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Q&A: Kresge, LCJA celebrate 10 years of partnership rooted in policy advocacy to improve life in Fresno

American Cities, Environment, Health

10. 10. 100.

These three numbers represent several milestones the Leadership Counsel for Justice & Accountability (LCJA) and The Kresge Foundation are celebrating, collectively and individually. Founded in 2013, LCJA is a social and environmental justice advocacy organization based in Fresno, California, that has been working for more than 10 years to shift the dynamics that have excluded low-income areas of the state from decision-making, investment, and equal access to opportunities.

In 2014, LCJA received its first national grant from Kresge’s Environment Program and continues to receive funding today in an ongoing 10-year partnership that has expanded to include grants from Kresge’s Health Program and the American Cities Program. Founded in 1924 to help promote human progress, Kresge is celebrating 100 years of expanding opportunities and equity in America’s cities – cities like Fresno.

In the Q&A below, Kresge Communications Officer Kaniqua Welch interviews Phoebe Seaton and Veronica Garibay, co-founders and co-executive directors of LCJA, to chronicle their 10-year partnership with Kresge and the progress their team has made over the last decade.


Q: For those who are unfamiliar with LCJA, what is the focus of your organization? 

A: LCJA focuses on co-empowerment, community organizing, local and state-wide policy advocacy, and legal representation. Our work is based in the San Joaquin and East Coachella valleys to ensure low-income communities and communities of color are meaningfully included in decision-making processes to address historic under-investment, disproportionate environmental impacts, and poor land use planning that perpetuates patterns of exclusion, poverty, and disparate health outcomes.

Q: In 2014, Kresge launched the Climate Resilience and Urban Opportunity (CRUO) initiative, a five-year, $29 million effort that supported the capacity and work led by advocates and organizers in urban communities facing disproportionate environmental burdens to influence climate-resilience planning. When launching CRUO, the Environment Program team began with one question in mind: Would cities adopt different and more universally protective policies and practices to advance climate resilience if organizations deeply committed to equity were resourced to fully participate in the policy formation process? LCJA was one of the dynamic organizations selected to join the CRUO cohort, and this group affirmed the significant value that community-based organizations grounded in equity bring to climate change work. (Read the CRUO evaluation report to learn more.) Tell us about your early experience with launching LCJA and joining CRUO?

A: Kresge was the first national funder to provide a grant for us. The first national foundation to believe in us. We had just launched LCJA. People said to us, ‘Kresge doesn’t invest in these types of initiatives. You’ll never get the grant.’ But we got it! We also learned that Kresge was shifting its funding model, so our timing was perfect. From an organizational standpoint, the support and partnership with Kresge helped open doors to other funders. It allowed our team to grow from four people to over 33 and we recently purchased a permanent home in downtown Fresno. Over the last 10 years, we’ve done some incredible work that required big funders to take a chance on us.

Q: Congratulations on the incredible work your team has led. The timing was indeed perfect. In 2014, Kresge’s Environment Program had shifted its orientation to focus on cities and elevating the inclusion and influence of communities of color and of low wealth in shaping climate change policy and practice. At this time, Kresge identified its niche as helping cities implement climate-resilience strategies grounded in equity. That focus continues today with the program’s goal of helping cities combat and adapt to climate change while advancing racial and economic justice. How would you describe your early advocacy efforts in 2014?

A: The CRUO grant back in 2014 was focused on implementing laws at the local level that impacted the health and livelihood of communities we work with, and specifically climate policy at the state-wide level. We built a lot of policy expertise and deep engagement on transportation and land use – specifically how they’re interconnected and why local government should incorporate racial equity, health, climate, and air quality into long-term plans to address life expectancy and quality of life in Fresno and beyond. The CRUO work really set the stage for our policy engagement on three interrelated fronts: land use, transportation, and climate.

Q: In 2015, LCJA received an additional grant to support the implementation of a community-driven strategic roadmap to address the challenges and opportunities created by climate change for the residents of Fresno and Kern Counties in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Tell us more about the strategies your team outlined to include climate planning in urban development?

A: Emerging from a series of local and regional meetings of community leaders and organizational partners, the roadmap that we developed outlined key climate-resilience strategies designed to advance mitigation, adaptation, and social cohesion. The strategies included increasing public-sector investments in mitigation and adaptation efforts in disadvantaged communities, engaging in land-use planning to improve the quality of life for low-income people, reducing reliance on personal vehicles, addressing emissions of short-lived climate pollutants from stationary sources, and creating a vision of community resilience in the face of climate change.

Through a partnership led by LCJA and the Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment, we worked at the local, county, regional and state levels to advance these policy goals through intensive community education and leadership development, issue advocacy, and coalition-building efforts. Ultimately, we wanted to influence public-sector planning and strategy-setting efforts, including the Sustainable Communities Strategy of the 2018 Regional Transportation Plan. The Sustainable Communities Strategy set a 25-year development vision around housing and employment growth to establish a course for the region. Our initiative worked to ensure that the template for the region’s development reflected climate-resilience priorities that protect and benefit low-income people and their communities.

