March 15, 2020

Climate justice: Front-line communities are transforming the environmental movement

Illustration by: Jess X Snow, Long Live Our Mother, Amplify

It seems like not a day goes by without new information emerging about the state of our changing planet.

Reports and data, such as the evidence presented by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), continually show how increases in pollution and carbon emissions are warming our climate, causing sea level rise and affecting the earth’s water supply. Although the science is sound, arguments over climate change divide our nation and fracture relationships in the communities that call this state home.

As we look toward a flourishing and equitable future for Oregon, we’ve begun to ask ourselves who is by our side and who is missing? Where both trust and relationships are most strong? And recently, how have or haven’t we addressed mistrust?

At Meyer we use the phrase “centering front-line communities,” which is a blanket term to refer to neighborhoods that are most vulnerable to the detrimental effects of climate change because they lack things like shade, air conditioning, access to parks, nature and clean air.

In reality, these words have much more meaning.

Last summer, Momentum Fellow Denise Luk sat down with Alan Hipólito, who represents Verde — a nonprofit organization that works to secure social and economic benefits for low-income people and people of color through social enterprise, outreach and advocacy — to discuss the creation and passage of the Portland Clean Energy Fund (PCEF) and why front-line community leadership was key to building the relationships needed for success.

Below is an abridged transcript of their conversation edited for clarity.

Denise: Who developed the Portland Clean Energy Fund? Where did the idea come from?

Alan Hipólito: It started with a conversation between Jo Ann Hardesty, a civil rights, social justice advocate who was then the director of the Portland NAACP (and is a now Portland City Commissioner) and Brent Foster, an attorney and environmental advocate.

In the summer of 2016, front-line communities were already doing a lot of work together on climate policy issues, whether that was Oregon’s cap and invest proposal, The city of Portland and Multnomah County’s 100 percent renewables, or just building capacity within front-line communities around climate change issues, for example the Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA), Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO), Verde and the Coalition of Communities of Color (CCC). The NAACP reached out to say, “Hey, do you want to come and sit and talk with us and a couple of environmental organizations, mostly 350PDX, to talk about this idea (the Portland Clean Energy Fund)?”

Denise: How did this group expand?

Alan Hipólito: Jo Ann and Lenny Dee from 350PDX, a longtime Portland activist and organizer, were out talking to different organizations, environmental, small business, social justice, environmental justice and the trade unions about the concept of PCEF, seeking endorsement or a willingness to work on the campaign. Simultaneously, those of us at Verde, APANO, NAYA and the Coalition of Communities of Color began doing our own outreach into the front-line communities.

That whole year, summer 2016 to summer 2017, was really about building relationships and trust across the core organizations — NAACP, Verde, APANO, CCC, 350PDX, Sierra Club — so that we could ultimately build a kind of collaboration and relationship that was necessary to be successful.

A key watershed moment was in the summer of 2017. We had a two-day planning retreat for the front-line community organizations, where we learned about ballot measures and what it would take to run a campaign. We set some common values about how we wanted to work together and most importantly the agreement that front-line communities were going to lead the effort. After that, things started to really pick up speed.

Denise: At what point did more mainstream environmental groups get involved?

Alan Hipólito: Portland Audubon’s entry into the coalition was really important. They’re a well-respected, long-standing environmental stakeholder, have a strong membership base and influence with local policy makers and other environmental organizations.

When they came to our meeting, they said, “We want to be involved: first, because we like the initiative; and second, (and even more importantly), we want to support the movement that you’re building.” They’ve been in many campaigns where it’s solely about getting 50.1% of the vote and therefore don’t include front-line communities. They saw PCEF as a chance to change the status quo of campaigns. “Win or lose, we want to help grow a more inclusive, front-line community-centered environmental movement.” While they wanted to contribute their experience to the decision-making and bring our resources to the table, they did not need to be in charge. “We’re ready to support the leadership of front-line communities in this campaign.”

That was a really big moment.

Denise: Since this effort, have there been other types of environmental ballot initiatives led by front-line communities — in partnership with mainstream environmental groups — in other places?

Alan Hipólito: Obviously, front-line communities lead all sorts of things, all over the country, including environmental measures. But this was the first of its kind in Oregon in terms of the partnership that was formed by front-line community-led leadership and then bigger mainstream groups signing on. That was a rare thing and hopefully changing.

Denise: What was the power dynamic like within the steering committee and then within the smaller subsets of PCEF? How was the decision-making process?

