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An Interview with Professor Fonna Forman: Why Global Challenges Require Local Solutions


Art by Sophia Hidalgo

Professor Fonna Forman is a professor of Political Science and the founding Director of the Center on Global Justice at the University of California, San Diego. We interviewed her to learn more about her commitment to local solutions to climate change, her work providing immediate assistance to communities in the San Diego-Tijuana border region struggling with the destabilizing effects of climate change, and the way climate catastrophes are fueling the surge of Central American migrants to the Southern border.

Professor Forman received her J.D. and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. As Director of the UCSD Center on Global Justice, she co-leads the UCSD Community Stations with Visual Arts professor and architect, Teddy Cruz. The Community Stations are a cross-border collaboration of field stations that serve as a center of community resources, research, and poverty education. She partnered with Scripps Institute of Oceanography climatologist Dr. Ramanathan to create a University of California undergraduate course on climate change solutions, Bending the Curve, served as Vice-Chair of the University of California’s Bending the Curve report, presented her research at the Vatican Summit on Climate Change and Health, was appointed by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to serve on the Global Citizenship Commission on UN policy on human rights, and so much more.

It was a privilege to speak with and learn from a changemaker who cares so deeply about the future of our communities. We hope we can share with you the inspiration we drew from her as our Professor, as an activist, and as a person.

We also hope you take a look at the resources featured at the bottom of this article. They lead you to the UCSD Community Stations page on the UCSD Center on Global Justice website and other local organizations assisting migrants and refugees in San Diego.


What got you into studying border studies, climate change, and their intersection?

I've always been interested in global poverty. About 12 years ago, I set up a center on campus called The Center on Global Justice, and most of our projects initially were in Africa or South Asia. At a certain point in time, it seemed strange that we were defining ‘global’ as something far away when we have an intense site of conflict and human struggle right here in our own neighborhood. So, I started connecting with colleagues on the campus who were working on the border and I really became a pupil in learning about border dynamics and being guided through those contexts. I became increasingly committed to working in those neighborhoods and finding ways that UCSD could connect more authentically with those communities.

Truthfully, through the lens of poverty, and my lifelong commitment to understanding, diagnosing and finding solutions to it, climate change became an inevitable part of the story because I came to realize climate change was becoming - and will be - one of the major drivers of poverty for the foreseeable future. So, I became interested in climate change through the lens of poverty and seeing the impact on the communities that I work with very vividly.

Climate change is often an abstract term. What exactly do you mean when you talk about climate change at the border?

First, we need to immediately change this idea that climate change is a big, unknowable, abstract thing. For that reason, I became committed to advancing work on climate education in the University of California. As a political scientist, I started partnering with climate scientists Ram Ramanathan at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in the development of the Bending the Curve project. I was really interested right from the start in making climate change a less scary thing and more something that we understand and can take ownership of. Your generation in many ways is way out ahead of us. You have new ways to communicate and connect on this issue that my generation finds to be a black box in many ways. But, we wanted to make climate change available as a topic for students to really immerse themselves in mobilizing all of the resources of the University to design a high quality educational protocol. Bending the Curve has been a labor of love.

I believe so deeply in fieldwork for students because you can see in reality the concepts and theories that you're studying on the campus. One of the things that you realize very quickly working in border communities is that they are living climate injustice every single day. It’s embedded in the way they live in terms of the kinds of changes that are happening -- in terms of agriculture, housing, labor.... Across the board, climate change is changing the way people live -- for all of us, but disproportionately so for vulnerable communities just a few miles away. When students engage with those communities for the first time, these abstract concepts become very, very real.

A United Nations survey a few years ago found that something like 72 to 74 percent of arriving [Central American] migrants at our Southern border were somehow involved with the agricultural sector, and agricultural instability was a key factor in their decision to walk North. Climate injustice is not just something that's happening far away; it's happening right here at our border and in underserved neighborhoods across our city. We're not unique. The reason I believe in local work is not because we're somehow special or unique here, but because it's our community and we have easy access to those communities. So, I've been really fighting the idea that we need to send our students far away to learn about poverty; to learn about deprivation; to learn about climate impacts. We can do that right here. That's why I'm such a localist. Where we can roll our sleeves up and actually get stuff done is typically in a local or regional context.

Ellie: That’s also more accessible to students who can’t afford to jet across the globe.

Professor Forman: Yes, and think about the footprint associated with jetting across the globe. Our “edu-tourism” industry needs to check itself, because it’s actually contributing to - instead of solving - problems.

Since the pandemic, have you been able to make any progress in local areas at the border?

