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In Conversation: Community Values Must Inform Post-COVID Rebuilding, Yano Says

Sherry Yano

Sherry Yano is Manager of Community Renewable Energy at the David Suzuki Foundation. She talks about the fault lines in society revealed by the COVID crisis and the values that lead to action on environment and social justice.

The Energy Mix: How is the pandemic shaping and reshaping your work?

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Yano:  The shared experience of the COVID crisis really helps crystalize what’s important to us, and it’s mostly about people. We want people to be safe, make sure they can pay the rent, get food, stay healthy. We want to make sure basic supports are in place and no one falls through the cracks.

It’s inspiring to see people coming out at night and making noise together for health care and front-line workers who are taking greater risks to keep us all safe. It feels like we’re more connected, even in a time of social distancing. As we move from conversations about emergency relief to talking about rebuilding and recovery, we can consider what’s important to us, what this time has taught us, what values we want to inform the recovery.

Sometimes I worry that we are so caught up in the rush to win our campaigns that we’re willing to replicate the existing hierarchy and power structures that enabled these crises in the first place. These power imbalances have enabled the few to benefit at the expense of the many, and at the expense of the planet. If we really want to support greater resilience and democracy, we have the opportunity now to reflect on all our campaigns and policies and look at how they can contribute to rebalancing power, and to building a more equitable, caring, and sustainable world.

If you help reinforce values like belonging, caring, equity, and decolonization, that actually enables people to take more environmental and social justice actions. So it’s self-serving for the climate community, and it’s world-serving. Why wouldn’t we take this opportunity?

One of the beautiful questions I recently heard on a webinar was: How are we going to use our privilege at this moment? Who do we show up for, and how? These questions need to guide our work.

The Mix: What remains the same?

Yano: The COVID crisis highlights the fault lines in our societies. Just like climate change, it’s a threat multiplier. If you have respiratory problems and you’ve lived in a highly polluted neighbourhood, you are at greater risk of getting more severely ill. 

COVID and climate change both have a disproportionate impact on people who are more vulnerable. So we see African Americans dying in higher proportions in the United States, and migrant workers in Canada who have real challenges sheltering in place and don’t have access to the same health benefits. We see how this is affecting people who are homeless, and people in more precarious work situations in the gig economy. In the climate community, we talk about the power imbalance between a high-emitting polluter and the communities that face flooding, more frequent and severe wildfires, and heat emergencies. Those vulnerabilities are exacerbated and made visible in this moment, and it’s important to recognize those fault lines and work with our communities to enhance public participation and reduce the imbalances.

The climate movement is a learning social experiment, and it’s really motivating to see so many people coming together to hash things through to promote policies, investment, and actions that could make life better. There are a lot of really innovative ideas at the intersection between climate and social justice about rebalancing power and creating more just, equitable, healthy, resilient, low-carbon communities. It’s really important for us to try things, even though we’re uncertain, to be willing to iterate and learn and improve and share what we learn with others. That remains the same. I hope we maintain the habit of being more integrated and collaborative across issues and sectors.

There’s no silver lining in a pandemic that causes so much suffering, but it does afford us time to reflect and pivot together to rebuild a more equitable and sustainable future.

The Mix: How are you connecting with wider community concerns in this time and drawing the links between the two crises?

Yano: We try to lift up the communities and voices who speak about the power of collective action, and reinforce the value of listening to the science. But it’s more important for our movement and our organizations to listen than to speak right now. COVID and climate change are both threat multipliers, but I heard a communications thought leader recently, Jessie Sitnick [2], wisely caution against drawing too many links. With COVID, people are longing to get back to normal. For climate, business as usual is not an option—we’re looking for #BetterThanNormal. So now, we have a window of opportunity to listen to our communities and our allies and reflect on what this experience has made clear about our values and priorities. That leads to a conversation about rebuilding in ways that make us less vulnerable to risks, healthier, more resilient, and more just.

We also have to realize that this window is fleeting. It’s not going to last forever. Businesses will be deeply attuned to the recent shifts in values, and they’ll use them to bolster consumerism and a return to “normal”. There will be more media conflict stories, more partisan politicking—all of that will return, and this window will close to some extent. An increasingly diverse and inclusive climate movement has a unique role to play by having different conversations in this unique moment than might have been possible before or after this time.

The Mix: How does the response to the pandemic connect with the issues you’ll be working on after the immediate crisis has passed?

Yano: At any given moment, the David Suzuki Foundation has around 50,000 active volunteers across the country, and our organizers and volunteers are always telling us to listen to people and meet them where they’re at. We need to continue to earn the right to work with people, whether they’re youth and young adults, parents, grandparents, racialized and Indigenous communities, labour, academics, experts, business and industry, all levels of government.

With governments, we’re all about recovery investments and policy change. But if we want them to take bold action on climate change or COVID, they need the support of the people, not just social licence, but vocal civic participation and interaction. Bringing people together creates more community resilience and agency, and it helps us all take bolder action together. That’s the work we have to undertake right now. It’s mutual. It’s reciprocal. And it cannot be solely about our agenda.

The Mix: Is there anything you’d like to add?

Yano: Years ago, I took a workshop from a woman named Chené Swart [3]. And I still remember it. Her central message was that in order to let go of old stories, the business as usual stories, the mainstream stories, we have to co-create new stories. That means we have to listen and hear and see those new stories and opportunities and join together to tell them. To thicken and strengthen those stories so much that we can let go of the old ones. She said that’s the only way transformational change ever happens. It’s the work we’re all doing together. We do it as conveners, as purveyors of news, and we all get to do this work together.

Follow up @SherryYano, @DavidSuzukiFDN