FCC Decision Deals Blow to California Text-Tax Plan

The Mercury News
By John Woolfolk

A federal regulatory ruling Wednesday aimed at protecting consumers from text-messaging spam may also help California mobile phone users avoid a proposed state texting tax.

The California Public Utilities Commission has proposed a surcharge on text messaging to help cover its growing budget for programs that help make phone service accessible to the poor, with a vote scheduled for Jan. 10. But the proposal — first reported Tuesday by this news organization — has drawn fast and fierce criticism from opponents.

The wireless industry, business groups and other critics argued that California can’t tax text messages unless federal regulators allow state regulators to treat text messaging as a telecommunications service.

On Wednesday, the Federal Communications Commission in a 3-1 decision declared that wireless Short Message Service (SMS) and Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS) are “information services” similar to email under the Communications Act — and not a telecommunications service.

The FCC’s Wednesday decision denied requests from mass-texting companies that have complained wireless providers are thwarting their ability to reach consumers via texts. Chairman Ajit Pai and Commissioners Michael O’Rielly and Brendan Carr were in favor, with Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel opposed.

“We commend Chairman Pai and the FCC for protecting consumers from an avalanche of messaging spam and allowing them to continue to benefit from a flourishing and competitive messaging ecosystem,” said Scott Bergmann, CTIA’s senior vice president for regulatory affairs.

The vote could have an impact on California’s proposal to tax text messages. The Public Utilities Commission had no immediate response Wednesday, but text tax critics considered the FCC decision a victory.

“We hope that the CPUC recognizes that taxing text messages is bad for consumers,” said Jamie Hastings, senior vice president of external and state affairs for CTIA, which represents the U.S. wireless communications industry, including AT&T Mobility, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon.

“Consumers exchanged 1.77 trillion messages in 2017, making text messages one of the most common and effective means of communication for Americans,” Hastings said. “Taxing this service would burden those who rely on and use this service each and every day.”

Supporters of the surcharge, including the Oakland-based Greenlining Institute, a think-tank that promotes social equity for communities of color, agreed the FCC ruling is a setback, but not necessarily fatal.

“I’d agree the FCC decision complicates things,” said Paul Goodman, the institute’s director of telecommunications and technology policy. “But I don’t think it eliminates the PUC’s ability to impose that.”

Critics including business groups like the Bay Area Council and Silicon Valley Leadership Group said in a Dec. 5 letter to the commission that it could not impose the text tax “without an explicit federal classification of text messaging as a telecommunications service.”

But supporters of the texting surcharge noted the commission proposal makes several other arguments for its authority to impose it.

“Nothing the FCC has done prevents leadership in this area,” said Mindy Spatt, spokeswoman for The Utility Reform Network, a consumer group in favor of the texting surcharge.

Supporters argued that as traditional telephone service gives way to new technologies like texting, revenues for promoting “universal service” aren’t keeping up and need to branch out into those areas. They noted the wireless providers don’t need to pass the charges on to their customers.

The proposed surcharge would be part of the Universal Service Charge at the bottom of consumers’ mobile phone bills, which pays for programs that help poor people afford telephone service and subsidize service in rural areas schools and hospitals.

Critics countered that charging for texting would put them at a disadvantage with other messaging services like WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger that are rapidly gaining popularity and would not be required to pay the surcharge.

Fight Brewing Over EV Money From VW Emissions Scandal

By David Manoucheri

California has led the nation in the push to electrify the vehicles on its roads. Several bills trying to eliminate the sale of gas-powered vehicles by the end of the next decade have been attempted, though failed.

One big investment in helping electrify those drivers is the settlement Volkswagen paid to the state. The California Air Resources Board discovered Volkswagen diesel cars had been programmed to fake better emissions during smog testing. In reality, the cars were spewing higher levels of pollution into the air. As a result of that investigation, the car company agreed to an $800 million settlement with the State of California.

The first round of investment of that money helped pay for new electric transit vehicles and chargers throughout the state of California.

Now the Air Resources Board is looking at how to invest the next $200 million from that settlement. The plan calls for more metropolitan and highway installation, but critics are saying it doesn’t go far enough.

“The plan can be improved by striving to ensure that more than 35 percent of investments are in low-income or disadvantaged communities,” says The Greenlining Institute in a letter to the board.

Legislators from rural communities also see the need to install more chargers and infrastructure in rural and suburban communities. Half of the money, $95-$115 million, will go to fast-charging stations in metro areas if the plan is approved.

Still, manufacturers like General Motors Co. disagree with the investment proposed, saying it doesn’t put enough in metropolitan areas. Since GM is making its long-range “Bolt,” it sees money to help install workplace charging stations and more city-based infrastructure, along with highway, installation as more important.

The plan also proposes $8 million – $12 million to fund home chargers.

CARB meets Dec. 7 to hear comment from stakeholders. On Dec 13 and 14 the board plans to vote either to approve or modify/disapprove the plan.

