Why Does Community Engagement Matter?
In the face of climate change, the need to rapidly transition to an inclusive green economy is urgent. This transition will only be effective and equitable, however, if it is driven by the voices of those most impacted.
Local stakeholders have both the historical context and the expertise to know what solutions will work best in their own communities. Inclusive community engagement not only provides communities with a real stake and sense of ownership over local transformation, it also ensures that solutions connect the dots between climate threats and immediate on-the-ground needs. In short, it ensures solutions tangibly work for the community. Community engagement, therefore, must be the centerpiece of the climate transition.
What Hasn’t Been Working?
Unfortunately, meaningful inclusion and engagement have not always been standard practice. Researchers have found that participation in public meetings with local decision-makers often skews towards the most advantaged and well-resourced communities, excluding entire communities from important conversations. Across the country, we see profound inequities in who has a say in key local decision-making.
When it comes to climate change, the story is no different. Even as communities of color and disadvantaged communities have faced the brunt of climate threats for decades, they have been left out of climate conversations. Consequently, they have also been left out of the necessary solutions. For instance, a California analysis showed that the 5% most advantaged and wealthiest communities in the state had a solar adoption rate 8x that of the 5% most disadvantaged communities.
How Do We Move Forward?
To rectify and reverse patterns of exclusion, and ensure effective climate solutions are reaching the people who need them most, robust community engagement must be the engine of project design and implementation. Across the country and the globe, meaningful community engagement is becoming a cornerstone of community development work. In order to sustain community involvement in important decision-making, public and private actors must commit to thoughtful, intentional, and inclusive community engagement efforts.
Top 6 Recommendations for Robust Community Engagement
1) Identify, engage, and resource trusted local partners.
In order to center and uplift local expertise, deep, authentic trust must be the highest priority. Forging reciprocal, respectful relationships with trusted backbone partners in local communities will increase credibility, avoid overburdening local actors, and establish trust with the wider community. To meaningfully include community voices, it is not enough to simply reach out to key stakeholders. True inclusion means providing tangible resources to amplify their work and ensure they have a seat at the table to set the priorities for and implement policy.
IN ACTION: PARTNER FOR SUCCESS
- Dream.Org’s Transformative Communities team has held over 140 stakeholder conversations across the country to listen and learn from local actors and community members. In this listening work, we have engaged most deeply with several key stakeholders and backbone entities that are trusted messengers in the community. We have found that it is most effective and generative to honor, uplift, and augment existing work and social infrastructure by partnering deeply with several trusted entities.
- California Climate Investments’ (CCI) 2018 report on “Best Practices for Community Engagement and Building Successful Projects” recommends utilizing outreach funds for well-connected organizations and trusted local champions. CCI explains that this practice will create partnerships that simultaneously diversify engaged stakeholders, align resources and attention on project design and implementation, and enhance project acceptance and support. These trusted partners and backbone entities may be unexpected depending on local context.
2) (Re)Establish trusting relationships between frontline communities and decision-makers.
In many disadvantaged communities across the country, communities have suffered histories of local actors over-promising and under-delivering. In order to ensure resources reach the places that need them most, it is critical to mend these legacies of distrust. Local decision-makers must be accountable to frontline communities and their goals, and local stakeholders must feel seen and respected in partnership with decision-makers. Supporting convenings, trust-building activities, and equitable partnerships between these stakeholders and decision-makers are paramount to sustainable, inclusive community development work.
IN ACTION: CULTIVATE TRUST
- In Dream.Org's Transformative Communities work, local leadership is critical to every convening and conversation. By bringing local government into the conversation early, and finding generative connection points, the Transformative Communities team has facilitated discussions and trust-building interactions between local community organizations and city government. For example, in Detroit, Michigan, the Transformative Communities team was engaged by the City of Detroit’s Sustainability Office as a thought partner on their community benefits work for their city-wide solar initiative. This collaboration supported the City in initiating a plan for thoughtful, intentional, and mutually beneficial engagement with community organizations and residents.
- The Strategic Growth Council’s (SGC) Transformative Climate Communities (TCC) 2020 project in Northeast San Fernando Valley, Green Together, is led by the grassroots environmental justice nonprofit, Pacoima Beautiful. The Collaborative Stakeholder Structure for this TCC project convenes Pacoima Beautiful, Los Angeles local government agencies, and other backbone entities in a “flat” decision-making body, facilitating a shoulder-to-shoulder partnership among stakeholders. Pacoima Beautiful also relies on a strong, trusting working relationship with LA’s Mayor's Office to liaise with other government agencies. This non-hierarchical, institutionalized decision-making structure is a critical and tangible step in establishing trust and local government buy-in.
3) Build bridges to convene diverse stakeholders.
From the start, it is critical to identify stakeholders and sectors that have historically been roadblocks to climate work and intentionally engage them in the conversation early. Community engagement is incomplete without inviting all players–including potential roadblocks–into discussion. Building bridges with unlikely allies will not only spark a rich conversation, but it will ultimately ensure that planning is effective and implementation is realistic.
IN ACTION: BUILD BRIDGES
- SGC’s TCC Watts Rising project in Watts, in the Los Angeles area, prioritized diversity during their community planning sessions. In their community convenings for project design, the Housing Authority hosted six public workshops that were attended by over 400 community members, including Watts residents, local government and elected officials, medical providers, educators, environmental and business leaders, community group representatives, and religious leaders. This cross-sectoral discussion led to a holistic and comprehensive slate of project components with economic, health, and environmental benefits for the community.
