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Coalition of Communities of Color works toward more just and equitable energy future

Environment, Health

To highlight how community-based organizations can build community power and influence policy in a powerful way, three of Kresge’s Climate Change, Health & Equity partners discussed challenges, lessons learned, successes and best practices for organizations working to address climate injustice and advance health equity at the University of Maryland Symposium on Environmental Justice and Health Disparities.

In the second article in our three-part series, learn more about Coalition of Communities of Color in Portland, Oregon. To read the first article featuring Environmental Health Coalition, click here.

Clean and Green Energy

In many ways, Portland, Oregon, is like dozens of other cities throughout the nation – where you live makes a difference in your health. Looking at a map of the city, in areas where communities of color are clustered, you’ll find major polluting facilities and busy highways. A lack of trees means hotter temperatures. In wealthier, often whiter neighborhoods, there is ample tree canopy cooling streets surrounded by plenty of park space.

However, unlike other cities, Portland has the Coalition of Communities of Color working to address these disparities.

The Coalition of Communities of Color is an alliance of culturally specific community-based organizations that support a collective racial justice effort to improve outcomes for communities of color through policy analysis and advocacy, environmental justice, culturally appropriate data and research and leadership development.

The coalition’s goal is a more just and equitable energy future that results in improved health outcomes for frontline communities, Taren Evans, environmental justice director for the Coalition of Communities of Color, said.

“It’s a really broad range of groups and organizations working at different intersections of health, clean energy and environment, all working together toward a shared goal of making the energy system cleaner and greener,” Evans said.

Advocacy plays a key role in the coalition’s work, and the organization’s recent Oregon Clean Energy Opportunity Campaign focused on three key policy priorities.

“The coalition was really intentional about centering environmental justice organizations that either work directly with members of communities of color, or organizations that center racial justice and equity in their work to ensure that the campaign was led and steered by frontline organizations. We had other advocates who provided support, but it was ultimately frontline organizations that made decisions, which really helped to ensure that the campaign was addressing the needs of the communities that we work with,” Evans said.

Using a multi-pronged approach led by the stories and experiences of communities most impacted by climate change, the coalition worked with its partners to achieve all three of its policy priorities in the 2021 Oregon Legislature:

  • The Energy Affordability Act (HB 2475) allows the Oregon Public Utility Commission to approve discounts and rate structures to ensure that low-income households do not become burdened by rising energy costs. The bill also allows environmental justice organizations to receive funding to intervene and participate in Public Utility Commission proceedings.
  • The Healthy Homes Repair Fund (HB 2842) creates a fund at the Oregon Health Authority with $10 million in initial funding to support home repairs and energy efficiency upgrades for low-income Oregon households. In addition to improving energy efficiency through insulation and other means, repairs can include smoke filtration, home-hardening to improve fire resilience, and lead, mold and radon abatement.
  • The 100% Clean Energy for All Act (HB 2021) requires Pacific Power and Portland General Electric to eliminate 100% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions from power generation by 2040, with interim targets of 90% reductions by 2035 and 80% reductions by 2030. The bill also includes fair wage and labor standards, a ban on new or expanded gas-fired power plants, and $50 million in grants for community-based renewable energy projects such as shared rooftop solar.

The Oregon Clean Energy Opportunity Campaign was a watershed moment for Oregon where, for the first time, communities at the frontlines of climate disruption led and won a statewide environmental initiative, beginning the process of implementing an Oregon Green New Deal. The Coalition described its campaign as a thrilling win for low-income, Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, Tribal members, and rural communities whose needs and priorities have for too long either been shunted aside, included as an after-thought, or centered but with little attention to building their long-term capacity.

“What we’re really trying to do in our work is move the needle and shift from ignoring, informing and consulting to transformational work where we defer to humanity and value the knowledge and experiences of the most impacted people. A lot of times we elevate the importance of technical expertise and don’t realize the amount of wisdom that is in our own communities,” Evans said.

To learn more, watch this presentation and other sessions from the symposium here.