Questions Loom Over Sutter Health’s Community Benefit Spending

Modern Healthcare
By Tara Bannow

Ever since Jesse Arreguín learned Sutter Health was considering closing its Berkeley hospital ahead of a 2030 deadline to meet California’s seismic standards, the city’s mayor has led a campaign to save the hospital.

The ordeal has raised a bigger question in Arreguín’s mind: Is it time to rethink whether the massive, not-for-profit Northern California health system deserves its tax-exempt status? He asked Sutter for specific information on its community benefit spending in Berkeley, but said neither he nor the city council has gotten an answer.

“We want to better understand, ‘What community benefits are they providing?’ ” Arreguín said. “ ‘How do they benefit the people of Berkeley?’ and, ‘Is the level of community benefit commensurate to their tax-exempt status?’ ”

There’s no denying the widespread, tangible effects Sutter’s health improvement work has on the communities it serves. The 24-hospital Sacramento, Calif.-based health system funds respite facilities for homeless patients discharged from hospitals. It supports free clinics, health education programs and food banks.

But Sutter’s quest to grow its position in Northern California’s consolidated market and cut costs has ignited bitter disputes in some areas, where concerns about transparency, prices and governance have prompted elected officials like Arreguín and others to question whether the not-for-profit health system spends enough on community benefits to justify its tax-exempt status.

It’s virtually impossible to learn how Sutter arrives at the community benefit spending figures it reports each year, a situation that underscores how pieced-together and full of holes the community benefit reporting process is overall.

A Sutter spokeswoman declined to break down its spending on broader community benefits—health services, screenings, free clinics, training health professionals and research—beyond the $124 million Sutter reported having spent last year. The health system files roughly 30 different 990 tax forms—the documents where it reports such spending to the federal government—but adding up the community benefit expenses from the tax forms does not equal the numbers in its annual reports.

Of Sutter’s total $612 million in community benefit in 2017, $334 million was a noncash expense, the estimated cost of unreimbursed Medicaid program care, and just $65 million was attributed to the cost of charity care.

Knowing Sutter

Years of working for Sutter, including a stint as a hospital director, have taught Dr. Greg Duncan, chief of surgery at Sutter Coast Hospital in Crescent City, not to accept the health system’s numbers at face value.

“The first thing we have to know is whether the numbers are accurate, and with Sutter we don’t know that,” he said .

Policymakers, researchers and advocates have in recent years emphasized what they say is hospitals’ increasingly vital role in improving the broader health of the populations they serve, a role that extends beyond providing healthcare services to housing, nutritious food and education. The amounts Sutter reports having spent on such initiatives has fallen slightly as a ratio of expenses in the past two years, even as it says it has saved hundreds of millions of dollars during that time on unreimbursed Medicaid care.

“It just begs the question: If you’re not spending it on the community, what are you spending it on?” said Anthony Galace, health equity director for the Greenlining Institute, an Oakland, Calif.-based not-for-profit organization dedicated to racial and economic justice.

Still, in Lake County, which has the worst overall health outcomes in the state, according to County Health Rankings, health advocates say Sutter has in recent years taken a more active role in assessing the issues and helping where needed. “You can usually count on Sutter for some sort of support,” said Lisa Morrow, executive director of the Lake Family Resource Center, a not-for-profit organization that provides a variety of health and social services.

Patty Bruder, executive director of North Coast Opportunities, a not-for-profit group that advocates for low-income and disadvantaged individuals in Lake County and beyond, said Sutter has taken an active role in working with homeless individuals and high healthcare users.

“We’ve worked with the hospital some, but we’re learning to work a whole lot closer,” she said. “That’s been one of the real benefits of some of the changes in our healthcare system: They have nudged hospitals to see that a healthier community is good for all of us, rather than just making sure you have patients.”

Questions over transparency

Sutter’s reputation in some communities has been clouded by a perceived lack of transparency as it consolidates governance across hospitals and contemplates closing facilities to avoid costly upgrades. And the health system has spent more than a decade fighting lawsuits alleging it overcharges for services. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra sued Sutter in March alleging its “all or nothing” approach to contracting with insurers is anticompetitive and drives up prices.

In Crescent City, elected officials and residents have sparred with Sutter for years over what they say are exorbitant charges at Sutter Coast Hospital relative to nearby hospitals. To that end, the local healthcare district board has been trying unsuccessfully for months to hold regular meetings with the hospital’s board. The district board also hasn’t gotten financial data it requested from Sutter.

“They haven’t been cooperative at all,” said Duncan, who also serves as chair of the Del Norte Healthcare District, one of 79 districts established by voters in the state to meet local health needs. “So my feeling is, if they’re going to operate in that closed environment, then they should be held to a taxation like every other private business would be.”

A Sutter spokeswoman said there were system representatives at every district board meeting and that the two groups are in regular communication.

