Karla Brollier grew up with ancestral stories about her indigenous Alaskan people and the land that sustained them. She remembers witnessing the annual migratory patterns of moose and caribou in the fall, and fishing in the summer. The stories passed down from generation to generation shared and instilled values of respect and reciprocity present in the interconnections between people and nature where her community thrived in for thousands of years.
Alaska, known for its glaciers and long, cold winters, is not immune to the world’s changing climate. It is the frontline for climate change and its effects are very apparent to those that rely on the consistent reciprocity for survival. “When you spend so much time in the environment, relying on the world and nature around you, you pick up on the most subtle of shifts,” she shared.
Native communities are perched at the forefront of climate affects. Indigenous communities are already experiencing how the changing climate can disrupt traditional ways of life that have been preserved for over thousands of years. For example, traditional permafrost ice cellars are thawing and filling with water as temperatures rise, leaving many without the ability to store whale meat—a mainstay of the coastal Alaskan community local diet—throughout the year.
As sea levels rise and food supplies are jeopardized, communities are also faced with the unique challenge of adapting to a rapidly changing environment while still operating from traditional values. Brollier wants to make sure her community and others like hers can write their own narrative to be empowered in the face of climate change. She also is dedicated to ensuring indigenous communities can lend their knowledge and voices to climate work on a larger scale.
This desire motivated Brollier and a team of other indigenous women to form the Climate Justice Initiative. The organization’s priority is to provide communities with the resources to lead with resilience and adapt to climate change while keeping their traditional values intact.
Brollier’s professional journey to this work was kickstarted by a job that exemplified how indigenous communities are unfairly affected by industrial pollution and environmental toxicity. After getting an MBA, Brollier was working as part of an arctic research team in the St. Lawrence Islands in the Bering Sea, testing various substances for chemical byproducts produced in other countries that are carried by wind and water currents and to the north and south poles. The communities entirely depend on a subsistence based lifestyle and the animals eaten by the local community contain alarmingly high levels of endocrine disrupting toxins.
When reflecting upon how challenging it was to share the results with community members, Brollier acknowledged, “it was just utterly heartbreaking for me to bring back these results and not be able to stop this from happening or help them in anyway beyond sharing data.” She didn’t want more people to just watch their loved ones health deteriorate from something so preventable, and so dedicated herself to catalyzing systemic change.
This charge took Brollier all the way to Washington D.C. where she was working on efforts to preserve the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from unnecessary oil extraction on protected lands, which would devastate the local caribou herd and thus the tribal communities that rely on that herd for their main subsistence. Soon after, she was the director for former vice president Al Gore’s climate change foundation and the World Economic Forum.
During her time at the nation’s capital, she noticed a mismatch between leaders, national NGO’s and policymakers’ approaches with the lived experiences of frontline communities. Policymakers and their networks were far removed from climate change effects; and at many times it was not common knowledge to them that communities of color were dealing with severe and adverse impacts, let alone taking steps to addressing it.
During her time in D.C., Brollier was also at the table for many of the climate change conversations happening at the United Nations on how to address various issues within communities and how climate affects the lives of frontline communities. From hearing these stories from around the globe she started to recognize common themes among that many indigenous communities at the front lines of climate change experienced, which were similar to the arctic communities she represented through her work. She realized that because much of the global focus has been on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, developing new technologies, and creating policies. And, in the process, certain aspects of preserving cultural heritage has been found to be less urgent and the results being that cultural dynamics hardly figured in the ongoing climate change movement.
In trying to find more meaningful and systemic ways to address the lack of awareness, Brollier decided she was no longer going to wait or even ask for permission to start creating systems that she knew had to be in place in order to empower communities facing climate change. She took it into her own hands via the Climate Justice Initiative to find ways to make frontline communities visible and heard within the mainstream climate change movement and to ensure that they have a seat at the table for addressing these challenges. While she acknowledges that her organization can’t solve all of the climate related issues it will be the first of its kind in a time and place where it is very needed.
To achieve this vision, the Climate Justice Initiative centers a community-led model to highlight underrepresented voices that can help spread public discussion about equality, justice, and tackling our looming climate crisis. The Climate Justice Initiative is based on the idea of women, POC, and marginalized communities becoming more empowered and deciding their own strategies for addressing climate change within their communities and culture together. For arctic communities and those like it, the environmental changes that are happening are inevitable, the organization is designed to help those affected by these changes control how they respond to them from this point forward.
“While facing something as complex and daunting as climate change, you’re going to continuously push yourself close to your personal breaking point so you have to have those brave places to just be able to process emotions, find balance and maintain hope through some of the harder parts of it,” she said.
Ultimately, she wants the narrative around climate change to shift towards hope and away from fear and to rewrite the script to focus on protecting the most vulnerable in our communities. She notes that there are many ways to make change, and this is just one way to do so. In her example after she created this organization to empower the disenfranchised, she wants to address inequality through a gender and climate finance system which would help to even further empower POC and women led initiatives to address this immediate need and create more funding and resources in the climate change space.
Brollier says she is often asked how to get involved in climate work when it all seems too big to tackle, especially when media perpetuates an urgent narrative of a doomed future. She is also asked how to get involved and make change while maintaining one’s own health and well-being. Her answer is to start getting involved anywhere and however you can, to learn about the actual impacts of climate change, and examine your own life and identify changes within the realm of your control. Just starting somewhere small is better than doing nothing.
This story is part of a new series on Pathways to Green Jobs by Resource Media to showcase pathways to green jobs for people of color. Last year, Resource Media, Russell Family Foundation, and The Seattle Globalist partnered on “Puget Sound Future-Makers,” a series of stories that recognized the work of diverse leaders in the Puget Sound region in shaping the strength and resilience of our future environment and communities.