Justin Wang

Justin Wang

Building Resilience at the Local Level with Violet Saena

Across the Bay Area, the impacts of climate change are undeniable. Just this past summer, California experienced its hottest August and September on record. Every resident across the region can talk about how wildfires and smoke affected their daily lives as the LNU, CZU, and SCU fires covered over 141,000 acres, consuming homes and wildlife alike. The flooding in San Jose in 2017 caused an estimated $100 million in damage and forced the emergency evacuation of 14,000 people. While climate change affects us all, the impacts of climate change are disproportionately felt by low-income communities and communities of color.

We have long known that neighborhoods whose residents are primarily people of color are more vulnerable to flooding, urban heat islands, drought, and wildfires. From policies and practices like redlining to exclusionary local government planning processes, the Bay Area’s frontline communities have long been left with significantly fewer resources and infrastructure and unequal voices in policy and funding decisions that address climate impacts and other environmental challenges in our communities. At Greenbelt Alliance, we firmly believe that we cannot advance any agenda on climate resilience without also advancing racial and social justice.

As we continue our work addressing imminent climate hazards, we know that we must work with experts and community leaders that are on the ground and intimately familiar with the unique needs and challenges of their community. One such expert that we recently had the honor of featuring in our webinar series, The Future Climate, was Violet Saena, Executive Director of Climate Resilient Communities. 

Since 2016, Climate Resilient Communities (CRC) has been learning the specific needs of residents in diverse, under-resourced communities in San Mateo County. They have led major efforts to build adaptive capacity in East Palo Alto as well as the community of North Fair Oaks, which is in unincorporated San Mateo County, and Belle Haven, a neighborhood of Menlo Park. Beyond the webinar, Violet was also gracious enough to sit down for an interview so that I could ask her about how she has seen the need for an equity lens in her work.

Some of the insight that Violet was able to provide from her experiences is as follows: 

Physical Resilience and Social Resilience Must Be Addressed Together

From our conversation, it is abundantly clear that climate challenges do not exist in a vacuum. Solutions like building rain gardens and rainwater harvesting cisterns do a great job of addressing climate hazards like flooding and drought on their own. However, in the community outreach done by Climate Resilient Communities, it is evident that these projects can and should be done in a way that provides multiple benefits to the community. In East Palo Alto, CRC believes that by training community members and local youth to do the work themselves, they will be able to develop the workforce and provide opportunities for locals, all while strengthening climate resilience. 

Every Community is Different

Of all the communities that CRC operates in, no two are the same. Every one has its own unique set of advantages and disadvantages. With residents facing challenges around health insurance, legal documents, and many other hurdles, each issue compounds with the others to multiply the complexity. And no one understands that complexity better than the people living there and that’s why the community must be at the table.

It Is Important to Communicate in Ways That Meet Community Members Where They Are 

One of the biggest issues in working with disadvantaged communities is communication. In some of the areas that CRC operates in, radio is still the primary source of information. In particular, radio systems are key during emergency responses like during increasingly likely flooding. This reliance on radio is why CRC has prioritized and is currently working on securing funding for Anamatangi Polynesian Voices to start a radio station just for Pacific Islander voices. Violet emphasized the necessity of translation for not just Pacific Islander voices, but also Chinese and Spanish speaking communities.

Sea-Level Rise Is a Critical Issue to Address, but We Must Simultaneously Address Other Climate Hazards at the Same Time

Heat illnesses are very much preventable but can be challenging for people to address without proper infrastructure. Even initiatives like cooling centers may not fully address the issue if residents are unable to transport themselves there, which adds an additional issue around transit. Violet also mentioned how the smoke from what seems to be a now annual tradition of California wildfires have greatly impacted seniors. 

More Funding Needs to Be Dedicated to Community Resilience

Violet was clear that the clearest barrier to adaptation is financial, saying that families with financial means are able to respond more quickly than others. The problem again, of course, lies in the fact that wealth disparities are very closely tied to race, with the average White family having 6.7 times the wealth of an average Black family, with a similar relationship between White and Hispanic families. Moreover, the Bay Area Equity Atlas has found that “Black and Latino residents are overrepresented among the region’s very low income and low-income families” with those residents making up “46% of very-low-income families but just 13% of high-income families.”

CRC often works closely with families living on fixed incomes who, even if they own their own homes, have been living there for thirty to forty years and simply don’t have the extra money to put in air conditioning or a furnace. Smoke from wildfires is another issue that seems to be easily addressed, given enough time and money to invest in the right resources. Yet, whether it’s air filters, purifiers, or masks, these costs represent very different things to those in different tax brackets.

Partnerships and Collaborations are Key

At the end of the day, Greenbelt Alliance and Climate Resilient Communities are just two organizations. In just this interview and our webinar, we were able to learn a great deal from one another. Both of our organizations work with a multitude of other groups and through proper and frequent communication, we are able to bring our networks together to work synergistically as we pursue our common goals.

As Greenbelt Alliance continues to work to build resilience, in every sense of the word, in our Bay Area communities, we will enshrine these principles of equity in our work. We’re developing planning guidance, innovative policy strategies, and key partnerships that will bolster capacity and support local and regional efforts to implement equitable, climate-resilient communities. Thank you to Violet for taking the time to sit down with us and provide us with her insight as we embark on our new Strategic Plan.

Photo: Robert Couse-Baker via Flickr

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