Groundswell: Hannah Fine on Community Resilience

By | Nov 02, 2021
Hannah fine with five other organizers at a rally for the green new deal. Two hold signs that say "sustainability is a Jewish virtue"

Hannah Fine is a Detroit-based climate organizer with Hazon: The Jewish Lab for Sustainability. She helps Jewish communities increase their climate resilience by transitioning away from reliance on fossil fuels and supporting Detroit’s vibrant urban farming scene.

What do you see as your role in confronting the climate crisis?

The first part of my job is working as a community organizer for climate justice. I engage with communities experiencing the first and worst of climate change to have a pulse on what’s going on and what the work is. Detroit is a majority Black city where so much of the environmental justice and food justice and climate justice work is happening.

The other side of my work is suburban-based. And it’s building relationships with and supporting work with Jewish organizations, which range from synagogues to community centers to the Jewish Federation, to service groups like Repair the World— Jewish organizations that are members of the Seal of Sustainability.

The Seal of Sustainability is a certification program where Hazon supports Jewish organizations in making institutional changes related to the climate and environmental sustainability. We have 33 such sites currently in the Metro Detroitarea. There are  85-plus nationally. Each site has its own “green team.” Some places are putting in gardens or changing light bulbs, and some are thinking about solar power in their parking lots and switching to geothermal or solar power for their buildings.

What is one way the climate emergency has directly impacted your life?

In late June there was a record-setting storm, and it was raining for seven hours straight. I was on my way home from a friend’s house that evening, and what is typically a 20-minute drive turned into driving eight hours through the night to try to get home, because everywhere was flooded. So I had to back up off the highway and then traverse streets for the whole night, trying to get home safely. My basement was flooded, but I was lucky that it was only a little bit of water compared to the many feet of water that some neighbors had. I’ve lived in Southeast Michigan my whole life, and we don’t get rainfall like this. That was my first moment of realizing this isn’t normal.

Where have you found community, allies and connection in your work?

I have found a lot of connections with the work going on in the city because it’s deeply and  genuinely intersectional in a way that feels holistic. There’s an organization that I love so much in the city called Keep Growing Detroit. Their mission is for Detroit to be a food sovereign city, meaning that at least 50 percent of the food consumed in Detroit is grown in Detroit. Detroit is over 75 percent Black, and that shows in a lot of inequities in the city and also in the resilience of Detroiters. And so seeing that play out and grow out of a city that’s been so divested from is really powerful. That spark for me comes whenever I’m in that kind of community.

What tools or practices for processing the enormity of the climate crisis have you found within the Jewish tradition? 

For me it’s a cross between Jewish  and native and indigenous ways in this area. There’s an emphasis on gratitude in Judaism, which feels really central to staying sane in this time of crisis. And also it’s something that I tell Sustainability Seal Sites a lot: Gratitude builds connection. When you’re connected to something, it’s much easier to act for its benefit.

One example is the blessings when we eat. To properly bless, or give gratitude for, the food you’re eating, you necessarily have to know how it was grown—whether it came from a tree or the land or a vine. And that’s really powerful to me because increasingly we’re more disconnected from our food.

The other is the idea of radical amazement. It just still blows my mind how a seed turns into whatever it turns into, for example. And it feels Jewish in a way that I can’t quite describe.

What other traditions and lineages do you draw upon?

The book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, which I  stumbled upon years ago, is  a cornerstone of the way I think about a lot of this work. And a lot of it resonates with the Jewish emphasis on gratitude and the connection with all of creation, as well as the humility demonstrated in the indigenous teaching that humans were the last part of creation. In other words, everything else is our older siblings from whom we have everything to learn. I find myself going back to snippets from that book often, the way words are used in the language of the Anishinaabe, who were the original stewards of the land in Detroit and in Michigan. The vast majority of their words are verbs, or words implying sentience. That’s the inverse of English, where most of our words are nouns. In Anishinaabe a tree is not a tree; it’s essentially “to be a tree” or a “tree being.” And water and lakes, which are abundant around here, have a similar word. The word-form indicates its aliveness, its own sense of life. It’s much harder to destroy something when it’s a being.

In the lead-up to COP26, what have you been doing and feeling?

The more I get involved in organizing, understanding the politics behind things, the more advocacy has risen to the top for me. Individual choice is important and necessary, and sometimes changing those choices is important, and there needs to be systemic change. We have made it clear that the systems that we’ve built and live within do not serve the health of the earth and everything on it.

What aspects of the climate emergency do you think deserve more urgent attention?

The zip code next to mine is the most polluted zip code in the state of Michigan because there’s a Marathon oil refinery there. And not coincidentally, it’s a Black neighborhood and low income, and folks don’t have the mobility to protect themselves and not be near that plant, and the plant isn’t taking responsibility for what it’s doing, in polluting the air and directly polluting the water.

The representative for this district is Rashida Tlaib,  so I do trust that it’s getting some attention. But this issue shows how racial and socioeconomic disparities play out in the climate.

How do you find meaning and hope as you navigate the climate crisis?

From the resilience of the people that I get to work with, both in the city and in the suburbs. Specifically, in the suburbs, people who are willing and ready to make changes or sacrifices, to recognize what brought us to this point. And usually these are middle-aged folks or older saying, “My kids or grandkids are inheriting a world that’s unsafe. And that’s on me and my generation.”

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