- Cross-sectoral convening has been a priority Transformative Communities team at Dream.Org. Ensuring that stakeholders not traditionally thought of as “climate” professionals are at the table for regional and local climate planning has been key to thinking creatively and holistically about solutions. The Transformative Communities team brings economic and community development specialists, minority entrepreneurs, financial sector experts, environmental justice advocates, and local government into the same room in an effort to convene a robust, diverse group of people in pursuit of sustainable, equitable community transformation.
4) Contextualize the work in the bigger picture.
Communities do not experience single, standalone challenges; rather, especially when it comes to climate change, vulnerabilities and burdens are often overlapping and intersecting. Solutions, therefore, must address these overlapping challenges with a holistic approach. Neighborhood- and community-level projects must be understood as part of a suite of projects within the larger context of local and regional transformation. Education and communication about the bigger picture context will increase local buy-in, return on investment for all stakeholders, and long-term sustainability.
IN ACTION: ADDRESS COMPLEXITIES
- In 2020, Third Way hosted a series of focus groups in Detroit, Philadelphia, and Greensboro with Black Americans of diverse ages, education, and genders. Their findings show that, by and large, climate change as a concern fell secondary to other pressing issues such as health care, education, racism, school debt, and crime. Some participants, however, articulated that environmental concerns and community health “are tied closely together.” Climate-related issues, therefore, have the most salience when framed in larger contexts of other economic, health, and safety-related challenges facing the community.
- SGC’s TCC model of community engagement and project development honors a holistic approach to climate work. The Transform Fresno TCC project, for instance, which won an implementation grant in 2019, included a slate of project components that addressed the intersecting and overlapping needs of the community. Projects included weatherization, urban greening, transportation, and workforce development efforts–effectively tying together the local and regional needs within the larger context of community transformation
5) Make the conversation accessible.
In order for community engagement to be truly inclusive, opportunities for input and engagement must be universally accessible. Accessibility means removing barriers to day-of participation, including providing wrap-around services such as childcare, transportation, and compensation for individuals’ expertise and time. Thoughtful, inclusive facilitation during convenings and meetings is also of utmost importance: providing multilingual accessibility, conducting expert facilitation across lines of difference, and avoiding “talking to” participants by instead allowing space for meaningful contribution.
IN ACTION: INCREASE ACCESSIBILITY
- SGC’s TCC program guidelines include community engagement requirements. These requirements mandate that TCC program and project-related meetings “use proven methods of engagement to facilitate direct participation of community residents.” These methods include translation of materials and communications, as well as accessible meeting times.
- California Climate Investments’ “Best Practices for Community Engagement and Building Successful Projects” explicitly underscores the importance of providing wrap-around services, stipends, and easy-to-use web platforms with plain language in order to render meetings and materials accessible to all community members.
- The Praxis Project has compiled and published a Language Justice Toolkit that outlines concrete tools for building multilingual capacity for organizations and governments.
6) Incorporate community input into the institutional process.
The vast expertise of local communities must serve as the bedrock of local decisions and institutional processes. It is paramount, therefore, that insights from community conversations, convenings, and outreach efforts be meaningfully incorporated into decision-making systems and processes taking place at all levels. In order to do so, local actors–both public and private–must create sustainable, durable feedback loops in which program design and implementation are responsive to the needs of local stakeholders.
IN ACTION: ELEVATE VOICES
- The Participatory Budgeting Project works with local governments to implement participatory budgeting practices, which involve a regular cycle of meetings, voting, and implementation. By engaging in a structured process of community collaboration, participatory budgeting produces a durable feedback loop that effectively institutionalizes community input in key budget decisions.
- In the private sector, community engagement and input are guiding transformative solutions on the ground as well. Bloomberg’s American Cities Climate Challenge, for instance, supports cities across the United States in advancing climate and equity goals. In order to ensure that solutions have tangible benefits for local communities when designing and co-creating projects, the Climate Challenge transportation team met with local organizations, stakeholders, and leaders to understand their immediate priorities and needs. This level of community involvement in program design constitutes a meaningful incorporation of community input.
- At Dream.Org, our team works at all levels to ensure that on-the-ground experiences, expertise, and concerns are fed back up to the federal and state levels in order to influence program design and implementation. For instance, the learnings and insights we hear in our place-based engagement with local communities across the country are incorporated into our regulatory advocacy work with the federal government. These feedback loops ensure that programs and opportunities are tangibly responding to and meeting the needs of the people they intend to serve.
Resources for Further Learning
- The Government Alliance on Racial Equity (GARE) is a leader in embedding equity into local government activities. GARE produces resources and guidance on meaningfully integrating racial equity into public projects, such as the Racial Equity Toolkit: An Opportunity to Operationalize Equity and the Advancing Racial Equity and Transforming Government resource guide. By outlining case studies of successful community collaboration and providing roadmaps for local governments across the country, GARE helps establish trusting, reciprocal working relationships between communities of color and local government entities.
- Just Solutions Collective compiled an extensive report that elevates expertise from frontline communities, articulating the fundamental components of a just, equitable clean energy transition. This document, Comprehensive Building Blocks for a Regenerative & Just 100% Policy, lays out the intersecting issue areas that merit policy attention in a just transition. Sections of the report articulate strategies for transportation justice, housing solutions, improved public health, better working conditions and labor union rights, economic benefits, and local renewable energy ownership–all of which are interrelated, crucial pieces to equitable climate work.