Community Voices

Researchers help Miami community plan for sea rise, climate change

Dr. Edda Fields-Black, an historian at Carnegie Mellon University, is a Miami native.
Dr. Edda Fields-Black, an historian at Carnegie Mellon University, is a Miami native.

Planning for the future is not a regular occurrence. Most people are engaged in the immediate, such as figuring out their next meal or the logistics of an upcoming activity. Thinking 50 years and beyond is not on most agendas.

Historian April Merleaux, an assistant professor in Florida International University’s history department, is different. In addition to teaching and conducting research, she spends numerous hours as the project director for the National Endowment for the Humanities-funded Ecohumanities for Cities in Crisis Event Series, finding ways to engage people in conversation about sea level rise and climate change.

The central question for the series, titled Fragile Habitat: Conversations for Miami’s Future: Will Miami rise to the challenge of creating a resilient and sustainable future and will all residents have a fair chance to shape that future?

In a recent op-ed, Merleaux wrote about the project and explained environmental problems facing Miami, South Florida and the world. According to her findings, “scientists predict between 4-6 feet of sea level rise here by the end of the century. These changes will require people to make some very difficult decisions as they prioritize how to invest and what to protect.”

Although she has only lived in Miami for six years, the mother of two said she is concerned for her family, neighborhood and the global community.

The project Merleaux directs is designed to bring people from different neighborhoods together to discuss the challenges Miami and other area around the globe are facing from climate change. For program information, visit

Free and open to the public, the series is scheduled from April through October and features nationally recognized scholars and local environmentalists. The opening symposium, held April 8 at the History Miami Museum, featured diverse presenters from across South Florida telling their own stories of environmental activism. The panel included Audrey Peterman, Anthony Tepedino, Gene Tinnie, Professor Anthony Alfieri, Kamalah Fletcher and moderator artist Xavier Cortada.

The keynote panel was comprised of nationally recognized scholars Dr. Geri Augusto, visiting associate professor of International and Public Affairs and Africana Studies and a Watson Institute Faculty Fellow at Brown University; Dr. Ted Steinberg, Adeline Barry Davee professor of History and Professor of Law, Case Western Reserve University; and Dr. David Vasquez, associate professor of English and Ethnic Studies, University of Oregon.

Scheduled for Saturday, May 21: My daughter, Dr. Edda Fields-Black, an associate professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, participating in the FIU series. She specializes in pre-colonial and West African history with research interests extending in the African diaspora.

To uncover the history of African rice farmers and rice culture, Edda has lived and conducted research in Guinea, Sierra Leone, South Carolina and Georgia.

Edda’s first book was Deep Roots: Rice Farmers in West Africa and the African Diaspora (Indiana University Press) in 2014. She is also co-author of the award-winning book, Rice: Global Networks and New Histories (Cambridge University Press, 2015) with Francesca Bray, Peter Coclanis, and Dagmar Schafer and served as Co-Organizer of “New Histories of Rice Conference” sponsored by the Max Planck Institute for History of Science, Berlin, Germany in March 2011. She participated in the 2016 Ossabaw Island Symposium-Environmental Histories.

Her research has been funded by the Woodrow Wilson, Ford, Annenberg, and Mellon Foundations as well as by Fulbright-Hays. Currently she is researching and writing a second monograph, a historical study of the Gullah/Geechee, She is a consultant for “The Power of Place: The Rice Fields of the Lowcountry,” a permanent exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

This weekend’s conversation began when longtime Liberty City and Brownsville residents made local inquires about climate change.

George Early, with ancestry in South Carolina’s low country, asked, “are the people there preparing for climate change?” Genealogist Marvin Ellis expressed concern about the effect on future generations in the Americas and the Caribbean. Kenneth Kilpatrick remembers the South Florida Planning Council’s 1990s Eastward Ho! campaign. As intended, did it revitalize South Florida’s Urban Core by creating sustainable communities in Southeast Florida?

Last week, Vanessa Woodard Byers, creator of Blogging Black Miami, posted the announcement of the session and received many responses, particularly inquires related to gentrification. A variety of opinions were expressed about climate change and sea level rising triggering a new wave of gentrification for our area.

Residents of Miami’s heritage neighborhoods demonstrated interest in a continued dialogue.

Project director Merleaux observed: “I am hoping to invite people into the conversation about sea level rise and climate change beyond those who have already been aware of those issues. I have been especially interested to build audiences in parts of the city where it is most urgent to plan a resilient future including neighborhoods where socio-economic vulnerability and environmental risks overlap. I really learned a lot from reading the report from the NAACP and the Union of Concerned Scientists called Surviving and Thriving in the Face of Rising Seas.”

Residents countywide are encouraged to embrace the opportunity and accept the responsibility to help plan Miami-Dade County’s future on this important subject. FIU’s Fragile Habitat Conversation for Miami’s future continues May 28 at Aventura Branch Library, and June 16 at The Kampong — National Tropical Botanical Garden in Coconut Grove, The community is invited to participate.

Dorothy Jenkins Fields, PhD, is a historian and founder of the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida Inc. Send feedback to