If you missed the webinar on Public Utilities, Racial Equity, and Environmental Justice: Opportunities and Challenges on September 23, you can watch it on-line here. In addition, Michael Davis and Steve Hamai from Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) and Jessica Buendia from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) collaborated to provide answers to the questions we weren’t able to get to during the webinar itself (see below).
The webinar was a great introduction to the vision and strategies of public utility systems that are leading national efforts to integrate racial equity and environmental justice into their operations.
Michael Davis and Steve Hamai, both from Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) shared how racial equity is an integral part of SPU’s promise to customers, making sure all communities in Seattle can access and benefit from the utilities projects and services. Davis and Hamai also shared the opportunities and challenges of implementing their strategic framework, which includes:
- Embedding race and social justice and service equity policies and practices across the utilities;
- Modeling and advocating for inclusive community engagement within the utility in partnership with communities;
- Further aligning environmental justice and service equity within SPU, as well as city, county, and community efforts.
Finally, Davis and Humai highlighted the infrastructure SPU has built so that racial equity, inclusion and diversity are strengthened and embedded throughout the utility.
Jessica Buendia from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) shared how its community benefits program is helping the SFPUC provide customers with high quality, efficient, and reliable water, power, and sewer services in a manner that is inclusive of environmental and community interests, and sustains the resources entrusted to our care.
The long-term goals of the community benefits program are:
- Redefining the 21st century utility by lifting up SFPUC’s proactive leadership and innovation in community benefits and environmental justice at the regional, state, and national level;
- Communities impacted by the SFPUC’s core operations and activities believe that the SFPUC is a “good neighbor” and reliable public partner in creating sustainable, healthy, thriving communities in San Francisco and the region;
- The SFPUC is recognized as a good partner in the private, public, philanthropic, and nonprofit sectors for engaging in community benefits and environmental justice activities that expand economic opportunities and positive efforts in all the communities we serve and where we operate.
The SFPUC’s landmark community benefits and environmental justice policies have deepened SFPUC’s ability to influence racialized outcomes in a Post-209 environment by creating strategies that support anchor institutions and develop programs that use geography, socioeconomic status, and marketing and outreach to target communities of color. Read more about SFPUC’s community benefits program at www.sfwater.org/communitybenefits.
Responses to additional questions:
- Do customer assistance programs that help customers pay their utility bills have a role in social and environmental justice efforts?
Yes and No. Yes, because easing the burden of utility bills for low income customers helps with their overall month-to-month expenses, and may mean ‘food on the table’ instead of going to bed hungry. However, we also think ‘No’ because these programs typically do little to dismantle institutional racism and related structural inequities, and also won’t necessarily compel utilities to address these type of issues.
- TO SPU: What are some specific examples of the data you refer to in your “Collect Data” bullet?
As an example, in SPU, we recently mapped location and residence of customer damage claims, and clear pattern emerged as to which neighborhoods were filing claims against our utility (for damage to their personal property). As a generalization white, more educated affluent neighborhoods had higher numbers of claims filed. Using our equity tools, we then identified access and awareness barriers, and are now taking actionable steps to address these. Dispensation of claims is handled by another department, and we hope to work with them in the future to address any potential equity issues regarding this aspect of the process.
There are many opportunities to collect data within utilities. Participation in volunteer education programs, rebates for items like flow toilets, or even customer satisfaction surveys all provide ample opportunity to collect and analyze data. Most utilities directly operate (or through third party vendor) a customer response center. These calls typically come with a customer address or location that can be mapped (most utilities also use GIS mapping software). Using available US Census data as an overlay, determine whether there are certain neighborhoods that comprise a higher or lower proportion of you calls. Are the calls ‘coded’ so that you can differentiate between (let’s say) a sewer back up and a missed garbage pick up? Depending upon the size or your service area, you will want to note if there is a difference in topography, rainfall intensity, age of infrastructure etc. which could account for some variation. Embed this process so the mapping exercise is conducted annually, providing you with a solid baseline and the ability to track changes over time.
- How do you recommend that an agency initiate this work – through policies, specific action items, training, development of broad strategies, other? Where should the focus lie initially, to gain traction?
