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How Flooded Basements and Pandemic Times Opened My Eyes to the Climate Justice Movement

Nine years ago, when moving into our current home, the neighbors warned us: “This street gets water. But don’t worry, it only floods during the ‘100-year rainfalls!’” Looking back, it appears “100-year” is an understatement, given the three flooded basements we’ve navigated in under a decade! Thankfully, our basement stays dry since we have replaced multiple sump pumps and added a generator. But, what if we couldn’t afford to spend thousands on this?

I was forever awakened to the impact of climate change on lives and homes. 

When COVID-19 arrived, parallels between this new health crisis and the climate crisis emerged, inequity being the gravest. In April, 2020 the planned destruction of a smokestack in the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago released a cloud of toxic dust in the middle of a respiratory pandemic. This particular zip code also happened to have more confirmed COVID-19 cases than any other in Illinois. The pandemic had further exposed what the climate movement already knew. Some populations in our society carried a disproportionate burden, allowing others to exist relatively unscathed. 

Another inequity became glaringly apparent during early lockdown days: most suburbanites, myself included, could look outside and see trees. We could easily access forest preserves when we needed fresh air and green space to provide solace from the uncertainty of pandemic life. On the other hand, as shutdowns led to closures of parks and paths downtown, many of my urban neighbors couldn’t say the same. Tree canopy was clearly a privilege. As I read study after study on trees’ ability to clean air, enhance learning, reduce violence and improve mental health (to name a few), it became increasingly clear that tree canopy translated to health equity. 

 A few months later, some friends and I created a nonprofit organization with the mission to improve tree equity in marginalized Chicago communities, many of which had already been scarred by COVID-19, violence, poverty and racism, in addition to climate injustice. Nordson Green Earth Foundation establishes tiny forests in communities that have been deprived of natural tree canopies.

Nearly a decade had passed since climate change showed up on my doorstep. In reality, it has been affecting countless lives every day, some much more than others. Though the climate crisis can feel daunting and demoralizing, my hope is that small and large efforts like our own can affect change in an equitable manner and be enjoyed for generations to come.

Sheetal Khedkar Rao
Clarendon Hills, Illinois

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