October 7, 2020

Exploring the Connections Between Climate Change and Racial Inequity with Kristin Baja

The word resilience is often used to describe the capacity for a community to recover quickly from disruption. But when you talk to Kristin Baja (‘Baja’), the Climate Resilience Officer with the Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN), she’s quick to say that’s not quite right.

“Resilient communities are those that are resilient all the time,” she says. “If we’re not considering the everyday quality of life for people in general, then we’re missing out on what it means to actually be resilient.”

Baja’s perspective has been shaped by a career devoted to helping cities and local governments identify strategic ways to advance climate resilience planning and build their capacity to take proactive steps to implementation. Prior to working with USDN, Baja served as the Climate and Resilience Planner with the City of Baltimore’s Office of Sustainability where she led the city’s climate and equity work and created the Resilience Hubs initiative, a bottom-up model for proactively preparing community residents for natural hazard events. Her work on racial-equity centered resilience led the Obama Administration to name her a Champion of Change—a distinction given to innovators doing extraordinary things to make a difference in their communities.

We sat down with Baja to learn more about her background and her perspectives on building resilient communities. Here’s what she had to say.

Can you talk a bit about how you define resilience?  

When it comes to cities, true resilience addresses social vulnerabilities and is focused on community cohesion, connectivity and equity. It’s not emergency management or response recovery. Cities have groups focused on those areas and we already have words for them.

I take a targeted universalism approach to climate resilience planning. I know all needs matter, but we also have to remember that most cities were built on decades of prejudiced polies and practices; the U.S. constitution was essentially designed for white male landowners who also considered people to be what they owned. There’s a massive need to acknowledge that past (and present) and how it’s influenced everything—including land use, home ownership, access to resources, environmental risk exposure, etc.—and realize that many of these policies have created advantages for white people. We need to focus our time, resources and capacity on the needs of those who have been held down for generations and have not had equal access to the resources we all need to be resilient. We’ve seen many examples recently of where climate-related events, such as Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, the global COVID-19 pandemic and the wildfires, have disabled marginalized communities because they simply don’t have equal access to resources.

The workshops and training I do with UDSN are focused on racial equity and power and privilege; educating people about the realistic history of the country that is often not told in our school system and talking about how all levels of government have created a lot of the problems we have in the country. We have to acknowledge that reality first before we focus on corrective action.

The Resilience Hubs initiative you led (and continue to lead) sounds like a wonderful example of addressing these issues and shifting the power to the people. Can you talk about that project a bit?

Most community resilience work focuses on identifying and managing vulnerability and risk through top-down approaches that often fail to meaningfully include strategies considering the most vulnerable populations. Originally, when we were doing outreach in Baltimore to get the community to think about hazard and disruption, we were doing what FEMA told us we should be doing, which is getting people prepared with a plan and a kit. But when we started holding meetings and talking to community members, the reality set in that most people don’t have enough money to put aside food and water. They don’t have anywhere to go—most had never left their neighborhoods. So we quickly realized that this one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for all communities. Through nearly 40 in-depth community meetings, we also realized there was a real need for a place in the neighborhood that’s trusted. Not a shelter or something that’s just open in the wake of a disruption, but a space for people to get access to information, resources and to build community.

This all led us to co-create the Resilience Hubs model, which leverages established, trusted, and community-managed facilities that are used year-round as neighborhood centers for community-building activities. Resilience Hubs are a smart local investment with the potential to reduce burden on local emergency response teams, improve access to health improvement initiatives, foster greater community cohesion, reducing GHG emissions, and increase the effectiveness of community-centered institutions and programs. They’re focal points for neighborhood revitalization that provide the resources residents need to enhance their own individual capacity while also supporting and strengthening their neighborhood and neighbors. Instead of being led by local government, they are supported by local government and other partners but led and managed by community members, community-based organizations, and/or faith-based groups. The project started when I worked in Baltimore, but I’m now it has expanded to include over 30 USDN cities and many other partners who are interested in utilizing our model for holistic resilience work.

What is the focus of the Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN)? And what role do you play within the organization?

