Voices of 100%: Climate Justice Plan Upends Typical City Process, Putting Communities First — Episode 93 of Local Energy Rules Podcast

Date: 18 Dec 2019 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

To reach its climate and energy goals, one Rhode Island city has opted for a climate justice plan in lieu of the typical climate action plan.

For this episode of our Voices of 100% series of the Local Energy Rules Podcast, host John Farrell speaks with Providence Director of Sustainability Leah Bamberger. Although Providence is not committed to 100 percent clean, renewable energy, it has made a commitment just as ambitious: centering equity on its journey to carbon neutrality and 30% local energy generation. The two discuss the city’s climate justice plan, the necessity of centering frontline communities in decision making, and how energy democracy (see ILSR’s definition) is key to both setting and reaching climate goals.

Listen to the full episode to learn about Providence’s new approach to climate goal setting, and explore more highlights and resources, below — including a transcript and summary of the conversation.

Leah Bamberger It really wasn’t a climate justice plan. We weren’t calling it that until the very end. You know, we were thinking, all right, we’re going to do this climate action plan with an equity lens and then whereas we were towards the end looking at it as like, oh, this is, this is a climate justice plan. That’s what this is.
John Farrell Providence Rhode Island is one of dozens of U.S. cities trying to address energy and climate issues locally with a goal of 100% carbon free electricity, 30% generated locally, by 2050. But unlike most cities, their recently created climate justice plan talks deliberately about energy democracy. In this episode, the city’s director of sustainability Leah Bamberger explains how their plan was built from the bottom up through a process of intentional community engagement and fit the needs of the city’s residents led to a plan with a much stronger focus on health and livelihood than a traditional climate action plan. I’m John Farrell, director of the Energy Democracy Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and this is our special Voices of 100 series focused on local leaders and their pursuit of 100% renewable energy. It’s all a part of local energy rules, a biweekly podcast sharing powerful stories about local renewable energy. So Leah, welcome to the program, it’s so great to have you.
Leah Bamberger Thank you. It’s great to be here.
John Farrell I wanted to start by just asking you about this climate justice plan, about a particular phrase in it that I think really gets at the heart of the way that this differs from the way that other cities are thinking about their climate action plans and it says quote, “this plan takes a systems thinking and place based approach to addressing climate change.” How do you feel like that is different from climate plans that there might be being adopted in other U.S. cities and how did it change the desired outcomes from the plan from just getting beyond like a certain carbon emissions target?
Leah Bamberger Yeah. Well I think what really made this plan and makes this plan unique is, is our approach to developing it. And we often talk about in sustainability the need to focus on equity. And one thing that I have learned through this process, and this sounds like a no brainer, but, it, it really takes, it took a while to think in, which is if we want different outcomes, we have to take a different approach. And so when we talk about equity and we want as well outcomes adding, you know, a section on equity or you know, shifting the makeup, getting a more diverse constituent base is not going to result in a whole systems shift or, you know, a completely different set of outcomes. And so what we did is we really flipped our engagement process on its head, when we developed this plan. So we knew if we were to put out a broad call, say, Hey, we’re developing our climate action plan, we want to center equity in it, we’re gonna make sure that’s emphasized in the process, and we had that big public meeting, we would get mostly the usual suspects. And the voices that we are really trying to center, from our frontline communities, our communities that are most impacted by the climate crisis, they would continue to be marginalized. So, uh, we instead we had a very intentional process that sought to engage specifically and pretty much exclusively our frontline community members so that the solutions that are developing the plan are addressing their needs and they’re not continuing to be marginalized in that way in the process. So as a result, it takes a systems thinking and space based approach to, to that quote, really getting at some of the root causes. So when we center equity, when we, when we center frontline communities in these conversations, we’re not only talking about carbon pollution, but we’re talking about labor, we’re talking about health, we’re talking about gentrification, housing affordability.

