Why We believe Portland Clean Energy Fund’s Work Should Continue

A coalition of community based organizations that have come together to build PCEF.

We’ve noticed that recent news coverage on the Portland Clean Energy Fund (PCEF) has led to a few public calls for a pause in its work. Some of those calls have cited accountability and oversight issues raised in a recent city audit of the program released in March.

As a longtime funder of many of the organizations that came together to create PCEF, we want to share our perspective on why we feel that’s the wrong call.

For years, Meyer Memorial Trust has been investing in the community based organizations that came together to create PCEF, which 65% of Portland voters approved in 2018. Meyer has also supported the majority of PCEF grantees to date. Why? Because these organizations have a track record of designing and implementing effective solutions by and for their communities to address myriad challenges on issues like housing, energy, transportation, pollution reduction and more. These are the leaders we need to follow in the face of the climate crisis.

They believe, as we do, that the climate emergency we face requires bold and rapid action that is grounded in the wisdom and expertise of communities on the frontlines. Those who are experiencing the greatest impacts from climate change — including wildfire, drought, heat waves, hurricanes and floods — are best positioned to create appropriate solutions. An understanding of the interwoven nature of our climate challenges with issues like access to safe and affordable housing, quality food and living-wage jobs is a particularly strong aspect of an innovative program like PCEF.

In designing the fund, organizations like Coalition of Communities of Color, Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, Verde, Native American Youth and Family Center, OPAL Environmental Justice and the NAACP Portland Branch wanted to do more than simply fund energy efficiency, clean energy retrofits and green infrastructure. They also wanted to invest in the capacity of frontline communities to lead and execute solutions. The innovations baked into PCEF are designed to create new possibilities for those who have historically benefited the least from government programs, in particular those from communities of color and low-wealth communities.

While we know this makes intuitive sense to most, we fear that a limited understanding of accountability will also limit our collective ability to achieve broader, deeper and more lasting impact — on climate and many other important issues.

In the case of PCEF, a fuller understanding of accountability must acknowledge and correct how our own governance systems have their own biases. Those biases have resulted in disparate benefits to white communities at the expense of communities of color. The recent city audit of PCEF highlighted the ways in which it is walking the fine line between the risks required of those on the cutting edge of change and the scrutiny that comes with the use of public funding. In our view, that is the very work that is needed.

Audits are meant to identify actions for correction and improvement. It’s no surprise that in standing up a new and innovative program like PCEF, this first audit has identified areas for improvement. However, the last thing that we should do in the face of the climate emergency is pause this program. Further, with large amounts of federal funding being allocated toward rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reimagine ways of investing not only in infrastructure, but in the resiliency of our communities themselves. With a strong PCEF in place, Portland’s frontline communities will be positioned to bring their leadership, vision and capacity to leverage this tremendous investment.

The intertwined crises of climate change and injustice require rapid and intentional adaptation. PCEF is a model for how to do just that. Portlanders overwhelmingly saw the promise of PCEF, trusting the wisdom of communities most impacted by the climate crisis, when they voted for it. Pausing now would be yet another breach of trust with communities who’ve endured a legacy of broken promises. It would stall important progress on one of the most ambitious and innovative community-led efforts to address our climate emergency in Oregon and the nation.

Mary Rose & Jill