To promote racial equity through municipal government, those most deeply affected by inequalities – often people of color – must be involved in the design and implementation of any potential solutions. The historic exclusion of communities of color from local decision-making processes is one of the many causes of structural inequality, and can only begin to be remedied through sharing decision-making and agenda-setting power.
This tension is seen not only in government-led change efforts but also in the historically white and upper class-led environmental movement. As local and regional governments prepare climate change and environmental action plans, government leaders have an opportunity to address this historic exclusion by having people of color (as well as refugees, immigrants, and those with lower incomes) at the table to define the terms of municipal environmental agendas.
One city that has recently taken steps to center a racial equity lens in its comprehensive environmental work is Seattle. There, local government leaders worked in deep partnership with people of color and used an equity framework centered on systemic racism to define an inclusive environmental agenda.
Seattle’s Equity & Environment Initiative.
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray launched the Equity & Environment Initiative (EEI) in April 2015. At the heart of the EEI is the acknowledgment that communities of color and others most affected by environmental inequities must be at the table to build solutions. This starting point of directly tackling the impacts of structural and institutional racism is a core strategy that GARE promotes. This explicit lens normalizes racial equity as a priority for government by publicly affirming equity goals and opening discussions about racialized environmental impacts.
As a launching point on this journey, the initiative created an Equity and Environment Agenda in its first year through a community-led process in deep collaboration with communities of color, immigrants, refugees, people with low incomes and those with limited English proficiency (with youth from all these communities also a priority). The EEI focused on the structural inclusion and engagement of these communities through the appointment of 16 local leaders to a Community Partners Steering Committee (CPSC), which created the organizing infrastructure needed to support an environmental agenda centered on racial equity.
The CPSC served as a formal mechanism for ensuring that people of color, immigrants and refugees would lead the creation of the city’s environmental agenda, representing the deep partnerships that government needs to build with outside stakeholders to advance equity. To accomplish its goals, the CPSC led a year-long process of racially inclusive engagement, set a framework of draft goals and strategies for community conversations, and engaged over 800 community members with languages ranging from Spanish to Cantonese to Somali. These structured engagements on the racialized impacts of environmental change further normalized equity conversations in Seattle by going beyond standard “color blind” discussions.
The Agenda’s 4 Goals
Ultimately, the final community-centric Equity & Environmental Agenda focused on four core areas:
- Healthy environments for all. Ensure clean, healthy, resilient, and safe environments in the places where communities of color, immigrants, refugees, people with low-incomes, youth, and limited-English proficient individuals live, learn, work, and play.
- Jobs, local economies, and youth pathways. Create pathways out of poverty through green careers for communities of color, immigrants, refugees, people with low-incomes, youth and limited-English proficiency individuals, including careers related to environmental policy and program development.
- Equity in city environmental programs. Ensure that communities of color, immigrants and refugees, people with low-incomes, youth and limited-English proficiency individuals have equitable access, accountability, and decision-making power in environmental policies, programs, and services
- Environmental narrative and community leadership. Ensure that the environmental movement is led by and centered on the stories and experiences of communities of color, immigrants, refugees, people with low incomes, youth and limited English–proficiency individuals.
Building Partnerships for Implementation, Impact, and Accountability.
Seattle’s Equity and Environmental Agenda not only builds on deep community engagement and inclusion, but it also seeks to partner with other institutions and community leaders for the implementation of each strategy. Acknowledging that no single organization can reverse environmental injustices, the agenda issues a call to action for government, nonprofits, philanthropy, business and other community members to follow the City’s lead in striving for systemic change.
This move to advance an environmental equity agenda through extensive partnerships and through the institutional accountability mechanism of a formal public plan creates the urgency and accountability that drives the public will needed to make structural changes.
To read Seattle’s Equity & Environmental Agenda in full, see here: https://www.seattle.gov/Documents/Departments/OSE/SeattleEquityAgenda.pdf. For more on Mayor Murray’s Equity & Environmental Initiative, see here: https://www.seattle.gov/environment/about-ose/equity-and-environment.
Or contact Sudha.Nandagopal@seattle.gov, Program Manager, Equity & Environment Initiative