In Providence, Fighting Climate Change Starts With Racial Equity

September 28, 2017 - (7 min read)

Last week, NLC’s Shafaq Choudtry talked with Leah Bamberger and Monica Huertas of Providence, Rhode Island, to discuss how the city is proactively working with communities of color as a key strategy in combating the impacts of climate change. The city is one of the participants in NLC’s Leadership in Community Resilience Program.

image1.jpgLeah Bamberger is the Director of Sustainability for the city of Providence.

Shafaq Choudry: Among our 10 cities in the resilience cohort, Providence was the only one that chose to focus primarily on issues related to equity. How did you come to see the overlap of equity and resilience and make the intersectionality of both a critical piece to the work at the office of sustainability?

Leah Bamberger: In Providence, like many cities in the U.S. and around the world, frontline communities of color bear the burden of our environmental issues. They are often faced with poor air and water quality, toxic industries in their backyards, and risks like flooding that will be exacerbated by the impacts of climate change. They did not ask for these environmental issues, they were imposed on them despite their objections.

Throughout this process, I’ve learn that in order to rectify this, we must focus our work on shifting governance structures and power. This has been a long and continual learning experience for me. It started with some trainings provided by the Urban Sustainability Directors Network on bringing an equity lens to sustainability, as well as participating in an Undoing Racism training from the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. But the real learning came from stepping back and listening to the people who are most impacted.

In my case, it has been the members of the Racial and Environmental Justice Committee (REJC) and our community partner on the project, the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island. The trainings opened my mind and enabled me to listen and understand in a way I hadn’t been able to previously. But it was the community members who live and breathe these issues every day that have the expertise that needs to be acknowledged. And they exist in every city and town across the U.S. We just need to create space within ourselves and our society to hear them.

SC: This isn’t the first time Providence intended to engage the public on issues related to climate. Can you describe lessons learned from the first round of workshops and how the department wanted to do things differently?

LB: In February of 2016, we hosted a three-day resilience community charrette led by five experts from around the country. We made a tremendous effort to get diverse participation from the community and strived to have attendees reflect the demographics of the city, which is only about 35 percent white. We tracked participation and despite what were our best efforts at the time, we failed dramatically with roughly 85 percent of our participants identifying as white.

I’ve learned that even if you check all the boxes for community engagement best practices (hold meetings in the neighborhoods, provide transportation, child care, food, translation services, compensate community members for their expertise, etc.), you are not going to get meaningful participation unless there is trust.

As long as community members believe that their perspectives and voices don’t really matter in determining outcomes, most will not participate. And we can’t blame them. We all live busy lives. Why should anyone spend an evening at a community meeting when their voice is the one that is always marginalized? That is why, for this process, in order to build that trust, we focused on co-creation and put the community members in the driver seat via the REJC.

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Members of REJC present their recommendations to Mayor Jorge Elorza and the Environmental Sustainability Task Force. From left to right: Vatik Kumba, Lucy Rios, Paul Taveras, Monica Huertas and Jesus Holguin.

SC:  We were thrilled to have a member from the REJC, Monica Huertas, with us to speak to this tremendous effort. Monica, congratulations on having your recommendations adopted by city’s Environmental Sustainability Task Force! Can you please share your experience over the past nine months in developing the recommendations?

Monica Huertas: I live on the South Side of Providence and I am a currently a stay-at-home mom of four and I organize the No LNG in PVD campaign, which is a collective of grassroots organizations, nonprofit organizations and frontline community members dedicated to stopping the construction of National Grid’s Fields Point Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) liquefaction facility in the South Side of Providence.

Living in a historically polluted environment such as the South Side of Providence, we have had to be resilient when it comes to this. I have been working to stop construction of the LNG faciltiy in my neighborhood a half mile from my house.

If you look at any place in the world where there is a toxic tank or where there is a facility full of explosives or cancer-causing chemicals those are without a doubt in places where there’s majority people of color and a majority of poor people. They’re not going to build facilities such as this one in an affluent community.

LNG and the building of a facility of this magnitude is just one example of the racist system that is in place not only in the south side of Providence but worldwide, really.

SC:  Why are matters of equity, inclusion and community-driven efforts like the one you participated in, critical to informing the work at the city?

MH: The people should have decision-making power. We shouldn’t play a role as submissive or as kind of second to the mayor’s office. We should be the ones leading the work in our communities. We should be telling them what to do.

SC: What role can the city play to deepen the level of engagement with communities facing impacts from climate and the environment?

MH: They can actually listen to what we’re saying and help fund the money we need in our communities.

SC: It’s clear that the work you and members of REJC produced has proven its value with the adoption and additional grant received to implement these recommendations. What do you hope to achieve in this next chapter of implementation?

MH: We will implement all of these recommendations (that we developed in year one) and actually do the work, not just in the office of sustainability. We’ll build to change the whole city hall and then hopefully the state one day, and then the world.

SC: It’s great to know that the city is so responsive to these concerns. Leah, why do partnerships like this matter to the Office of Sustainability? Do you see this becoming a model for the city?

Leah Bamberger: There is a huge gap between many communities in our city and local government and both parties are suffering from it. Government is suffering from not having their voice, experience and expertise at the table. The communities are suffering because their interests aren’t being represented. We need these partnerships to build trust and to learn from one another.

This work is all about creating a model that can scale across the city. Sustainability is already a cross-cutting issue so by doing this work here, we can impact many different aspects of government.

Providence is one of ten cities participating in NLC’s Leadership in Community Resilience Program. This topic and others will be covered at NLC’s upcoming Leadership Summit in San Diego, October 2–5, and at the NLC City Summit in Charlotte.

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Shafaq_ready.jpgAbout the author: Shafaq Choudry is a senior associate with the Sustainable Cities Institute at the National League of Cities.