The global public health and economic crisis has undoubtedly impacted how we manage our daily lives. While many industries are working to address uncertainty and disruption, health care workers, first responders, farmworkers, delivery drivers, and grocery store clerks continue to provide much needed essential services. However, many of those on the frontlines are low-wage workers who reside in disadvantaged, low-income and communities of color. These communities – disproportionately impacted by environmental, economic and social burdens – are also the hardest hit by the current wave of furloughs and lay-offs, thus compounding the existing inequities they already face. Furthermore, these communities have been historically underrepresented or excluded from policy setting and decision-making processes, including those related to clean transportation and clean energy.
As state and local governments look ahead, it will be more important than ever to ensure that decision-makers consider the specific needs and challenges of disadvantaged and low-income communities in future policies and programs aimed at rebuilding our economy and institutions. For us at the Center for Sustainable Energy, in partnership with our equity and environmental justice partners, this means our commitment to safeguard the participation of these communities in government processes and decarbonization initiatives will continue to be steadfast. These efforts will be guided by prioritizing equity in all policies and programs.
Intentional policymaking: Equity needs to be front and center
What does it mean to prioritize equity? First, equity must be operationalized and incorporated into all stages of policy setting and decision-making processes. Existing and emerging transportation electrification and clean energy efforts, as well as those that will result from future recovery and economic initiatives, will only be successful if they embed, and center, equity from their inception. In addition to accelerating decarbonization initiatives, these efforts should also focus on providing direct benefits to disadvantaged, low-income and communities of color, such as reduced air pollution and workforce development in the clean energy sector, because these communities are not single-issue entities.
Workforce training and development will be crucial as many residents of these communities face increasing rates of unemployment due to the pandemic. For example, investing in electric vehicle charging infrastructure programs, such as the California Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Project (CALeVIP), focuses job creation in an industry where labor is required to install and maintain electric vehicle (EV) charging stations. Furthermore, these infrastructure programs can support EV adoption, which not only drives decarbonization efforts in the transportation sector but also job creation – key components of an economic recovery. California’s Solar on Multifamily Affordable Housing (SOMAH) program was designed with a workforce training component embedded right into the fabric of the initiative, providing direct economic benefits to community members.
Elevating equity also means that funding to disadvantaged and low-income communities must be prioritized. California has been doing this for more than seven years. At least 35 percent of California’s climate investments funded by cap-and-trade proceeds must benefit disadvantaged communities (as defined by the state), low-income communities and low-income households.
Designing, implementing and evaluating policies with an equity lens
Policies should be designed, implemented and evaluated to ensure equitable access to and benefits from these policies. This can be accomplished by meaningfully engaging disadvantaged, low-income and communities of color and incorporating their feedback at all phases of policy development. One way an agency can solicit and receive community input is to establish advisory committees that include representatives of and residents from these communities. The lived experience of residents and community leaders will provide genuine insights and local expertise that are invaluable to the deliberations of any advisory body. This participation will ensure that the community voice is informing and shaping policy and program design, implementation and evaluation.
Begin with a community needs assessment where community members identify their needs (e.g., reliable transportation choices), the gaps and barriers to meeting those needs (e.g., lack of awareness of electric vehicles), as well as the solutions (e.g., policies, programs). Policies will be successful if they align with and support community-identified priorities.
During implementation, set aside funds for education and outreach activities targeted specifically for disadvantaged and low-income communities. Based on our experience as the administrator of California’s Clean Vehicle Rebate Program (CVRP), which has an equity component, these targeted activities require a comprehensive in-person and community-based education and outreach strategy, which is more labor-intensive than a traditional marketing plan. A key component of this strategy is to partner with community-based organizations (CBOs) and to compensate them for their time and expertise.
CBOs are invested in their communities for the long-term and actively partner with the residents they serve to provide essential services and resources. This commitment leads to communities highly valuing and trusting them. Additionally, CBOs are credible sources of information, providing meaningful and culturally appropriate education and outreach in the language(s) present in their communities.
Partnering with CBOs during the planning and design phases also improves the chances of community buy-in, which leads to increased participation from community members as policies and programs are implemented. Communicating progress to communities on an ongoing basis ensures transparency and builds trust in the process.
Finally, in the evaluation phase, equity advisory committees, CBOs and community members should be engaged to determine the equity impact of a policy or program. Successful engagement means involving them in the equity metric selection, data collection and review stages. They are your partners in iterating and refining throughout the process in order to be successful.
Proactive and Prescriptive Planning
Prioritizing equity efforts and the needs of low-income frontline workers will be critical to rebuilding our economy and communities during and after the COVID-19 crisis. By addressing the inequities that disadvantaged and low-income communities face both in the long and short-term, state and local governments will be better equipped to support economic growth opportunities in the subsequent recovery.