Duncan said Crescent City’s trouble with Sutter really started back in 2013 when the system tried to convert Sutter Coast Hospital into a critical-access hospital, a move that would have bumped up its Medicare revenue, but cut its bed count from 49 to 25. Community members protested the change, which Duncan said would have resulted in more than 250 additional patients being transferred each year, and Sutter backed down.

Sutter’s reported $612 million in overall community benefits in 2017 was 5.1% of its expenses, which is on par with what some research has found to be average spending among not-for-profit health systems.

Even as Sutter’s reported unreimbursed Medicaid care plummeted by 113% from 2015 to 2017, the health system’s spending ratio on broader community benefits declined slightly from 1.2% of expenses in 2015, to 1% in 2017.

Meanwhile, the $124 million Sutter spent on broader community benefits last year was dwarfed by the health system’s net income: $958 million.

The Service Employees International Union’s California chapter studies hospitals’ community benefit spending statewide, and officials there have also noticed a lack of disclosure by Sutter. That’s unlike other health systems, which happily send detailed lists of activities, right down to loaning their community room to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, said David Miller, SEIU-UHW’s research director.

“Kaiser Permanente and Dignity Health (which also serve the area), they throw a phone book at you,” he said. “It gets to a real granular level.”

A Sutter spokeswoman said the system is committed to transparency and invited SEIU to access audited financials and other supporting documents.

The Greenlining Institute has worked closely with Kaiser Permanente to help it better understand health needs in its communities. Sutter hasn’t shown interest in having those conversations, despite repeated attempts at communication, Galace said. “For a health system to be nonresponsive to those questions is, I think, concerning, and it’s incredibly frustrating,” he said.

A Sutter spokeswoman said the system has worked with Greenlining to host community focus groups to ensure residents’ voices are included in a collaborative needs assessment process.

Shuffling the hospital deck

The news that Sutter was considering closing its Berkeley hospital came as a shock to locals, especially since the health system had pledged to keep Alta Bates Summit Medical Center’s Berkeley campus open following its 1999 merger.

When Sutter’s Alta Bates campus in Oakland merged with the hospital in Berkeley, Sutter assuaged locals’ fears that it would ultimately close the Berkeley hospital by promising to not only keep it open, but spend $450 million on capital improvements over 10 years, he said. It’s unclear whether that happened, Arreguín said.

“Unfortunately, it’s a history of broken promises,” he said. “This merger happened with the understanding that we’d keep this hospital in operation. But sadly, there’s very little legally that we can do to stop it at the present time.”

Another unanswered question is whether Sutter will continue its community benefit programming in Berkeley if the hospital closes, Galace said. Sutter hasn’t yet decided the Berkeley hospital’s fate, a spokeswoman said.

Although the amount Sutter spends on community benefit in the San Francisco Bay Area is unclear, the health system’s long-standing health improvement programs are deeply rooted, including the Ethnic Health Institute within Sutter’s Samuel Merritt University. It’s an outreach group that offers free health services for the area’s African-American, Asian-American and Latino communities with a specific focus on hypertension, asthma, diabetes and cancer.

Sutter also partners with a San Francisco-based not-for-profit organization called Operation Access, which connects low-income patients who get primary care from community clinics with free surgical and specialty services from providers like Sutter. Over the past 12 months, Sutter provided 458 people with donated care through its Operation Access partnership, said Jason Beers, the organization’s CEO. Sutter provides about 35% of the care that’s donated through the program, he said. Sutter records those services as charity care.

“Sutter Health has been an excellent partner in terms of completely donating the care,” Beers said.

Holly Harper, director of external affairs for Sutter’s Valley Area, said Sutter’s community benefit spending is driven by information gleaned during its community health needs assessments, which the Affordable Care Act requires not-for-profit hospitals to perform every three years. Sutter gathers input from focus groups made up of community members in the areas it serves, she said.

“We invest so that people can help make a difference,” she said. “We don’t do everything. Other partners do wonderful things, so we partner strategically to make sure we’re impacting community health in lots of ways, not just within the walls of a hospital.”

A mutually beneficial partnership

Providers who treat hospitalized homeless patients are often leery of discharging them back to the streets. Realizing the need, Sacramento-based community health center operator WellSpace Health in 2005 began providing temporary respite, medical care and case management for those patients.

“We’re doing everything we can during that time of recuperation to get them engaged and back into the community and trying to get them housed versus them being in a hospital,” WellSpace CEO Jonathan Porteus said.

Currently, WellSpace operates two such units, one funded entirely by Sutter. The other is supported by a group of health systems, including Sutter, Kaiser Permanente, Dignity Health and the UC Davis Medical Center.

Patients stay in the program an average of 19 days recovering and receiving follow-up medical care from a team of nurses who treat wounds, sepsis, cardiopulmonary issues and other conditions. In the meantime, WellSpace’s team connects them with primary care, addiction treatment services and housing vouchers.

In some cases, not-for-profit health systems’ community benefit programs in turn benefit the health systems themselves. That appears to be the case with the WellSpace relationship.

