Paris, Day 5: How One Leader is Taking COP21 to the Streets to Improve Community Health

By path2positive

This week, Peggy Knudson, ecoAmerica's VP of Development, is at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. She will be talking with climate leaders, many of whom are leaders within the ecoAmerica and Climate for Health circles. Peggy will also be tweeting from Paris, bringing us the local sites and sounds of what it's like on the ground. Follow her stories via #ecoAmericaInParis.


Outside of the Paris “beltway,” (called the Boulevard Périphérique), far from the climate talks and the palaces and villas where side meetings and donor discussions are taking place, are suburbs that are home to many of Paris’s immigrants, including Muslim families from Africa (France has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe, an estimated 5-10% of is 66.7 million people). The French word for these suburbs, banlieues, has become pejorative—slums dominated by immigrants.   

Many of these banlieues contain massive concrete housing projects built after WWII to provide “utopian” housing to French factory workers, but they have instead become concentrations of poverty and isolation, as described by George Packer in the New Yorker last August. But this is exactly where the U.S.-based nonprofit the Hip Hop Caucus is heading in a chartered bus the day after I meet with its director of operations, Luther Adamson, whose professional name is Blak Foks (pronounced “Black Folks”).

“We have all the world leaders here today at once,” says Adamson, “and no one is reaching out to those communities outside the circle of Paris. I have been here twice in the past month and talked to those communities. The average poor person or person of color has no interest in COP21. We’re gonna let them know what’s going on, that it affects them more than they know.”

Founded in Founded in 2004, Hip Hop Caucus is a nonprofit organization that connects the hip hop community to the civic process to build power and create positive change. It does this by developing community leaders to organize for collective action, increasing public support for solutions that achieve justice and sustainability, and helping disadvantaged communities become political advocates across a range of issues to improve their own communities and lives. Climate change figures large in this equation, and health professionals are learning the importance of understanding various racial and ethnic groups in order to identify motivations that drive behavior.

“We use hip hop, which we all know is a universal language…hip hop is everywhere…so we use that vehicle to influence, to get people involved,” says Adamson, who spent 12 years in the army before joining the music industry. “We have more than a hundred artists actively engaged with the Hip Hop Caucus doing different projects, including voting rights...and that project is heating up again and about to kick off in 2016. We have another artist that I don’t want to announce yet, but it’s gonna be huge.”

Interest will likely be high in the Hip Hop Caucus bus headed for one of the poorest suburbs, as on board will be Malik Yusef, a poet and five-time Grammy winning artist who also writes lyrics for stars like Kanye West, and Antonique Smith, a Grammy nominated artist who played Faith Evans in the film “Notorious,” and Mimi in the musical Rent on Broadway.

The Hip Hop Caucus will conduct a roundtable with officials, hip hop artists, and everyday citizens of one of the poorest banliues.  “We are a movement that looks like the people, feels like them,” says Adamson. "That’s important, because one thing about poor communities and ethnic groups, they know what’s real when it comes to them. If it doesn’t feel right, doesn’t look right, they won’t even show up. Would you?”

It’s hard to imagine a better messenger on climate for the banlieues than Malik Yusef. Raised in the Chicago South Side neighborhood known as the “Wild 100’s” and a former member of an Islamic street gang, Yusef has evolved from a street hustler to a street poet and a staunch advocate of urban revitalization and extensive social reforms. 

“We need this real authentic, organic climate movement with continuous communication,” says Adamson. “Black and Hispanics have the highest rates of cancers, of respiratory diseases.  The factories are always in the poor communities. A lot of people think that things like asthma are hereditary, which it is not. It is in the air.” In fact, climate-related health outcomes often depend on where a person lives.

These are messages the Hip Hop Caucus brings to poor communities, along with ideas of what they can do about it.

For example, if a new power plant is planned for someone’s neighborhood, and jobs are being promised to the locals, says Adamson, “We tell them a factory could still be built, they could still have a job, but it could be using clean energy. So it’s important that this community activate and demand that this company factory switch to clean energy. We let them know that ‘ou have this voice.’”

It is not always an easy task. “There are disconnects,” says Adamson, “The average person, they are just focused on getting by.  They are focused just on paying the bills, on food for their families, not on climate change.”

But with stars like Yusef and and Smith (who is making the circuit here in Paris with a moving rendition of Mercy Mercy Me, a 1971 song by Marvin Gaye that resonates hauntingly true today; the lyrics are below), communicating through the universal language of music. messages about climate change will certainly reach far beyond the Avenue des Champs-Élysées.

Woo ah, mercy mercy me
Ah things ain't what they used to be, no no
Where did all the blue skies go?
Poison is the wind that blows from the north and south and east

Woo mercy, mercy me, mercy
Ah things ain't what they used to be, no no
Oil wasted on the ocean and upon our seas
Fish full of mercury

Ah oh mercy, mercy me
Ah things ain't what they used to be, no no
Radiation under ground and in the sky
Animals and birds who live nearby are dying

Oh mercy, mercy me
Ah things ain't what they used to be
What about this overcrowded land
How much more abuse from man can she stand?

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