Alan Hipólito: It was pretty harmonious. There were obviously points of tension and stress because none of us had ever really worked on or run a campaign like this before.

We maintain a distributed leadership structure. We didn’t have, unlike some campaigns, a bunch of paid core staff. Our field team was paid, but our campaign manager, communications colleagues, fundraiser and the point person for our political endorsements committee were all volunteers or staffed and funded by partner organizations. It didn’t make sense to have a rigorous, centralized, decision-making model. It meant that we had to free folks up to be creative and use their best judgment in the day-to-day work they were accomplishing.

Denise: What were the key takeaways from this coalition and how the partnership worked?

Alan Hipólito: A lot of folks would say there would be no way to build and hold this kind of coalition together unless it was front-line community-led. Progressive efforts that bring mainstream environmental groups together with construction, labor and trade unions don’t often happen. However, everyone understood the need to center this kind of community leadership if any kind of progressive change was going to happen.

This kind of broad coalition building can win elections, especially when it comes to addressing the more traditional arguments against such initiatives. To arguments like, “This is going to kill jobs” or “This isn’t really an environmental solution” or “How is this going to affect poor people?”

The answer simply is: Environmental organizations have been putting in a lot of work and investment to build their understanding of equity and what it means to operate from a justice framework. Audubon’s posture in coming to the initiative was a testament to the growth and diversity, equity and inclusion work that they’re doing. The trades are the same way. They know where future workers will be coming from, that things haven’t been fair and just in the past or even today. They saw that a front-line community can put together an initiative that will make a difference in the things they care about.

Another takeaway is that I would certainly want to provide to the next group that tries this sort of coalition building is to not have to nickel-and-dime-it the way that we did. That was really hard to manage from a budget standpoint. At the same time, not being well-resourced required creative energy and distributed leadership. Without having a heavily centralized staff, organizations ended up putting in their own staff time. This is critical to the success of the movement we are building. However, those organizations need to be funded, too.

Denise: What’s it been like after the measure passed and is now in place? I understand the coalition is still working together.

Alan Hipólito: That’s correct. The PCEF coalition’s work did not end on election day, it shifted from winning an election to successfully and faithfully implementing the initiative. To do that, we’ve used the same front-line community-centered practice that we’ve talked about. This has allowed us to work in strong partnership with the city of Portland on key implementation issues like staffing the program, seating the PCEF grant committee, launching communications platforms and outreach efforts as well as building front-line community capacity to develop strong applications to the PCEF grant program

So I think we can feel good about all the work that we’ve done since election day, feel good about the collaboration that we built with the city bureaus and the elected leadership … and moving forward we need to make sure that the coalition has the resources needed to not just implement this victory but to solidify the power and endurance of the coalition. Organizational-level infrastructure such as internal communications will allow us to not only defend the win, but to also figure out how to move forward and build on this initiative.

And there’s still the need to fund the nuts and bolts of the work among the many organizations who developed and led the initiative, especially the front-line community-serving organizations. One of the things that we’ve learned the hard way is that the opposition doesn’t run out of money. They see this initiative, and any future initiatives, as a threat to their control over resources and political power. They are going to keep coming after us, trying to weaken or overturn PCEF at the city and state levels. The big challenge is to have the strength and resources as a coalition to counteract that consistency.

Denise: Do you feel that sense of power-building and power-sharing is still part of the implementation piece?

Alan Hipólito: Absolutely. This coalition, if it’s viable and enduring in the way that we want it to be, will inevitably decide or be asked to get involved in other things. How are those decisions going to be made? Who makes them? On what criteria, if any, are they made? How do new groups come to the table? All of these questions are where the extension of power sharing and practice of front-line community leadership is going to grow.

The story of the PCEF coalition demonstrates the unique position of front-line communities in the environmental justice movement and illustrates the way lived experiences of the communities most impacted offer solutions and innovative strategies — across interests — that transform campaigns and accomplish wins. In this way, front-line communities are transforming the environmental movement and allowing more people to see it as relevant to their lives.

Mainstream conservation organizations are important partners in this work. With established credibility and influence with local officials and the broader community, their endorsement can activate many and shift perspectives. As new approaches to climate justice emerge from the front line, it will be important for mainstream groups to explore new and innovative ways to contribute their resources, time and established reputation.

This doesn’t always mean taking a visible lead, but instead backing the proposals of those whose voices are new to the movement and allowing for new possibilities in our shared future in the face of climate change.

Learn more in the full PCEF report, here.

Mary Rose