Before WellSpace’s respite program, hospitals were at much higher risk of costly readmission penalties on those patients, Porteus said. WellSpace also runs a network of health centers strategically located near hospitals, including Sutter’s. As a federally qualified community health center, its main focus is providing primary and specialty care to underserved patients, especially those on Medi-Cal, California’s Medicaid program.

Before WellSpace, Porteus said the hospitals took on a “massively unfair proportion” of primary-care Medi-Cal patients. “Historically we didn’t really have many community health centers in the community, so the hospitals took on a lot of it,” he said.

Last year, Sutter announced 10,000 of its Medi-Cal patients in Placer and Sacramento counties would transfer to WellSpace and another community health center for their primary care. At the time, a Sutter official told the Sacramento Bee that the health centers were better equipped to handle services like behavioral health and dental care.

A priority area highlighted in Placer County’s current community health improvement plan is increasing the number of primary-care providers who accept Medi-Cal patients. Dr. Robert Oldham, Placer County’s public health officer, said while community health centers typically end up taking most of those patients, it would be good to see Sutter take on more, too.

“They’re trying to keep people out of the emergency room, improve their hospital readmission rates, etc., so yes, much of their mission is supporting WellSpace and others because it benefits the community,” he said. “But I think it’s probably fair to say it benefits their mission as well.”

Further, Oldham said, Sutter is an integrated network of hospitals and physicians. Having Medi-Cal patients receive both primary, specialty and hospital care through a single provider “really benefits those patients,” he said. Oldham himself is among the patients who receive primary care at a community health center, which can make getting specialty care elsewhere complicated.

“It takes a little bit more care coordination to bridge that gap,” he said.

Consumer Groups Line Up Against T-Mobile Merger With Sprint

Consumer Affairs
By Mark Huffman

From the start, the proposed merger of T-Mobile and Sprint has never been popular with consumer advocates. This week, 14 consumer groups joined forces to oppose it.

Leaders from the 14 organizations signed a letter to the top Democrats on the House Judiciary and Energy & Commerce committees. In addition to laying out their reasons for opposing the deal, the groups ask the two lawmakers — who will become committee chairmen in January when the Democratic majority takes control — to hold hearings on what such a merger would mean for consumers.

The groups lining up against the merger include:

  • American Antitrust Institute
  • Center for Media Justice
  • Common Cause
  • Communications Workers of America Consumer Reports
  • Fight for the Future
  • Free Press Action
  • The Greenlining Institute
  • National Consumer Law Center, on behalf of its low income clients
  • New America’s Open Technology Institute
  • Open Markets Institute
  • Public Knowledge
  • Rural Wireless Association Writers
  • Guild of America West

Higher prices, fewer jobs

The groups say the merger would undoubtedly lead to higher prices for consumers, especially those who rely on both services’ pre-paid plans, among the cheapest in the industry. The Communications Workers of America says the merger would lead to the loss of up to 30,000 jobs.

“Wireless is one of the few telecommunications markets where we see real head-to-head competition delivering benefits for consumers,” said George Slover, senior policy counsel at Consumer Reports. “We need to preserve this dynamic that comes from having both T-Mobile and Sprint in the marketplace, competing vigorously and independently against each other, and against AT&T and Verizon.”

T-Mobile and Sprint have argued their case for the merger by saying that if they are left to compete as individual companies they will be at a severe disadvantage to AT&T and Verizon when it comes to building a 5G network.

The consumer groups, however, say the purported benefits of the merger are purely speculative. They argue that hearings in the House will help clarify the issue.

‘Strong incentives to collude’

Diana Moss, president of the American Antitrust Institute (AAI), says the merger would be a tipping point in the wireless industry, creating a “Big 3” with strong incentives to collude rather than compete.

“Consumers and workers have a right to competition,” she said. “DOJ should block this deal.”

This isn’t the first time T-Mobile and Sprint have sought mergers, though never with one another. Most recently AT&T tried to acquire T-Mobile, a deal that was rejected by the Justice Department in 2011.

Here’s What It Takes to Create a Product that Actually Helps the Unbanked

By Amanda Dixon

There’s no point in creating a product or service targeting the unbanked  — unless it’s designed with their specific needs in mind.

Data recently in October by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. indicates that 6.5 percent of U.S. households are unbanked, down from 8.2 percent in 2011 and 7.6 percent in 2009. In 8.4 million homes, no one has a checking or savings account.

There’s no shortage of businesses and entrepreneurs trying to support the unbanked. But whether they’re successful depends on their approach to addressing the unique challenges this population faces daily.

Companies helping the unbanked

PayPal is one company that has vowed to help the unbanked. Customers who visit a Walmart store can now withdraw cash from their PayPal accounts for a small fee ($3). PayPal customers can also deposit cash and paychecks into their accounts. And through partnerships with some smaller banks, PayPal wants to offer new products for the unbanked, including debit cards and mobile check deposit.

Other startups have solutions designed to help the unbanked, too.

