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Hilary Heath ’14 Helps People Around the World Deal with Climate Change
by Chuck Gordon

Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, isn’t easy to get to. The pat answer: Go to Winnipeg and head north for 2,000 miles. Even that is easier said than done. There are no roads into town, no bus station and certainly no rail. Flights land daily, but it’ll cost you: As much as $5,000 from southern Canada. 

The only town on the Arctic Circle’s King William Island, Gjoa (pronounced “Joe”) Haven was called “the finest little harbor in the world” by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who wintered there for a couple of years early in the 20th century. The town gets its European name from Amundsen’s boat, the Gjoa (the town’s Inuit name is Uqsuqtuuq), and you can stay in the Amundsen Inn when you visit. But maybe wait until June or July. Winter lasts nine months, including six weeks of total darkness, and it gets dangerously cold, the type of cold that most Wingate graduates will never experience (and never want to). On Groundhog Day this year, the wind chill in Gjoa Haven dipped to minus-57, but kids still had to go to school. “They don’t shut everything down until it’s minus-60,” Gjoa Haven native Leanne Beaulieu said the next day, when the high was a balmy minus-32. “I consider today nice and warm.”

As frigid as that seems, it’s not as consistently cold as it used to be, thanks to climate change. Studies show that the Arctic is warming four times as fast as the rest of the world. Across northern Canada and Alaska, Inuit communities are having to adapt to a rapidly warming climate that is affecting their centuries-old ways of life. On the coasts, entire towns are being relocated before erosion causes the sea to swallow their homes.

On King William Island, the problem is thinning sea ice. Over the past 15 years, unstable ice has become much more of a concern for Inuit who go out hunting, fishing, collecting firewood and visiting others. Layers of ice that used to be frozen solid from late-November to mid-June are now dotted with cracks and areas of thin ice that lay under a blanket of snow, waiting to suck unsuspecting snowmobiles into the frigid water below.

In February of 2010, it rained every day in northern Labrador, in an area self-governed by the Nunatsiavut people. The rain softens and diminishes the ice. “It’s this freeze-thaw-freeze-thaw-freeze-thaw, and the ice just goes from the top to the bottom and gets smaller and smaller and smaller,” says Carolann Harding, CEO of the Newfoundland-based nonprofit SmartICE.

In the winter of 2009-2010, one in 12 people in Nain, a village on the Labrador coast, said that they’d fallen into the ice (what the locals call “going off”) while traveling via snowmobile. “It was wreaking havoc,” Harding says.

“There’s going to be ice for a long time,” she adds. “The integrity of the ice, though, is up in the air. One year it could be perfect. Another year it could be terrible. How do you deal with that?”

One way to deal with it is to adapt, and SmartICE is helping communities across the Arctic do just that. Using SmartICE’s technology and traditional knowledge from the community, Beaulieu creates maps that clearly mark potentially dangerous areas. She posts the maps on social media and to the digital platform Siku, but the most effective method of getting the word out is to pin the maps up in high-traffic areas of town. In Gjoa Haven, that means the Co-op and Northern grocery stores, the local municipal building, the Community Centre. “This is how they do things in the North,” Harding says. The maps are updated once or twice a week, depending on the time of year.

SmartICE was able to develop the map project thanks to a $500,000 grant from the Climate Justice Resilience Fund (CJRF), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that pools funds to help communities in the most affected areas of the world adapt to the effects of a rapidly warming planet. Playing an integral role in maintaining relationships between the CJRF and the organizations they’re funding is Hilary Heath ’14.

Heath has been a program associate with the CJRF for six years, essentially since it was founded by the Oak Foundation, a Geneva, Switzerland-based nonprofit that focuses on social justice. She realizes that, in this day and age, six years is a long time to stay with your initial employer, but the work has been fulfilling, and, since the fund is staffed by Heath, the director and one part-time employee, she hasn’t had time to get bored.

Innovative adaptation

While earning a bachelor’s degree in history at Wingate, Heath knew she wanted to work in the field of human rights, especially internationally, but she thought the focus would be on gender. After earning a master’s in international development from the University of Pittsburgh, she happened to see a job posting for the newly created CJRF. The organization’s mission wasn’t overtly gender-related, but it ticked a lot of boxes.

