“It is a mighty heritage…and it is all there is to trust. And I learned this through descending, as it were, into the eyes of my father and my mother. I wondered, when I was little, how they bore it—for I knew that they had much to bear. It had not yet occurred to me that I also would have much to bear; but they knew it, and the unimaginable rigors of their journey helped them to prepare me for mine. This is why one must say Yes to life and embrace it wherever it is found—and it is found in terrible places…For nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have.

The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.”

–James Baldwin, Nothing Personal,”p. 60 


One of the most difficult things for humans to confront when thinking about environmental change is the discontinuity of it all. How can we prepare for something that represents a break from everything that we have known before? It is in this regard that climate change is now being described as a potential cultural trauma, “a social process that involves the systematic disruption of the cultural basis of a social order.” However, for many peoples, cultural trauma is not new, and settler colonialism and enslavement long ago created the dystopia that Indigenous and African American people in the US are still working to recover from. Nonetheless, the cultural traditions that survived these ongoing traumas and enabled collective survival offer instruction specifically for those communities in how to collectively survive environmental change.

In my work, I focus on what I call collective survival strategies—ways that marginalized communities have always taken care of one another—and how these strategies can help those same communities to build resilience to environmental change. In my current project, I focus on how Black agrarian traditions can help African American communities in collectively surviving environmental change, focusing in particular on how African Americans have resisted cultural imperialism and dispossession by White people in building Black self-reliance through agriculture.

By focusing on the Great Lakes region, which faces fewer direct threats from environmental change than other regions, I zero in on the social, political, and economic factors tied to environmental change that imperil communities of color. Increasing gentrification, a practice of cultural imperialism and dispossession, disrupts urban African American communities’ ability to practice agrarian traditions at the exact moment that growing food on a smaller scale is recognized as increasingly important. However, in recognizing enduring agricultural traditions and the oppression under which they were formed, we can see both the root causes that must be addressed to equitably adapt to climate change—colonialism, capitalism, and white supremacy—and the historical strengths that people who have survived enslavement and a brutally racist society bring to those efforts.

As a White settler social work researcher with a commitment to climate justice, I understand where “my people” are located in these root causes and the ways we have and continue to materially benefit from them. Further, in acknowledging the historical strengths that marginalized communities bring to climate adaptation through collective survival strategies, we also must acknowledge the ways that capitalist white supremacy has systematically targeted collective self-reliance amongst communities of color. With African Americans, this is clearly apparent in the massive land dispossession of Black farmers in the 20th century, facilitated by the US Department of Agriculture and for the benefit of White farmers and agribusinesses. For social workers to effectively support climate adaptation amongst marginalized communities in the US, we need to address these historical and ongoing injustices and support collective self-determination.

Farmer Melvin Parson at We the People Growers Association in Ypsilanti Township, Michigan. Photo by Doug Coombe (used with permission of Melvin Parson, http://www.secondwavemedia.com/concentrate/features/wtpga0420.aspx)


Finn McLafferty Bell, MSW, is a PhD candidate in social work and sociology at the University of Michigan. Finn is originally from St. Louis, MO, and he previously worked as a homeless outreach worker and community organizer.

Categories: Collective Action