While apps like Venmo and Zelle aren’t accessible to those without bank accounts, Vments has made it easy for the unbanked to transfer money. Through their platform, both the banked and the unbanked will be able to exchange digital cash for actual cash, even when there’s no Wi-Fi or cellphone signal.

“The current options for the unbanked and underbanked tend to be much higher than for many banked customers today who enjoy free checking, free debit and credit cards, cash back and loyalty point accounts, free cash and check deposits, free account transfers, free cash withdrawals, etc.,” says Steven Wasserman, Vments CEO and founder. “Vments’ platform and ecosystem design and network of both banks and alternative financial services firms levels the playing field for the unbanked, underbanked and banked customers.”

Banks are also making an effort to help the unbanked, as the new FDIC chair mentioned in a recent op-ed for American Banker.  A number of them — including U.S. Bank, Bank of America and KeyBank — offer checking accounts without checks or overdraft fees and low monthly service fees.

Products and features that the unbanked need

Developing financial products for the unbanked requires some creativity. But the most effective products for people without bank accounts have some things in common.

For one thing, products targeting the unbanked should account for the fact that unbanked families and individuals may live in communities that don’t have access to consistent or reliable internet access, says Caroline Ratcliffe, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute.

How much products and services cost matters, too.

“One of the primary reasons each year that people say that they’re not banked is because it costs too much to be banked or that they perceive that it costs too much to be banked,” says David Rothstein, head of the Bank On initiative that has created standards for providing safe bank accounts for everyone, including people outside of the mainstream financial system.

Accounts that meet this criteria have a fee structure that’s “not a la carte,” Rothstein says. Charges associated with checking accounts are transparent and predictable. They can either be waived or are $5 or less.

Some experts, however, argue that accounts offered to the unbanked shouldn’t have any fees at all.

“Banks should have alternative products that are really for unbanked individuals who are oftentimes low- to moderate-income or people of color, and it should have zero fees,” says Rawan Elhalaby, economic equity program manager at the Greenlining Institute.

Loans should have flexible terms and underwriting criteria based on the fact that unbanked applicants often don’t have credit scores, Elhalaby says. They should also allow for quick underwriting and quick access to financing. That way, the unbanked can use the funds they need right away.

Where the unbanked can turn for support

In addition to the new solutions being developed for them, the unbanked have a variety of alternative financial services to choose from, including payday loans, title loans and check cashing centers, all of which can be costly.

“They’re all equally bad, and what’s best is really secure mainstream products or products coming out of community development finance institutions or maybe even non-traditional banks, like credit unions or maybe even state-chartered banks,” Elhalaby says.

For the unbanked, choosing the right financial products involves reading the fine print and being realistic about how much one might have to pay in terms of fees and monthly charges, says Ratcliffe from the Urban Institute. Luckily, the unbanked can turn to a nonprofit or financial coaching program for guidance. And the best support they’ll receive will likely come from a local organization, like a community development financial institution that can easily be found in a database.

“I would defer to a community-based organization that has an intimate relationship with those communities and knows what’s best for them,” Elhalaby says. “I think financial education is also not-one-size-fits-all. It really has to do with the socioeconomic status of the individual but also what’s happening in their neighborhood.”

My Pacoima Community and Speaking Out Against Environmental Racism

Small Business Exchange Online
By Denise Garcia

I come from a community — Pacoima, California —  and a family where love, humor, and culture ensure my people’s survival. Mine is a family of home-cooked enchiladas, loud and long-lasting dance fiestas, and unconditional love. We turn to our values to sustain our lives, even as low-income migrants and first-generation folks. Though all odds are against low-income people of color, we resist and survive in the face of environmental racism and other obstacles. Surviving is the only way we know how to live since the power of place has shaped our lived outcomes, for good and for worse.

My beautiful Pacoima roots my passion and diligence in the work I do as an advocate fighting environmental racism. Growing up, Pacoima had long hot summers filled with water balloon fights and Sunday mornings con mi familia en la casa de mi abuelito, Rosalio, comiendo menudo y pan dulce. My brothers, friends, and I played ball in the park religiously and ate elotes, raspados, y paletas from local vendors. Pacoima, covered with vibrant murals under the many highways, intrigued my imagination and sparked my creativity. Pacoima holds a collection of my earliest and most enjoyable memories of my childhood, family, and culture.

Although most of my memories of my hometown are positive, Pacoima was not as beautiful as my mind painted it to be. While in college, I learned about environmental racism & injustice and realized the abundance of pollutants concentrated in my hometown. The traffic pollution, industrial sites, and landfillserode my community with harmful and dangerous toxins, which negatively impact all forms of life. While in college, I learned Pacoima was redlined because there were too many black and brown folks and was identified as undesirable, resulting in a segregated ghetto. Similarly to other low-income, redlined, and marginalized communities of color, Pacoima lacks investment in public schools, public parks, and job opportunities. Climate change will exacerbate these inequities, leaving the rich richer and the poor poorer in all capacities.

