MariahThis 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 Mariah Norwood, an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. She works on eliminating health disparities as a research coordinator and electronic health record support specialist for the Lower Sioux Indian Community.<

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

A: In part, because of where I grew up. A wooden fence is all that separated our backyard from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Tar Creek Superfund site in northeastern Oklahoma. It’s been a site of concern for the EPA since 1979, and remedial actions are still taking place today.

As I grew up, I started to understand that water from the fountain shouldn’t taste weird the day after it rains; and while the chat mining piles that resemble mini-mountains might have been fun to sled down any time it snowed, those inviting mountains were filled with lead-contaminated dust.

We had to fight for decades to see any type of environmental justice. That made me keenly aware of the injustices and health disparities that my community and others’ like it face. Now, working with the Lower Sioux’s Climate Change and Food Sovereignty program has opened my eyes to the impacts climate change has already had on this region.

The effects of climate change are very real – from increased rates of vector-borne diseases, to the inability for wild rice to grow in lakes that have been fruitful producers, alongside countless other visible issues.

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

A: The negative health effects of climate injustices disproportionately affect tribal communities and communities of color. Historically, we have not been invited to decisionmaking tables. This is especially true on issues that directly impact our health and the health of the land whose space we inhabit.

As indigenous people, we are raised with the understanding that every decision we make, both individually and as a collective, must be based upon how it will affect our relatives for at least the next seven generations. I believe that decisions should not be made for us without us.

Some of the damages that we as human beings have done to Mother Earth are things we simply cannot choose to take back or undo. However, we can fight for policy changes that will deter our species from causing further extended damages.

Cherokee activist Wilma Mankiller once said, “I hope that when I leave, it will just be said: 'I did what I could'.” I, too, can only hope that, through advocacy and community, I will do everything in my power to work toward eliminating health disparities for indigenous peoples.

Q: What message and experience do you most value from the two-day Speak for Health Advocacy Bootcamp?

A: Speaker Jenn Gustetic from NASA said that we are faced with heavy problems, and we’re often not sure if what we’re doing is having an impact. But she reminded us that it’s "better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness." This has helped me realize that my voice matters. Our stories matter.

Frankly, the only way to create real change is when all of us – as a community – advocate together. One story may or may not make a difference, but if we all speak up, there will be too many voices to silence. As a native woman, I have witnessed firsthand the resiliency that exists within our communities and the powerful force that we can be for creating positive change when we speak against injustice.

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!