Workshops and training for future community organizers are a key component of Catalyst Miami’s work on policy and advocacy. (Photo courtesy of Catalyst Miami)

Location: Miami-Dade County, Florida
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Type of Organization: A nonprofit anti-poverty economic justice organization with a hybrid service model encompassing direct-service delivery and organizing.
Mission: To identify and collectively solve issues adversely affecting low-wealth communities throughout Miami-Dade County.
Interview With: Zelalem Adefris, vice president of policy and advocacy

What is your organization’s area of focus, and how does it relate to the built environment and land use?

Catalyst Miami (CM) envisions a just and equitable society in which all communities thrive. Since 1996, CM has helped thousands of Miami-Dade residents become financially secure and civically engaged through our dual service-delivery and organizing model. CM recognizes that health and wealth are part of an overall continuum—without well-being in those areas, the capacity of individuals and families to effect change through leadership, community involvement, and network participation is limited. But without leadership, involvement, and participation, Miami’s communities will be unable to address the broader structural causes of poverty and inequity. CM also understands that all these factors—health, wealth, and civic participation—are necessary ingredients to achieve justice and equity.

Most of Miami-Dade County is built atop the Everglades, North America’s largest subtropical wetland. The 42-year-long Seminole Wars, which started in 1816 as an attempt by the U.S. government to recapture runaway slaves who joined the Seminole Nation, resulted in opening up this land for exploitation and development. In the late 1800s, African Americans and Bahamian immigrants began building South Florida as we know it today. However, as Jim Crow set in, as well as its subsequent manifestations—redlining and discriminatory lending—Miami’s Black populations were relegated to neighborhoods that have experienced continued disinvestment. The ownership of land and real estate is a dominant driver of wealth in Miami that, for generations, has been withheld from communities of color. Our work seeks to reverse this trend, expanding economic mobility to communities that have suffered generations of systemic racism and xenophobia.

How do you define environmental justice in your work?

Environmental injustice is the fact that communities of color are disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards, often leading to adverse health outcomes. Environmental justice is the movement to eliminate these environmental hazards, particularly in those communities that have been disproportionately affected. We see this manifest in Miami through historical examples such as highways being built through communities of color, to recent years during which a Black residential neighborhood became one of the county’s official dump sites after Hurricane Irma in 2017.

In our work, we extend this definition to include climate justice. Climate injustice is the fact that the communities that have done the least to contribute to our climate crisis are now feeling the most serious impacts. Climate justice is the movement to ensure that our climate solutions are inclusive of economic and social justice, as well as accessible to communities around the globe.

What do you hope to see from the real estate sector, especially given current increased awareness of racial and environmental justice? 

Miami is a hot real estate market. There is so much construction that it inspired Solange Knowles to write “Cranes in the Sky,” securing her a Grammy Award for Best R&B Performance in 2017. Unfortunately, most of these developments are built for a luxury market, leaving Miami-Dade with a deficit of over 120,000 affordable housing units. This vulnerability has only worsened with COVID-19, as thousands of households now face eviction due to financial hardship. As a result of decades of discrimination, Miami’s Black communities have been historically pushed away from coastal properties and toward the interior of the county, which happens to be some of the highest elevation land in the region. Now, due to rampant development and gentrification, these communities are being pushed out again. This leads to a phenomenon called climate gentrification, in which communities are now being bought out of those inland neighborhoods and are, in some cases, displaced to lower-lying coastal land that is more susceptible to flooding and sea-level rise.

We hope to see more community ownership and decision-making when it comes to real estate and development. We need innovative ownership and development models such as community land trusts, land banks, and community benefits agreements that ensure that what is built meets the needs of our existing residents—not just foreign investors or those seeking vacation homes.

Catalyst has done significant work advancing housing justice in the face of climate change. What does this look like in a city as vulnerable to climate impacts as Miami, and what is the role for the real estate sector? 

CM has collectively worked with over 200 community residents and stakeholders to collaboratively define 12 demands to address Miami’s housing and climate crises. These demands range from vacancy taxes to requiring that new developments undergo analyses of sea-level rise, greenhouse gas emissions, and displacement of current residents. In 2019, we launched our HEAL [Housing, Equity, Advocacy, and Leadership] program, which educates residents on the history, language, and advocacy solutions necessary to influence local planning and development. We also play a role in facilitating community voice in government-led planning initiatives for land use and development.

In an ideal world, the real estate sector as a whole would prioritize sustainable development, community decision-making, and keeping communities in place. However, the reality is that the real estate sector is incentivized by the bottom line. We need our elected officials to institute policies that ensure that the real estate sector plays its part in preserving our community and, quite literally, saving our homes.

What methods do you use to engage community members about climate change in a time when there are so many other urgent issues?

Our signature CLEAR [Community Leadership on the Environment, Advocacy, and Resilience] program educates residents on the local impacts of climate change and potential solutions, and builds their efficacy as advocates. The goal of CLEAR is to create a mass of neighborhood leaders who can:

1) Effectively advocate for policies that strengthen the resilience of underserved communities vulnerable to the effects of climate change;

2) Bring perspective to seats of decision-making to ensure that underserved segments of the community are heard and respected;

3) Expose how systemic barriers that create and maintain conditions of poverty also enable climate vulnerability, and to challenge these systems; and

4) Educate their community on basic climate science, vulnerability, and resilience.

The CLEAR program boasts 250 graduates since its inception in fall 2016. The keys to the program’s success are relevance and accessibility. We explain the relationship between climate change and other pressing community concerns. In addition, we break down barriers that prevent participation by offering a concurrent youth program, dinner prior to each session, interpretation, transportation to assist those without access to cars, and technology such as tablets to participate virtually.

Lastly, we ensure that our facilitators are the relatable messengers. We believe in creating a compassionate environment where people can recognize their own expertise and harness their power as advocates. For more information on CLEAR, please visit