By Taren Evans, Environmental Justice Director, Coalition of Communities of Color
A New Approach
On a drizzly, overcast Saturday in April a group of community members, advocates, and policymakers came together at the June Key Delta Community Center in Northeast Portland to participate in Multnomah County’s first ever Climate Justice Summit. The June Key Delta Center was a fitting location due to the history of the space.The center is located in the historically Black, Albina area of Portland and is owned, and operated by the Portland Alumnae Chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. The site formerly housed a gas station, but now serves as a space for community members to gather. The center was also Portland’s first “living building”; a type of building that is designed and constructed to function as a self-sufficient, regenerative ecosystem.
The summit was the culmination of months of planning. Last October the Coalition of Communities of Color (CCC) and Multnomah County convened a Steering Committee of frontline community based organizations and community members to help guide the development of a community-driven climate justice plan. From its inception the process differed from how climate planning has typically been done. The process started with centering the knowledge and lived experience of those most impacted by the climate crisis. We began with the goal of working to fundamentally alter the way that local government and community work together. While engagement in government processes has often taken the form of community providing feedback on plans that have essentially already been generated, this planning process aims to change this by starting with and centering frontline community voices in all phases of the process.
For the past several months, CCC’s Environmental Justice Team has participated in the National Association of Climate Resilience Planners’ (NACRP) Facilitator Credential Program.
The agenda for our summit was inspired by NACRP’s Vision, Power, Solutions Framework and the day was divided into sessions focusing on each of these components. After an introduction to community-driven planning, participants were guided through a visualization exercise where they were asked to imagine the world in 100 years. This exercise was drawn from NACRP’s toolkit and modified for local context and to serve our purposes. We began by projecting a large image of a tree on one of the walls of the community center. We then read through a guided visualization exercise and asked participants about their visions for the future and about the values that guided that vision. Participants wrote their values on sticky notes and were asked to place them under the tree. These became the roots of our tree and represented the values that we must be rooted in for our vision to come to fruition.
Participants wrote their visions on leaf shaped sticky notes that they were asked to place on the branches of the tree. They envisioned a world of free transit, housing for all, and communities of care among a host of other things. This vision was largely guided by values of justice, cooperation, love, and liberation. We asked the group to think about and discuss the short term actions that could be done and the long term strategies that needed to be developed to move us from our present day reality to the vision that they imagined. The short-term actions were written on sticky notes representing seeds. The longer term strategies were written on brown sticky notes that became the trunk of our tree. At the end of day, the bare silhouette of a tree that we had projected on the wall was covered in sticky notes and we had collectively created a roadmap to move us from our present day reality to the future that we want to create.
Our tree served as a metaphor for the key elements of a plan. This single image contained the values that we must be rooted in (the roots of the tree), the short term actions that we need to plant right now (the seeds) the long term strategies that we need to develop (the trunk of the tree) and our vision for the future, or what will blossom from our collective efforts (the leaves of the tree.) It contained a wealth of rich community data that is now being used to develop a community-driven climate justice framework that will guide the rest of our planning process. In addition to the framework we are developing a zine that will serve as a companion document. The zine contains quantitative data in the form of maps from the County, but pairs this data with qualitative data drawn from surveys and centers the stories and lived experiences of BIPOC community members in Multnomah County grappling with the impacts of the climate crisis. Local BIPOC artists were hired to design the artwork contained in the zine. The zine provides data about climate and environmental justice impacts in a way that is accessible to community members and the vibrant and colorful images contained within its pages are in stark contrast to typical planning and government publications.
There is undoubtedly baggage surrounding the word “planning.” Early in our process there was even a reluctance by some to even call our efforts a planning process because of this perceived stigma. Yet the reality is that planning has been done in our communities forever. Planning at its core is the act of looking at the world we inhabit, identifying issues, and developing solutions to create the world that we think ought to exist. Planning is not historically rooted in bureaucracy and indecipherable government processes, it is rooted in the day to day concerns of communities who want to create a better future for themselves and the generations to come.
We need to change the perception of a plan from a dry, bureaucratic document that sits on a shelf to a living document that reflects the goals and aspirations of frontline communities and serves as an effective roadmap moving forward to achieve our vision. Planning cannot be viewed as an exclusive process for the privileged few who have technical knowledge and understand jargon.
Another challenge has been that it is inherently difficult to do things in new ways. We often become so accustomed to doing things in a certain way, that they become like well-worn grooves that we fall into. There are challenges of developing new models, of changing the ways that community and government work together and we are figuring it out as we go along. Doing a new thing is hard and there is a tendency to revert to the old, familiar patterns. Co-creation and distributed leadership are difficult in a society that privileges hierarchical models. One of the tools that has informed our process is the Facilitating Power’s “Spectrum of Engagement to Ownership”. This tool illustrates the range of degrees of engaging community, starting on one side of the spectrum with informing and ending on the other side of the spectrum with deferring to community.
However, It is the unfortunate reality that people have become so accustomed to merely being informed of policy or serving on advisory committees for policies that have already essentially been decided, that the experience of visioning and ideating can be challenging. Additionally, particularly in our movement where we are constantly dealing with a host of threats, it is difficult to carve out time for this critical work. Our work is also guided by the Just Transition Framework, which among other things, talks about stopping the bad and creating the new. The challenging aspect of this is that we are constrained by resources and time and stopping the bad often constitutes the bulk of our work. Yet ultimately this alone will not create systems change or a just and equitable future. We need more opportunities and spaces that are creative and generative because democracy and radical imagination are muscles that we build and ones that we must build to be strong enough to not just endure the challenges of our time, but to create liberatory futures.
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