Climate Hero Sharon Hanshaw

Left homeless after Hurricane Katrina, she fights for communities that will suffer most from climate impacts.
Sharon Hanshaw of Coastal Women for Change

Photo by Liliana Rodriguez / Oxfam America.

Sharon Hanshaw never imagined she would become an outspoken leader on climate change, until Hurricane Katrina destroyed her house in East Biloxi, Mississippi, the beauty parlor she owned and ran, and the homes and livelihoods of her neighbors. Hanshaw stepped forward to help her community recover, and realized she was living on the frontlines of climate-change-impacts—with more intense hurricanes and sea level rise predicted for the future.

In the months after the storm, Hanshaw joined several dozen women meeting regularly in a local funeral home to brainstorm how to meet the community's needs. In May 2006, they secured $30,000 in seed money to organize a nonprofit, Coastal Women for Change, and named Hanshaw their executive director.

Since then, the group has started programs to help the community and local economy recover, including child care for working women and computer training programs for seniors. And they are working to help residents respond to future disasters by providing emergency preparedness training. More than anything, however, the group's mission is to empower residents to take part in their local government. CWC members have won seats on the mayor's planning commission, and the group has organized public forums on federal emergency management, education, affordable housing, and how to elevate the voices of poor and minority communities in the wake of an event like Katrina.

Hanshaw has also become a spokesperson for Sisters on the Planet, an Oxfam International program that advocates on behalf of women, children, and poor communities who will be most impacted by climate change.

How did your experiences after Katrina lead you to start Coastal Women for Change?

No one was taking leadership or helping our community, so 51 women stepped up and got involved. The only meeting place we had was a funeral home. No one had jobs. We had just the bare necessities. Everyone was like, "We've got to do something." I felt like I had to leave my comfort zone, reach out, and become more aware of what was going on in my community. I started attending meetings, and the next thing I knew they were looking at me to be the executive director for the organization. I had volunteered to be just the secretary—but I'm a mover, not a sitter. I've been learning as I go. There are things to be done, and we need to do them now. We need to be a part of the recovery process. We don't want to be left behind.

What led to your work on climate change?

Our people don't understand that climate change is making more hurricanes like Katrina, Rita, and Gustav, and poor communities suffer the worst. They have no ability to get out. They have no shelters, or the shelters are not equipped for enough people.

I've started this awareness campaign, so people know that we're going to have to help each other. We do a hurricane-awareness workshop periodically, helping people prepare devastation kits, so if anything happens, they're ready to go—medicine for three months, insurance papers, a list of phone numbers and next of kin.

When you talk about climate change in your area, are people receptive to the message?

No, they're not receptive. They're dismissive. The only progress is that they're preparing more, and that's a small percent. They can't see that it's not God, it's man-made. It's hard for these people on the coast to grab a hold of climate change. We have to talk about how storms are coming more regularly, that's how we can describe it to them. I just think, "You've got to keep doing it over and over Sharon, because that's how it is."

You've been on the road a lot recently, meeting with legislators in Washington and other political leaders. What message are you taking to them?

My message to them is that climate change affects the most vulnerable people in the community. If you don't get a financial commitment from the government, from our leaders, you're going to leave people behind. If you leave vulnerable people behind, they are not prepared when a crisis hits. They don’t act to prevent or prepare for the crisis, and then it costs more money to respond to and repair the devastation. The U.S. has more resources than developing countries, but when it comes to climate change, the outcome is the same no matter where you are. When there's devastation, poor communities lose everything.

I'm telling our government to look at the human factor. It don't take no rocket scientist to see what's going on around here—more and more storms, floods, forest fires, cyclones. You see it on the news every day. We know what's going on. Come on, government. The U.S. is going to have to take the lead on climate change.


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