Daylong Event Calls for Grassroots Action and Celebrates Fordham’s Role as EPA Grantmaker

We don’t all have to be scientists to fight climate change, a prominent marine biologist and activist told Fordham students, activists, and members of the Bronx community at Fordham’s Rose Hill campus on April 8.

“I think what the world needs, right now more than ever, are people who can move between different disciplines,” said Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, Ph.D.

“We need people to solve climate problems in business, in engineering, in law, in medicine … all of these things relate to the world and how it’s changing. Everyone needs to know at some fundamental level what’s happening.”

Johnson, a marine biologist and co-founder of the group Urban Ocean Lab, was the keynote speaker of Fordham’s second annual Climate Action Summit. Her speech, on a day when millions of Americans paused to take in a rare solar eclipse, was a reflection of her personal journey and activism taken from her forthcoming book, What If We Get It Right? (Penguin Random House). She also sat for a Q&A session with H. Shellae Versey, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Fordham.

H. Shellae Versey interviews Ayana Elizabeth Johnson
H. Shellae Versey interviewing Ayana Elizabeth Johnson

The work she’s done on behalf of communities from New York City to the Caribbean, she said, was always bolstered by a belief that anyone can be a part of the fight–including those who, like her father, were held back by racism, or those like her, “brimming with juxtapositions.”

“I’m a scientist who always intended to have a career in policy. I’m the daughter of a practical school teacher and a wistful artist. I’m cold New York winters and Caribbean heat,” she said.

“I’m working class and Harvard. I’m Black and white. I’m urban and smitten with the wilderness. I’m proof of the American dream—and proof that it is all too rare.”

The notion of taking a leadership role in fighting climate change was also the focus of other activities during the summit, which was organized by Fordham’s Center for Community Engaged Learning. An expo featured community groups, fireside chats, and panel discussions that examined federal funding for community-led solutions, as well as the future of environmental justice in higher education.

Elected Officials Celebrate Fordham’s Role as EPA Grantmaker

Julie Gafney speaks with Richie Torres and Chuck Schumer
Julie Gafney, executive director of the Center for Community Engaged Learning, welcomes Richie Torres, center, and Chuck Schumer.

A morning press conference featured Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Congressman Ritchie Torres, who praised Fordham for taking on the responsibility of distributing $40 million EPA funds through a grant it was awarded in December. The grant, which will be administered by the Center for Community Engaged Learning, was the direct result of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which was passed in 2022.

No Better Place

“We couldn’t have thought of a better place than Fordham to dispense this [funding]to go to grassroots groups,” said Schumer, who was instrumental in passing the IRA.

Torres added the program is benefiting the Bronx not by accident, but by design. “We designed the Inflation Reduction Act to lift up the lowest-income communities of color, especially the Bronx, which has been Ground Zero for environmental injustice,” he said.

The Bronx Is Not Burning; the Bronx Is Greening

“For a Bronx-based institution to receive $50 million in federal funding to distribute throughout the region is nothing short of staggering and unprecedented. And so, with the partnership of Fordham University, we are writing a new chapter in the story of the Bronx. The Bronx is not burning; the Bronx is greening.”

studnets posing for a picture in front of Keating Hall with eclipse glasses
The summit coincided with a rare solar eclipse that brought students out onto Edwards Parade.

Also attending the celebration was U.S. Rep. Adriano Espaillat. Others who could not attend sent staff members, including Gov. Kathy Hochul, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson, City Council Member Oswald Feliz, Westchester County Executive George Latimer, and Ulster County Executive Jen Metzger. See more elected official comments here.

Tania Tetlow, president of Fordham, said the grant, which will see the Center for Community Engaged Learning working with partner organizations from New York to Puerto Rico, epitomizes the mission of Fordham.

“This is so very us, this idea of connecting science with justice, of thinking about how we wake people up to the dangers ahead, and the chances to work together and inspire action and bring hope to an issue that can make us all despair and want to look away,” she said.

Julie Gafney, Ph.D., assistant vice president for strategic mission and executive director of the Center for Community Engaged Learning, thanked those responsible for the funding, community partners, and all those that will be involved in the project.

“Many of you are going to be partners in this work as we move ahead and really reorient Fordham around an initiative of public impact and social responsibility and see how traditional teaching, learning, and research can be leveraged in real-time toward community solutions.”


Patrick Verel is a news producer for Fordham Now. He can be reached at [email protected] or (212) 636-7790.