What She Does
She’s on the scene and taking action.
LaTanja Silvester is the Louisiana Director for the Resilience Force, a nonprofit that trains community members to prepare for and respond to disasters. Hurricanes, Covid, wildfires—all of it. As a career labor organizer, she’s represented blue-collar workers for decades in the political sphere,but now she’s facing her greatest adversary yet: climate change.
Here, LaTanja shares how her job shifts as the weather gets increasingly chaotic, why there should be a Resilience Force near you, and how to prep for the worst-case scenario.
Research says climate change is going to make disasters more frequent and more intense. How do you see your field reacting in response?
Louisiana is on the front line of the devastating effects of climate change, which is why I am so deeply embedded in this work. The conversation has recently shifted to the workers out there being storm chasers or doing the restoration work. Creating a more resilient America doesn’t just mean taking actions against oil and gas. We need to develop a just pipeline for Resilience Force workers. This workforce has the potential to create millions of climate resilience jobs, and the workers we have now are mostly individuals from the BIPOC community. We want to prioritize bringing those individuals into this workforce because we want to make certain that folks from the communities have access to these jobs.
What does the Resilience Force do after natural disasters hit?
The Resilience Force model is helping America respond to disaster, be it climate-related or healthcare-related (like the pandemic). In 2020, we launched the Resilience Corps, where we recruited individuals who had been laid off or in transition because of the Covid disaster. Then we trained and deployed them into the field as community health workers. When hurricane Ida hit last year, we were one of the first organizations on the ground, assessing the damage, doing wellness checks with our elderly, and delivering food.
So, how are you different from orgs like FEMA or Red Cross?
We know the person on our block or in the community that needs our help. If there’s an individual our community health workers have already assisted, they know, “Well, we need to go check on Miss Janice in the 300 block of St. Louis. She lives alone and may need some water.” We also have Resilience Force members that come in after disasters and help communities to rebuild. They help homeowners who may or may not have insurance, or may or may not have been approved by FEMA. Just like cities have firemen and policemen, they also need a Resilience Force to help respond adequately and equitably to disasters.
Working in disaster response must be crazy stressful. How do you stay motivated?
When I walk out my mom’s door and see people in her neighborhood who need assistance, I think, “If not me, then who?” I’m from the Desire Housing Development and the only woman of 6 children, so I have a lot of toughness because I grew up in a home with a tough mom—who is also an organizer—and brothers who pushed me around. That gives me hope and the power to continue this work. Another thing I’ve devoted myself to is recruiting other people to do this work so that once I’m not here, there are folks who can take the torch.
How can we prepare for climate disasters in our own communities?
We may experience another event similar to Ida where we had a total power outage. To prepare for that, you need the right equipment: batteries, flashlights, and your personal items in a secure, travel-friendly place in case you need to move quickly. Canned or nonperishable goods are also important because if your power is out, you can’t access any food in your refrigerator that’s spoiled. Also, call family members that don’t live in your region ahead of time and say, “Hey, there may be a disaster this hurricane season. Is it possible for my family to live with you for a couple days in the event that something does happen?”