard [00:10:52] It got exceptionally hot. And then and usually I love the sun. Right? For the most part. But because you talked about earlier about mental health, when we're not able to take care of, you know, basic needs and we don't have the ability to keep ourselves cool, it's just compounded on a list that's already long. That really adds to the stress and frustration of trying to navigate the society in a way with dignity.
Shilpi [00:11:24] This past July, Seattle set a new record for the longest heatwave in city history by logging six consecutive days with the temperature in the nineties. A couple of months ago, Prison published an article written by Ray about low income communities of color who bear the brunt of extreme heat while struggling with barriers to mental health care. You all had to get quick on your feet, like even meeting the community's immediate needs, like the root cause issues. That has to be addressed too. But getting fans out water like space to get out of the heat. Could you paint a little bit of a picture what it was like actually working on the ground? I mean, you were basically doing what it sounds like around the clock relief efforts.
David Heppard [00:12:14] So what it looks like is understanding the circumstances and being able to read into that and is hot and I can hear you struggling. What it looks like is you being able to connect with somebody and being able to see they need support and help. There's a reluctance to ask for it. And so it's just really showing up with care, showing up with some water and and maybe taking them to go get a fan or take them to a space that's cool. And to being able to unpack and let them know that they're cared for and their love.
Shilpi [00:12:49] What David is saying here is critical. Organizations like the Freedom Project were born within the community to serve their community. We see the opposite all the time, though, right? For NGOs with no real connection to the community, get funded to throw backpacks at a problem and check a box off their list.
David Heppard [00:13:08] We really believe in breaking bread and that has has a way of really keeping us connected and bonding. And I think that that's was a major problem of the nonprofit industrial complex. There's this expectation that folks ask for what they need and they don't understand that. When you talk about a community that's been historically impacted by systems, folks aren't as comfortable asking for supports, especially if you see your family have to sacrifice their dignity and integrity to to jump through these hoops to get this little resource that you're dangling in front of our community. And so that's why they have all these resources, but they don't reach the most marginalized because they don't have relationships in our community and there's no trust there.
Shilpi [00:13:54] So this is a good time to understand the impacts of redlining. Have a listen to Ray.
Ray [00:14:01] Neighborhoods are related to everything, literally everything. Back in the 1930s, the federal government established what was called the Homeowners Loan Corporation, also known as Hulk. And they basically allowed local banks and real estate organizations and agencies to create literal maps of neighborhoods. And then they took, you know, different colors like yellow, red, green, blue. And then they would color in, you know, red for like a good neighborhood, a declining neighborhood and a neighborhood that, you know, is just like not worth the time or effort to invest it in. That was red.
Shilpi [00:14:39] I wanted to talk about this concept of urban heat islands and in respect to some of the systems issues that you're talking about and redlining and that history and connection to your work, because we don't often see green spaces in lower income bipoc communities.
David Heppard [00:14:57] No, absolutely. It's complicated, too, right? Because historically through these urban areas have been predominately black and brown and redlining. And we talk about the history of it. And now, you know, we get introduced to the concept of gentrification, right, where they're pushing folks out of Seattle and pushing them further south.
CLIP [00:15:20] So we all know rent prices in Seattle are sky high. But did you know Seattle now has higher median rent prices and even cities like New York, Washington, D.C. and Boston, the only cities with rents higher than Seattle, are all in California.
David Heppard [00:15:35] And I think that's the problem with how this society was constructed with these systems, is all these problems are compounded. Nine times out of ten on the folks that were supporting would never name that as an issue, even though it's probably pretty profound, right? If they were able to really think about it, like how bad it really impacts our mental health and adds to how difficult our struggle is. There are some glaring things that we can name, but what about other things that we can't name? There's so much to dismantle, and that's why I take all of us in support of each other to be able to to work together and collaboratively to continue to educate each other and support each other and how we dismantle these oppressive systems.
Ray [00:16:23] Historically redlined neighborhoods are far more likely than neighborhoods that were colored green on those, you know, redlining maps to experience extreme heat. And, of course, you know, mental health care is just is is still really seen as sort of like a white eagle thing.
CLIP [00:16:43] As though it wasn't really you can't imagine. But for someone to come out and actually tell you that they can't sell to you. You know, I. I was really on it. Oh, man. Look at this house. Can you imagine having this? And then for them to tell me, because of the color of my skin, I can't be a part of it.
Shilpi [00:17:05] The redlining piece. When you talk about root causes, it's not like we can go back and disrupt how cities were set up. I understand that. But actually acknowledging the historical context of how these neighborhoods were even set up, I think it's important and worth the discussion. There is a lot of Seattle that is is really lush and has a lot of the green spaces. But the areas you're talking about, it's a lot of multi housing multifamily units that don't have the access to the green space that that Seattle is known for.
David Heppard [00:17:37] That's like with anything though, right, where they got the cameras, always beautiful and amazing. And then when you're you're in the community and the aspects of the community that are without resources, it always looks a lot, a lot different. But the reality is that our community doesn't have resources and all the solutions that come from systems. Folks come with so many strings that folks either don't plug in or it hurts so much to plug in as far as what you lose.
