By Romel Pasqual
The future of advocacy and progressive planning is bound up with what we did in the immediate past and what we are doing now. We are making the future right now. It’s happening on the ground, in the communities that we work with and in the organizations that work with communities.
My work in the environmental justice arena and at the local level on environmental issues informs not only the way I see the planning profession going, but the progressive movement as a whole. The environmental justice movement transcends so many different movements. It talks about issues of equity, race, sustainability, economic development, transportation and housing. Anything and everything has an environmental justice component, which is fairly daunting if you think about it. Environmental justice is in everything we do: where we live, where we work, where we play, where we pray, where we learn. It redefines what we do as planners.
In the late 1990s the state of California passed environmental justice legislation, Senate Bill 115, which defines environmental justice and what the state must do about it. This followed the installation of Democratic Governor Grey Davis, who replaced Pete Wilson, a Republican, during whose administration the phrase “environmental justice” was considered really bad. Staff were essentially forbidden to say the phrase. How do I know that? When I was asked in 2000 to serve as California ‘s assistant secretary for environmental justice, many staff people basically told me, “You have the toughest job because you have a bureaucracy that was trained not to use the words ‘environmental justice.’” So I wondered why I was taking this job. Why was I going to put myself in this position within a huge bureaucracy of 4,500 people working at the California Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at the time? How do you move that whole structure and the state itself to become more progressive? And “progressive” means so many different things to so many different people, which is a challenge in and of itself.
When I first got the call to come on board, I asked my mentors, colleagues and friends in the environmental justice movement if they thought I should take the job. Before going into the public sector, my work was around community organizing and advocacy, so I still had friends, even after I went to “the dark side,” as many of them would say. Their first reaction was that they didn’t know environmental justice could be legislated. Some of my friends knew there was legislation but didn’t really pay much attention to it. Some were skeptical of what could be accomplished in California , which went through a very conservative administration and then a very moderate, conservative-leaning Democratic governor. And they were skeptical about large-scale processes in general. We remember the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC), back in the early 1990s, which was the start of putting an almost bureaucratic framework on environmental justice for the U.S. EPA. Folks on the ground—community and environmental justice leaders—were disappointed with NEJAC. The California legislation followed the national model and my colleagues and friends asked why we would do that. I was thinking that if folks were skeptical about this and they didn’t want to participate in the process, why would I take this job?
One of my dear friends then suggested that I treat it as an opportunity to really shape how to move the environmental justice agenda with an inside/outside strategy. So I said yes to the job, though I knew I was going to get my butt kicked by so many different people because we were moving a very progressive agenda forward and the expectations at the community level were very high.
The environmental justice program for the state of California was an experiment at the time. We had a seventeen-member committee that included a very vocal industry rep, community organizations, environmental justice groups, labor and local agencies. The management of expectations was pretty severe. I understood planning theory and participatory planning, but new challenges emerged.
A lot of critics wanted the process to be consensus-based because for them it meant that everybody had moved to a common position. But at the time the environmental justice community in California did not like the word consensus. Consensus meant compromise and that you were not going to hear what I had to say because the structure did not allow me to have an equal voice. We had a limited amount of time in which to get people to consensus, so the first thing we did was throw consensus out the window. We used a true test of the democratic process—voting.
We also knew that we had to create a sense of urgency at the local level to ensure that folks participated. So we took it on the road. We visited many organizations and communities in California to let them know what was going on. We told them we were going to have a big kickoff meeting and that we would fund them to come to the first meeting of the Environmental Justice Advisory Committee. Two hundred and fifty people showed up, of which we funded probably three-fourths. We had people from the governor’s office, members of the cabinet, the secretary of the environment and many high-powered policymakers at the state level.
The meeting was set up to lend some legitimacy and a sense of urgency to this issue and to craft the agenda—but we knew that it wouldn’t do that. Instead it was a forum for people to tell their stories about their communities, for example, stories about the children who suffer from asthma and the prevalence of premature births. We needed to make all these issues real to the policymakers. That was my biggest challenge, to make this real to the folks who can move the agenda and at the same time keep it real to the community. We planners need to have the ability to make that call. We should be able to understand what our role is in the public sector and make sure it’s authentic to communities.
