The one-two punch of Superstorm Sandy and a rush of high-end commercialization and potential re-zonings underscored the dual environmental and economic crises facing the waterfront community of Sunset Park, Brooklyn, in 2012. City planner Ryan Chavez witnessed the impact and implications of both that year as the newest member of UPROSE, the borough's oldest Latino community-based organization.

Five years later, UPROSE is leading efforts to facilitate a just transition of the neighborhood into a manufacturing and supply hub for the region’s growing climate and economic resiliency needs. Groundswell is partnering with the organization to develop community solar projects that will reduce energy bills and help establish a local clean energy economy in the community predominantly made up of working people of color.

Groundswell caught up with Chavez to discuss the initiative and why he thinks it could provide a blueprint for other communities:

On what drew him to climate justice.

I believe that we are living through critical times right now and facing what appears to be a multitude of crises. When it comes down to it, a lot of these crises, whether they are environmental or economic, racial or social, intersect in important ways. The climate justice movement is adept at identifying the nexus of these different issues that we’re facing, not only as communities, but nationally and globally as well, and coming up with campaigns, initiatives and frameworks that account for a very complex landscape.

Personally, I went into city planning in part for that very reason. In some ways, it’s a field that by definition forces you to examine and address highly complex social and urban systems. Throughout my time in planning school, UPROSE was constantly held up as a model of an organization that did really deep grassroots community-based planning and approached a lot of the issues we were learning about in sophisticated ways. I was fortunate enough to have an opportunity to come here straight out of planning school.

On Superstorm Sandy and the evolution of UPROSE

The last five years have been formative in a lot of ways to the work that UPROSE has been doing for decades. I came into the organization in the immediate aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. This was right about the same time that a number of really dramatic development proposals were dropped in the Sunset Park community.

While UPROSE played a leadership role in climate justice issues for a long time before Sandy, the storm was still a powerful reminder of both the very threats that climate change poses and the disparate impact that it has on low-income, working-class communities and communities of color like Sunset Park.

On the parallel track, around that same time, Sunset Park became a major target of some very troubling real estate proposals and developments. All of this happened more or less simultaneously, and it really underscored the twin crises that many communities like Sunset Park face -- climate and economic.

The way we’ve responded to these overlapping issues has only strengthened the climate justice framework, which recognizes the intersection between the climate crisis and economic crisis and attempts to advance community-based solutions.

On addressing dual climate and economic threats

Community solar is an example of how you can address both the climate crisis and the economic crisis at once. This is a community that shoulders a disproportionate burden of the city’s energy generation. Sunset Park has three fossil fuel plants within a 10-15 block radius, and it is a working-class community of color that has gone through a period of disinvestment and is increasingly seeing a form of extractive investment and development.

When we envision the future of energy development, it’s our contention that on one hand renewable energy needs to be prioritized in the communities that have historically been targeted for fossil fuel development. That’s on one hand. But on the other hand, we also need to be exploring financial and economic models that address a legacy of disinvestment or development that really brings very little actual value to the community.