Rather than just surviving, communities like Pacoima, need to thrive. To overcome systematic hardships like the environmental racism I grew up with, community members must use their voices to amplify the change we need in order to flourish. And I cannot expect a positive change for my community unless I am also willing to change, grow, and transform. White supremacy and capitalism systematically impact people of color, and yet, we are still here! This type of resiliency and strength gives me the courage to embark on new journeys, which led me to pursue this year-long Fellowship with The Greenlining Institute.

Pacoima, CaliforniaDuring my Fellowship, I hope to gain the confidence and strength to use my voice in a way that creates positive change that my community and so many other similar communities need. I recognize I have missed many opportunities because I chose to stay silent. Now I want to courageously articulate my thoughts and represent communities like mine to ensure they are prioritized and considered in political decisions.

Communities like Pacoima and hundreds of others impacted by environmental racism need more activators who speak out against injustice, advocate for change and empower the community through education. My voice holds an infinite amount of power, but I often put myself on mute when I get afraid or feel intimidated. This fear of speaking out derives from the guilt and pressure of being a 1st-generation college graduate. I feel immense pressure to be successful and perceived as intelligent to prove to my family that their sacrifices and hard work were worth it. This exacerbates my silence because I’m afraid of making mistakes or saying the wrong things. This year, I will embrace my mistakes, learn from them and continue to grow. I hope to see myself transform into a confident and outspoken womxn and bring this power of voice back to my community.

“You are seen, heard, and valued here” are the words imprinted into my memory from the first day of orientation at The Greenlining Institute. I can trust this organization when staff say they value my personal narrative, experience, and potential. With this growing trust, I am ready to see my #ChangeFromWithin and to see how my #PacoimaBeautiful can also transform.

Denise Garcia is Greenlining’s Environmental Equity Fellow. Follow her on Twitter.

Over the next year we’re continuing our #ChangeFromWithin blog series with posts from our newest cohort of Fellows. They will explore their own personal transformation, #ChangeFromWithin, and what that means for leadership development. You can read Patrick Brown’s introduction to the series here. Here at Greenlining’s Leadership Academy, we’ve been on a journey. We invite you to join us.

CPUC Boosts Clean Energy Research in Disadvantaged Communities

Adopts New Strategy to Help Disadvantaged Communities Participate in Clean Energy Transition  

Bruce Mirken, Greenlining Institute Media Relations Director, 415-846-7758 (cell)
Strela Cervas, California Environmental Justice Alliance Statewide Organizing Director, 213-284-4923

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA – Today the California Public Utilities Commission approved a strategy for expanding clean energy research in disadvantaged communities via the Electric Program Investment Charge  program. The CPUC created EPIC, which is funded by ratepayers, in 2011 to support development of clean energy technologies. EPIC research and development projects can also create local benefits like jobs, improved air quality and increased property values.

In today’s decision, the CPUC commits “to make the state’s clean energy programs more equitable by moving the state toward greater clean and renewable energy while increasing the participation of economically and environmentally vulnerable communities in this transition” and adopts specific strategies for doing so. The Greenlining Institute and the California Environmental Justice Alliance jointly advocated for the decision.

“The CPUC just took a big step toward making sure that no one gets left behind as California moves to a clean energy economy,” said Madeline Stano, Greenlining Institute Energy Equity legal counsel. “This vote helps ensure that the communities that breathe the dirtiest air and most need clean energy jobs will get to participate in our clean energy transition.”

“California has made significant progress in expanding renewable energy programs,” said CEJA Executive Director Gladys Limon. “The EPIC program is another critical step forward in funding clean energy projects that will improve air quality in our most overburdened communities while promoting job development across the state. We commend the leadership of the CPUC in working towards maximizing the benefits of our state’s clean energy programs to reach the communities that need it most. With increased training and technical support to identify projects for disadvantaged communities, we hope that the EPIC program can meet all intended goals of greater access and participation of environmental justice communities in California’s growing renewable energy future.”

Today’s decision:

  • Defines the environmental justice communities most burdened with pollution and social vulnerabilities as “disadvantaged communities.”
  • Encourages utilities to design projects located in and benefitting disadvantaged communities and to incorporate disadvantaged community feedback in planning projects.
  • Requires targeted community outreach and workshops in disadvantaged communities on the EPIC program and project development.
  • Requires collaboration with the Disadvantaged Community Advisory Group to improve community outreach and activities in disadvantaged communities.
  • Recognizes the need for technical assistance and education on EPIC for community-based organizations in disadvantaged communities.
  • Commits to developing disadvantaged community-centered research goals for EPIC.
  • Supports the implementation of Assembly Bill 523, which requires funding to be directed to projects located in and benefiting disadvantaged and low-income communities.


Narrative Justice: A Daughter of Black Immigrants Reflects

Small Business Exchange Online
By Asia Alman

I am of a history of cross-border movements that no right-wing political administration can contain. My folks are the kind of loud, and Black, and women dreamers who everyday disrupt U.S. binaries of “Black” and “immigrant” by being both at the same time: Black immigrants. Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, my mother taught me to never forget her island of Trinidad and Tobago. Because of my family’s love for home, I carry my heritage into all that I do.

