Connecting on Common Ground

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IMG_20180129_090947_1-01I have connected with so many wonderful people in meaningful ways while I have been in Puerto Rico as a Student Attorney in University at Buffalo School of Law’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic. Karla Raímundi, our team’s staff attorney for the trip and Puerto Rican native, played an important role in facilitating these interactions and uncovering the common ground Buffalo and Puerto Rico share. These new relationships are not only the foundation for #UBLawResponds in the future, but were also vital to learning about Puerto Rican life.

Karla has always been sensitive to social justice and civil rights issues. So when she completed her Environmental Law LLM at Pace Law School, she knew immediately that she was going to dedicate her professional life to empowering Environmental Justice Communities. During this time, she oversaw four climate justice assessments, an urban forestry initiative, and litigation centered on the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant. Lucky for me, she did a lot of this work in my native Hudson Valley. While I was coming of age and learning to love the natural environment, little did I know that I had such a strong advocate working to protect my home. Being from an Environmental Justice community herself, Karla’s obvious passion and moral imperative for climate justice inspired me to do more and go further with my time on the island.

Being in Puerto Rico and focusing on environmental resilience and sustainability, in some ways, feels like returning the favor. Through our humanitarian aid journeys across the island, I have been introduced to Puerto Rico’s stunning natural beauty. In the midst of hiking through the Cayey Mountains in Karla’s grandparents’ hometown, she I shared a moment where we realized our traded places. The teary-eyed smiles we shared validated our appreciation of each other and strengthened our connection.

Connecting through the significance of our work helped highlight the meaning of the other relationships we were building with our time on the island. When actions like giving somebody a towel or just simply listening to somebody willing to tell their story moves them to tears, it is a powerful emotional experience that will forever bind me to this island. The passion exhibited from the activists, students, professors, stakeholders, and officials has not only inspired me to strengthen my connection with Puerto Rico in the future, but has renewed my vigor to defend my own home.

Buffalo and Puerto Rico are more similar than many would believe. They are both plagued by similar issues; large out-migration, loss of manufacturing jobs, financial issues, environmental degradation, and large economic disparities. Buffalo’s “resurgence” lends itself in part to the ingenuity of grassroots organizers and innovative policymakers. Organizations like “People United for Sustainable Housing” in Buffalo, and “Casa Pueblo” in Puerto Rico, carry out similar missions, albeit in different ways, and could potentially share valuable lessons with each other. By building bridges between our two places, we could seize on our collective knowledge working on similar issues to help the other get stronger.

These shared experiences and new relationships will allow #UBLawResponds to grow into a meaningful long term project and to help facilitate that exchange of ideas. Already, the team is coming up with ways to help support those we met back on the island, including the possibility of a fundraiser to replace a hurricane damaged sports pavilion at an elementary school in Arroyo. However, to do so we need more than just innovative ideas. In order to effectively carry out our mission, we ask that you continue to support this project in any way you can. Together, we can strive for better.