“One of the main constituents we serve in the fund is women,” she says. “That’s what initially drew my interest, and I took the chance to apply.”

Heath can now envision a long career in the climate-justice field – especially considering that the worst is yet to come. Experts are pretty much unanimous in declaring climate change a fact; the only question is whether we can limit the global temperature rise to 1.5° centigrade from preindustrial levels, a target laid out in the Paris Accords in 2015. Reducing emissions is of the utmost importance, but while scientists and politicians tackle that problem (or ignore it), the effects of climate change are already being felt by communities around the world. The CJRF is one of several nonprofits that are working to help people adapt to a warmer, more volatile world.

Volunteers pose by a sled pulling a SmartICE sensor

What makes the CJRF unique is its focus on community-driven solutions. There’s no White Savior complex at play. The nonprofit even went so far as to restructure its board recently to make it composed of activists and practitioners, rather than funders.

“The people that have lived experience of this crisis are best positioned to make decisions on where funding goes,” Heath says. “Those who are dealing with the impacts of the climate crisis today have done the least to cause it, and are typically the most marginalized voices in society already. When you layer that reality on top of a crisis that exacerbates that marginalization, you can see how it would be a recipe for disaster. Despite this, if you listen to those voices, they already have ideas and solutions. Raising up those voices, that’s key for us.”

For the CJRF, that means targeting three specific areas of the world: East Africa, the Bay of Bengal, and the Arctic. The CJRF provides financing, but when it comes to project implementation, it hands the reins over to those on the ground who know their situation best. In Kenya, which is on year three of a devastating drought, that means helping local nonprofits that advocate for “pastoralist” ranchers, who move from place to place with their cattle as the seasons change. Three organizations the CJRF works with – Impact, Namati and Natural Justice – are helping Kenyans to secure ownership of the land their cattle graze on and to better understand their land rights. Namati and Natural Justice do so by training community paralegals (called “barefoot lawyers”), who work as boots on the ground.

The upshot is that local communities are better armed to keep large infrastructure projects from disrupting their lives. “Natural Justice has been pretty successful actually in stopping a major coal plant in Kenya,” Heath says, referring to a court win that ordered a fresh Environmental Impact Assessment study and set aside a license issued by the National Environment Management Authority for the Lamu Coal Power Station.

In Bangladesh, sea-level rise and storm surges are causing a multitude of problems, including the salinization of fresh water. To give less-affluent communities access to usable water, the CJRF funded a consortium called Governance for Climate Resilience (G4CR), which has built freshwater canals in lower-income communities and then helped those communities keep the canals out of the hands of private leaseholders. The canals are vital for the town of Shyamnagar in southwestern Bangladesh, providing irrigation, fish habitats and flood protection.

“They had a situation where some elites came in and captured a couple of canals, and they were able to take them back so that freshwater is available to these communities,” Heath says. “Key to the success was the community’s recognition that the canals were public property and should never have been filled in by private leaseholders in the first place. The action inspired and emboldened neighboring communities, who successfully advocated for their governments to return an additional five canals to the public domain.”

G4CR also gave the community access to climate-resistant rice varieties and taught farmers integrated farming techniques that enabled them to diversify their crops.

In the Arctic, SmartICE has developed buoys that contain sensors that measure the depth of the ice and beam that information up to a satellite. The organization has trained locals to assemble the buoys, providing jobs for young Inuit. Other community members drag ice-measuring sensors on “qamutiik” sleds behind snowmobiles (the data is uploaded when the driver is back within range of Wi-Fi). Beaulieu and her Inuit SmartICE colleagues combine all of the available data with traditional knowledge – where traditional routes are, the look and sound of the ice – to create their up-to-date maps, so Inuit can safely hunt for caribou, musk oxen and wolverines, gather firewood and reach their traditional fishing spots.

“We approach it in a more mindful way that lines up with Inuit societal values,” Harding says. “It’s not just about turning the equipment on.”

Volunteers deploy a SmartBUOY in the Arctic

Volunteers deploy a SmartBUOY in Nain, Newfoundland, in March 2021.


In a short time, Beaulieu has worked her way up from map-making trainee to trainer, which allows her to travel across northern Canada teaching her fellow Inuit how to access and decipher the data and assembling committees of local elders and others who have traditional knowledge.

The maps have been a game-changer in Gjoa Haven and beyond.

