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California Agencies Begin to Grapple With Racial Equity and Environmental Justice

Protest in Marin, June 2020. Photo by Daniel Arauz

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Government agencies, corporations, and nonprofits are realizing that they must get on board with figuring out how their policies, regulations, and internal structures have contributed to and perpetuated racial inequities for years. At least, some of them are. In California, CalSTA, Caltrans, the California Transportation Commission (CTC), and the California Air Resources Board have long been told by community advocates that they must do better on racial equity and environmental justice, but it has been a struggle to get the agencies to do more than the bare minimum.

Now, with racial justice in the spotlight, that seems to be changing - maybe. Last week, Caltrans updated the CTC on the work it has been doing on these issues, which includes racial equity training, listening sessions, and the establishment of an internal working group. The CTC itself is in the midst of forming an Equity Advisory Roundtable. Meanwhile CalSTA, which oversees both departments, issued its own statement on racial equity and inclusion in June.

For its part, the Air Resources Board has established an internal Diversity and Racial Equity Task Force, and at last week's meeting it considered and adopted a resolution committing the agency to doing better on racial justice both internally - with its employees - and externally, with the communities its decisions impact.

A lot of people called in to tell the board that first they must listen to what people have been telling them for years.

Many callers were upset at what seemed to them a clear lack of transparency and the Board's sidestepping an important step in the process of lifting up racial justice. The Board had drafted a resolution without consulting any of the groups that regularly come before them to urge a consideration of racial equity in their policies and decisions, and those groups felt that they had, once again, been ignored.

They also wanted to know what CARB planned to do about a letter, written by Black CARB employees, describing their experiences of being marginalized, discounted, and unsupported within the agency. The letter [PDF] had been discussed in an article in Politico a few days previously, which was the first time most people outside the agency had heard about it.

Many callers asked CARB to hold off on adopting the resolution until people most affected by it have had a chance to weigh in.

The resolution had been drafted by members of the Board, said Board member and Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna, as a way to publicly state its commitment to addressing the issues raised in the employees' letter, as well as lately and loudly in society at large. "There is genuine interest in effecting change, and we felt that authorship had to come from this board," he said. "This was never meant to be a one-and-done exercise."

The draft resolution - which was, in the end, adopted by the board - states that CARB "condemns racism and racial bias in all forms and in all spaces and welcomes the opportunity to establish and enhance proactive measures to ensure racial equity permeates all of CARB’s activities both internal and external." It also supported the notion of forming an Office of Racial Equity to make sure the work of dismantling racism is not forgotten or marginalized but incorporated into all of the agency's practices.

In addition, "the public, CARB’s employees, and stakeholders should expect action consistent with this resolution to begin immediately," says the resolution, and done "in an open, transparent and inclusive manner." It also immediately established a "zero-tolerance racism policy applicable to all public and internal activities in which the agency is engaged, including those involving CARB’s employees and associated stakeholders."

The letter from Black employees, originally intended as an internal document delivered to CARB Executive Director Richard Corey, struck a nerve, according to Corey and CARB Chair Mary Nichols. They both professed dismay at the realization that the experiences it described had been happening for years without them realizing. They said they would take to heart the letter's recommendations on how to be anti-racist, support Black employees, and increase the paltry number of Black employees at CARB.

Those recommendations include, among other things, to study and rectify pay gaps between Black and white employees, to fix "diversity training" so it stops "tiptoeing around racial equity issues," and to hire Black executives. Also, the authors wrote, CARB's Diversity and Racial Equity Task Force "should be driven by/involve BIPOC but should also include white allies to open doors and speak in spaces that may otherwise remain closed for us."

Most of CARB's actions to address racial inequities and environmental justice to this point have been mandated by hard-won legislation, such as 2016's A.B. 1550, which required a certain portion of cap-and-trade funding to go to the communities most impacted by climate change, and engendered years of work to define which communities those would be.

Another is A.B. 617, which was signed several years ago and called for the creation of local community-led air quality monitoring programs. It has been slow to get off the ground, and its effectiveness so far has been minimal, at best.

Will adopting a commitment to anti-racist action produce needed change? The board sees it as a first step, but its promise to do better rang hollow to callers who have long pushed for attention to these issues. State agencies can't just promise to do better; they have to start by acknowledging that they've done a poor job so far, and that they don't have the capacity to "do better" without input from the people who are affected by their ignorance.

Assemblymember Jim Cooper and Senator Steven Bradford were among those who called in to the virtual meeting to express frustration that the resolution had not been released ahead of the meeting to give people time to look it over. Cooper questioned CARB's sincerity, saying the resolution provided only "lip service" without being backed up by any real desire to change.

"CARB cannot develop policies without input from a wide range of people," he said.

"How you value our voices directly impacts our communities," said Gladys Limon of California Environmental Justice Alliance (CEJA).

"We want to be a partner," said Martha Arguello of Physicians for Social Responsibility. People tend to shy away from talking about this because it's uncomfortable, she said, but that has to change. "We have seen how our voices have been marginalized... We have talked about gentrification and displacement, and the marginalization of Black voices. We've been offering that to you for many years. You have an EJ community that has been pounding on your door to help make this happen."

Neena Mohan, also of CEJA, warned that "if justice is not centered, injustices will continue. We can see this in the bifurcation between air pollution and climate pollution policies; we see it in cap and trade; and we see it with the implementation of A.B. 617, which is riddled with inefficiencies and ineffectiveness, and pits communities of color against each other."

Now that a resolution is in place, the hard work needs to begin.

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