UVA podcast explores racism and sea level rise in Norfolk
A new podcast called “Wading Between Two Titans” focuses on how historical racial inequities in Norfolk intersect with the city’s problems with sea level rise.
It comes from the University of Virginia’s Repair Lab, where researchers and freelancers produce work on climate change and environmental justice.
Adrian Wood reported and produced the podcast. Kim Sudderth, a Norfolk-based climate organizer and member of the city’s Planning Commission, helped with the project as well.
WHRO spoke with both of them about what they learned.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
WHRO: So Adrian let’s start with you. Tell me about your interest in this topic and what you set out hoping to accomplish with the podcast.
Adrian Wood: I started as a multimedia producer in this position in January 2022, so I started learning about sea level rise and housing in the Hampton Roads area at that time to sort of begin my deep foray into those topics. I have a background as an environmental justice organizer and advocate in pipeline struggles in Virginia and beyond, and other organizing experience around different issues of equity and access in different places. That was kind of the background that I was coming into this project with and the perspective. And since then I've learned a ton about Hampton Roads, the most populated region of Virginia, and the wonderful city that is Norfolk.
WHRO: And Kim, tell me a little about your experience as a climate activist in Hampton Roads and what your role is with this project?
Kim Sudderth: I became an organizer in 2016. I didn't know what an organizer was. I essentially have been an organizer for much of my life, just as a mother and being directly affected by climate change here locally. Part of my job with an organization called Mothers Out Front was to talk to people, specifically women and mothers, who were concerned about a livable climate for their children's future. So thinking of the “two titans,” I grew up watching “Godzilla” movies, so I thought of it in the same way. The gentrification monster and the climate change monsters – while they're fighting it out, it’s the people who get trampled below.
WHRO: How did you go about tackling this topic, and what did you do throughout your reporting?
AW: I really drew a lot on the dozens of hours of tape interviews that I recorded with residents of Norfolk, elected officials, experts and advocates. Kim was really instrumental in helping me connect with people who she had already been in conversation with in the city. And that helped me get to understand those processes and wheels that were already in motion around those problems of sea level rise and housing, and what people were wanting and what were the stakes and what conversations were already in progress. I could kind of pick up on what were the issues that people are thinking about right now, and how is that different depending on where folks are coming from.
WHRO: You mention in the first episode that you had to learn the right way to say Norfolk. I wonder if you can tell us how it was to learn more about the area and any challenges you encountered as a sort of outsider.
AW: I’ve learned since then that there is no right way to pronounce the name of the city. There are wrong ways to pronounce it. It's been a beautiful and deeply enriching experience to be able to visit Norfolk and get to know people there to build relationships and connections. People have been so profoundly generous with me, with educating me about their lives and problems that they're dealing with and things that they wish were happening. I can't be grateful enough for the kindness and generosity that people have shown me.
WHRO: You covered a lot with this podcast. What do you think are the biggest takeaways and what surprised you the most?
AW: The biggest takeaways for me are just a deeper understanding of some of the issues that are popping up as symptoms of deep and long standing inequalities that are foundational to some of the systems that we're entrenched in, systems like inequitable and exploitative housing practices and systems like reliance on fossil fuels that creates climate change feedback cycles. In episodes three and four we talk about the St Paul's transformation and the Ohio Creek Watershed Project, respectively, and some of my investigations around those projects were surprising to me and I think others too in learning about some of the unintended consequences of very well-meaning and pure intentioned projects. It can just be a double edged sword.
KS: I went into this not expecting to be surprised. I was like, I lived here my whole life, I know everything. And part of Adrian's research (was) around redlining. And we had a really great conversation about the neighborhood that I live in right now, in Berkley. And for whatever reason, I didn't realize that this neighborhood was initially all white. And at some point, it began to transition from white affluence into poorer white people. It was graded lower because of this community's proximity to Black people. Because it was so close to Black people, they were less likely to provide mortgages or offer support. And then as Black people began to move in, that's when you saw the white flight and further devaluation of the community. So I was surprised to know that that was the progression. I cried maybe five minutes into the first episode. It sounded like home. It was one of the most Norfolk things I’d heard in a long time.
You can listen to all episodes of the podcast at https://www.twotitans.org/.