And that’s where we really get at the, the systems level thinking. All those things are interconnected. And it’s particularly exciting doing this work here in Providence, because Providence was really the birthplace of the industrial revolution. All of the, the challenges that we’re facing today, many of them started right here in our backyard. Uh, and it not only started with, you know, the mills and the industry coming in, which ended up, you know, running on fossil fuels and, and needing the, uh, larger labor force. And, but it also started with, uh, you know, these were mills that were relying on cotton from the South that was extracted via slave labor. And that just really gets at the narrative of how all these things are connected. So when we’re talking about tackling climate change, we can’t just be talking about calculating greenhouse gas emissions and our carbon footprint and wedging our way down to zero. We have to be really thinking about the systems and structures that created this crisis in the first place. And that’s what I think this plan gets at, not because that was necessarily our intention, our intention was to center front line communities in the conversation. But because we did that, we ended up with a much more holistic approach and plan.

John Farrell And I should, just for the benefit of folks who don’t live in this space a little bit, more in terms of frontline communities in the climate justice plan, it talked about how you have an active port for example, and that there’s a lot of pollution near there. Is that kind of what you’re talking about is people who live near that? Could you give a couple of specific examples to help people understand a little bit more about what we mean when we say frontline communities?
Leah Bamberger Yeah, I can give the specific definition that’s in the plan, but generally I say frontline communities, these are the people who are literally on the front lines of the climate crisis. So these are folks who are not only dealing with the impacts of industry today, so that could be the health impacts, it could be labor impacts. Maybe they are working in industry and are exposed to processes and, and the impacts and the pollution as a, as a labor or they live near these polluting facilities. And they’re dealing with it in everyday community health. These frontline communities, in Providence and around the world, are low income communities of color. So in our plan we have a definition that we developed with our community members for frontline communities, and these are “communities of color most impacted by the crisis of ecology, economy, and democracy in Providence. These generally include our Indigenous, African American, Black, Latinx, and Southeast Asian communities.” We also say there’s a particular emphasis on people of color who are refugees and immigrants, people with criminal records, those who speak languages other than English, lGBTQIA+ individuals. Yeah. So that’s, that’s how we collectively and collaboratively defined frontline communities for Providence. I think it’s unique every, every place and I think it’s really important that there is a process to define what they are in, in each community so they can be identified appropriately.
John Farrell That’s really helpful. I think that when I think about the different communities that we’ve spoken to, some are large urban places, some are smaller cities, some are suburbs. And it’s really helpful to think that that answering this question is different for each community and that it’s not appropriate to just think of like, oh well this is the folks that are defined as frontline in Providence and so therefore we should look for those same folks in our community. So I think that’s very helpful.
Leah Bamberger Yeah, and I just to add to that, I think that gets to the other piece of the quote that you referenced in terms of place based approach. And I think that’s really important to consider that this work has to be developed in a place based context in order to embrace those principles of equity and justice, that there is no one size solution that, you know, works everywhere and you government needs to be in that collaborative decision making process with community, with their specifics, the nuances of those communities in order to come up with equitable solutions.
John Farrell So there is a really strong focus in the climate justice plan on co-pollutants. So this is like particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, basically a lot of the components that we think of as smog or local air pollution. Why is there such an important focus on that, when the global climate challenge is about greenhouse gas emissions, particularly the carbon dioxide?
Leah Bamberger Yeah, so this focus really evolves again from our process and some of the things that we heard and the challenges that not only we heard from community members, but we see in data, right? We look at asthma rates in the city and how those disproportionally impact frontline community members. And as we try to, as we’re working to address the global climate crisis here in Providence, I think it’s important to remember that, you know, Providence, we could become a carbon neutral tomorrow and it’s not going to, it’s a drop in the bucket in terms of global emissions. Which is not to undermine our impact or say we shouldn’t care about these issues, I think there’s obviously, you know, cities around the world are taking action and that is really important as a driver of change. But I think that what we’re trying to do here is kind of think of it rather than an either or, but a both. And so we can solve for the health crises that are a product of climate change as we reduce greenhouse gas emissions, if we make both a priority. And what we’re saying here in Providence is like, yes, you want to reduce emissions, but let’s start with emissions that are causing the most harm in our frontline community so we can prioritize their health as a first step in meeting our long-term greenhouse gas reduction goals.
John Farrell Maybe this is sort of like an obvious question, but I assume that there’s some relationship here too. When you are trying to solve the pollutant crisis that is impacting the health of communities, you’re probably also going to be addressing pollution sources that are releasing greenhouse gas emissions.
Leah Bamberger Absolutely. And they’re often the more challenging sources of emissions. And we’re saying we’re gonna not start with the low hanging fruit. Essentially we’re going to make sure we’re focusing on these more challenging like transportation emissions, highways, direct emissions from industry, and those are the emissions that we’re saying are important. We could get to maybe 30% of our goals just by talking about energy efficiency and fuel switching, but that’s not going to help frontline communities. That’s not going to address the asthma crisis that is happening in this city, in many other cities around the country, and in frontline communities. So by emphasizing the community health and those co-pollutants, it does shift our strategies and what we’re, what we’re focusing on initially.
John Farrell That’s fascinating especially since, and I feel like in so many of these cases when we prioritize energy beyond any other way that we address this issue, we start with energy efficiency as like the opening piece of the plan.

