By the end of this century, at least 414 towns and cities across America will be partially underwater from sea-level rise and accelerating extreme storms—each with a unique local history and culturally important sites at risk of washing away. Leveraging heritage tools to serve social needs, Rising Tides will create a new online matchmaking platform that connects pro bono experts with climate-affected communities. Whether taking on archaeological work in Alaskan villages or oral histories in Mississippi’s historic black communities, the project seeks to safeguard heritage by connecting national expertise to some of the 13 million Americans who stand to be displaced due to rising waters in the coming years. Drawing on experience working with community champions from Alaska to American Samoa through America’s Eroding Edges, a partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Rising Tides will initially focus on bringing technical assistance directly to small and medium-sized towns that are geographically remote and socioeconomically vulnerable. By connecting communities with volunteer professionals looking to donate skills—from a 1-hour consultation to a fully fledged cultural resources management plan—the project seeks to build social cohesion, preserve historic sites, and empower local traditions to withstand climate threats.
As our world warms from a changing climate, America’s cultural heritage assets, which have defined people and place for centuries, are in danger. Cultural landscapes, ethnographic resources, archaeological sites, historic buildings, and traditions often cannot keep up with the accelerating change in the environment around them. 96 percent of Americans live in counties that have been hit by major weather disasters in the last five years, causing billions of dollars in damage and irreplaceable cultural loss. Importantly, low-income communities are most vulnerable to these disasters, because they often do not have resources to prepare for and recover from disastrous events.
I haven’t been inspired by a moment, but by people like Mayor Blanche Okboak-Garnie, a strong, resilient leader in Teller, Alaska. Like other Alaskan communities, Teller is attempting to protect against increasingly frequent flooding, and has been forced to relocate both its airport and landfill to escape intense erosion. Walking through Teller with Blanche, I saw clearly that without sufficient resources to implement new infrastructure projects, there is little to galvanize change. By starting Rising Tides, I hope to connect Teller and communities like it with pro bono help so they are not alone in facing climate adaptation challenges.
Climate impacts, community needs, and volunteerism are all dynamic fields. There is no “one-size fits all” approach to climate adaptation. Just as there is an extraordinary diversity of cultural tradition across America, so too is there a diversity in climate heritage solutions. Identifying shared needs through a collaborative information gathering process will help address this challenge. We will work to find common ground among community leaders and climate and preservation experts, who may not be used to speaking with non-professionals. It will be crucial that Rising Tides volunteers defer to the lived experience of communities in peril.
Hillary Clinton. When then-First Lady Clinton ran for the Senate in 1999, and Secretary Clinton ran for President in 2016, she began each campaign with a listening tour. Her commitment to listening—taking the time needed to learn what was on Americans' minds—made for better policymaking as New York’s Senator and America’s Secretary of State. Too often, we forget that good social innovation comes from conversations. Like Secretary Clinton’s listening tour, the most successful social innovations are rooted in listening, learning, and ultimately empowering.
I have been moved to action by hundreds of people I’ve met across America. Over the past year and a half, I’ve traveled our country as a National Geographic Explorer, conducting some 300 in-person interviews with local leaders to better understand how climate change is impacting them. Each one of those leaders, like Blanche in Teller, Alaska, shared a common need for resources, expertise, and guidance beyond what their small towns can offer. The idea for Rising Tides came directly from those interviews.
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