As a Health Equity Fellow in the Greenlining Leadership Academy, I am encouraged every day to seek #ChangefromWithin by bringing the fullness of my identity into my work. My experience as the daughter of Caribbean Black immigrants is essential to my developing racial equity framework. At Greenlining, we believe that our narratives are our strongest asset. We know that we have all we need to survive and that when race is no longer a barrier for communities of color, we will thrive.

I first learned of the Leadership Academy last year, while conducting oral history interviews with Senegalese women seeking asylum in Brazil. At the time I was completing a Thomas J. Watson Foundation Fellowship. As a Watson Fellow, I received a $30,000 grant to invest in my passion for uplifting the experiences of Black women and other women of color in spaces where our voices are often marginalized.

Watson allowed me to expand my U.S. based research on the hardships that Black American and undocuBlack women and girls face to a global scale. During my Watson year, I conducted an international oral history project focused on the narratives of African and Caribbean immigrant women in China, Dominican Republic, Brazil, and London for whom pathways to citizenship are blocked. I also traveled to Jamaica and worked with organizations that supported recently deported Jamaicans who were returning from the U.S. and the U.K.

In each interview, Black immigrant women stated the conditions that limited their access to a healthy life. At the same time, these Black immigrants were plotting ways to overcome the obstacles they faced.

These women articulated their experience with ease.

They knew what they needed.

Leadership Development: #ChangeFromWithin

Yet anti-Black stigma, high costs, and citizenship status requirements barred them from accessing quality healthcare. Many of the same barriers stop Black people and other communities of color in the U.S. from accessing healthcare.

I am charged by the weight of Black immigrant women’s narratives to make access to a healthy life available to all. I believe in the strength of women of color whose collective actions can shatter glass ceilings and push us to believe in the impossible. Think of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Alexandria is a Latina woman from the Bronx who, in her first campaign, recently defeated a congressman who held his position for 12 years.

I trust the narratives of black immigrants and of women of color to lead me as I identify the obstacles that stop girls and women of color from achieving their goals. I am dedicated to girls like us. I am dedicated to creating pathways for us to achieve what we define as success.

Asia Alman is Greenlining’s Health Equity Fellow. Follow her on Twitter.

Over the next year we’re continuing our #ChangeFromWithin blog series with posts from our newest cohort of Fellows. They will explore their own personal transformation, #ChangeFromWithin, and what that means for leadership development. You can read Patrick Brown’s introduction to the series here. Here at Greenlining’s Leadership Academy, we’ve been on a journey. We invite you to join us.

The Impact of Climate Change on Communities of Color

Black Press USA
By Stacy M. Brown

The planet will reach the crucial threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius – or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit – above pre-industrial levels by as early as 2030, precipitating the risk of extreme drought, wildfires, floods and food shortages for hundreds of millions of people, according to new climate change report issued by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

To avoid such catastrophic events, governments the world over must make rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society, according to the report.

The authors say the 2030 date is based on current levels of greenhouse gas emissions and that the planet is already two-thirds of the way there, with global temperatures having warmed about 1 degree Celsius.

“We have a climate gap in this country. The main reason being that millions of low-income people, many of them minorities, tend to live in the geographical areas that are most impacted by climate change,” Etienne Deffarges, a policy expert and former global managing partner at Accenture and senior partner at Booz Allen Hamilton, told NNPA Newswire.

“It’s no accident that the two most devastating hurricanes in the United States over the last 15 years, Maria and Katrina, took place in areas essentially populated by minorities,” Deffarges said, while also noting that more than 2,900 people in Puerto Rico died during Hurricane Maria and at least 1,800 perished because of Hurricane Katrina.

The vulnerability of low-income populations to climate change isn’t a United States-specific problem.

Some of the world’s poorest populations suffer even more acutely from extreme weather, Deffarges said.

However, low-income and minority populations also suffer from polluted water, like in Flint, Michigan and those who live near chemical plants or refineries are forced to deal with foul air that causes lung and other problems, he said.

Deffarges said Holland, for example, has spent billions on basic infrastructure, the primary solution for low-income and minority areas.

Better roads and public transportation can help put people out of harm’s way and housing infrastructure has a longer-term impact while it’s also necessary to ensure diversity in neighborhoods populated by lower income families, he said.

“If we spend the trillion dollars or more needed to rebuild our infrastructure, we will also achieve the additional feat of decreasing inequality in our country, improve living and working conditions for minorities, and reduce this climate gap,” Deffarges said.

Climate change and pollution go hand in hand, and they hit communities of color first and worst, said Bruce Mirken, a spokesman for The Greenlining Institute, a public policy, research, and advocacy non-profit organization based in Oakland, California.