I’d like to talk to a little bit about how the climate justice plan was developed. You’ve kind of alluded to this already, but there was a series of interviews with Providence residents that was focused in frontline communities, which I think we’ve defined pretty well at this point. What did you learn about in terms of what was important to the community and how does that align with the climate goals? Kind of restating a question I think we’ve already sort of answered, but I’m hoping to kind of condense it here in one piece.

Leah Bamberger Sure. So our process in the engagement and getting input from frontline community tried to make it as relatable and digestible as possible. So it started with a training program for community leaders to learn about our energy system and energy democracy. And then they went out into their communities and asked very simple questions, how did you stay warm in the winter? What was good about it? What would you change? How do you stay cool in the summer? What was good about that? What would you change? How do you get around the city? What’s good about that? What would you change? Those right there, the major buckets of emissions, right? And then we also asked the question about is there anything in your community that’s making you sick?

And what we heard from that that I think was illuminating to me personally is just some of the basic challenges that so many people in our community are experiencing related to these systems, that if we took a traditional approach and had that big public meeting with environmental organizations, we wouldn’t hear any of those challenges. We’d hear about the need for electric vehicles and the need for more solar programs. We wouldn’t hear those root issues. Things like, Hey, my radiators are broken and I can’t get my landlord to fix them, I’m battling with the utility company because they’re shutting off my heat cause I can’t afford it. I can’t close my windows because my building is so old and in disrepair. So core housing issues certainly came up a lot. And just understanding how those challenges that are so many people in our communities are experiencing. If we’re not addressing those as part of this fight of tackling the climate crisis, we are absolutely excluding people from being part of the solution. So if we’re not, you know, broadening the tent and we’re not thinking about these challenges of just basic needs of staying cool and warm and comfortable in your home and taking care of your family, we’re of course not going to be able to include those perspectives and have any meaningful progress in sort of diversifying and meeting our diversity, equity and inclusion goals of the certain environmental field and sustainability field. That is such a challenge. Not only is it a challenge, it’s something that there’s been a lot of talk about the need for and how you know, it’s all really important. We value diversity. How do we get there? We actually have to shift and this is what I was getting to earlier about, you know, this sort of obvious learning moment for me that we actually have to change what we’re doing if we want different outcomes and we need to start being inclusive of these really basic needs that so many people are experiencing.

John Farrell We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, we’ll continue our Voices of 100 interview by asking how folks in Providence defined energy democracy, how the role of the community led to some unexpected goals in the climate plan, and talk with Leah about why other cities shouldn’t just try to copy and paste ideas from the Providence climate justice plan.
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John Farrell So I feel like this gets at this idea of inclusivity, but you know the term energy democracy has come up both in the climate justice plan and you’ve mentioned it a couple of times already today. What does it mean to you, or how do you and and folks in Providence define it, and how is it going to be incorporated in the work of implementing the climate justice plan?
Leah Bamberger Yeah. So the, the plan defines energy democracy as representing a shift from the corporate fossil fuel economy to one that is governed by communities, is the principle of no harm to the environment, supports local economies and contributes to the health and wellbeing for all people. And I think in terms of how this plan seeks to embody it through implementation and how we’re going to continue to work towards that. I mean it is with energy democracy is you’re never there, right? It’s kind of like sustainability, like you can always be better. So it’s always this like lofty end goal, that framework that you keep in mind as you’re making decisions. So when we’re thinking about programs like community choice aggregation, how do we challenge the status quo of what community choice aggregation is as a program to think about working towards energy democracy. So it’s not necessarily going to be the end all be all solution to a more democratic system, but we can make shifts in it that will help us get there.

