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Ocean Currents

Reflections on Capitol Hill Ocean Week 2022

Panel shared community-centered and locally led solutions to improve coastal community resilience

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©  Thomas Horig / Ocean Image Bank

I had the pleasure of moderating a panel on ocean justice at Capitol Hill Ocean Week (CHOW). This year’s CHOW convening was especially important as we celebrated the 50th anniversary of a powerful package of legislative changes that improved how we protect our ocean, coasts and lakes. CHOW presented an opportunity to reflect on five decades of progress on conservation. The week also gave us time to look forward as we wrestle with how to address climate change and other major issues threatening our ocean and all the communities that depend on it.

The panel was entitled Centering Community and Locally led Solutions. My colleagues from the Ocean Justice Advocacy Group (OJAG) continued this pathfinding work, highlighted by our virtual session on day one of CHOW 2022. Ocean Conservancy considers ocean justice the fair and equitable distribution of both the benefits of the ocean bounty and the burden of its complex care. Together, the panel shared community-centered and locally led solutions to improve coastal community resilience.

Our panelists provided insights on ways to move historically white-led environmental organizations away from transactional relationships and instead towards transformational exchanges. Conservacion ConCienca founder Raimundo Espinoza explained that meaningful change requires respect and understanding. Espinoza works alongside community members on environmental research and conservation that promotes sustainable development in Puerto Rico. For him, these genuine relationships take time. Mariana del Valle Prieto Cervantes echoed Espinoza’s feelings. Her work as Director of Strategic Initiatives at Green Latinos has shown her that multiyear grants that aren’t tied to many deliverables help relieve pressure on community organizations.

What do the decision-making rooms in our organizations look like and how do they function?

It’s a question that I asked myself after hearing from Florida International University doctoral fellow David Riera. Riera explained how important it is to build a “culture of belonging” instead of tokenism where leaders of color are simply exploited. For Riera, belonging means valuing leaders of color with relationships that are deep. Fostering a welcoming environment that centers on equity provides space for all leaders. This approach helped Brown Girl Surf Executive Director Adriana Guerrero advance change through proximate leadership. I was impressed by Guerrero, questioning her title during our session and suggesting Executive Advocate instead. Guerrero shared how she elevates community members and staff in her work to expand coastal access. This also includes valuing solutions borne of Indigenous and local knowledge.

My OJAG colleagues also considered what crucial pieces are missing from our conversations about ocean justice as we all move forward. Gullah/Geechee Nation Chieftess Queen Quet shared a powerful analogy about strong, resilient homes and root systems of trees. “People that are good engineers dig down first,” she explained. We can’t advance transformational change without first acknowledging past injustices and supporting capacity building on the ground level. Honua Consulting’s Trisha Kehaulani pointed to foundational work that “weathers storms” and is rooted in love. I also learned from her how well-intentioned ocean regulation can harm Indigenous communities. Kehaulani urged us to ensure adequate representation at policy-making opportunities.

CHOW 2022 was an opportunity to highlight some of the work of the passionate ocean justice advocates taking place from coast to coast. Moving forward, we must consider that our missions should be grounded in genuine relationships, leadership needs to be shared and traditional knowledge must be valued. Our colleague Claudia Pineda Tibbs of the Monterey Bay Aquarium reminded us before closing that we all share bonds with the ocean and each other.  Reflecting their words and those of others, CHOW encouraged us all to take collaborative, well-informed action that reflects that reality.

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