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Q&A: Climate strategy driven by tribal members

Jill Horwitz participated in an event for the Education department in Hollywood on Dec. 1, 2021. (Photo Damon Scott)

The Seminole Tribe’s efforts to determine climate change risks and mitigate the effects to protect tribal members are a continual process. A recent milestone was the hire of Jill Horwitz as its climate resiliency officer in December 2020. Her role requires the management of a number of activities, including connecting with government officials and agencies and tribal member outreach and education. Her position is part of the tribe’s Heritage and Environment Resources Office (HERO).

The Tribune caught up with Horwitz for a one-year check-in on the tribe’s climate change initiatives. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

What are the tribe’s top climate change concerns?

According to the survey we conducted last year, tribal members are most concerned about loss of traditional plants, rising energy costs and unreliable service, and extreme heat and cold. To address these concerns, I support the tribe’s vulnerability analysis, which includes leveraging cultural and ecological resources, helping to advise on renewable energy and sustainable building standards, and partnering with the tribe’s Integrative Health department on community education regarding extreme heat.

While we can’t turn back the clock on sea-level rise, we can limit the effects of extreme heat by taking immediate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. By planting trees, driving electric vehicles, and taking other carbon-cutting steps, we can ensure that the next generation of Seminoles have a month or two of these [extreme heat] days and not the prediction of half the year.

What have you learned that surprised you?

I’ve been helping South Florida communities plan for climate change for over 15 years, and honestly I’ve never grown so much in such a short period of time. Indigenous challenges are unique from other communities, traditional ecological knowledge is powerful, and tribal members are, well, very honest.

I have been working on unraveling systemic racism for a while now, and my Seminole coworkers have accelerated this process for me. I am better able to see and address colonialization in the workplace, such as whitewashed science, exploitive partnerships or data requests, and linear top-down planning. Those things always bothered me, but now I have a name for them and can reject that way of thinking and pursue more holistic and genuine forms of discovery and problem solving.

What’s the status of the tribe’s Climate Action Plan?

We started thinking that we needed to start with a plan, because I am a planner. But the tribe does not need a plan that says ‘write energy policy,’ ‘collect data on impacts,’ or ‘build greater resilience.’ We already know that and have started those efforts. Good decision-making comes from information that is built and shared together. Data and action can be pursued simultaneously.

With that in mind, I have focused on building meaningful relationships with tribal members and leadership. Together, we have defined resilience as strength, community and survival. This definition is based on tribal culture and priorities, and the program works to defend tribal sovereignty in everything we do.

One of my roles as the climate resiliency officer is to make sure the tribe is seen as a leader in the climate-planning sphere. I was able to secure a seat for the tribe on the Southwest Florida Regional Resiliency Compact, on which [Naples Council Liaison] Brian Zepeda now serves. [Tribal Council’s] decision to join the compact was unanimous. Engaging with regional climate compacts gives the tribe access to research and funding and builds relationships with neighboring local governments to address the shared challenges of climate change.

How has the pandemic affected your work?

Tribal members prefer face-to-face communication, which has been hard during the pandemic. When I do get to meet community members in person, we usually chat all day. I just love that. I prefer people to all the data and technical parts of my job, so making these real and lasting connections really energize me. Each person and community is complex, and can’t be summarized or simplified. What is universal is the advice for me to be honest and transparent, expect tough questions, always stand with the community, and lead with the heart.

What makes you optimistic in 2022?

What makes me smile every day is the stellar teammate I have, Cody Motlow, and other tribal members who serve the tribe and support our program, like Tina Osceola, Taylor Holata, Quenton Cypress, Rollie Gilliam III, Danielle Jumper-Frye, Joe Frank, Councilwoman Mariann Billie and so many others.

Also, we are thrilled to announce that the food sovereignty workshop is open to new members. This is something that our program started this year as a way for tribal members to share and learn from each other. We will be looking for both virtual and in-person learning opportunities to offer in 2022 so keep an eye out for the announcements.

Finally, I am really hopeful that we will be able to run our own events this year. If in-person gatherings are allowed, we have planned a ‘Gathering Fire’ climate conversation series. Our goal is to support intergenerational conversations on climate change in intimate tribal settings.

Jill Horwitz can be contacted at climateprogram@semtribe.com.

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Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at damonscott@semtribe.com.
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