So recognizing that community choice aggregation is largely just a shift of one power source to a more stable, cleaner source. But we can design that program to embody some principles of energy democracy. So making sure that there is there a way to use a community choice aggregation program to work towards more equitable rate structures. Can we incorporate funding, or maybe add on charges for certain rate classes based on income that can fuel programs for low income residents or can fuel more energy efficiency programs that are better suited to for renters. Something that the utility programs have struggled with. So just thinking creatively about things like that. And I also think just the process as well can help shift towards energy democracy. So in developing a community choice aggregation program, are we being inclusive? Are we really shifting decision power to communities and developing what that program looks like? I think all those are just, I used community choice aggregation as an example because I assume many of your listeners probably are familiar with that as a way of meeting our climate and goals, just recognizing that it’s sort of thought of as a, as a process and not necessarily something that you can like check the box on. Like all right, now we’re, our energy system is democratic, right? It’s more of a framework for thinking about how we shift.

John Farrell I think that’s really helpful. I liked that a lot just because it’s really hard for communities to understand about that process that it’s not just like, Hey, if we adopt this policy, we’ve done it. We’re actually just going to be releasing a report on community choice aggregation very soon. And it is telling stories of a lot of different communities and what they’re trying to do. And I think this is a wonderful way to think about that because at its core community choice aggregation, like you said, is just this notion of, hey, the city sort of takes over the purchasing power for a city in terms of where it gets electricity from. And yet there are all these communities now exploring a variety of different things. Maybe it’s getting more energy from local sources, maybe it’s focusing on high quality labor and jobs for the clean energy that gets built. There are, I think I at least a handful, half a dozen of communities that have community advisory boards that are helping to shape the policy development of community choice. So I think that’s really helpful for folks to hear that it’s not just like, Hey, if we write this plan in the right way, we’ve done energy democracy, but actually, you know, it’s a continual process of thinking about it.
Leah Bamberger Absolutely.
John Farrell There are some fairly obvious aims of the climate justice plan, you know, targeting clean energy improvements to frontline communities. But you also talk about some nontraditional goals that I think are really worth mentioning. How do you see as things like eliminating utility shutoffs for nonpayment or aiming to reduce direct emissions in frontline communities or even advancing energy democracy helping Providence move toward that overall net zero by 2050 goal?
Leah Bamberger Yeah. These are all of the things you mentioned. You know, eliminating utility shutoffs and aiming to reduce direct emissions are two examples of, of ways that the city was really pushed in this process. And I think initially it was like, oh, we don’t control that. It’s, that’s going to be challenging to do. Uh, but the reality is like there’s so much of this work that is outside of our control and that we have to think creatively about how to get there. So I, I certainly give a lot of credit to the leadership in the city for embracing this and, and being open to including these sorts of goals and targets in our, in our climate justice plan. And in terms of how they will help us move towards our net zero goal, I think that again, part of this, you know, need for the environmental work to diversify and be more open and inclusive, I think these sorts of strategies are critical for getting there.

Not only the demographics in this country are changing, right? We need a broader base in order to effectively come up with solutions and, and move the needle here. Both, you know, politically I think that’s a big part of it, but it’s not just about um, building the base. I think it’s also in order to actually get at the root causes of these problems, we need to stop thinking about just these sort of numerical qualitative goals like net zero. We have to actually be thinking about shifting the structures and systems so that, you know, we could be net zero, but if we still have, you know, there’s so many nuances that I think people are quick to criticize solar in some cases because of the, the rare minerals that are needed to produce the panels and the batteries and such, and where are those coming from? And how are they being extracted and what are the labor practices and is that really any better? That we definitely don’t want to just shift from one extractive economy that is fossil fuel based to another extractive economy that is some other unsustainable practice. And so I think by kind of addressing from these holistic solutions that continue to challenge the way we make decisions to be more inclusive so that we’re shifting away from one small group of people continually making decisions on behalf of a larger group of people that ends up marginalizing certain groups over and over again. I mean that is what leads to the sort of extraction of, of labor and resources that is very unsustainable. But if we have those, those people on the front lines a part, whether that means they’re on the front lines of building solar panels or mining the minerals for batteries, they’re a part of the decision making process that will have a much more inclusive sense of the impacts of what we’re doing and not a false sense of feeling good about being zero energy or net zero.

