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Climate Change

Global Threats Imperil Women of Color

by Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins
June 13, 2019

Women of color are the most impacted by global insecurity. For this reason, their leadership is vital to tackling these challenges.

I am frequently asked to explain my background in international security and the impact of global threats on everyday Americans. As I talk about issues like weapons of mass destruction or infectious disease, I often see a glazed look come over the eyes of my listeners. I notice how the conversation is inevitably maneuvered to domestic issues. These domestic issues are genuinely compelling but devoid of the global connection. Sometimes I shake my head, saying to myself, "here we go again." Sometimes I may not be in a situation where I can share my perspective. Other times, depending upon the audience and the time I have, I make a case for a broader perspective.

woman speaks in class room

Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins speaks to the students at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin.

Callie Richmond

I find the need to make my case particularly crucial for communities of color. Why? Because whether the global issue is climate change, infectious disease, food and water security, migration, peacekeeping, or weapons of mass destruction, people of color—particularly women of color—are more seriously affected.

young girl in plastic bottle recycling facility

November 22, 2015: A young climate refugee works in a plastic recycling factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh. She and others like her are growing up without any formal education.

NurPhoto/Getty Images

  • Osub Ahmed noted in April 2019 that, “Extreme weather events and natural disasters are becoming the norm. But less discussed is the impact of climate change on certain communities, particularly women and people of color.”  

  • In 2017, the Alliance to End World Hunger noted that "while 10% of white households experience hunger, households of color experience hunger at rates of up to 21.5%.”

  • In the case of the recent Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, “…no group has been hit harder than women and girls, who account for roughly 60 per cent of those infected. Over half of them are of reproductive age. As the traditional caretakers of the sick, women are often at increased risk of exposure.”

  • And chemical attacks in Syria killed dozens of civilians, many of them women and children.

Global threats are not going away, and women of color will be the most affected. It makes sense then that women of color should take the lead in not only understanding these threats but in providing solutions to them.

There are very logical reasons to focus on domestic issues, particularly if one is a person of color. It also makes sense to prepare our youth for the U.S. society that exists. We live at a time when the lives of people of color and other underrepresented groups are under threat daily. We are witnessing issues of police brutality, challenges of access to healthcare, threats to our fundamental voting rights as well as our civil rights, bombings of places of worship, mass incarceration, domestic terrorism, hate crimes, and the list goes on. We have no way to know when the trend in this backward direction of our society will change for the better.

However, this is not an either-or situation. It is essential to integrate the international perspective on what we do and what we teach, and how we understand the challenges we face. Global threats will not stop and wait for us to decide when we want to deal with them. We need to be prepared to find answers—those who will be most affected doubly so.

The challenges we face today are not neat. They are messy, overlapping, and defy the global and domestic categories some try to impose on these moving targets.

We must find ways to connect the global threats to our security concerns at home. In reality, the current global threats have created domestic worries for many years. Additionally, actions we as Americans have taken at home have an international effect. Most people will agree that climate change is a global threat with domestic ramifications. Not only that, but our domestic actions have helped to create the climate change threat that the global community must now address.  The challenges we face today are not neat. They are messy, overlapping, and defy the global and domestic categories some try to impose on these moving targets. This is a topic of discussion my organization hosts under the theme “Redefining National Security,” where we ask, how do we define our national security today?

We should also be aware of how people of color in other countries face similar threats. One day a colleague of mine explained the challenges faced by people of color in Europe. It was interesting to learn not only the similarities but also the cultural differences that affect how they are treated. Hearing these stories puts the experiences of people of color, and all Americans, into the broader context of challenges we are all facing. Access to clean water in Detroit is not just a U.S. issue. It is an issue that people of color and the poor around the world are also dealing with on a daily basis. The reasons may vary from country to country. However, it’s useful to see how those with less access to power and decision making, both in the U.S. and abroad, are affected. By looking outside the U.S., we can be better at seeking solutions to both our domestic and global concerns.

young girl cries while adults hold her hands

Tears stream down the face of Morgan Walker, age 5 of Flint, as she gets her finger pricked for a lead screening on January 26, 2016 at Eisenhower Elementary School in Flint, Michigan. Free lead screenings were performed for Flint children 6-years-old and younger following the city's water contamination and federal state of emergency.

Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

People of color need to be in the game to find solutions to global challenges. We must prepare our youth for the future. Global threats require imaginative thinking about the way forward. In addition, including various perspectives and cultural backgrounds will produce more creative solutions. If we are not preparing our youth for future discussions, they will not play a role in combatting these very challenging global threats. That is bad not just for those from underrepresented groups but for the whole of society as well.

All people should understand the risk that global threats pose to our livelihoods, health, and security at home. In other words, we should understand how global security impacts our national security. We should abandon the tendency to focus either on risks inside the U.S. or risks outside the U.S. This is a false distinction. In addition, when we learn about domestic issues, we should learn about the international dimensions of those threats at the same time. Then we might capture the minds of the audience better and get beyond that glassy-eyed look to one of true appreciation.

Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins is the Founder and Executive Director of Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security and a Non-Resident Senior Fellow of the Brookings Institution.

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