The third annual HBCU Student Climate Change Conference takes place March 26-29 at Dillard University. The conference is a project of the HBCU Climate Change Initiative and co-sponsored by Dillard University, Texas Southern University and the Office of Air and Radiation-Office of Environmental Justice.

The theme of the conference is Bridging the Gap between Theory and Experience and the goal of the event is to introduce HBCU students to climate change science while also engaging them with the Gulf Coast communities most impacted by it.

In many instances, those communities are their communities. Dr. Robert Bullard of Texas Southern University noted in an article published on his website that more than 80 percent of the 104 HBCUs are in the southern United States, with 43 located in the Gulf Coast states of Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida. He has called cities like New Orleans and Houston “ground zero in the fight for climate justice” and specifically pointed to the flooding from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans that drowned that city’s three HBCUs, Dillard University, Xavier University and Southern University at New Orleans, in 2005 and Hurricane Ike in 2008 that caused major property damage to Texas Southern University in Houston—the nation’s fourth largest state HBCU. Still, Dr. Beverly Wright, director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University, has noted that students at historically Black colleges and universities are underrepresented in the discourse on climate change.

Mary Williams, assistant director for community relations and student engagement at Dillard’s Deep South Center, says that is why it is so important to involve HBCU students in not only climate change science, but in the policy-making activities and practices that guide regulations and funding decisions that determine how communities are restored. As such, this conference—now in its third year—is designed to not only discuss and explore the science of climate change and its impact on hurricanes, droughts, flooding, and other hazardous weather conditions, but to encourage the students to examine, understand and ultimately impact the policy-making decisions that dictate how communities respond to and recover from those weather hazards.

“Research has shown that people of color are disparately impacted by the effects of climate changes as it relates to rebuilding, adaption, healthcare issues, economics,” Williams says. “With Hurricane Katrina, we have seen that it is difficult for people of color, particularly African Americans, to bounce back from these weather-related events.”

Of course, there is an entire area of research dedicated to showing disparities in how climate change impacts racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups in the United States. The data show that low socioeconomic status groups and racial and ethnic minorities experience more negative health and economic impacts from the results of climate change than other populations in the United States. It is called the climate gap.

To be sure, the inequity in post-Katrina funding designed to support the recovery of the region appeared to have been an inherent part of the policies and methods that made it difficult for poor people, especially poor Black people to have their lives restored after Katrina.

For instance, the Louisiana Road Home Program made it nearly impossible for many poor and Black residents across the state to rebuild and re-occupy their homes after Hurricane Katrina by basing Road Home grants on the pre-storm values of their houses instead of the actual rebuilding costs. In the summer of 2011—nearly six years after the storm, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the state reached a $62 million settlement with about 1300 homeowners in four parishes in Louisiana to end their legal challenge against the state and federal entities regarding the unfair policy.

And when the first round of federal funding for colleges and universities impacted by Hurricane Katrina came down in early 2006, the Louisiana Board of Regents decided how that initial aid—$75 million—would get spent. Instead looking at the amount of physical damage caused by the storm, they used a formula based on enrollment, lost tuition revenue and financial aid budgets. As a result, Tulane University, which had the largest enrollment and highest tuition, received the most aid, followed by UNO and Delgado Community College. Dillard University, which suffered the worst physical damage, received the least amount of funding in that first round.

“So we want to equip these students to work with the communities in their states to address some of these issues,” Williams says, adding that this year’s conference has expanded from about 10 HBCUs taking part last year to now include students and faculty from at least 28 historically Black colleges and universities at this year’s meeting.

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