Shilpi [00:18:06] I think it's important, though, to recognize that not all of the conversations about climate system change are going to be relevant for those communities, like you said, because it is about resource needs and about these immediate needs.
David Heppard [00:18:20] Your attention goes to the fire that burns the hottest. Right. And you have all these issues that are happening that you're dealing with in your own survival, something that immediately doesn't put something that doesn't keep your power on or doesn't put food on your table. And so but this I just really want to just just emphasize that piece of how important it actually is for when we're talking about our mental health and our wellbeing overall.
Shilpi [00:18:49] There were a lot of headlines where the heat waves hit Seattle, which was good to see how people were were really paying attention to this. Has Heat now become a theme of concern for the authorities? Is it being discussed?
David Heppard [00:19:02] When we talk about problems being discussed, in my experience, there's two aspects to a problem. There's problems to folks who they believe are their constituents. And then there's the community we serve who are the most marginalized and are furthest from the resources and power.
Shilpi [00:19:22] So what are some solutions the Freedom Project is incorporating in your work when it comes to heat waves and kind of long term planning to make sure you're well resourced when this happens again, because we know it will.
David Heppard [00:19:36] I think we want to do support plans. And what a support plan is, is how do we get to a person? The nonprofit bus industrial complex was built around keeping our community at survival. It's about how do you get them from survive to thrive, right. And so our support plans are a lot a lot more in-depth in trying to get a person to a place where they're sustainable and they're living the life that they want to live and being able to get the support that they need so that they can heal and show up in their brilliance. There's a lot of jobs out here that are entry level jobs. You'll see some places, corporations, what they do is their entry level jobs. They don't do background checks. But if you want to get a raise to get management or something like that, they do do background checks. You see how the system is kind of constructed. The expectation is that you stay in entry level. That's why you could see somebody doing two or three jobs. Everybody who has that next position doesn't look like you. I understand how difficult it is to heal when you're worried about how are you going to keep your food on the table? And I know how difficult it is to heal when you don't have a safe place to lay your head at night. Right. So we have to do the big things, but we also have to do the other things as well as making sure that you feel cared for and loved and valued in our community so that you can continue to show up for yourself and for the community.
Shilpi [00:21:04] As Ray explains in their piece. Mental health is a field that discriminates. The same systems that prioritize individual health outcomes are the ones pushing whole communities to the margins.
David Heppard [00:21:16] I do believe that as far as it does discriminate, I mean, when you have resources, you can get all the support you be because those who need it most have the least resources.
Shilpi [00:21:30] In terms of mental health in this country. In a dream world, what would it look like for you in the future?
David Heppard [00:21:38] So I think it's two parts, and this is how we try to show up for the work at Freedom Project. There is the first responder. There is the trying to be able to give the support that folks need in real time. We try to be very intentional about trying to find black therapists or folks who've had the similar lived experiences to folks in our community. Because we understand, like just because the strategy might be good, who who is executing the strategy might not. The other part is the root cause piece of the work of dismantling these the systems that create the circumstance that makes this problem possible. Because any strategy we come up with that no matter how great, is only a strategy after the fact. Right. I think that we need more healers, more folks who have our lived experience being able to do that type of work to give us the support that we need. All these systems and systems and they're all the same, right? They got their DNA all over them. So you get the psychologist and you think about the way that they work and the biases and the way that they've been indoctrinated to do the work. And you wonder why it's so impactful to subject my community member to his supports. Right. But you know that we have healers in the community that are amazing and given empathy.
Shilpi [00:22:58] So as David explains, the full suite of issues when it comes to extreme heat is much more than climate change. It's a chronic disinvestment from redlining. It's a lack of access to good jobs and health care. And it's housing discrimination resulting in gentrification. And all of these racist practices intensify as climate burdens are. The most vulnerable communities. I want to know, what is your call to action? How do we get your message out?
David Heppard [00:23:26] My call to action is to center the voices of those who are closest to the problem. I remember I heard this thing right where it said that don't be a voice for the voiceless. Pass the mic. And so as a call to action, if we're not centering the voices of those who are closest to the problem, if we're not passing the mic, if we convince ourselves to think that we speak for for all these people, or that we have the solutions or strategies for all the rest, if that's the way that we're showing up the space, I think that we're we're going to be losing out on the collective wisdom and the brilliance that is in the communities that we aspire to serve. Could we look at ourselves and how we're showing up for the work? And are we passing that mic? And are we center in the voices of those who are closest to the problem that we're trying to solve?
Shilpi [00:24:24] People who are working in their communities, answering the first calls, showing up to provide immediate resources are the first responders to climate change. To learn more about David's work and how you can support the Freedom Project, check out our show. The first responder was produced by Dennis Maxwell. All right. Also, here's my ask for you. We're about to enter the season of family, of community and of giving. If there's one light bulb moment you can bring to the kitchen table, have an honest conversation about mental health, its connections to climate change, and the communities it impacts the hardest. Be safe out there and see you in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, don't forget to subscribe and follow us on Instagram and Twitter. We'll see you soon.