Environmental Justice Youth Team members Oswald Roman-Molina and Amanda Castillo display a homemade air conditioner in Melrose on Aug. 12. Photo: Mott Haven Herald.

The South Bronx’s industrialized riverfront communities have long been among the city’s most vulnerable to the effects of a rapidly changing climate and extreme heat. Now, one grassroots organization is the borough’s first to receive key federal funding to seek localized solutions for the problem. 

At a gathering at Yolanda Garcia Park in Melrose last Saturday, a top federal official on climate announced that they have tapped Nos Quedamos to administer a $440,000 grant over two years, combining public awareness campaigns and practical innovations to counter climate change. 

The funding will finance the creation of three solar-powered resiliency hubs across the South Bronx, where Nos Quedamos’ Environmental Justice Youth Team will coordinate public information events. In addition, the hubs will provide fresh water, food and cool spaces during climate-related emergencies, along with power from renewable energy for tools and equipment. 

The hubs are located at La Finca del Sur at the corner of East 138th Street and the Grand Concourse, Bronx Sunshine Gardens on Bryant Avenue in Hunts Point, and at Nos Quedamos’ office at 754 Melrose Avenue. 

Jainey Bavishi, assistant secretary of commerce and deputy administrator for The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), told the youth team’s dozen activists that they are on the cutting edge of climate resiliency initiatives nationwide. The grants, she said, will provide them “a voice to use earth science to help shape the future of this community,” through “environmental literacy, social cohesion, community health and socio-economic equity.”

Bavishi, who served as as director of the city’s Office of Climate Resiliency in the previous mayoral administration, said Nos Quedamos is “the first and only organization in the Bronx to help shape the future of this community,” adding that the resiliency hubs “really will be a model for the country. This has been a summer of climate catastrophes, but days like this give me hope.”

Another NOAA official at the event said just 5 percent of applicants nationwide were awarded the grant, and that Nos Quedamos’ focus on young people was a key factor. 

“We know through studies that involving youth can have a positive impact on community involvement, more than when adults get involved,” said Maggie Allen, an NOAA program officer and education specialist. She said the agency is increasingly looking to fund more community-based organizations confronting social justice issues.

One of Nos Quedamos’ environmental team leaders, John Sanchez, said he was skeptical about the impact his group could have on public opinion when he first joined last October, but he quickly became a convert. 

“Even myself, I was indifferent to it,” said Sanchez, a 19-year-old rising sophomore and biology major at Hunter College, who attended South Bronx Community Charter High School, of his beginnings with the group. But weeks into his stint with the environmental group, the enthusiasm and ideas of teens and preteens at events his team hosted changed his mind.

“At first the priority was adults, but afterward we started to see the effect we had on young people.” Now, Sanchez says, he’s all in on community organizing, to tackle the likes of food insecurity, extreme heat, natural disasters and pollution.

For the rest of the afternoon at the park, the teens from the environmental team shared strategies at the microphone, for adapting to brutal urban summer heat, including showing off a homemade, ad hoc air conditioner. 

Nos Quedamos’ president and CEO Jessica Clemente said the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance’s heat vulnerability index speaks for itself. The map shows the south and central Bronx joining a few Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods with 5 out of 5 on the heat scale. Studies of the hazards created by climate change in wealthier neighborhoods are much more up to date than similar research on conditions in the South Bronx, she added. 

“We can’t rely on old data. If this was another community, would they be allowed to use old data?” said Clemente. An advantage of the new program will be the ability to monitor and match changes observed nationally with those noted in the South Bronx. 

“We’ll be able to look at their theories of change, as well as our own theories of change,” said Clemente.  

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