Constance Okollet, from Uganda, and Sharon Hanshaw
, from the US, bonded this week at the climate talks in Copenhagen.
Hanshaw is a cosmetologist from East Biloxi, Mississippi.
is the first "climate witness" in this program who is from a rich, industrialized nation.
A lifetime member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), she speaks easily about racial and class prejudice, and the unique position she is in to bust some stereotypes.
"Everybody feels that they're so rich in America, they can't have poverty.
They can't have poor people," she
But the reality of class in America is that "my uncle is rich, but he
didn't give me the money," she
As both an American and an African American, she
perceives that her
presence can be challenging to many of the people she
meets as a climate witness, both in the United States and abroad.
"What I need people to understand [is that] we have people who are outside.
And I feel that outside is outside," says Hanshaw
"You outside in the U.S., you outside in Africa, you outside in Uganda - you still outside."
was out of town on August 29, 2005, when Katrina's winds drove the Gulf of Mexico into her
Thirteen feet of water crashed through the streets that day, filling her
house with mud, scattering her
belongings, tearing the bumper off her
Despite all this, Hanshaw
believes that communities hurt by climate change can help each other re-organize and survive.
"They say Katrina, I say, tsunami," she
says, speaking of a trip to meet women in India whose lives and communities were disrupted by 2004's catastrophic Indian Ocean tsunami.
met people living in temporary dwellings made from a material containing asbestos.
That was form of "aid," in her
mind, to the trailers contaminated with formaldehyde that FEMA
gave to Gulf Coast residents after Katrina.
"The people who got hurt the worst, get hurt the worst again," she
Over four years after Hurricane Katrina, Hanshaw
still cries when she
talks about losing her
neighborhood, about how hopeless she
friends and family have sometimes felt.
"I cannot control my emotions when I think about my children, and my house, and my family and my community gone.
It just comes," she
"I just have to be real with what's going on.
And what's real is that it hurts."
Hanshaw harnessed her pain and her hope by helping to found Coastal Women for Change in mid-2006, and then becoming its executive director.
As described in a November 2009 profile of Hanshaw
Magazine (which dubs her
a "climate hero"),
faced a setback in Copenhagen: Expecting to join fellow climate witnesses and tell her
story at an Oxfam
"climate verdict" hearing at the conference center, she
instead got stuck on one of the appallingly long registration lines that have plagued conference-goers at Copenhagen's semi-surburan Bella Center
, the site of the talks.
Oxfam's Judy Beals filmed a short hand-held video of Hanshaw as they waited in line:
Stuck outside in the cold for six hours, Hanshaw
missed the hearing, and with it the chance to talk personally, however briefly, with prominent human rights and climate advocates like Mary Robinson, Desmond Tutu, and Yvo de Boer, as well as to present a united front with her fellow witnesses at these highly charged negotiations.
By the time I met up with her
a day later, Hanshaw
was bouncing back, however.
was taking on a packed interview schedule with all sorts of journalists - from a reporter connecting up via online telephony, to me with my computer and digital recorder, to the Stupid TV camera crew that caused her
to cry once again as she
described what she's
lost to global warming.
always has the bigger picture firmly in front of her
, and seems to be a natural optimist.
The proof is that she
has managed to carve some meaning out of the registration debacle:
"I hope that the takeaway is that this is so powerful that people from all over the world came, and were willing to stand in a line indefinitely, because of it," she told the TV interviewer.