“Because of the long, sorry history of redlining, low-income communities of color are most likely to be located alongside smoke-belching factories or refineries and busy highways, and also have the fewest resources to cope with heat waves, droughts, floods and other climate-related disasters,” Mirken said.

“On the bright side, fighting climate change requires building a new, clean energy economy, one that offers tremendous opportunities for communities of color.

“At the Greenlining Institute, we’ve successfully pushed California to ensure that as we fight climate change, underserved communities get the resources they need to benefit from our clean energy future. All states and the federal government should do likewise,” he said.

One mitigating factor could be a shift away from the “global standard diet” and a move to restoring agrobiodiversity with the idea that, globally, we now rely heavily on wheat, rice, corn, soybeans, and palm oil, said Jennifer Kaplan of the Culinary Institute of America, Greystone Campus, in California.

“We need to restore biodiversity in order to build in resilience to our food system so that we can find solutions when a crop succumbs to disease, pests, weeds, or climate change,” Kaplan said.

“The larger the number of different species/varieties of food we have, the greater the probability that at least some of them can cope with changing conditions. And, of course, GMO foods, that are designed to drought resistant, heat tolerant, etc. will also be able to ease this burden.”

New Administration Should Focus on Consumer Protection

Capitol Weekly
By Sharon Velasquez

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, California today ranks as the 5th largest economy in the world, surpassing the United Kingdom. To flourish, great economies like California’s need consumer protections and oversight of financial markets. California has one single state agency charged with both, the Department of Business Oversight

Given the Trump administration’s rollback of consumer protections and enforcement at the federal level and California’s influence in shaping national policy, the DBO is essential in protecting California’s consumers.

Despite its crucial role, DBO remains one of the least known agencies in the entire country. With over 360,000 lenders and 40 million consumers under its purview, California would only benefit if the DBO had more support and resources to fund its work.

To our future governor, consumer advocates respectfully request that you prioritize consumer protections and the DBO to ensure financial prosperity for all Californians.

So, what exactly is the DBO, who does it regulate and why is it important?

What is known today as the Department of Business Oversight (DBO) came to life in 2013 when Gov. Jerry Brown merged the state Department of Corporations and the Department of Financial Institutions. He combined these 100-year-old departments to increase efficiency and cost effectiveness; to honor their original missions both became divisions within the DBO.

The DBO is led by Commissioner Jan Owen, appointed by the governor and approved by the state Senate.

All consumers, but especially consumers of color, need a vigilant consumer watchdog in order to fully and fairly participate in California’s prosperous economy.

For instance, studies show that people of color still face redlining in the mortgage market, racism in small business lending, credit card redlining, and other barriers to credit. At a time when the Trump administration has scaled back federal fair lending enforcement and investigations into predatory practices. California needs to stand strong in advancing a sound and inclusive economy.

The DBO staff of 641 has oversight of over 360,000 lenders and 40 million consumers, with a budget of about $90 million per year.  In its consumer protection capacity, the DBO oversees, and regulates institutions including banks, credit unions, savings associations, trust companies, securities brokers and dealers, and commercial and consumer lenders such as mortgage lenders, payday, and online lenders  — commonly referred to as financial technology, or FinTech, lenders.

The DBO’s oversight of FinTech is particularly important because the federal government has failed to issue responsible regulations that ensure transparency and address algorithmic redlining, among other harmful business practices. Algorithmic redlining can be defined as the systemic denial of products and services by machines replicating the biases of their human creators. Instead, the federal government has given FinTech companies the option of an OCC charter that circumvents state-level consumer protections.

This doesn’t mean that all online lenders are bad. For instance, several publicly endorsed and even informed the Small Business Borrowers’ Bill of Rights and were leaders in passing SB 1235, the nation’s first small business truth-in-lending law, through the California legislature.

More industry leadership is needed, DBO regulation and oversight remain necessary to shed light on lending practices across the industry. To quote Justice Louis Brandeis, “Sunlight is said to be the best disinfectant; electric light the most efficient policeman.”

In terms of consumer protection, the DBO ranks second in importance only to California’s attorney general.  In similar fashion to the federal consumer watchdog, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (now being gutted by the Trump administration), the DBO provides financial education and alerts to consumers, as well as a complaint database where consumers can report harmful financial practices so these can be investigated. As a mini-CFPB, the DBO also pursues enforcement actions against abusive lenders.

How can our next governor support the DBO? By taking the lead on increasing the DBO’s budget, increasing enforcement resources, supporting the hiring of more analysts and investigators, investing in DBO staff, providing the technology for the DBO to evaluate FinTech algorithms, bolstering the DBO’s regulatory power, and amending the California Financial Code to clarify the DBO’s mission as a consumer protector.

The Trump Administration has made its disinterest in consumer protection clear. CFPB Acting Director Mick Mulvaney has openly expressed that he will move the CFPB less aggressively in enforcement matters and will leave matters to the state regulators and attorneys general. Now more than ever, working families look towards their state leadership to step in and protect consumers when the federal government can’t or won’t.