Q: This work is tough. What keeps you going? How has your team endured for a decade-plus to achieve these feats?

A: This work is hard. Challenging systems of power that have intentionally excluded entire communities from opportunity is not easy. That level of intentional exclusion wittingly and unwittingly causes harm. Our commitment to and partnership with community has led to significant wins. It’s the time learning from and with community that keeps us going. All too often, decisionmakers disregard community knowledge, expertise, experience, and wisdom. In doing so, they hurt themselves and all of us. Community-identified policies and program development – when adopted – have been the most progressive, effective, and sustainable solutions we have seen.

We do this work because we believe that communities deserve better. Families in South Fresno, for example, have a life expectancy that is 20 years lower than those living in North Fresno due to racist and discriminatory land use and investment decisions. Despite this, residents in South Fresno show up day in and day out to challenge polluting industries, investment plans that will perpetuate harm, decision makers that believe they are not worthy of investment, and challenge the rest of us to do better and be better. Working with community has allowed us to get creative and engage in multiple levels of government to address community priorities. It is the camaraderie and solidarity with community leaders and organizational partners that keeps us going.

Q: In 2019, LCJA was selected to join the Climate Change, Health & Equity (CCHE) cohort, funded by Kresge’s Environment and Health programs. LCJA was one of 15 organizations selected as part of the community-based strategy of CCHE, which is focused on building the capacity of nonprofit advocacy organizations and their partners to accelerate the implementation of policies and practices that build climate resilience and reduce health risks equitably. This grant enabled LCJA to develop an integrated policy advocacy strategy that promotes public health, community well-being and climate resilience for low-income communities and communities of color in the city of Fresno and Fresno County. Tell us more about your work through CCHE and how you are currently implementing this strategy?

A: The neighborhoods and municipalities that are the focus of this work face multiple sources of pollution and lack of investment in community infrastructure due in large part to historical (and ongoing) exclusion from decision-making processes and lack of political representation in municipal and county government. All of this contributes to poor health outcomes and lower life expectancies. Rising temperatures, air pollution, drought, increased wildfires, and increased rain and flooding place pressure on these already stressful and unhealthy conditions.

We’ve been able to partner with community residents, health practitioners, and health organizations and initiatives, including the Central Valley Health Policy Institute, Fresno Building Healthy Communities, Central California Environmental Justice Network, Fresno Healthy Air, and Central Valley Air Quality Coalition, to ensure that community-based leaders play a significant role in informing and overseeing equitable climate and health equity policies. We’ve worked to ensure climate and environmental justice, health equity, and the region’s economic development agenda are not mutually exclusive from one another.

Q: In 2020, LCJA received a grant for community organizing and policy advocacy as part of the foundation’s Racial Justice Response Plan in Fresno to strengthen place-based organizations focused on racial justice and led by people of color. Fast-forward to 2022, LCJA and its partners in the No on Measure C Coalition celebrated a monumental victory, defeating a transportation measure that would have authorized a long-term transportation plan void of community priorities and lacking focus on equity. LCJA and its partners then worked to rewrite the measure and create a new community-driven plan and process. How do you feel about defeating the transportation measure?

A: All of that work is really a testament to the smarts, courage, and love for the community that the Transportation4All Coalition has created. The coalition worked to bring together community leaders and organized labor to defeat a plan that would take Fresno County backward. The strength and power of the community is unmatched and now we have an opportunity to develop and work toward a transportation future in Fresno County that benefits us all and that we deserve.

Q: Are there any other projects you’re currently working on that you’d like to reference?

A: We are working alongside community leaders in South Fresno and community-based organizations, most notably Fresno Building Healthy Communities and Friends of Calwa. Together, we’re working to challenge funding for and approval of a freeway interchange expansion that will bring more trucks to neighborhoods already battling the health and safety impacts of heavy-duty truck traffic and facilitate more warehouse development which will also bring more trucks. We are utilizing several strategies to challenge this project including organizing and outreach in the neighborhoods that will be impacted by the expansion; communications and media engagement; coalition building; and policy advocacy at the local, regional, and state level to argue against the use of public funds for the project. We’re also working on legal action to challenge the approval on civil rights and environmental grounds. Just last month, community leaders attended and participated in two significant events: several people attended a court hearing on the legal challenge while others provided comments in a state transportation commission hearing, urging commissioners not to rubber-stamp the harmful project.

Q: As you reflect over the past decade, what are you most proud of?

A: The thing we’re most proud of is building a team that engages on these issues and is willing to take on the tough fights. We often hear that community groups in the Valley aren’t smart enough or sophisticated enough to lead complex organizing and policy advocacy campaigns. Community leaders and our partners have demonstrated – and unfortunately always have to prove – that we are more than capable. We are proud to be part of a broader movement of rock-star advocates fighting to right the wrongs.