An Interview with Green Zones Co-Founders Antonio Diaz and Diane Takvorian

Tracing the Trajectory of CEJA’s Green Zones Initiative

In 2010, CEJA published our first concept paper on our vision for a Green Zones Initiative. The original team who launched our initiative included Antonio Diaz, executive director at PODER; Diane Takvorian, executive director at the Environmental Health Coalition; Penny Newman, former executive director at the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice; and Amy Vanderwarker, CEJA’s first dedicated Green Zones staff person. In this interview, Diaz and Takvorian reflect on the successes, challenges, and work it has taken to launch CEJA’s Green Zones Initiative.

What have been key elements to building the Green Zones Initiative, both locally and statewide?
Antonio Diaz: For EHC, PODER, and other CEJA members and partners, engaging community members in community-based planning and decision-making is a core aspect of our work. That means that it’s not just people in suits who represent developer interests for the city that are at the table where these planning decisions are taking place. It entails a lot of community capacity building, education, and organizing around what planning is, and knowing how we can intervene. We must ensure that we have community voices in those spaces, so that we can prioritize equitable and community-based development. We need to have deep engagement to have impacts at the neighborhood and city levels. The lessons learned from the neighborhoods that we work in inform our policy work at the state level.

Legislation can be fashioned to meet the needs of communities and can include community voices. Our greatest strength is in our local-, regional-, and state-level work, so our focus has been on the state. And we’ve had much success on that, whether it’s with the Transformative Climate Communities program or SB 1000. These bills reflect our Green Zones vision around reducing pollution, promoting investments, and creating better land use decisions. We’ve been successful at making those goals into a reality through the legislative process.

It’s been amazing to see all of our new CEJA partners doing Green Zones work. Part of our success has been expanding the group of folks who have prioritized this work. The resources that CEJA has produced — the second Green Zones report in 2015 and the SB 1000 toolkit — are really helpful in thinking about this work and providing tips on implementation. It’s great that we’re updating the Green Zones report because it’s not only about our on-the-ground work, but also our leadership and our ability to put our practices down on paper that can be useful to other people.

Diane Takvorian: Green Zones is a great frame for the work that is happening in our communities. Another important factor in California was CalEnviroScreen, which gave scientific and objective data to what many of us have been pointing to for a long time. The tool has been able to support our organizing work in communities, by providing a framework to define our issues. It didn’t change the work, per se. It just framed it in a different way. It allowed us to see which communities pop on the map. It’s not perfect, but it’s the beginning of our ability to objectively define these EJ communities. And it doesn’t mean that it’s the end of the story.

Getting GGRF money to finish an affordable housing project was huge for EHC. And it’s made such a big difference in the community — it could have sat there without any progress. Part of it was that we were in the right place at the right time. But if we didn’t have the Green Zones framing we wouldn’t have been ready to step up for that. Having GGRF was critically important, but it was already a part of our Green Zone project. We can now redirect money from cap and trade and money coming through CPUC toward our efforts.

What are the biggest challenges to the Green Zones Initiative now?
Antonio: Issues related to the impacts that investments often have in communities, in terms of displacement and gentrification pressures. We want amenities in our neighborhoods. We want open space and parks and housing. But oftentimes these investments create new neighborhoods on top of old neighborhoods. It’s not an easy issue to solve, because our neighborhoods do deserve these amenities. But we need to deal with these displacement pressures.

Diane: Displacement is a key issue to address. Is turning our communities green also turning them into a different color of residents? Does it then turn our neighborhoods white? That’s the struggle. As we clean stuff up, what goes in our neighborhoods? Who are we cleaning up the community for?

One of the barriers that we’ve hit is getting into new aspects of this work. When you start building out a community, many levels of expertise are needed. You need to have both groups with expertise and grassroots groups to play a part in these solutions. Grassroots groups need to take leadership, but we also need allies who are developers, etc., who have the expertise but need our shared EJ analysis and community perspective. We have to keep finding those experts, because it’s not our expertise or even the kind of expertise that we want to have as EJ groups. Those barriers can make it hard to move forward.

What are the next steps for the Green Zones Initiative?
Antonio: In terms of investments, there are now pools of funding at the state level due in part to the work that CEJA and other groups have done. I think that we are clear that cap and trade is not the approach that we want; we can change that in the future. However, what does that mean then for having investments in our communities? And what are the potential funding streams that we can create?

Diane: If we are talking about investments, we need way more money. We haven’t had a conversation about community ownership in that deep way. It’s a scary time to think about this conservation, but we ought to be. Why aren’t we proposing community land trusts and community ownership options in GGRF? How can we convene funders to say, we are serious about project-related investment money, and this is how much we really need? We need to look to alternative strategies, because even if people stepped up in foundations, it wouldn’t scratch the surface of our funding needs.

What happens after our wins, like SB 1000? Our key strategy around community power building is so important, because as we know, our plan is only as good as the extent to which we advocate for it being implemented. It’s key that we continue to have these types of toolkits and opportunities for organizations to share their experiences and best practices — especially when it comes to impacting land use decision-making, and making sure state policy get implemented so that it’s doing right by our communities.