Rhiana Gunn-Wright kickstarted the Andover Presidential Election Speaker Series via Zoom on Friday, October 9. Gunn-Wright worked with U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York’s 14th congressional district to draft the Green New Deal, a legislative package aiming to address climate change. In her talk, Gunn-Wright, who is currently the Climate Policy Director at the Roosevelt Institute, discussed issues related to the pandemic and racism, as well as the importance of the Green New Deal.
Gunn-Wright explained how public policy issues, whether the climate or the economy, are inseparable despite a common assumption that they exist on their own.
“Often when we talk about public policy, it’s like climate policy is over here, economic policy here, health policy is over here, and when you look at it from the outside, it looks as though all of those things are separate, that we experience them discreetly, but we know that’s not true,” said Gunn-Wright.
According to Michael Barker, Director of Academy Research, Information, and Library Services, the event was a joint effort between the PA Sustainability Coalition (PASC), the Department of History and Social Sciences, and the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library (OWHL). Hijoo Son, Instructor in History and Social Science, and Derek Curtis, Programming and Digital Content Producer for the OWHL, were co-organizers of the event.
“Civic engagement is and should always be a critical aspect to student intellectual life. We hope the series will inspire students to not only engage in the upcoming election, but also to develop into active participants in the democratic process throughout their lives. Voting is activism, and I am inspired by a world where the young people today get to exercise that right. It ought never to be taken for granted,” wrote Barker in an email to The Phillipian.
Gunn-Wright discussed the importance of the Green New Deal and how it addresses not only climate policy but also the intersections of climate change, racial discrimination, and fossil fuels.
“The Green New Deal tries to actually address the problems as they exist, which is together, and to really try to understand how we rebuild the system, because we’re going to have to transform our economy away from fossil fuels,” said Gunn-Wright.
She continued, “Fossil fuels are our energy, energy is like the food that we eat, so if society is a body, fossil fuels are our food. So imagine if all of a sudden to all the people in the world you were like, ‘Actually you can’t eat food. You eat red algae now. That’s the only thing that’s for you.’ Our whole world would change.”
Linking environmental and racial justice, Gunn-Wright shared that Black people are 75 percent more likely to live near industrial facilities, rendering them more likely to have pre-existing conditions due to air pollution and thus more susceptible to respiratory diseases like Covid-19.
“Why are [Black people] more likely to live near industrial facilities? It’s because oil and gas companies, and to some extent petrochemical companies, have systematically and purposefully put these facilities in low-income Black and Brown communities because they lack the political and economic to fight it back, [have a] history [of] red lining, and a history of segregation [that] made it so that the areas where these people live were essentially cheaper to develop,” said Gunn-Wright.
Extending her discussion to the Indigenous community, Gunn-Wright spoke to how decades of underfunding of Indigenous health services have
inflamed the Covid-19 pandemic in these communities.
“Tribes have different health services than we do, whereas you or I, if we were to go to publicly funded medicine, we might be on Medicaid. We might go to a local clinic that’s funded by Medicaid. Tribes have the Indian Health Service. It’s a totally different relationship and a totally different stream of funding, and [the] Indian Health Service has been underfunded for years, and when Covid-19 came, it became very clear what the price of that was… It’s a different pot of money, because federally recognized tribes have a different relationship to the government, they are treated as sovereign entities,” said Gunn-Wright.
Sonia Marnoto ’22, a PASC member who works with Curtis to plan Climate Cafés, considers herself a passionate environmentalist. According to Marnoto, she read about the Green New Deal this past summer and discussed it with as many people as possible.
“I thought the way [Gunn-Wright] structured [the talk] was really easy for people to understand, especially if they may not have a huge background knowledge of the Green New Deal and environmental injustice in general. One of the things I took away was when she talked about Indigenous people and [how] Covid-19 and environmental racism tied into the disproportionate effects of the pandemic on Indigenous people,” said Marnoto.