USDN is focused on peer learning and peer exchange between local government sustainability leaders. It was started in 2008 by eight sustainability directors around the country that really had no idea what they should be doing in their roles because there weren’t a lot of sustainability directors at the time and there weren’t any guidebooks on the topic. These directors wrote a grant to a foundation to get together in person, and during a two-day meeting, they were able to accomplish more than two-years of work, so they wanted to keep it going. That grant really funded the beginning of our network.

The network is member-led; members really determine what we should focus on. At our core, we connect members across the U.S. and Canada to share and learn from each other and collectively leverage resources. I was a member of the organization for six years when I worked for the City of Ann Arbor and the City of Baltimore and then moved into a full-time role with the organization where I now support a lot of the climate, resilience and equity work for and with our members. Because I have a lot of experience working in local government, I don’t have unrealistic expectations of how quickly things can change. I play in the connector role where I have a lot of meetings and different interactions with mayors, city managers, city council members, and directors of departments to identity opportunities where they can take advantage of working more practically on climate change and racial equity. Importantly, we not only provide information, but we actually help local governments create and implement step-by-step approaches to being more proactive and equitable in their plans, projects, codes, policies, etc.

Do you have any advice or guidance for effectively engaging the community in discussions around climate planning?

It’s important to think about power and how power shows up in the approaches we take to community engagement. For example, when engaging the community in meetings and workshops, it’s important to go to them as opposed to having them come to us. But it’s also important to pay for their time. Acknowledge that they deserve to be paid just as much as we do to put time and effort into this work. Providing things like childcare and food and other components that seem simple are also important. We really need to shift back to a human-centered approach.

When I worked on the City of Baltimore’s sustainability plan, we introduced a sustainability ambassador program that realized local government leaders shouldn’t be the ones going out and having conversations with the community about sustainability—it needed to be community members talking with each other. So, we provided members of the community with free training, we paid them and we and also gave them gift cards to help engage more members in the process. It didn’t matter how they used the cards—they could take people out for a beer, host a block party, buy t-shirts, etc. The point was that they were bringing us back information about what people wanted the city to look like, what ways they wanted it to be more sustainable and how they wanted to be involved.

At UDSN, we’ve also developed three training games that we use with community members to make climate change easier to grasp. We started with the game of floods (pictured left) and then created the game of extremes and the game of heat. They’re like playing Life (the game of Life), but we’re doing it with climate change, vulnerability and risk assessments. These trainings also can be utilized virtually as long as the platform has breakout rooms, so even in the midst of the pandemic, we are able to bring people together around important topics and need for collective action. People are learning something along the way, but it’s much more fun and interactive than typical training.

When it comes to planning for climate resilience, how do you measure success?

It’s really difficult in the climate resilience space to measure success if you helped avoid something because so often we’re taking metrics on number of things destroyed, contents of a building lost, number of deaths, etc. Measuring effectiveness requires us to slow down and consider qualitative metrics over quantitative, which is really difficult in a lot of ways because the quantitative benefit of focusing on community cohesion, trust building, relationships, connection to nature and natural spaces and shifting of power—all which happens over time. It isn’t the same as saying we put this many solar projects on this number of buildings.

My simplistic answer is we need a comprehensive non-traditional benefit-cost-analysis that looks at valuing cohesion, community, connectivity, trust, and relationships as much as the number of solar panels. It’s not an easy process and we’ve seen a lot of people try and do it at different intersections. And to date, we don’t have the metrics that would be super effective in convincing politicians that this proactive work is the way to go. Even when we get quotes from NOAA saying every $1 spent on hazard mitigation will save $6 in future disaster costs, that doesn’t really mean anything to a four-year politician unless they see some sort of immediate benefit or they can say “Oh, we can prevent this number of deaths, so this is why we should be using tax dollars.”

Part of the answer is challenging our own human nature. Even when we’re talking about climate change in a community meeting, people always want to talk about parking—it’s human nature to focus on the immediate as opposed to being proactive. That’s the larger struggle in this space right now. Until something happens to us, we don’t focus on it, but when it becomes personal and it impacts our lives, it becomes the most important thing to us. Unfortunately, we’ll have more climate impacts that will act as catalysts for change, but my work is focused on ensuring the disruption isn’t the catalyst.

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