In 2005 Rita Bijons was up to her elbows in dishwater and listening to CBC radio’s weekly science program. Tim Flannery was talking about his book,The Weather Makers: How we are changing the climate and what it means for life on earth, and what he had to say was very troubling.
By the time he’d finished she’d resolved to read his book — but she didn’t. She was busy with work and family and she tucked the book title away for another day.
A number of months later, when the school year ended, Rita retired. She asked her son Eddy what he’d like as a gift for getting great grades that year. He said he was number 15 on the library’s waiting list for a book, and he’d like to have it now. That book was The Weather Makers. Rita and Eddy had never discussed the book but she knew that reading it would be a coming of age for him. It was. And for Rita, who read it once her son was finished, it was a “total paradigm shift.” Before long, both she and Eddy were busy with a group called Stop Climate Chaos.
They learned by doing–by making mistakes–and everyone involved made a contribution. “I’d never in my life organized a rally,” she says. “None of us had any experience at organizing a big event.Yet the will was there so we found a way.” Now she’s a 24/7 environmental activist, and recommends that you watch this!
Why did Rita start Creating Resilience to Extreme Weather (CREW)?
The City of Toronto released its Future Weather and Climate Drivers Study in November 2012. Rita heard about it, took note, downloaded the report and took it away with her at Christmas for holiday reading. ‘It was nightmarish,” she says, “when you look at those graphs and understand what it is you’re reading. It was very clear to me we had to get word out to everyone about that study.
You know, put it into words that people can understand.” In January 2013, Rita asked the City’s Parks and Environment Committee, as well as Dave MacLoud, Toronto’s Senior Environment Officer, how grassroots organizations could help do that. The timing was right. In July Toronto was overwhelmed by unprecedented flooding. Then — just in time for Christmas — it was slammed by a devastating ice storm. It was time for another meeting: In January 2014 Rita called the grassroots’ organizers who she knew should be involved. They all said yes. And Dave brought colleagues from City Hall as well as graduate students from the course he teaches on Urban Climate Adaptation.
Creating Resilience to Extreme Weather (CREW) was created after that meeting. It provides numerous resources for groups working on their own reislience projects and objectives. It draws inspiration from resilience initiatives in other cities. And best of all, it connects people to others who are doing similar work and want to share their experiences. Rita knows that when people give their time to make a difference they deserve support and encouragement. It’s hard work, but it comes with great rewards.
What keeps Rita going?
Most of Rita’s teaching career was spent teaching kindergarten. “There I was, day after day, experiencing this joy, and looking into the face of the future. Kids are so optimistic and filled with wonder. I’m so lucky that for all those years I totally believed that those children had a bright future ahead of them, I was very optimistic. I couldn’t teach kindergarten now, because I know too many things that fill me with sadness. I would bring my sadness into the teaching.”
When I ask Rita what she’s proudest of there’s a long pause, and then she sighs, “I don’t know. It’s ongoing. I can tell you that in order to remain mentally healthy I have to keep trying. I derive a lot of strength from being connected with other people who get it; who get the urgency of it and are acting on it.” Every once in a while Rita invites colleagues to sit with her in her backyard, enjoy potluck with a glass of wine or a couple of beers, and celebrate what they’ve accomplished together. But there’s still a lot more work to do.