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Community Engagement and Environmental Justice

Policy EcoLead and Temple Student Government Director of Grounds nad Sustainability, Katie Perrone, shares her local climate action planning internship experience and discusses learning from environmental justice EcoChampions throughout Pennsylvania. She explores the question: how can we remove systemic barriers and reach out to communities that have historically been overlooked?

Local Climate Action Planning

Last year, the Office of Sustainability hosted an event about Students & Local Climate Action Planning in Philadelphia, which detailed the experiences of students who participated in last year’s Local Climate Action Program (LCAP) cohort. In August, I learned that I was accepted into this year’s LCAP cohort, and I’ve spent the last couple of months diving into the world of local government planning, climate policy, and environmental justice. 

The LCAP program paired me with local government officials from Warrington Township, Pennsylvania, and I am responsible for helping them develop and implement a climate action plan for their community. The first step in beginning to draft our climate action plan for Warrington Township was forming a task force. Key stakeholders were invited to participate and the task force gives all of us working on the climate action plan an opportunity to bounce ideas off of one another. 

Creating graphs, analyzing greenhouse gas emission data, and starting to conduct a climate change vulnerability assessment have been just a few of the tasks that I have worked on with the task force during my first few months as an LCAP intern. However, no part of my LCAP experience has been as interesting as learning about the impact that community engagement has on local planning.

Community Engagement

One of the first things that I learned during my internship training is that creating an effective community engagement strategy is essential to drafting effective policy. Community engagement can come in many forms, from hosting workshops and community meetings to reaching out to underrepresented communities to gain their perspectives.

In the case of Warrington Township, we are drafting a survey to be distributed to the entire township. The survey includes questions about which actions residents are already taking to reduce the impact of climate change and which actions they would like to see the township implement. The main objective of our survey is to gain the perspectives of community members, understand their priorities for addressing climate change, and build transparency between the township and its residents. 

The LCAP program trainings have taught me that community engagement isn’t as simple as planning a workshop or creating a survey. In order for either of those actions to be effective, they need to incorporate the entire community. This means specifically reaching out to any groups that have been historically marginalized and underrepresented and making sure that they play a significant role in the process. Environmental justice is a crucial component of any community engagement strategy for climate action.

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Environmental Justice

A few weeks ago, Alison Acevedo, the director of Pennsylvania’s Office of Environmental Justice, led an LCAP training session about environmental justice and how to address the causes of systemic environmental inequalities. She began by explaining the differences between equality, equity, and justice, and the importance of working to remove systemic barriers and achieve justice.

The history of redlining in Pennsylvania is one of the direct causes of environmental injustice. Communities of color and those without a lot of economic resources were much more likely to be located near industries and factories, and therefore these communities disproportionately dealt with high levels of air pollution and hazardous waste. The environmental history of Pennsylvania, and specifically Philadelphia, has been permeated by a shameful legacy of environmental racism and injustice.

Environmental Justice at Temple

As I learned more about the history of environmental injustice, I began wondering what our university is doing to address environmental injustice. Between 2010 and 2019, Temple has taken multiple steps to better address the inequalities and systemic barriers that exist within our society. 

This is best shown by the updated climate action plan that Temple published in 2019. This plan is written with a comprehensive approach that incorporates environmental justice planning into the framework of the plan. The university begins by updating its definition of sustainability to recognize the importance of creating an equitable and just society.  

“Sustainability seeks to balance a healthy environment with a just, equitable and economically viable society”

2019 Temple Climate Action Plan

The plan presents goals to address food insecurity, incorporate environmental justice principles into at least a third of the Office of Sustainability’s programming, and include more diverse voices and perspectives in the conversation regarding sustainability at Temple. During my time at the Office of Sustainability, I have already had the chance to attend multiple events regarding environmental injustice, lead an energy sovereignty workshop, and learn about innovative research being conducted at Temple to address inequality in Philadelphia.

Struggle Space to a Green New Deal

One of the events that was particularly fascinating was the Struggle Space to the Green New Deal discussion that the Office of Sustainability hosted last spring. This conversation centered around the concept of a ‘struggle space,’ which refers to the overwhelming structural and racial injustices that communities of color continue to face. One of the speakers at this event explained that climate planning is doomed to fail if it does not address this struggle space. 

To make progress, we need to acknowledge the past, address the present, and work collectively to create an equitable future.

Stories of Sustainability: Struggle Space

The first step to addressing this struggle space is identifying the inequalities that exist in our current system, and in particular this means focusing on the discrimintion and inequality that is historically involved in urban planning. In Philadelphia, rapid gentrification and development threaten to exacerbate the problem of environmental injustice. 

One professor from Temple’s Geography and Urban Studies Department, Christina Rosan, is working to address the struggle space through her research. Along with other researchers at Temple, Professor Rosan created an equity index to identify the areas in Philadelphia that face systemic inequalities. 

Professor Rosan’s index identifies areas of environmental need, areas lacking amenities such as playgrounds and parks, and areas of socio-economic disadvantage. The image below shows her results, with those areas experiencing more need or disadvantage colored darker.

Both Alison Acevedo’s training and the research being done at Temple highlight the importance of developing a comprehensive community engagement strategy to address environmental injustice and the struggle space. I am excited to have the opportunity to participate in this important conversation by working with Warrington Township to draft a community-wide survey and brainstorming other ideas to increase community engagement in Warrington. 

Recognizing that environmental injustice is an essential part of every conversation about climate change is the first step to creating meaningful and long-lasting change. We must stop thinking about sustainability and injustice as two separate goals and acknowledge that they are interconnected and must be addressed as one. Until we remove systemic barriers and achieve environmental justice, it will be impossible to fully address the effects of climate change.
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