“I get stopped at the store whenever I’m up there, people telling me that they really appreciate that this is going on,” Beaulieu says. “It’s really helping with their decision-making and planning out their routes.”

“Without the CJRF, we wouldn’t have been able to get this done,” Harding says. “Hilary was fabulous. She was interested and thorough. Really, really great. It’s quite unique, what we’ve done, and it’s so impactful. Hilary and her team were instrumental.”

Discovering the world

Heath wound up at Wingate for a couple of reasons: It was close to home, and she could therefore commute her first two years to save money; and the University offered her a good financial package. She was most interested in studying political science, but Wingate’s poli sci major didn’t begin until her senior year, so she picked the next-closest thing: history, with a minor in political science.

“You learn a lot of critical thinking in history classes,” she says. “You learn a lot of research skills, a lot of writing skills. It felt like the right thing for me.”

In addition to engaging, knowledgeable history professors, Heath found at Wingate a university that encouraged its students to get out of their bubble. She went to London and Ireland with Dr. Pam Thomas’ English class, to China with W’International, and to Argentina as part of a summer research project. She’d never been out of the country before college, and the trips sparked not only a love of seeing the world but a desire to do work that benefited people outside of the United States.

It also indirectly led her to grad school. While in Argentina she uncovered a photo of a prominent U.S. senator rubbing elbows with an Argentine dictator. “I thought, That’s really weird,” Heath says. “Why would he be pictured with someone who had been actively leading an operation to kill and disappear thousands of people in Argentina?” Heath kept digging and found other evidence that the politician had cozied up to Latin American dictators.

She wrote it all up in a paper that she presented at the Latin American Social and Public Policy Conference, held by the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Latin American Studies, which wound up giving her a full-ride scholarship. “I got a graduate scholarship through the research I had done at Wingate,” she says. “I feel like college is what you make of it, and I knew I wanted to have a career when I left, so I found professors that really helped me and mentored me. There were courses that I loved, the class sizes were small, and between the international travel, the history department and the Honors Program, I made the most of my time at Wingate and the opportunities it afforded me.”

“Hilary Heath is perhaps among the top two or three students I have had in my entire career – 19 years – of teaching across three different universities,” says Dr. Joseph Ellis, professor of political science and assistant dean of the Cannon College of Arts and Sciences. “She read and wrote well, thought critically, and contributed to class discussions. She is also one of the ‘founding members’ of our political science minor, helping to jumpstart the early success of our program. Her professional success is no surprise to me, this faculty, or her fellow classmates.”

The eye-opening experiences she had at Wingate have led Heath to a real difference-making job. Through February 2023, the CJRF had awarded multiyear grants totaling $20 million to 40 major partners. When she first started, Heath mostly read reports from existing partners, evaluating their progress and keeping tabs on how the funds were being spent. But as she’s gotten more experience, she’s begun reading applications and making recommendations to the board. She also manages the CJRF’s small-grants fund, which partners can dip into for smaller expenditures.

“Because it’s such a small team, your job is constantly evolving,” she says. “You kind of become – we’ve coined the term ‘mavens of all trades.’ You do a little bit of everything.”

It’s the type of behind-the-scenes position that is likely to become more and more important as the climate changes. To many people in the U.S., climate change still seems more theoretical than actual. In Wingate, summers might be hotter than usual, and snowfall might be more rare in the winter months than before, but it was always infrequent anyway. Otherwise, it’s pretty much business as usual.

That situation likely won’t last forever. Even if it does, Heath says she’ll remain committed to helping those who are experiencing climate change: “I know that I cannot give up on this work and combating the climate crisis when I’m sitting in a pretty secure place in Washington, D.C., especially not if someone whose cattle are dying because of drought in Kenya isn’t giving up on it.”

Heath, who grew up in Marshville and went to Piedmont High School, spends most of her time in Washington, but she has traveled to Kenya and, most recently, Bangladesh, to see the work of the CJRF’s partners up close and to forge stronger ties with those partners. She makes a difference in communities the world over. The irony is not lost on her.

“It’s really funny to me that someone who went to school 20 minutes from her house and had never traveled outside the U.S. goes on to win the international award at graduation and then goes into international development,” she says. “It’s a really funny path, but Wingate made it possible.”