Building Community Capacity Means Expanding, Connecting Current Neighborhood-Level Efforts

Local disaster relief efforts are piecemeal, ad-hoc, and disjointed - and the state should invest in strenthening them

Resilience Before Disaster
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A just-released report argues that it’s time for California to learn from – and expand –  creative responses and solutions to disaster that people are conjuring out of desperation.

Resilience Before Disaster: The Need to Build Equitable, Community-Driven Social Infrastructure recommends that the state invest not just in protecting its physical infrastructure from the effects of climate change – which it has begun to do – but in protecting its people. That would mean investing in giving people the means to protect themselves and to work together to protect others, including the most vulnerable members of our families and communities.

California’s government agencies have years of experience with climate policies, anemic though they may be still. Much time and thought has gone into thinking about clean energy, forest management, wetlands, and “hardening” infrastructure so it can survive rising sea levels.

“What’s been missing is that there’s been very little thinking about actually supporting people in communities through these disasters,” said Amee Raval, Research Director at Asian Pacific Environmental Network, and one of the authors of the report. “We wanted to talk about the community resilience and what that means, and to show what investing in social infrastructure can look like.”

Resilience Before Disaster is the result of a partnership between seemingly unlikely organizations: environmental justice organization Asian Pacific Environmental Network, labor union SEIU California, and BlueGreen Alliance, which works to bring together environmental organizations and labor. “What united us was this missing piece around community resilience,” said Raval. “It’s not just about community residents; workers are also part of the communities. It’s a shared landscape.”

The report highlights both the key role “front-line” workers play in making the lives of all Californians livable and the creative solutions some groups have come up with to deal with disastrous conditions they are already living through.

“This isn’t something new,” said Raval. The report “reinforces the need to invest in communities that have been historically disinvested. California continues to rapidly make investments to address the crisis they see now, from putting a lot of resources into hardening infrastructure, to a crisis response in an emergency scenario, be it wildfire or heat or smoky air.”

Governor Newsom recently launched the California Climate Action Corps – open to all Californians – that acknowledges the importance of individual and collective action. But it is missing the key piece highlighted in this report: investment.

“What continues to be left out is a focus on people and neighborhoods,” said Raval. “We need to ask what it means to make deep investments in social support that help communities – not only during a crisis but every day. This isn’t just about responding once disaster hits. It’s about the support you build ahead of time, so that people are more resourced every day and when disaster hits. That means social services – but also decent paying jobs and mutual aid networks, so people are ready.”

A disaster – be it COVID, power outages, earthquake, or climate change – will be easier and faster to recover from if everyone is equipped to do so, and to help each other. Recommendations for dealing with a disaster – evacuation checklists, safety protocols – tend to focus on individuals protecting themselves. “But individual responses–things like air filters and back-up power–just reinforce the divide between folks that can afford the technology and those that can’t,” said Raval. “This report is pushing for the notion of collective care, of the collective response to climate change.”

“We want to create momentum for transformative policy, not do things in a piecemeal way,” she said.

The report hones in on two main ideas: Building a network of community resilience hubs, and creating capacity for “in-home” resilience by providing people the means to make a decent living.

“These solutions are already underway,” said Raval. “The challenge now is finding the resources to upgrade them, and to scale them up. One resilience hub is not enough; we need networks of them throughout cities. This report is about bolstering the models and the work that is already happening.”

It comes with a warning: with tight budgets and poor fiscal outlooks, pressure will build to impose austerity measures and to cut public expenditures, both of which could weaken the safety net further. But, says the report, this is the opposite of what the state should be doing. Economic recovery will only come when healthy communities can take care of themselves, because they are supported with good jobs and community services. That, according to the report, is also the only way to begin to repair the historic legacy of racial, economic, and environmental justice that continues to dog the nation.

Resilience Before Disaster recommends that California leaders focus on the following five things:

  • Fund existing and new resilience hubs of all kinds. These include community-based organizations, schools, libraries, and other places that can serves as centers where needs can be met and services provided – from food distribution to cooling or warming centers to tenant legal assistance to homeless and social services.
  • Establish networks of these hubs, so they can learn from each other, share resources, and increase their ability to help local communities
  • Invest in the “care workforce” – the home health aides, paid and unpaid, who care for elders, children, and disabled people. Also others in jobs that provide essential services. “There’s a set of nontraditional workers – domestic workers, nannies, day laborers – that are not afforded job protections,” said Raval, “They need to be able to work with good health and dignity.”
  • Rebuild the public sector workforce so it is “capable of meeting the needs of vulnerable populations and supporting community resilience.” This means making sure jobs – such as transit workers and teachers, public health nurses and human services providers, city public works and waste management workers, librarians, custodians, park keepers, and others who help make communities comfortable and livable – pay a living wage and are supported to do their work without burning out.
  • Improve emergency response to protect the most vulnerable members of the population. “The state must target resources to the most vulnerable communities, particularly working-class communities of color who are disproportionately impacted by systemic racism and historic economic disinvestment,” writes the report. “The state must also develop a comprehensive strategy for protecting medically vulnerable populations in the event of power shutoffs, and increase funding for initiatives to improve disaster preparedness and emergency response.”