John Farrell In terms of one of the components of it are the goals in the plan or at least in terms of Providence’s goal about carbon free electricity. There was this particular goal about 30% local energy generation, which I feel like I’m obliged as the host of a podcast called Local Energy Rules to ask about, and I was curious if that was something that bubbled up from the process of the climate justice plan is something that people talked about or if that was something that the city had already been thinking about going into this, like where did that particular goal come from?
Leah Bamberger That came from, so we worked with Acadia center, a regional kind of think tanks nonprofit here in the Northeast that does a lot of work around energy systems and climate. And they did our modeling and they also help come up with an initial set of targets and policy solutions to get to our goal. So they’re more kind of on the analytical side of things and they propose a 30% local generation as a really important piece of, of our objective here and making sure that again, we’re shifting towards more local control and the principles of energy democracy and that concept was quickly embraced by our community. Um, and making sure that this is having co-benefits of job creation and especially for Rhode Island, where we don’t generate any energy – well we do now, as we’re starting to shift towards wind and solar, but we don’t have any other traditional resources. There are no mines. We have no national gas supplies here, you know, it’s all right now it’s mostly relying on imported fuels and generation. So that shift to local production will help keep, whether it’s the profits from that or the job, et cetera. All of that keeps that in our local economy is really important.
John Farrell Yeah. I through this whole process, I feel like you must have learned so much and I was curious what advice would you have for other cities as they are either developing or maybe revising their climate action plans and maybe what’s one thing in particular about what Providence has done that they should definitely emulate?
Leah Bamberger Sure. I think it’s, you know, I’m part of an organization called urban sustainability directors network and we share lessons learned and best practices all the time and support one another in various cities and, and this work in particular, I mean I kind of get asked this a lot and I think that one thing that sort of makes me hesitate about this question is I do think that this plan is such a departure from this model of, of learning from each other on a city to city basis where it’s like, all right, you brought up a really cool policy in Hartford, Connecticut. We’re going to pick that up here and do it in Providence. And sometimes you know, that works, right? We’ve seen that happen to a certain extent with like plastic bag bans as a policy. That was really just like taken over and, and translated from community to community. But there are different every everywhere and they each have their own profit coming into being.

But I think what I’ve learned from this is that having those relationships with the community to do this work was so important as a starting point. And this work began with the whole, you know, equity and sustainability initiative that helped create those relationships and help establish our partnership as really following the leadership of frontline communities. And for me, and for this work coming into this plan, it really wasn’t a climate justice plan. We weren’t calling it that until the very end. You know, we were thinking, all right, we’re going to do this climate action plan with an equity lens. And then last we were towards the end looking at it as like, Oh this is, this is a climate justice plan. That’s what this is. And that openness I think is really important. So I guess my advice would be like, be open to the process and trust the process. And I, I do think it’s really important that you’re not going into this with an idea of what the outcomes are going to be, but you’re going into it from a local government perspective. You’re going into it with, Hey, I’m going to go talk to community and I’m going to hear about their concerns related to these systems and we’re going to develop strategies that actually address those concerns. Not necessarily strategies that I have already in the back of my mind or that I’ve learned that, you know New York and Seattle are doing and and are making headlines there, but really being responsive. So what, what you hear and letting community lead in that way and truly sharing the decision making power with them.

