“This super cyclone was completely devastating. It killed 10,000 people. Entire villages were washed away. And I hadn’t even heard of it,” Jainey Bavishi recalls.
In 2003, Jainey Bavishi was in her final year at Duke, working on two degrees: public policy and cultural anthropology. She was chosen as a Lewis Hine Documentary Fellow, which sent her to Orissa, India, to record interviews for an advocacy campaign focused on creating daycare and community centers in impoverished areas. Orissa (now named Odisha) was hit by one of the strongest and most destructive tropical cyclones in recorded history in 1999, with sustained winds of up to 160 miles per hour. The disaster received very little coverage here in the U.S., but for the people in this region, it was still the main topic of conversation.
“We were interviewing working mothers and putting cameras in the hands of sibling caretakers, usually girls between the ages of five and seven, who had sacrificed any chance of an education to care for their younger brothers and sisters. None of these conversations happened without mention of the super cyclone.”
That experience, particularly those resilient women, would shape Bavishi’s entire career, which most recently includes a U.S. Senate confirmation to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as its new Assistant Secretary of Commerce and Deputy NOAA Administrator. In this role, she will expand her work in creating and implementing climate solutions for those most in need.
“I think that the Duke fellowship cemented in my mind that the communities that are most environmentally vulnerable are often, also the most socioeconomically vulnerable,” said Bavishi.
HURRICANE KATRINA OPENs A NEW PATH
Her purpose was clear, and Bavishi knew that helping victims of future climate disasters would require further expertise through continued education. Soon after graduating from Duke, she enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to pursue a master’s in urban planning. She was set to start her program on August 29, 2005, the day that Hurricane Katrina first hit.
“Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast on my first day of grad school. All the reasons that led me to grad school in the first place were playing out in my own country, and I felt compelled to get to the region and serve,” Bavishi recalled.
Thankfully, this didn’t halt her grad school plans. In a prelude to her achievements in adaptability the following decade, Bavishi negotiated a way to continue her degree remotely. As she worked with the ravaged communities and studied urban planning, in the following months, Bavishi had an epiphany.
“In New Orleans, as the recovery process was just getting started, I realized that we were often reacting to the last disaster and more needed to be done to prevent these impacts. We should be investing in building resilient infrastructure and systems so that communities are not burdened with the expectation to bounce back time and time again.”
After finishing her graduate degree, she continued to work with non-profit organizations throughout the Gulf Coast region. Her studies in anthropology, public policy, and urban planning gave her a distinct skillset. As a rising leader in climate solutions, Bavishi could listen to the voices of individuals and had the training to envision large-scale policies. She knew that it was time for the next step.
As an urban planner, I’m an unusual fit for NOAA. Many of my colleagues are esteemed scientists.
INSPIRED BY A LEGENDARY LEADER AT NOAA
January 2023 was not the first time Bavishi worked with NOAA. In 2010 she started work as a senior policy advisor within the D.C. headquarters of NOAA, working alongside brilliant minds focused on informing and engaging the world about global climate's past, present and future. NOAA is historically known for providing specific data to meteorologists and climate scientists worldwide, data that (if unexplained) can often confound the average citizen. Her background, therefore, provided a refreshing avenue for climate policy.
“As an urban planner, I’m an unusual fit for NOAA. Many of my colleagues are esteemed scientists. I’m an urban planner by training, and I probably represent the perspective of the NOAA user community more readily than I represent the perspective of NOAA experts,” said Bavishi.
That propensity to build bridges was directly inspired by one of NOAA’s most venerable leaders: Margaret Davidson. Davidson, who passed away in 2017, worked at NOAA for over three decades and was known for her seminal work in customer-driven communication and engagement. In many ways, she is why NOAA has been able to interface with the public in the 21st century effectively and is a foundational inspiration for Bavishi.
“She was a force and was very focused on this intersection of equity and resilience. She was always striving to make NOAA’s programs and services accessible and relevant to all communities. Margaret was always a bridge between NOAA’s scientific expertise and people who needed the science to make it actionable. I found that incredibly inspirational.”
During her first role within NOAA, Bavishi met another influential female climate leader, Ayana Johnson (more on that connection later).
After three years with NOAA, Bavishi worked again in the non-profit realm in Hawaii before returning to D.C. to work in President Barack Obama’s administration as Associate Director for Climate Preparedness for the White House Council on Environmental Quality. During these years, vulnerable communities throughout the world experienced catastrophic weather events. One in particular, Hurricane Sandy, brought Bavishi back to the front lines in the battle for climate resilience.
