Boca Raton UUs partner with vulnerable communities on responses to climate change

Boca Raton UUs partner with vulnerable communities on responses to climate change

Eight more Florida congregations will follow model, use toolkit.

three women in green Rising Together tee shirts holding an outreach sheet

(L-R): LeJeune Goddard (outreach leader in Pearl City), Marjorie O'Sullivan (community partner liaison from Developing Interracial Social Change), and Debra Weiss-Randall, project manager. (courtesy Debra Weiss-Randall)

Debra Weiss-Randall


Mold. Street flooding. Algae blooms. Increased incidence of asthma. Vector-borne illnesses.

Coastal communities in Florida can expect all of this and more due to climate change, according to a new project launched by the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Boca Raton, Florida (UUFBR), which is partnering with marginalized communities to make sure that their voices are not ignored on this critical issue.

Over the past ten months, through its Green Sanctuary program, the UUFBR has partnered with two local communities to help residents recognize the effects of climate change on their health. The goal is to ensure that vulnerable people, including those from low-income groups, are not overlooked as government resources are allocated and decisions are made on how to respond to the growing problem of climate change, said Jan Booher, a member of the UUFBR who has been instrumental in creating and developing the project.

Last year, after receiving a $30,000 grant from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, Booher and others at the UUFBR worked to create the Resilience Adaptation Community (ReACT) Tool Kit to help people in coastal communities understand health issues that are caused or worsened by climate change. The funds were used to hire a project manager, design a website, hire academics and others to design the toolkit and training programs, create printed educational materials on a variety of health issues such as best methods for cleaning up mold, and to train people to do outreach in their own communities.

The project was piloted in two coastal communities. In the historic Pearl City neighborhood in Boca Raton, which is predominantly African-American, the UUFBR partnered with Developing Interracial Social Change (DISC) and Habitat for Humanity. In South Delray Beach, which has a large Haitian community, it partnered with high school students and teachers at Toussaint L’Ouverture High School for Arts & Social Justice. The partners helped refine the toolkit to make it more effective at reaching its audiences—it is available in English, Spanish, and Creole—and community members underwent training on educating their neighbors about the health effects of climate change. Before the program, many people were unaware that health problems they were experiencing are most likely related to climate change, said Booher, a director of the UU Justice Florida state action network.

More than 200 people from the two communities participated in a survey this summer on how climate change is affecting them. “We learned the parking lot in public housing floods routinely, and people have to replace their cars and repair them, which is expensive,” Booher said. “Debris blocks drains, which is routinely causing flooding in homes. People who live on cul-de-sacs in Delray say it’s like a swimming pool when it rains.” The survey results are being aggregated and will be presented to local politicians and policymakers at public meetings in September that the fellowship is organizing, she said.

Following the UUFBR model, and relying on the toolkit, eight more congregations in Florida soon will begin partnering with vulnerable communities in their areas to educate people about climate change-related health issues. Expansion of the project to these congregations is being funded through the Fund for UU Social Responsibility, which gave a $7,500 grant that has been matched by fundraising through Faithify. The Faithify project, “Rising Together: Temperature, Water, Health and Strength,” has already exceeded that goal—it has raised nearly $9,000—with UUs from all over the country contributing, said Booher.

“The grant Jan has put together shows an effort to do leadership training within a congregation, movement building by partnering with impacted communities, and, where needed, leadership training within impacted communities so they can be self-determining,” said Irene Keim, chair of UU Ministry for Earth, which formally supported the UUFBR in its application for the UU Fund grant. She said the opportunity to expand the program throughout Florida is exciting, and she credited Booher for spearheading a very successful program in a short period.

“Jan’s growth in this area has been so rapid you’d think she was related to kudzu,” Keim said.