Well, our researchers and our students have not been in the field, so we’ve mobilized a fantastic virtual infrastructure for staying connected with our partners across the border. We work very closely with migrant shelters in Tijuana where we’re helping to build emergency housing there right now. We installed a 10-station computer lab inside of the migrant shelter, as well as another computer lab inside of another Community Center in Tijuana, to stay in contact with our partners and especially with migrant children who don't have access to formal education. We've been trying to mobilize educational, environmental and public health support virtually and find ways to channel resources to these communities.

The migrant situation is going to intensify in the next period. Social media posts are circulating right now that the border is open, everybody comes, and then they arrive and - bam - everything is still slammed down. Tijuana is one of these places where people are amassing and the Mexican population has become intolerant and sometimes even racist. They're struggling with their own public resources, so it becomes a major stressor on cities that are already struggling to provide social services for their own residents. It's just a mess. We anticipate that these challenges will intensify in the short-term and with climate change, dramatically in the long term with successive waves of north-bound migration. We're doing the best we can right now, but we just can't wait to get back into the field. We feel a little bit restless. We’ve done the best we can during this period.

I want to mention the UCSD Community Stations. It's a network of four physical field stations located in border neighborhoods, two on each side of the border -- a partnership between the UCSD Center on Global Justice, which I direct, with a very rooted, community-based organization in each one of these sites. The Community Stations become a platform for University community partnership on environmental and social challenges. In all four of our stations, we’re working pretty intensely on environmental challenges being faced by these communities. Southeast San Diego is intersected by freeway infrastructure, has horrible air quality and all the idling cars at the border are causing lung disease. These San Diego communities are facing injustices associated with climate change, as well.

Across the border, one of the major challenges that Tijuana faces that our Community Stations tackle directly is the effects of severe precipitation fluctuation, a function of climate change. Dramatic rain events cause the canyon slums in Tijuana to literally slide down. We're working really hard on environmental remediation projects in the informal settlements in Tijuana. The sedimentation problems and challenges with flooding require climate adaptation. When we talk about climate change, we always talk about bending the curve to reduce warming, but in the meantime, people are hurting; people are struggling, and they can’t adapt. We believe that adaptation needs to be as high on the agenda as bending the warming curve. That’s our mission in the Center on Global Justice.

The ‘Crisis at the Border’ is all over the news right now. How much do you think this will be a cultural fight? Obviously, this is an economic and climate problem, but domestically it feels like a cultural one. Do you ever see that changing?

I've always seen politics as, essentially, a cultural challenge - especially now, and we’ve never seen it so dramatically (at least in my lifetime). I was born during the Vietnam War. I heard stories about what life was like then, but I was too young to really experience it. I've never witnessed this kind of chasm - these fissures in the social fabric - and it's terrifying.

I believe this polarization of politics has left the middle without a place. I think it's tragic that the Progressive Left lost the laboring class in this country. We need to find a way to bring the middle class back on board with a public agenda that is much safer than throwing everything to the winds of privatization to decide our collective future - which is scary as hell. And the reason I'm saying that is because the entire anti-immigrant fever is part of that swamp of anti-public thinking. That's just one symptom of it. We've altogether lost our capacity to understand that a vibrant workforce - a vibrant public life committed to the common good - is a healthier path for the United States.

The one thing that I've been really drawn to is the post-war era of New Deal thinking where we might find inspiration for investing again in public infrastructure and public goods. We’ve really lost our way by slamming the door shut on immigration. Racism, of course, is an aspect of this. A lot of racism is driving this resistance to this “invasion from the south”.

Hopefully we're starting to see the pendulum swinging back a little bit toward a common ground, but it's going to take some time because there's been so much damage done to the cultural cloth. I think things are going to get pretty bad for a while, and I think the Biden administration is probably going to catch a lot of heat for not knowing how to manage this flow of humanity - this flow of humanity that's being driven out of their homes by political instability and climate change. It's only going to intensify. But I stay optimistic. This bubble of privatization is going to have to pop at some point and a sense of collective well-being is going to have to come forward.

I’m a scholar-activist at heart. I get in trouble sometimes with my colleagues. You know, your generation is so inspiring, it will make me cry. I just taught my class Power and Justice (POLI 13) this term, and I decided to retool the whole course on the subject of race and racial justice. Everybody’s struggling in these crazy times right now, but all my students are so inspiring; so motivated to make a better world, and to see their bodies and their lives as a part of the solution.

In the meantime, we need to be a sanctuary for people. I'm so proud that there are so many agencies in our city that have opened their doors to migrants, provided sanctuary, resisted state power, and are doing what we need to do from the bottom up until we have a top-down solution. That’s really the key.

Organizations Making a Difference:

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