We were able to prioritize those people who were the most vulnerable.
NYC and ALL WE CAN SAVE
Her work in New York City started in a way that mirrors that visit to India years before.
In 2017, New York City was still reeling from a disastrous storm five years earlier. Hurricane Sandy slammed the greater New York City area in October 2012, resulting in one of the worst weather disasters the city has ever faced. With sustained and extensive blackouts and 44 deaths, the storm’s effects were still felt when Mayor Bill de Blasio hired Bavishi as the city’s first Director for the Mayor’s Office of Climate Resiliency.
In this role, she was responsible for tackling the challenge of climate change through science-based analysis, policy and program development, and capacity building.
“My job in New York was to implement an over $20 billion portfolio of resilience projects, much of which was funded by post-sandy disaster recovery dollars. We were able to use that funding to learn from that event and look beyond to recognize that we faced other climate risks, including sea-level rise, extreme heat, and extreme precipitation. We were able to prioritize those people who were the most vulnerable.”
One example mentioned, extreme heat, opened a new outlet for Bavishi’s holistic approach.
“In New York, I saw that climate solutions are attainable. In the summer of 2020, we saw the climate crisis on a collision course with COVID. The people most vulnerable to extreme heat, particularly low-income seniors, were also the most vulnerable to COVID-19. We distributed 74,000 free air conditioners to low-income seniors across the city so that people could stay safe inside their homes and not have to worry about going out to a cooling center and risking transmission of the virus. We also paired this program with advocacy to the state to provide over 400,000 low-income families with subsidies to cover their utility bills during the summer months because we knew that it doesn’t matter if you have an A/C if you can’t afford to turn it on.”
With an unprecedented global health crisis, social and political strife, and a continued threat of climate-related destruction, 2020 brought on a time of reflection for many. Within this contemplative era, Bavishi connected with a growing community of women leaders in climate solutions. Her former colleague at NOAA, Ayana Johnson, had an idea for a creative way to give those women a platform for expression.
“Ayana, and her colleague, Katharine Wilkinson, were pulling together a group of diverse women climate leaders to contribute to an anthology, which became All We Can Save, recognizing that the dominant voices in public discourse on the climate crisis were white men. She invited me to write on my experiences on climate adaptation,” Bavishi explains.
All We Can Save is an anthology of essays written by 60 women leaders in the climate movement. This collection, released in 2020, includes poetry and prose from prominent female climate voices, each a leader in their area, united in their experiences to battle climate change and catastrophe. Bavishi, with her prowess in resilience, contributed a chapter that reflects on her experience coordinating in three coastal cities, New Orleans, Honolulu and New York. Her essay “A Tale of Three Cities” focuses on resilience while emphasizing her overarching mission of helping those who don’t have the means to help themselves against climate disaster.
“My essay also reflects on becoming a mother, which has only grown my commitment to this work,” said Bavishi.
Leadership in this moment requires being able to listen to multiple perspectives, facilitate partnerships, and find common ground. This is a critical facet of public policy.
CURRENT ROLE AND ADVICE FOR STUDENTS
After her successes in New York, the White House came calling again, and President Biden nominated Bavishi for her new role in NOAA. After confirmation by the U.S. Senate in December 2022, Bavishi returned to NOAA on January 17, this time as the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for oceans and atmosphere and Deputy NOAA Administrator.
Bavishi expresses excitement for her new role while appreciating the path that brought her here and the focus on community that has been a throughline of her work.
“I've been in the climate resilience space for almost 20 years. My goal is to continue preparing communities for the effects of climate change that we can't avoid and, in particular, ensure that data, resources and technical assistance reach the communities most in need.”
As a Sanford alum, Bavishi sees how her public policy and anthropology degrees have informed her career. As a leader in her field, she advises students looking to find their path in public policy.
“At Sanford, we are given many tools we can use as public policy practitioners. We are living in an era that requires complex solutions to solve unprecedented problems. Leadership in this moment requires being able to listen to multiple perspectives, facilitate partnerships, and find common ground. This is a critical facet of public policy,” Bavishi advises.
The connection to her career beginnings shines through again in this shared wisdom. Jainey Bavishi was inspired by those courageous young women in India in 2004. Their resilience continues to ring as a reminder today of her work empowering communities affected by climate change and assuring their experiences inform future policy.