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A growing movement centered in climate resilience and urban opportunity


Good evening everyone and thank you so much for joining us this week for the final gathering of such a remarkable group of people and organizations doing groundbreaking work in cities across the country

When we began this journey in 2014, Lois (DeBacker, managing director of Kresge’s Environment Program) sought to find a way to bridge between two worlds of community change that all too frequently are walled off from each other: social justice and environmental stewardship. Both working with profound dedication and skill to improve life for future generations. Both tackling deeply embedded inertias, biases and structural barriers in their areas of focus.

But what Lois recognized – what we all understood – was that these systems needed to see each other more clearly; that they could come to understand that their worlds really weren’t so far apart; that they could find common cause in unpacking the public health, social justice and community development implications of climate change.

So many of you here were instrumental to Lois’ thinking. What you may not realize is just how powerfully your work over the last four years has been instrumental as well in helping Kresge understand the power – the imperative –  of placing racial equity at the heart of all our work – from human services to health, from higher education to arts and culture, from community renewal in Detroit to community finance in Memphis.

One of the most recent manifestations of that influence is Kresge’s racial equity learning program, which helps almost 50 organizations in our Environment Program portfolio – including some represented here – to build their skills, the understanding and their problem-solving capacity through high-quality racial and equity training.

I am struck by what a difference four years makes. Let me go to the dark side first.

It seems a hundred years ago, not four, that we had a passionate, forceful, clear-thinking, principled leader in the White House who had the skill and the vision to re-set the frame for a national conversation not only about climate, but also about the need to build structures of enduring opportunity and justice in urban America.  And that conversation was translated into a policy agenda and action.

Today, well, I don’t even need to name it.

Four years ago, not a hundred, we had an administration that marshalled the collective skills and resources of the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of the Interior, the Office of Management and Budget – and every other department and agency – to strengthen a burgeoning clean-energy industry, bolster the capacities of cities and counties to develop climate resilience plans and promulgate regulations to curb the excesses of gas-guzzling, carbon-emitting and health-destroying industries.

Today, well, I don’t even know if we even still have a Department of Energy. I guess we do – it’s led by a former presidential candidate who couldn’t even remember the department’s name when he was asked in a debate which departments he would abolish.

Four years ago, not a hundred, we seemed to be getting traction on the idea that science matters – that international conventions like the Paris Climate Accords could call on data and analysis and long-term perspective to bind the international community in common purpose. Today, well, it is against the law – or at least in violation of gubernatorial policy – to speak the words “climate change” in a place like North Carolina or Florida. Let’s pray that neither of those states ever gets hit by a hurricane or tropical storm.

Forgive me an aside, but I feel compelled to cite Stephen Colbert. In reflecting on the phenomenon of science denial, he once observed: “I don’t want to die. But the actuaries I know are convinced that it will happen sometime in the next 50 years. I’m pretty sure they’re wrong. Just think about it, if we look at my historical data, it’s clear that I’ve been alive my entire life. It’s clear, therefore, that I always will be.”

Sounds like a Senate Energy Committee hearing.

So that’s the dark side. Let’s shift over to the more optimistic side of the ledger.

Four years ago – indeed, for some of you, 25 and 30 years ago – you were doing some of the most innovative, committed, and effective community and social justice and environmental organizing conceivable. Think NOAH, Southwest Workers Union, Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, LAANE. Breathtaking, inspiring, transformative work.

Today, well, you still are. But you’ve inspired and been joined by so many allies, many of whom are sitting in this room. And the bridges you’ve built – from organization to organization, from community to community – promise to endure. They will change the landscape – not just physically, but politically.

Four years ago, we could see the outlines of a movement that joined social justice and environmental advocacy.

