This essay introduced Spectrum Dance Theater’s Race & Climate Change Festival

No stranger to human-concocted environmental calamity, the South Park neighborhood in Seattle has been assaulted by pollution from land, air and sea. It sits astride a superfund site, and life expectancy there is 13 years less than tonier Laurelhurst, which is only eight miles away. South Park also is overwhelmingly nonwhite, with about a third of its residents living under the poverty line, with ever-growing ranks of recently arrived immigrants.

And the worst has yet to come. Studies show that Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) folks are more likely to live by superfund sites and that superfund sites are more likely to be impacted by rising sea levels caused by climate change. South Park is positioned for such a double whammy.

By 2030, much of South Park at times will be under water, according to projections in a federal government report. Rising sea levels will swell the swill-filled Duwamish River, named for the Tribe on whose lands the Puget Sound region now occupies. There will be no assistance for South Park from the $1 billion seawall constructed to protect downtown interests along Seattle’s waterfront. People will be displaced and lives overturned, and the culprit will be climate change and the public ambivalence toward it.

Despite all the science, education and political discourse, climate change still is being considered by too much of American society in theoretical terms, as if a distant possibility. Such thinking goes: If we don’t (cut carbon emissions, curb our appetite for certain agricultural products, develop renewable energy sources), then something (uncomfortable/bad/catastrophic) (might/will) happen to (us/our children/future generations).

BIPOC communities, such as South Park, do not share such abstract perspective. Many of us see this in “since we didn’t (make any sacrifices), then (climate change is here)” terms. BIPOC people have been positioned as expendable throughout this country’s history, so we have served as the veritable canaries in the coal mine, at the frontlines of where the impacts of climate change strike first and disproportionately.

Environmental injustice is our here-and-now reality.

It’s no wonder that some BIPOC creatives already have started envisioning a post-catastrophic future. Though not the most diverse major U.S. city, Seattle has attracted its share of such forward-thinking artists. Octavia Butler, the late, great Afro-Futurist writer, lived her last years in the area. And now Donald Byrd, artistic director at Spectrum Dance Theater and 2021 Dance/USA honoree, lends his crackling intuition to our Race & Climate Change Festival.

Donald’s world premiere, POOL/after, was to hold down the Race & Climate Change Festival in Spring 2020, but the Covid-19 pandemic forced its postponement. The ensuing year gave Donald an opportunity to re-imagine the festival as more suitable to these coronavirus times, giving it broader, multi-component virtual engagement. Still anchoring is POOL/after, a powerful, two-part danced ritual developed by humans in an adapted climate-disaster future.

It won’t take a great leap of faith for a growing number of BIPOC communities to recognize the future that Donald, Octavia Butler and others have foreseen unfolding for us. In my role as a journalist of color specializing in race and environmental justice, I, for one, have borne witness to several examples of doom not so impending. These have run the gamut from seeing few glaciers in the Many Glaciers region of Glacier National Park in the heart of traditional Blackfeet territory, to visiting Canarsie, a majority Black neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, where homes and finances were ravaged in uninsured flood zones. I’ve also viewed the still-unmitigated damage from Hurricane Katrina in the Lower Ninth Ward, a historically Black neighborhood in New Orleans, and the still-unhealed wounds left from Superstorm Sandy in predominately Black neighborhoods in Brooklyn and on the Rockaway peninsula in Queens.

Massive, climate-provoked displacement is a pressing concern, one already obvious to BIPOC communities. During a conference in New York, I met members of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw whose abode, Isle de Jean Charles, south of New Orleans, had shrunk 98 percent, all but a sliver having slipped into the Gulf of Mexico. Of course, I need not have traveled so far to see Tribal coastal communities threatened by rising sea levels. On the Olympic peninsula, the Quinault Indian Nation, as well as its neighbors to the north, the Quileute and Makah, are deep into planning for “managed retreats” inland. The Quinault will relocate to higher ground from the lower village of Taholah, which already has experienced flooding from rising sea levels. Because they anticipated the impacts, the Quinault at least will maintain some control over their future, which presumably will be aided by the environmental justice mechanisms in Washington state’s newly passed “cap-and-trade” legislation.

It’s not like I needed all that outside exposure to the beginnings of our existential crisis with climate change. I grew up on Beacon Hill, a majority non-white neighborhood and one of Seattle’s most polluted. My expanded community includes South Park, as well as Georgetown and Chinatown International District, two other neighborhoods with large BIPOC populations that are threatened by climate-change impacts.

As a Black-led and BIPOC-staffed arts organization, Spectrum Dance Theater is a manifestation of my past, present and future selves. It understands the honor and responsibility of presenting the vision of our own Donald Byrd, as well as those of other enlightened members of our community. The arts necessarily can fill in the blanks and make connections between science and journalism and public acceptance and action.

The creative vision of our organization is informed by what we know – and what we know is the product of our experience. Climate change is no longer a threat that might be coming for us; it’s already impacting our existence. The question is, what are we and the rest of humanity going to do about it?