A capital idea about gender equity


Simi Kang (left) with Coastal Communities Consulting staff and friends on a tour of coastal wetlands restoration projects in lower Plaquemines Parish, December 2022. Credit: Christina Duong.

As the climate crisis deepens, so too do ideas about what this emergency means, who it impacts most, and how best to address it.

Today, for International Women’s Day, we invited Simi Kang—a mixed Sikh American community advocate, artist, and assistant professor in the Department of Gender Studies—to reflect on the meaning of the day and its theme, ‘embrace equity,’ for women living in regions that are negatively affected by climate change.

Can you tell us about your work with communities in the Gulf South?

My current research is situated in southeast Louisiana, along the Gulf Coast. In this area, communities are consistently made vulnerable by climate change, rising sea levels, land erosion, saltwater intrusion, and industry-caused environmental degradation and contamination.

The communities that I’ve been working with for seven years now are Southeast Asian American residents who rely on family-operated commercial fishing businesses to support themselves. They, alongside Indigenous, Black, and Central and South American communities, experience the acute impacts of being made "environmentally expendable" (to quote David Pellow) by industry and policy.

Over the years, I’ve seen how a lot of government and corporate storytelling about environmental change and its effects omits the communities I work with or presumes they can survive without support, even after major environmental disasters. When Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) makes plans to restore areas damaged by the 2010 BP oil catastrophe, for example, they use maps to justify their approaches to big restoration projects. The maps show industry infrastructure, and some flora and fauna, but they don’t have any people on them. So, it’s pretty clear that environmental restoration in the area is designed to protect infrastructure, not people. The fishers I work with ask CPRA things like, “where are we on the map?” and “do we matter as much as oil and shipping?”

Politicians and policymakers in Louisiana regularly make important decisions about rather than with structurally under-served communities, which leads to these people having even less of a voice and little support when their homes are destroyed by hurricanes, their livelihood is poisoned by crude oil “spills,” their children are forced to work in unsafe jobs, and the infrastructure that supports their way of life—think schools, gas stations, libraries—dwindles because their neighbors are either forced out of the region or have to leave because they can’t bear it anymore.

Much of my work, which I carry out alongside four incredible women at a non-profit called Coastal Communities Consulting (CCC), explores this state- and industry-produced imperative to be ‘resilient’—or, to survive ongoing and accumulating violence without structural support—and the ‘environmental expendability’ that results from it.

According to Houma artist and organizer Monique Michelle Verdin, the region’s residents understand themselves as living in “the nation’s environmental sacrifice zone.” They feel that when environmental policy is being drafted, it’s being done in a way that presupposes their expendability; that it pre-emptively excludes or writes them out of the landscape. So, in this context, to be resilient is to be erased. To be resilient is to be already sacrificed.

One of my current projects, titled Mapping Shrimping Futures, shifts the focus of state restoration efforts from conversations about industry to ones about the region’s people and ecosystems. It creates an alternative archive of locals’ expertise of southeast Louisiana’s coast. I’m doing this by asking Vietnamese and Cambodian American fishing families to make their own maps of what matters to them, what they know about the ecosystems they work in and with, and what these ecosystems have lost. By putting expertise of place back in the hands of one of the communities that relies on the coast, the project will re-place stories and experiences that are kept out of official maps about climate change, water health, land loss, and population density.

How are women in this region uniquely impacted by climate change?

In my experience, the labour of negotiating environmental change is often domestic, reproductive labour, which is overwhelmingly feminized. As such, it’s deeply undervalued in most places worldwide because it's associated with women.

Reproductive labour is the work of reproducing our communities across time and space through daily care work like raising children, supporting elders, cleaning and maintaining safe and healthy spaces, collecting and making food and other necessities, and so on. Mutual aid, which has risen in popularity as a term but has always been a practice in structurally-marginalized communities, is also a form of reproductive labor that has become essential for many peoples’ survival in southeast Louisiana. Mutual aid looks like folks working together to help each other survive instead of waiting for someone beyond the community to show up—or not.

