Seeding Change By Getting to the Table

4777aLast year I had the pleasure of learning about the work of Dr. Cecilia Martinez and Shalini Gupta, co-founders of Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy (CEED), because of a writing assignment from Minnesota Women’s Press. On April 19, 2016, they participated in a discussion with me at the Earth Day-inspired Fierce Lament event, “The Visibility Cloak,” at Red Stag along with Healthy Legacy and special guest Sarah Super.

Find audio clips from that conversation here.

The topic of the evening: How do we make things visible that are right in front of us yet remain hidden?

Here is an excerpt of my Minnesota Women’s Press story about CEED.

Seeding Change

Starting in the 1970s, when environmental issues became a more focused concern, there was an invisibility that seemed to render dominance of agenda items to those broad picture “white aware” issues: clean air, clean water. And when energy policy was becoming a focus in the Twin Cities in the 1990s, the Midwest lagged behind other parts of the country in including a racial and economic lens.

For example, dumping sites, industrial fields, brownfields, toxic chemicals and air quality are disproportionately weighted in certain communities, mostly of color. As Gupta said, “Most of those who are impacted the most have not had a real voice.”

With a local, national and international network, CEED was formed, Gupta said, to build “power and capacity for all communities to be effective participants, and to define issues in their own terms. ‘What’s our agenda and vision? And here’s the data to support it.’”

Martinez has created a mapping strategy that translates data about hazards into easily accessible information that “gives people the capacity to better understand what’s going on – and create points of advocacy to undertake those issues.”


Women With Technical Chops

Although both co-founders have strengths in analysis around social justice issues, with the “technical chops” to convert research data into policy advocacy, they said it has not been easy to prove competency in a largely patriarchal energy industry.

Martinez, CEED’s Director of Research Programs, received her B.A. at Stanford, and earned a doctorate from the University of Delaware’s College of Urban Affairs and Public Policy. She has been appointed to several national advisory boards, and did a review of climate adaptation and public health for the National Environmental Justice Leadership Forum on Climate Change.

Gupta, CEED’s Executive Director, grew up in the western suburbs of Minneapolis after her family left India. She earned a B.S. in geophysical sciences from the University of Chicago and a Masters degree in environmental management from Yale. She worked for the Institute for World Economics in Germany, and analyzed atmospheric organic pollutants for Argonne National Laboratories.

That CEED is co-founded by women of non-white backgrounds is not unusual. “Women tend to look more deeply at issues like this,” Martinez said. For example, children of color tend to have high asthma rates. “This is about our communities, our families, our children.”

Gupta added, “The impact of toxic chemicals on our breastmilk, our fetuses, our bodies – that’s a galvanizing force.”

The Common Ground

Underneath the work of CEED is a belief in “The Commons.”

As they explained, environmental issues are about the limited resources of the earth, which should not be owned by any group. Just as we recognize the atmosphere, Antarctica, and the ocean to be common, so too should we understand that policies about the environment should not be rooted in controlled use for a marketplace. The government should regulate based on the public good.

[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Said Gupta, “When toxic materials are dumped in ‘that part of town,’ next to homes where people cannot afford to move, that is not a solution. Everyone should have the right to clean water and a healthy life. The idea is not to buy your way into it. Basic human needs and rights should be a central part of policy.”[/pullquote]

Martinez noted that environmental justice is no different than other social issues: policy brutality, achievement gap. We can laud the “miracle of Minneapolis,” as The Atlantic did in its March 2015 issue, while not looking at other realities: communities that have not historically been part of a miracle of affordability and achievement.

Gupta sees some optimism. The two have pushed, in their roles with the Minneapolis Climate Action Plan, for a Green Zone initiative, executed in other parts of the country, in which investment dollars are put into infrastructure for communities that are most at risk.

Assessment is the next step, with at-risk communities at the table to decide how to prioritize investments: housing efficiency, transportation, resiliency to climate change (tornado, heat, cold), access to healthy food.

Martinez said, “Vulnerability doesn’t start with a crisis event. Certain neighborhoods don’t have more value. When we disinvest in communities, and don’t include them in the conversation, it is reinforcing inequality. How do we create more livable neighborhoods?”

“We aspire to what cities like Portland and Seattle have done,” said Gupta. “But in the process they have pushed out people of color. This is our time to figure out what we want our future to look like in Minneapolis. How can we learn, and fashion a new way? People who live here want to continue to live here.”