John Farrell I want to ask you one last specific question about that. There was a committee, I think it was called, that really seemed to be significantly involved in development of the plan. Could you just explain what that is really quick? Cause I think it puts a little bit of structure on this really important point about process.
Leah Bamberger Sure. Yeah. The racial and environmental justice committee was created in beginning of 2016 and it’s a group of 10 frontline community members from Providence who are really [inaudible] committee for this work. They created the framework for how our office should be thinking about equity and how we should be approaching this in our work. We, uh, adopted that framework and now use that to guide this work going forward. And really everything that we do in our office and they have a very intentional structure of, you know, they have their 10 members that represent different sort of sectors, I would say, I guess of our frontline communities. So there’s a youth seat, there’s a racial justice seat, there’s a South Providence, actually two South Providence seats, which are kind of near airport, near industry communities. And each of those members has a responsibility to go back into their community and be talking about these issues and whatever the committee is working on and be talking about those with their base. So it’s a very kind of that deep democracy model and thinking about and building that capacity for bringing more people into these conversations and um, broadening that, that base.
John Farrell Well Leah, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me about Providence’s climate justice plan. I am really impressed with the work that has gone into it. It’s a terrific document. We’ll post a link to it as on the show page, but I really appreciate in particular your admonition to folks of don’t try to copy and paste from this plan but rather thinking about the process. So thank you again.
Leah Bamberger Absolutely. Thanks John, really good talking to you.
John Farrell Thank you so much for listening to this episode of our voices of 100% podcast series with Providence, Rhode Island director of sustainability Leah Bamberger. Check out the show page for links to the city’s climate justice plan and our new report on community choice energy to learn about other cities pursuing 100% renewable energy. Check out our 12 additional Voices of 100% interviews, including leaders in Madison, Wisconsin, Cleveland, Ohio, or even Abita Springs, Louisiana. Also on the website of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, you can find the entire list of 100% cities on our community power map and click through an interactive community power toolkit for stories on how cities have advanced toward their goals. Tune back into Local Energy Rules every two weeks to hear more powerful stories of communities taking on concentrated power to transform the energy system. Until next time, keep your energy local and thanks for listening.


Altering the Approach

Bamberger and the city of Providence started out on a path many other cities have taken: creating a climate action plan. The goal was to engage people who are usually left out of climate action planning. However, Bamberger soon learned that to reach equitable outcomes, she needed to change the engagement process.

We actually have to change what we’re doing if we want different outcomes

The city decided to abandon the typical, top-down climate action planning and try something different. The city would look to the community, especially those most vulnerable to the climate crisis, for its climate goals and implementation strategies. By taking this different approach, the city came up with different end goals altogether — and its own ways of meeting them.

It really wasn’t a climate justice plan. We weren’t calling it that until the very end. You know, we were thinking, all right, we’re going to do this climate action plan with an equity lens. And then we were towards the end looking at it as like, oh this is, this is a climate justice plan. That’s what this is.

Due to its different approach, Providence’s goals look different than those in many other city climate action plans. The city has an energy goal – net zero carbon by 2050 – but is strongly oriented around the community’s goals, such as no utility shutoffs and 30 percent locally generated electricity.

Systems Thinking

The Providence Climate Justice Plan “takes a systems-thinking and place-based approach to addressing climate change.” For Bamberger, this means that every part of the plan had to be made in the context of broader systems.

In Providence, systems thinking takes into account that “the challenges that we’re facing today… started right here in our backyard.” The city’s history as an industrial center not only instituted today’s dependence on fossil fuels, but also established patterns of environmental injustice and labor exploitation. Bamberger explains how the city’s industrial-era cotton mills, which kick started the Industrial Revolution in the U.S., cannot be separated from the system of slavery that supplied their cotton.

We have to be really thinking about the systems and structures that created this crisis in the first place. And that’s what I think this plan gets at, not because that was necessarily our intention, our intention was to center front line communities in the conversation. But because we did that, we ended up with a much more holistic approach and plan.

Port of Providence

Centering Frontline Communities

To develop an inclusive and equitable climate justice plan, Bamberger and the city knew that they wanted to focus on frontline communities. First, they had to define what this meant for Providence. The community came up with this definition: 

“Frontline communities are communities of color most impacted by the crises of ecology, economy, and democracy. In Providence, they generally include the Indigenous, African-American, Black, Latinx, and Southeast Asian communities. There is particular emphasis on people of color who are refugees and immigrants, people with criminal records, those who speak languages other than English, and LGBTQIA+ individuals.”

Bamberger stresses that this definition will be different for each community. Other cities could replicate Providence’s place-based approach, but coming up with unique results is innate to the process. 

