Kyle SullivanThis fall, the Center for Climate, Health and Equity is spotlighting the 10 health equity and climate justice champions it sponsored to attend APHA’s July 2019 #ClimateChangesHealth Speak for Health Advocacy Bootcamp in Washington, D.C. Today’s conversation is with Kyle P. Sullivan, a climate and health program and policy development professional, recent graduate and health equity advocate in the Great Lakes Region. 

Q: Why are you passionate about climate and health equity?

 I entered public health because I am moved by the potential of climate change to exacerbate health inequities. And I view climate adaptation movements as opportunities to support transformative change. 

I think of my home town in Northern Illinois, which had the resources to build a new stormwater management system in response to series of major flood events between 2008 and 2013. The floods most impacted low-elevation, low-income parts of town. I think of how long that response took. This year, the new system nearly exceeded its capacity after heavy rain in June. 

Systematic social, environmental and economic policies and practices have segregated communities of color and low-income communities into geographic areas of high exposure to environmental hazards, while also distancing these communities from centers of power. 

Climate change threatens to widen already extreme health disparities in the U.S. and across the globe by increasing population exposure to hazards, creating greater demand on public support systems. Unless public service systems pursue equity and factor disparities exacerbated by climate change into their work, disparities will widen. 

Given the means to pursue meaningful change, climate adaptation movements can present opportunities to build policies, practices and systems that are better equipped to deal with environmental change. And by centering health equity and justice, they can reduce health disparities. 

Q: What does advocating for climate and health equity mean to you?

A: Securing resources and achieving progress for climate change adaptation can be difficult work. Securing equity and justice in climate adaptation can be even harder. To me, advocating means: (1) building up the political and social will to keep health equity at the center of climate adaptation movements, (2) mainstreaming just transition in those movements and (3) coordinating movements across platforms at the international, national and local levels. 

Advocacy can build power by amplifying the voices of individuals, communities and experts. It can strategically organize and direct voices to support specific action and accountability. Advocates can enhance their influence by coordinating movements that build relationships with decisionmakers and other allies, develop resource networks, encourage collective action and maximally leverage strategic timing. 

Q: How has the Speak for Health Bootcamp experience helped you tell your climate change story?

I gained two powerful lessons in storytelling from the bootcamp: (1) I am capable of strategically leveraging social media to amplify and frame discussions on legislative policy and (2) there is inherent value in my personal story as a means of connecting with others. 

I was too self-conscious for Twitter, worried about exposing my personal and professional self to public scrutiny, about making mistakes on a highly public platform. I took the bootcamp’s social media training as an opportunity to challenge my preconceptions and renegotiate the boundaries that I’d used to protect myself. 

Though I am still not an active Twitter-er, the bootcamp helped me make an account. For me, that was a BIG deal. I am glad to have social media on my toolbelt. It's a unique networking tool to bridge ideas (e.g. #climate, #health, #equity), connect with peers and amplify what’s important to you (e.g. legislative accountability, data).

Going into the bootcamp, I wanted to learn how to better coordinate advocacy efforts at multiple levels of governance. I did not expect that storytelling would emerge as an important practice in that effort, but it did. Through storytelling, my Michigan bootcamp team found touchstones that helped us craft and communicate a shared vision to Congressional staffers.

That rendered our data more vivid and made our requests to support federal, state and local efforts more urgent. By practicing my story, I am certain that I will be better prepared to find, serve and build more impactful policy projects.

Learn more about how APHA is helping the next generation of public health professionals take action on climate change. And submit your application by Nov. 17 for the Center for Climate, Health and Equity’s new Student Champions for Climate Justice awards!