Q&A with Dr. Jennie Stephens: Sustainable Resilience Through Feminist and Antiracist Leadership
by Daniela Rincón Reyes, Global Resilience Institute
The Global Resilience Institute team is comprised of exceptional individuals with decades of resilience-oriented expertise and a common goal to advance societal resilience – in this expert content series, we will showcase the work of our in-house resilience experts and distinguished fellows, and their commitment to our mission both through their careers and work with GRI.
Our first resilience expert is GRI Director for Strategic Relationships, Director of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs (SPPUA), Dean’s Professor of Sustainability Science & Policy, and recent book author, Dr. Jennie Stephens. In this Q&A, Dr. Stephens speaks about intersectional resilience and the need for feminist and anti-racist leadership in resilience efforts.
Her research, teaching, and community engagement focus on social and political aspects of the renewable energy transition, reducing fossil fuel reliance and strengthening societal resilience by integrating social justice with climate and energy policy. Her work explores institutional and cultural innovation in energy, including gender diversity and energy democracy, technological optimism, and enhancing the usability of climate science in strengthening climate resilience.
In her new book, Diversifying Power: Why We Need Antiracist, Feminist Leadership on Climate and Energy, Dr. Stephens argues that transformation to a just, sustainable renewable-based society requires leaders who connect social justice to climate and energy. As a woman in a male-dominated technical field, Dr. Stephens argues that the inadequacy of our efforts to respond to the climate crisis—our inability to end fossil fuel reliance and transition to a renewable-based society—is not due to a lack of technological innovation or scientific expertise but our lack of investment in social innovation and social justice. In the context of resilience, governments not only need to plan ahead and put in place proactive measures that reduce risk to disasters and crises but also accelerate development and invest in people and communities to cut poverty to guarantee vulnerable communities have the resources they need to adapt.
How are mainstream resilience and social development strategies enhancing the unjust status quo, as opposed to promoting long-term social improvement?
Many resilience strategies continue to concentrate wealth and power – perpetuating systems of exploitation and marginalization while large global corporations profit from disasters. In my book, I explain the concept of the “polluter elite”: a group of extremely wealthy shareholders, high-net-worth individuals, and executives at large multinational oil, gas, and coal companies who profit from continued fossil fuel reliance (pg. 23). These individuals depend on patriarchal and racist policies that dismiss the risks associated with growing inequity and climate disruptions to maintain their power and political influence. When a disaster occurs –wars, natural or economic crises, the polluter elite is likely to push for “disaster capitalism” and mainstream strategies characterized by free-market, pro-corporate “solutions” that exacerbate existing inequalities by enriching elites and undercutting everyone else. Libertarian individualistic ideals strategically weaken workers’ rights, eliminate public benefits, and dismantle public health protections (pg.26). These policies effectively resist transformative changes as they continue to concentrate wealth and power preventing long-term social improvement. We need leaders who are committed to prioritizing the needs of disadvantaged and frontline communities. If we do not have more inclusive and representative leadership, we will not be able to make the changes that are needed.
Can resilience efforts be leveraged for social transformation? How can issues of equity and social justice be incorporated into resilience planning?
Resilience efforts can be leveraged for social transformation by prioritizing major investments in the most vulnerable communities and commitment to broad structural changes. We need to recognize how the legacy of discriminatory policies in housing, water, healthcare, transportation, energy, education, and public safety continue to privilege some and disadvantage others. To compensate for this, we need to invest urgently and heavily in those communities that have been under-invested in for too long. This type of investment strengthens resilience by reducing vulnerabilities in the face of growing climate and energy instability. In order to create better resilience frameworks and strengthen the social capital of vulnerable communities in the process, I think we need a political and leadership alternative that gets at the root causes behind communities’ vulnerability and proposes a different kind of disaster risk management. In my book I explain that today, diverse leaders at multiple levels—local to national—are calling out the policies that allow corporate giants to maximize profits for themselves (pg. 28). As this new kind of leadership emerges, “new coalitions of leaders are calling for public investment in collective, collaborative action that harnesses human potential, nurtures people and builds strong communities” (pg. 12).
How can the underlying systems that produce repeated crises adopt an intersectional resilience strategy for disaster response and what is their role in transforming mainstream strategies (i.e. more feminist and anti-racist leadership)?
All resilience efforts need to acknowledge and resist the problematic power dynamics that continue to privilege some while disadvantaging others. While some of us experience racial and gender oppression, economic and environmental injustices, others do not; and more often than not, those in positions of power are among the most privileged in society who have less direct experience with the negative effects of oppression and injustices (pg. 12). I think diversifying leadership in resilience efforts is therefore critical to transforming mainstream solutions strategies because with multiracial, gender-balanced leadership also comes a shift in priorities. Feminist, antiracist leadership just means leadership that acknowledges these problematic power dynamics and prioritizes ways to resist perpetuating this at every level and every interaction.
Why is it important to incorporate community assessment in resilience efforts? What happens when communities are underinvested in resilience efforts and disaster response strategies? Can you provide an example of resilience efforts that have actually worsened disaster situations when communities are not prioritized?
Community assessment in resilience efforts is critical as every place is different and nuanced. Climate change and sea-level rise are driving up the risk of flooding and other climate disasters – and flood insurance is an example of a resilience effort that could worsen inequities and vulnerabilities. Due to increasingly expensive weather disasters, flood insurance, often administered through the federal government, is also getting more expensive. Reduced affordability affects lower-income households disproportionally. If there is a disaster, the wealthy household can build back an even better home with the insurance money while the lower-income households with no insurance are left without resources. While insurance affordability is part of the issue, mitigation activities that reduce climate risk are essential, too. By incorporating community assessment, resilience initiatives could better tie mitigation activities to efforts that expand insurance affordability. Comprehensive, community-based resilience planning thus helps create efficient and intersectional strategies that address multiple impacts and proactively reduces risk.
Lastly, what do you believe the role of institutions of higher education and philanthropic organizations should be in enhancing community resilience in host communities they reside in?
If universities partner, collaborate, and co-develop resilience plans with local communities, they could contribute in meaningful ways. While there is an enormous potential for these institutions to highly impact the communities they serve, I also explain in my book that educational institutions need to be careful with their relationships with wealthy donors and corporations as strategic investments could end up promoting private interest over common good (pg. 39). As anchor institutions, they have a responsibility to the local community. GRI is uniquely innovative by engaging in the way that we are and collaboratively working across sectors to expand research-driven efforts that build resilience in communities and organizations around the globe. I have also been involved in the Green Ribbon Commission and the City of Boston’s climate justice action planning and climate resilience planning – programs that allow for greater opportunities to get more involved with Boston communities. GRI, as well as Northeastern, could get more involved in Boston and could do more with Boston communities.