Beyond generating definitions, Providence community members were integral to the creation of the climate justice plan through the racial and environmental justice committee. Bamberger describes this group as the “steering committee” for the city’s work.

Asking Basic Questions

The racial and environmental justice committee operated through a “deep democracy” model. The ten members, chosen to represent Providence’s various frontline communities, received training from the city and then went out to engage with their communities. They asked questions about some basic challenges: “How did you stay warm in the winter? How did you stay cool in the summer? How do you get around the city? Is there anything in your community that’s making you sick?” The city wanted to address the energy and environmental issues that matter to the community.

If we’re not addressing those as part of this fight of tackling the climate crisis, we are absolutely excluding people from being part of the solution.

Providence used the Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool (EJSCREEN) to help identify local frontline communities.

Addressing Co-Pollutants Brings Co-Benefits

Because of Providence’s extensive outreach, they were able to identify the community’s top priorities: labor, health, gentrification, and housing. Then, taking a systems thinking and place based approach, the city could target these priorities as they intersect with the city’s energy system. 

Mitigating the energy industry’s effects on working conditions, housing affordability, and public health was not the easiest plan of action, but it would make the biggest difference within Providence itself. This is why the Providence climate justice plan focuses on co-pollutants, among other things. Co-pollutants are the substances, beyond carbon dioxide, emitted during the generation of electricity: particulate matter, nitrous oxides, and sulfur dioxide, which are a detriment to public health.

We’re saying we’re gonna not start with the low hanging fruit. Essentially we’re going to make sure we’re focusing on these more challenging like transportation emissions, highways, direct emissions from industry, and those are the emissions that we’re saying are important.

Reducing these emissions would still eliminate some greenhouse gases, but also have other benefits that can be seen within Providence.

Energy Democracy: a Goal and a Process

Providence’s climate justice plan makes many references to energy democracy. The document borrows the Climate Justice Alliance’s definition of energy democracy:

“Energy Democracy represents a shift from the corporate, centralized fossil fuel economy to one that is governed by communities, is designed on the principle of no harm to the environment, supports local economies, and contributes to the health and well-being for all peoples.”

Bamberger envisions energy democracy as a “lofty end goal;” it is something to work toward, but you’re never really there. It can be used as a framework for both goal setting and through the implementation process.

We definitely don’t want to just shift from one extractive economy that is fossil fuel based to another extractive economy that is some other unsustainable practice.

Read the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s definition of energy democracy here.

Providence practiced energy democracy throughout the creation of the climate justice plan, and  it can also be seen in the outcomes that center community vitality and local energy generation.

Making Your Own Climate Justice Plan

Bamberger concludes the interview by reiterating that some policies, like a plastic bag ban, can easily be translated from city to city. A climate justice plan, however, does not work that way. Her advice to others? You have to do the work, engage the community, and create a plan that fits your city.

Be open to the process and trust the process…  it’s really important that you’re not going into this with an idea of what the outcomes are going to be.

Episode Notes

For more content related to the story, check out:

For concrete examples of how cities can take action toward gaining more control over their clean energy future, explore ILSR’s Community Power Toolkit.

Explore local and state policies and programs that help advance clean energy goals across the country, using ILSR’s interactive Community Power Map.

This is the 17th episode of our special  Voices of 100%series, and 93rd of Local Energy Rules, an ILSR podcast with Energy Democracy Director John Farrell, which shares powerful stories of successful local renewable energy and exposes the policy and practical barriers to its expansion.

This article originally posted at ilsr.org. For timely updates, follow John Farrell on Twitter, our energy work on Facebook, or sign up to get the Energy Democracy weekly update.

Featured Photo Credit: Timothy Burling via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Providence port photo credit: Shaun C. Williams via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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Follow Maria McCoy:
Maria McCoy

Maria McCoy is a Researcher with the Energy Democracy Initiative. In this role, she contributes to blog posts, podcasts, video content, and interactive features.

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Follow John Farrell:
John Farrell

John Farrell directs the Energy Democracy initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and he develops tools that allow communities to take charge of their energy future, and pursue the maximum economic benefits of the transition to 100% renewable power.