CCC’s staff—Sandy Ha Nguyen, Cristina Duong, Katrina Williams, and Anne Nguyen, pictured below—offer an excellent example of the importance of this work. They provide translation and interpretation help in Vietnamese, Spanish and Khmer for local community-members, who as ESL speakers would otherwise be excluded from disaster response programs and services, which are most frequently offered in English. CCC staff literally invent new language to make sure residents can understand a policy that might help them survive the next storm. They also support the community and small businesses by helping elders fill out paperwork and online forms; they listen to people overwhelmed with trauma; they drop off food at peoples’ doorsteps and find them hotel rooms when they have nowhere to go; they spend days on end trying to help fishers locate boats displaced by a storm.

This type of labour is so undervalued that it’s not a part of conversations about climate change. In Louisiana, many decision-makers assume my colleagues will do the translation and interpretation work for the community rather than making sure their meetings are linguistically accessible to all residents from the beginning.

So, it’s worth asking: what would it look like if we provided resources to the people who are already doing this work of community survival, rather than drawing up maps that imagine an idealized ‘restoration’ of the space? What if, instead of supporting industry, we support these women and the communities they serve?

Staff at Coastal Communities Consulting. Left to right: Anne Nguyen, Sandy Ha Nguyen, Christina Duong, and Katrina Williams. Credit: Claire Bangser.

How can a day like International Women’s Day lead to positive change for people living in these environmentally ‘sacrified’ areas?

A lot of people are familiar with the Angela Davis quote “Radical simply means ‘grasping things at the root,’” but I’m not sure we appreciate the full gravity of what she was trying to mobilize folks to think about. The full quote from Davis’ talk “Let Us All Rise Together: Radical Perspectives on Empowerment for Afro-American Women” is: “If we are not afraid to adopt a revolutionary stance—if, indeed, we wish to be radical in our quest for change—then we must get to the root of our oppression. After all, radical simply means ‘grasping things at the root.’”

In my view, International Women’s Day (IWD) marks a series of moments where women who had been organizing around labor rights throughout the West came together to look at the root of the violences they endured. IWD was born out of a series of strikes where women withheld their labour until that labour was recognized. So, the day has roots in movements for labor, class, and reproductive justice. Indigenous feminists and feminists of colour have added more nuance to these movements by addressing the ongoingness of settler/colonialisms and imperialisms and how they impact everyone. This includes resisting violence against trans and non-binary kin, following Indigenous Elders and Knowledge Keepers on issues around resource extraction and territorial sovereignty, recognizing the xenophobia embedded in immigration laws, and so on.

A day like IWD gives us a moment to pause, connect with our loved ones and elders and ancestors, and think about how we want to be invested in each other’s futures by resisting structural violences like those endured by the fisherfolk with whom I work in Louisiana. It’s a day when we can consider how we can be radical— how we can get to the root(s) of our oppression(s)—and make something better together.

My work is indebted to so many organizers and scholars who have shaped these movements for justice. As a feminist scholar, I want to not just name and give texture to the structural violences fisherfolk and coast-dependent communities experience; I want to find inroads to address them on the communities’ terms. Eve Tuck calls this desire-based rather than damaged-centered research: structuring our work such that community desires lead the way. For me, this means going to the source and listening to people’s actual knowledge and experiences, then creating an archive of them that resists the very structures and actors causing so much harm in the first place. This kind of speaking back—or being radical—might be one way to take a step toward a more equitable future.


Simi Kang is a 2022-23 Rising: Climate in Crisis resident at Studio in the Woods, a program of Tulane University’s ByWater Institute, for which they are completing the “Mapping Shrimping Futures” project. They are also currently writing a book provisionally titled Refugee Environmentalism: Climate Change & Restoration in Coastal Louisiana, which examines how projects of coastal restoration and disaster mitigation acutely impact Vietnamese American communities who rely on Louisiana’s most ecologically tenuous fishing grounds. This semester, Kang is teaching (GNDR 219) Re-imagining the world: Transnational Speculative Fiction and (GNDR 339) Climate Change & Migration at UVic.

Article by Philip Cox