Towards the end of the discussions, something happened that made me think we were doing something right. I got a letter from a company that ran a large oil refinery that basically said, “We need you to back off. Don’t push these policies around cumulative impacts and the precautionary principal.” These were things that we were talking about on the ground that had been elevated to this policymaking arena and the policymakers were starting to listen. I always felt bad when I get letters that said I did something wrong, but I thought that we needed to keep on pushing these issues.
There was an extensive participatory process and the advisory committee met every four to six weeks. During the last meeting in Oakland , in northern California , the committee voted to pass California EPA’s environmental justice policy. We had a room full of about 400 people and before the meeting members of communities from throughout California had marched in support. I was thinking, “A march isn’t supposed to support government policy,” but this was a process that people trusted. To have that kind of recognition was very gratifying, to say the least. The committee voted 16 to 1 in favor of the policy. The one dissenting vote was from industry.
After that vote, the presence of the environmental justice movement continued to be felt. A representative of one of the strongest private sector lobbies in the state was on the committee. That same person was appointed to head one of the largest air quality agencies in California . When she went up for confirmation, environmental justice activists came out to oppose her. The Senate failed to confirm her. It was the first time in a long time that a nominee did not go through.
I learned many lessons in the three-year process to develop the environmental justice plan.
I learned that the environmental justice world and its communities have grown and become very sophisticated on the issues, and that they know how to get things done. They have gained sophistication in advocacy, legislation and policymaking.
I learned that planners need patience and flexibility: patience because these processes take time and flexibility because things are not always as linear as we were taught in planning school. You don’t just do a plan, get input and then implement it. It’s never that easy and I never quite appreciated it until I went through this process. Throughout this period between 1990 and 2004, we saw the growth of environmental organizations and their ability to move a political agenda. We had ten pieces of environmental justice legislation in California in a five-year time period. In fact, we now have lobbying days designed for environmental and environmental justice organizations. It went from “I didn’t know there was a piece of legislation” to “I am going to put a piece of legislation together because I know it will help [environmental justice] agendas move forward.”
Fast forward a year-and-a-half to my job now, working with the mayor of Los Angeles , Antonio Villaraigosa. This is a unique time in Los Angeles . We have a city of almost 4 million people and 465 square miles. We have the worst air and almost the largest port in the country. We generate about 9.3 million tons of solid waste. We have open space issues such that only 33 percent of kids live within walking distance of a park. So we have some very severe environmental and social issues to address.
It is a challenge to progressives and advocacy planners when we get more progressive leaders in positions of power. We probably have the most progressive mayor that we have ever had in L.A. He is a former labor organizer and the first Latino mayor since 1872. With a progressive leader that has a progressive agenda, the movement doesn’t need more public participation and access because it has that. The hardest thing is that you need to tell us in government what you want us to do. You go from “I want more public participation, more access and more resources” to “OK, we have $500,000, what are we going to do with it?” The challenge is to make it real and tangible.
The leaders of the progressive movement saw this new way of dealing with issues. Seventy environmental, environmental justice and labor organizations came together to form what they called Green L.A. This is the first time these groups came together. They put aside their disagreements after recognizing that this was a time to work together and really craft a common agenda. Community leaders and appointed commissioners from different areas of government were a part of this. This was not an effort of city government, but a group outside government that said, “We are going to do this and present it to the mayor because he is going to listen to us.” When this was presented to Mayor Villaraigosa, he said, “We can do this and we can do more. Let’s figure out how.”
The hard part now is taking concepts such as cumulative impact and the precautionary approach that activists have long advocated for and making them real. My friends tell me that now that I am in this position I need to work on the issue of cumulative environmental impact. But first we need to figure out what it is and how to measure it. We have folks in government positions but they need help. This is the inside/outside strategy, and it is both the present and future of advocacy planning.