An Existing Resilience Hub: Richmond Youth

RYSE Center in Richmond, California, is highlighted to show one model of what a resilience hub can be. The organization has been in existence for over a decade, according to Megan Zapanta, the Richmond Organizing Director for the Asian Pacific Environmental Network. RYSE is focused on creating safe spaces to help young people transform their lives and communities. It calls itself a “sanctuary of safety, compassion, and justice for youth.”

While involved in projects like creating a youth campus, the organization also focuses on education and communication, including developing community responses to potential disasters. That means involving the youth members in thinking about what people would need, how they are likely to respond, and what they would want to do in particular disaster scenarios.

“A big component is about communications,” said Zapanta. “For us, a goal is ongoing education for youth.” She gives the example of learning about solar power, including things like where to place a battery – where people can see it and talk about it? Calculating cost savings from having solar installed also leads to the questions of how that should be invested. RYSE youth raise these questions and help come up with answers.

“Our focus is on engaging people, and on building their investment in community spaces at a young age,” said Zapanta. “This leads to people being interested in this field later. It has a big impact on people’s lives.”

“It’s taken us a long time. Getting people excited about solar energy, cooperative solar energy, community spaces – it’s not necessarily the first thing low-income communities are thinking about,” she said. “Now they’re really excited about it, and it’s important for them.” The youth at the center want to see solar incorporated on civic buildings in Richmond, which has meant learning why such projects can take so long – for example, due to the lack of incentives for nonprofits to have solar. They have learned that “state resources and investment will have to change,” said Zapanta.

State policies that build climate resilience are important, and it’s also important to understand how funding works, she said.

Zapanta sees RYSE as a way to create “a road map for people to understand different ideas,” and to see that “we can’t make all the change on our own.”

“We want to be able to share our materials with other groups that also want to do this. In Richmond, one climate resiliency hub won’t cut it in a major disaster. We need it to be on the neighborhood level.”

“This is a way to prove the concept, while knowing that there’s going to be a lot more need,” she added.

Other Ways to Invest: Oakland Equitable Climate Action Plan

A different way to consider where state and local investments should go is shown by the process Oakland recently completed to create its Equitable Climate Action Plan. The plan includes resilience hubs as a major component, but will not be implemented without investment.

It was a two-year, community-driven process that explicitly acknowledged the history of stolen land and stolen people that helped form the city of Oakland, according to Oakland Climate Action Coalition coordinator Colin Miller.

“It involved a deep, deliberative participatory process,” he said. “We talked to thousands of Oaklanders, and strove to engage and connect with people most impacted by climate change, including BIPOC, disabled, houseless, women, and queer folks – people who have faced the brunt of climate impacts, including COVID-19.”

“Over the course of a year, we identified community priorities and created a whole-system framework for equitable outcomes. Equity is about targeting communities that experienced disproportionate impacts and have limited capacity to recover, to reduce those disparities,” he said.

“Climate solutions have the potential to benefit everyone,” he added, but it’s important to identify those groups that might be excluded from help.

He gave examples: in Oakland, residents in the hills are on the frontline of wildfire threats, for example, and among them are people with limited mobility or who are transit dependent – these groups need specific kinds of assistance. In the flats, smoke from wildfires increased the disproportionate harm to Black and brown communities living in areas where poor air quality already dogs residents.

The Equitable Climate Action plan, unanimously adopted in July, proposes, among other actions, the creation of three large resilience hubs. “But we’re envisioning a resilience hub in every neighborhood,” said Miller. “Neighborhood residents should have a say to self-determine what equitable climate action looks like in their neighborhood.”

At the moment, the plan is unfunded, although some city councilmembers have pledged to find financial support. “The city is underfunded in areas needed, and bloated in other areas,” said Miller. “Over 40 percent of the city’s general fund goes to the police department – they have over $300 million in their budget. We want some of that to go to community groups building a just transition that prioritizes health, safety and resilience of black and indigenous groups.”

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