Reflections from Puerto Rico: 10 lessons from grassroots organizing for climate justice

Aysha Pamukcu (WDN Sr. Program Manager & Policy Counsel) and Jessie Bluedorn (WDN Member from NYC) have teamed up to share an important report from the Safe & Sustainable Impact Collective’s trip to Puerto Rico.

WDN Members Outside of Casa Pueblo

WDN members and staff outside of Casa Pueblo, an environmental community-based organization in Puerto Rico.

Last month, Women Donors Network (WDN) members and staff attended Grassroots International’s donor learning trip, “Just Transformation and Ecological Justice in Puerto Rico.” The week-long program took place across different regions of Puerto Rico and provided a mix of site visits and learning modules. In each place, we met community leaders who talked about the harms of disaster capitalism and how donors can support Puerto Rican advocates for climate justice and self-determination. We learned about the island’s deep-rooted challenges as well as promising solutions and visions for a more just future.

Earlier this year, WDN’s Safe & Sustainable Impact Collective funded two intermediaries, the Maria Fund and Grassroots International, to re-grant funds to Puerto Rican organizations supporting women’s leadership, just transition responses to climate change, or local movement building. This trip was also an opportunity for WDN members to meet Puerto Rican community leaders and better understand opportunities for climate justice funding. Thanks to this experience, the Impact Collective has increased knowledge of how to fund grassroots climate justice work in Puerto Rico.

WDN members Jessie Bluedorn, Maria Jobin-Leeds, Elaine Nonneman, and Linda Mason attended, along with Senior Program Manager & Policy Counsel Aysha Pamukcu and consultant Anuja Mendiratta.

The WDN delegation was very moved and inspired by the trip, and collectively put together some key learnings.

10 Lessons from Puerto Rico

1. Hurricane Maria may have damaged the island, but much of the suffering that followed was the result of institutional and policy failure — before and after the hurricane. What we heard from Puerto Rican activists underscored that “there is no such thing as a ‘natural’ disaster.” In fact, much of this disaster was man-made, as FEMA and the federal government failed to respond in a timely and effective manner. This neglect piled onto existing structural injustices — colonial neglect and extraction, dependence on imported food, a centralized energy grid running on fossil fuels, and increasing austerity measures. This context is further complicated by storms whose power and frequency is worsened by climate change.

2. Community organizing has been a critical tool for survival. We saw many examples of this, including the community brigades that stepped up after Hurricane Maria to do the relief work that should have been performed by government.

3. Many grassroots groups view Puerto Rico as being under colonial rule in reality, if not in name. Puerto Rico does not have a voting representative in Congress, which means that decisions are made for the island without residents’ consent. This is especially true under PROMESA, the law that established a Washington-appointed fiscal control board for Puerto Rico. Grassroots groups highlighted the structural governmental disempowerment and Puerto Rico’s neo-colonial, extractive relationship to the United States. Puerto Rican activists have even brought this concern before the United Nations.

4. Puerto Rico is struggling under economic austerity measures related to its debt, which many Puerto Ricans criticize as illegitimate. On the heels of this longstanding debt crisis, drastic cuts are being made to critical infrastructure and public services (like education, pensions, nurses’ salaries, electrical grid repairs) in order to prioritize paying back creditors — including predatory vulture funds — in addition to extensive taxes levied by the federal government.

5. Climate disaster can reveal the reality of unjust systems and open the door to drastic changes that don’t put people first. Climate disaster can be understood as a structural shock to the system with major disruptive power. These shocks have often been used to achieve policy agendas that would be considered too extreme in other times, such as transforming the public school system into a constellation of charter schools (as occurred in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina) or privatizing public utilities (as is contentiously unfolding in Puerto Rico). We learned about how community leaders are organizing to fight back against this trend toward privatization and profiteering in the wake of climate disaster.

6. Puerto Rico has so much unrealized potential for sustainable energy and local food production — and activists are working hard to turn that potential into reality. For example, currently 85% of food is imported and many Puerto Ricans struggle to put food on the table despite the island’s verdant tropical climate. A climate disaster like Hurricane Maria can further destabilize already vulnerable families and food systems. But there is hope in a growing movement for food sovereignty, which seeks to build a resilient food system that serves both people and planet.

7. Movement leaders are pursuing a variety of paths toward Puerto Rican self-determination. For example, we met with folks representing social kitchens, agro-ecological farms, energy democracy (video), feminist organizing, and Indigenous revitalization. All have renewed resolve after Hurricane Maria and are pushing for positive social change. There is also fierce debate among Puerto Ricans about what political self-determination should look like, including whether the best way forward is a pathway to statehood or independence as a sovereign nation.

8. Race and identity are complex. Puerto Rico has African, Indigenous and European roots, yet Black and Indigenous Puerto Ricans are economically and politically marginalized. But there is hope. For example, we heard from Indigenous Taíno people who are working to revitalize their identity and culture in Puerto Rico and counter the myth of their extinction.

Group of people holding a scroll that says "esto lo resuelve el pueblo en solidaridad."

AgitArte’s Scroll Project

9. Arts and culture play an important role in expanding our collective radical imagination. For example, AgitArte uses art and participatory performances to educate, organize, and shift culture. Their Scroll Project was an especially powerful experience, underscoring the importance of art, music, and culture work in social movements and creating social change. The scroll itself is a long painted canvas that is passed around a circle, telling the story of US imperialism in Puerto Rico, and the ongoing Puerto Rican resistance, through the eyes of Puerto Rican activists themselves.

10. Philanthropy has largely ignored Puerto Rico but there’s now an opportunity to change that. That said, many grassroots groups have been and plan to remain fiercely independent. We spoke with activists who emphasized how important it is not to perpetuate the existing colonial dynamic by philanthropy attempting to control the work of community groups.

What does this all mean for WDN? 

Our group had a lot of ideas! First and foremost, we understand how important it is to fund grassroots groups in Puerto Rico to continue organizing in spaces that are critical to climate justice, such as indigenous revitalization, food sovereignty, energy democracy, arts and culture change, and feminist leadership. We also discussed how we could pursue Puerto Rican advocacy during WDN Action’s annual Women on the Hill trip, continue to educate ourselves and our networks on the systemic issues affecting the island, and partner with other donor organizing groups like Resource Generation.

Want to get involved? 

If you’re a member of WDN and want to join the Safe & Sustainable Impact Collective, reach out to Aysha Pamukcu. To join WDN, please visit our join page.

Stay Connected