Air Resources Board Elevates Environmental Justice to Executive Level

ClimatePlan's Chanell Fletcher, as new CARB Deputy Executive Officer for Environmental Justice, will oversee environmental justice, Community Air Monitoring Program (A.B. 617), and more.

Chanell Fletcher, new Deputy Executive Officer for Environmental Justice at the California Air Resources Board.
Chanell Fletcher, new Deputy Executive Officer for Environmental Justice at the California Air Resources Board.

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) appointed Chanell Fletcher, currently ClimatePlan’s Executive Director, to oversee its work on environmental justice and racial equity. Fletcher will be the point person on environmental justice within the agency and provide input on “CARB’s programs designed to address disproportionate impacts from air pollution and climate change and associated chronic health conditions affecting Black, Latinx and other communities of color across the state,” according to the press announcement.

The appointment is “a really big deal,” according to CARB Executive Officer Director Richard Corey, “and important for the organization going forward.”

Fletcher, who for years has advocated for environmental justice at CARB and other state agencies, knows this. “Now, more than ever, it’s imperative that we move to a model where we’re actively building relationships and trust with partners in the environmental and racial justice movement,” she said. “For too long, we’ve approached this work from the top down. In this position, I am excited to lead CARB’s work on environmental and racial justice so we can partner more effectively and closely with residents in the most impacted communities to create a more just and sustainable future.”

Fletcher comes to CARB with long experience as a tenacious advocate for incorporating environmental justice, inclusion, and equity into the work of state agencies, CARB among them. At ClimatePlan, she helped grow that coalition’s work on transportation, housing, land use, conservation, equity, environmental justice, and labor. During her ten-year tenure there, she pushed state agencies, including CARB and the California Transportation Commission, to improve their programs, be more transparent and accountable, and do more than simply comply with the letter of the law.

For example, she was instrumental in the production of several reports on S.B. 375, the state law that required regional planning agencies to better connect their planning for transportation and land use. The “Sustainable Communities Strategies” that resulted from that plan have had weak on-the-ground results; ClimatePlan’s reports analyzed their progress and pointed out how they could be improved.

Fletcher also advocated for a bill to diversify the makeup of the California Transportation Commission, which controls and allocates state transportation funding. Even though that bill, A.B. 179, was watered down considerably in the legislative process, it pushed a long-overdue conversation about representation on the commission. A.B. 179 ended up requiring the CTC and CARB (and later, the state housing agency, HCD) to meet regularly to compare notes and work together, whereas there had never been any effort to require the two agencies to work in tandem and they tended to make decisions that undermined each other’s work.

While there were many other factors that also came into play, today’s CTC is not the same organization it was even a few years ago, and it now includes representatives from a broader range of Californians than the real estate and labor groups that dominated it for so long.

The new CARB position, originally created in 2017, was expanded and elevated to the deputy executive level because, like other state agencies, CARB has been forced to acknowledge the role its policies and practices – both internal and external – have contributed to racial and environmental injustice.

“We realized we needed to strengthen our environmental justice process and underscore it as a key priority for CARB,” said Corey. “We had an environmental justice element, but we really needed to step it up and emphasize that we are focusing on these issues,” he said. “This is a direct commitment to addressing equity and justice all the way at the top of the organization.”

“Chanell is amazing,” says former colleague and fellow advocate Jeanie Ward-Waller, who for years worked side by side with Fletcher to improve state transportation policy. “She has effectively changed the transportation policy landscape in California. She was the force behind the bill that required joint meetings between state transportation and climate agencies–which started with a much bigger reform proposal, and ended up getting whittled down. But it was the catalyst for major changes to transportation decision-making since then.”

“When you’re an advocate, you’re working so hard and for such a long time, and many of your big important ideas die along the way,” said Ward Waller. “But some of the ways you salvage a bill turns into big wins down the road.”

The two of them spent a lot of time together working on improving S.B. 1, which raised the gas tax, talking with legislators and staff to make sure people understood why it was important not to focus its revenue solely on highway building. Both ClimatePlan and CalBike, for whom Ward Waller worked at the time, ended up opposing the bill because it did not acknowledge the equity and environmental justice issues they raised. Their efforts did produce some significant wins, including more money for the Active Transportation Program, transit programs, and stronger guidelines for some of S.B. 1’s other programs.

In her new position, Fletcher will oversee the Community Air Protection Program, required by A.B. 617 to help communities get information about and have some say in how to control local sources of air pollution. The program has been slow to roll out, and putting it under Fletcher could bring more clarity and direction to it.

Fletcher will also be expected to weigh in on equity and environmental justice issues in all CARB programs, and she will be charged with developing training for CARB staff.

No one person can or should be relied on to achieve all of this. At ClimatePlan, Fletcher knew this; that organization “was founded around the reality that no one organization or entity can provide the solutions we seek,” according to its website.

“I’m excited to join CARB at this pivotal moment,” Fletcher told Streetsblog. “This is an opportunity for CARB to build deeper and more meaningful partnerships to elevate environmental justice and racial equity in all it does.”

CARB will rely on Fletcher’s “wealth of community-focused experience and creative problem-solving skills to strengthen CARB’s efforts to improve public health for all Californians,” according to the press announcement. “Her fierce commitment to finding just solutions will help to better integrate environmental and racial justice principles into every element of CARB’s operation, including the design and implementation of key programs aimed at improving the quality of life in communities hardest hit by pollution.”

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