Today, a movement centered in climate resilience and urban opportunity is beginning to crystalize; a movement rooted in the needs, priorities and perspectives of your communities; a movement comprising ever-widening circles of local and regional activists, policymakers, elected officials, neighborhood residents and business people who understand the urgency of the climate crisis and the imperative that solutions involve and account for all residents – particularly those who are most vulnerable to climate disruptions. A movement that is surfacing models capable of challenging, disrupting and deconstructing outmoded, rigid, unjust impediments to community health and welfare in favor of people-centered, community-led models and methods capable of ushering real and lasting change.

Four years ago, you had Lois armed with an idea.

Today, you have Lois and Shamar. I don’t know about you, but in my book, adding Shamar to the equation constitutes an unequivocal victory. Full stop.

But you also have Jalonne and Jessica and Hugh and Anna and Kim and Rebecca and Jill – and an entire Kresge staff deeply committed to infusing every dimension of our work with those principles of equity and justice and opportunity that you have elevated and valorized.

You’ve spent the day talking about where we’ve been and where we might be headed. From what I’ve heard, these have been conversations infused with a sense of possibility and optimism, but moderated by an acknowledgment of sharp and unpredictable political and pragmatic realities.

From my perspective, both impulses are right.

The challenges you work daily to confront and reverse are interwoven with forces that insidiously fence off meaningful opportunity for far too many people.  Deepening racial fault lines, stagnant economic mobility, severe disparities in educational and health outcomes, calcified patterns of neighborhood disinvestment.

It is a consummately human tendency to attack these problems in ways in which we’re most familiar. But you’re not doing that. You’re instead choosing to move into less familiar and comfortable terrain. In the words of the philosopher Bertrand Russell, you’ve “hung a question mark” at the end of your sentences. Not the why, but the how.

As I’ve watched and learned more about your work, two things stand out.

First, you’ve become increasingly comfortable with a form of reverse-engineering – deconstructing a challenge and its underlying drivers so as to enable you to assemble the right combination of strategies, talents and supports in the right doses at the right cadence. From organization to organization, you’ve hung the question mark just a little bit differently, tailored to your communities, to your circumstance. You understand that resilience is an approach, not an end state, and that building resilience is an ongoing process, not a sudden shift to a new reality.

Second, you’ve pursued your work with an unequivocal, unwavering commitment to bedrock values of community identity and voice, racial equity,  distributive power, equal opportunity, community resilience, environmental stewardship.  I apologize if that sounds trite, but in times like these when basic constructs of decency, respect, tolerance and the common good seem like so much annoying and disposable baggage, that is a powerful thing.

I want you to know that we stand with you. The morning after the 2016 election, I tried to articulate the values for which Kresge stands. If you’ll indulge me for another two minutes, I’d like to share those with you because they seem so very resonant with the values that animate your work:

  • We stand for the pursuit of truth – not for fealty to the indefensible or depreciation of reasoned discourse.
  • We stand for opportunity structures that dismantle the persistent and pervasive racial, economic, and political barriers that impede pathways to equality and justice – not for the enshrinement of those barriers in public policy, in the perpetuation of racial and ethnic division, or in the corrosion of compassion for the least fortunate among us.
  • We stand for the stewardship of our shared destiny and the promotion of structures of mutual support – not for a machinery of feigned outrage and continual vilification that undermines confidence in our most fundamental democratic institutions.
  • We stand for the power of a creative problem-solving that calls on community wisdom, intergenerational exchange, and respect for difference – not for the comfort of facile judgments, bombastic certitude, and rhetorical hyperbole about complex, interbraided problems.
  • We stand for the embrace of every individual’s inherent dignity, worth, and decency – not for a denigration of those whose skin pigment, gender, physical conditions, sexual orientation, or faith differs from our own.
  • And we stand for an abiding optimism about the possibilities of the human spirit – not for the dismal brew of a calculating and cruel cynicism placed in service of self-advancement.

I am honored and proud to be in a room where those values seem universally shared. Thank you from all of us at Kresge for the wondrous work you have done, are doing, and will continue to do.

And you have our deepest hopes and best wishes for every continued success.

Thank you for listening.