The SFPUC implementation strategy includes the following:
- Ensuring there is strong leadership that supports racial equity at the Commission and Senior Management level
- Using an inside-outside strategy to pass administrative policies that guide staff implementation and define outcomes
- Develop innovative pilots that are scalable
- Embed community benefits in contracting mechanisms
- Invest in targeted place-based strategies in impacted neighborhoods
- Leverage public, private, and community partnerships
To read more about our Community Benefits Program: https://sfwater.org/modules/showdocument.aspx?documentid=3678
In SPU we adhere to a change management model, which emphasizes building awareness and desire before anything else. In lieu of strong community support (where they compel the utility to take action on service equity or environmental justice), building staff awareness about racial inequity and the intersection with your utility can (and should) be accomplished in multiple ways. Discussion forums (or regular meetings) where staff are asked to anecdotally share what patterns they see is a good start. We recently met with staff from our engineering records vault, and they described clear demographic patterns as to whom routinely accessed their (free) services, and which customers typically needed more support and direction. This brought to the surface a clearer understanding of the need to support equity, and they are now going to engage staff from the Construction and Inspections department on this issue.
Service maps (GIS) can also tell compelling stories. As mentioned in Q2, our map of customer damage claims overlaid with census data was so easy to digest that our utility executives granted us approval to move forward with an equity analysis, even though the potential eventual outcome might be more claims filed and restitution paid.
- Can someone from Seattle talk about water shut offs for non-payment and data collection? Do you recommend customer demographic data collection and how would a utility do this if they have been operating without this type of data collection for ages?
Very timely question, as members from our division have recently been asked to participate in a review of this policy (which is being led by our Corporate Policy office)! We plan on being very engaged in this effort, and will ask the work group to use GIS and our equity tools to start off the policy update. Because our customer account software does not currently collect demographic data, we will have to rely on GIS to help determine if certain neighborhoods have a higher proportion of shut offs. Even without ‘hard’ demographic data, this can lead to the development of a fairer policy, and we also hope to leverage this opportunity to push for select demographic data collection in our customer account database.
- Do you have any strategies for measuring the impacts of community engagement?
In accordance with its community benefits and environmental policies, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is committed to fostering partnerships with communities in all SFPUC service areas and ensuring that they are involved in the design, implementation, and evaluation processes of SFPUC programs and policies.
Policies can be located here: https://sfwater.org/index.aspx?page=656
Our strategies include:
- Working with the Mayor, the Board of Supervisors, and members of the community to ensure that our 7 advisory committees and stakeholder engagement groups are diverse and representative. Dedicated staff work with our committees and groups to make sure their recommendations inform the Agency’s programs and policies.
- Developing equitable engagement guidelines for capital programs which serve to identify targets for robust, transparent outreach. The goals of these guidelines are to:
- Help standardize the way we do business (yet allow for flexibility to adapt) to ensure delivery, implementation, and course correction for successful and equitable public engagement
- Identify and document best practices for meaningful public engagement outreach and communications strategies
- Achieve diverse and meaningful stakeholder engagement of the representative San Francisco demographic
- Aid compliance with SFPUC Environmental Justice and Community Benefits Policies
- Adopting a policy to reach members of the public at their “point of discovery.” Efforts are made to have a presence at events such as the Cinco de Mayo parade, Chinese New Year, Juneteenth Festival and similar events that will attract diverse audiences. By meeting individuals at school events, farmers markets and ways that is most comfortable for them.
- Using a Triple Bottom Line process to ensure that project decisions reflect the inclusion of social and cultural dimensions.
- Measuring attendance (qualitative and quantitative) at public workshops, tracking participation from stakeholders in the immediate vicinity of the project or facility, and providing online feedback opportunities for stakeholders. We are capturing this data using Salesforce – a constituent relations management system.
- Do you partner with NACAWA?
Yes, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is participating in the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA). We are currently working with NACWA to develop a compendium of environmental justice (EJ) initiatives and community service programs that utilities are engaged in with their communities. The Association is seeking Member Agencies to serve as case studies for the compendium. The document will identify a series of best practices that utilities have used, and can use, in establishing EJ and community service programs. It will also help to advance the concept that affordability concerns should be considered by EPA and other regulators as part of EJ analyses and considerations.
Rate assistance programs, customer outreach efforts, community job training programs, and green infrastructure programs in low income neighborhoods are among the types of EJ and community service programs to be included. NACWA, however, is seeking to take a very broad view of EJ and community service programs and is interested in any efforts that utilities may be using to further engage with their communities. If your utility in interested in providing a case study for the compendium or if you have any questions about this project, please contact NACWA Chief Advocacy Officer, Nathan Gardner-Andrews.