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Climate Resilience V: Resilient Civic Societies Require Community Input

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(This is the fifth and final post in a series based on Emerald Cities Collaborative’s June 12 forum in Washington, D.C., on climate resilience.)

The Emerald Cities Collaborative (ECC) recently convened a half-day forum in Washington, D.C., to explore how to build a climate-resilient economy that combines sustainability with equity for low-income minority communities. 

“The High Road to Climate Resilience in American Cities” drew about 100 participants from the ECC board and staff, community and environmental organizations, business, labor, government and academia. Speakers – and then all participants, in roundtable discussions following each panel – addressed three aspects of resilience: infrastructure, economies and civic societies.

Resilient Civic Societies
This panel examined the importance of community involvement – from both individuals and community organizations – to bring about resilience, sustainability and equity for low-income communities.

Moderator Tom Deyo is Vice President of National Real Estate Programs for NeighborWorks America, a national organization that creates opportunities for people to live in affordable homes, improve their lives and strengthen their communities. The organization supports a network of more than 240 nonprofits located in every state, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

Deyo explained that for his organization, participation by residents is integral to success, and that community-based organizations offer opportunities for this participation. He contrasted the dearth of community-based organizations in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina with their greater presence in the New York area following Superstorm Sandy, which helped lead to faster planning and implementation.

One Voice Louisiana Director Ashley Shelton said her organization engages in policy work so it can “push money coming in down to the ground” to help vulnerable families and improve both their current situations and future resiliency. As an example, she cited a state energy bill that provides economic development opportunities while increasing citizen engagement through apprenticeships and local hiring. 

Shelton drove home the importance of engagement by community groups in disaster situations. She said well-connected community groups can help disseminate critical information at such times, when “you can’t assume that everyone has access to a computer, to the Internet.” 

Rebuilding with Justice
Matt Ryan, executive director of the Alliance for a Greater New York (ALIGN) –whose members include long-standing community-based organizations and big labor unions such as the nurses, laborers and service employees – said the Alliance for a Just Rebuilding was created post-Hurricane Sandy to pursue a longer-term agenda encompassing rebuilding, resiliency and justice. 

Ryan said participants were “well aware of the need to organize more broadly across the city and region” and drew on the experience gained in New Orleans following Katrina.

Working People’s Voices
Ryan said ALIGN’s values include putting “the voices of working people front and center” while building “an actionable agenda” that addresses current and future needs. ALIGN also recognizes that maximizing its results requires being “a multi-stakeholder organization.”

For example, the city is now tracking local hiring for rebuilding efforts following Superstorm Sandy, as well as partnering with labor unions and pre-apprenticeship programs, all of which helps get real improvement and sets the stage for future response capability. 

Ryan said that at an ALIGN candidate forum that drew more than 2,000 people prior to the November 2013 mayoral election, future Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke about righting long-term inequities – something that ALIGN strives to incorporate into city policy, for example by seeking commitments around affordable housing.

ALIGN is now helping organize the September 21, 2014, People’s Climate March coinciding with a United Nations Climate Summit and billed as the largest climate mobilization in history. 

Resilience Requirements
Summing up, Ryan concluded, “A resilience agenda must include economic, social and ecological elements.”

This echoed Shelton’s observation that “environmental and socioeconomic concerns go hand in hand.” She noted that pre-Katrina, “Congressional staff had never before heard from the people of the Gulf Coast about what they needed.” That has changed; and fortunately, the relationships that were built between federal agencies and community groups following the hurricane are continuing.

Demystifying Power
Shelton said One Louisiana has “demystified power” for its community and is helping citizens “navigate power” so that they have the political clout to bring in sufficient resources to ensure resilience.

She suggested more civic engagement with, and election of, officials “who care about your issues,” including candidate forums and data collection to inform policy advocacy. 

“Lots of neighborhoods could describe what was happening but couldn’t relate it to the policies that made those things happen,” Shelton said. “We created the documents so they could do that,” leading to policy changes that benefitted those neighborhoods.

Wrapping up the panel and the Resilience event as whole, ECC President and CEO Denise Fairchild said, “We need to make sure money is invested in communities. We are the ‘first responders,’ but we don’t have the resources to back us up. Resilience planning is happening every day, and local officials are looking for input.”

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