9 Major Opportunities for Electric Buses & Trucks

Meeting of the Minds
By Joel Espino

When most people think of electric vehicles, we think of cars, like Teslas, Chevy Bolts and Nissan Leafs. But trucks and buses are going electric, too, and the impact on both our air and our economy could be huge.

In 2016, we at The Greenlining Institute joined forces with The Union of Concerned Scientists to analyze the growing electric truck and bus industry, producing the report “Delivering Opportunity: How Electric Buses and Trucks Can Create Jobs and Improve Public Health in California.” While we focused on California, where electric buses and trucks are taking off rapidly, what we found has major implications for the whole country. Especially at a time when many transit agencies across the country are committing to 100 percent electric, many states are increasing their efforts to get more electric cars, trucks, and buses on the road, and The Green New Deal is generating buzz and conversation on climate change.

Here are nine things we found.

1. Transportation is the largest contributor to global warming in California and nationwide.

Including carbon pollution from refining petroleum products, transportation accounts for more than 50 percent of global warming emissions in California, and the transportation sector recently overtook power plants as the largest contributor to climate change nationwide.

2. Trucks and buses form a major part of our air pollution problem.

Heavy-duty vehicles are the single largest source of smog-forming pollution in California. They also emit more particulate matter than all of the state’s power plants. And they make up seven percent of the state’s global warming emissions—an amount projected to increase as freight shipments grow.

3. Air pollution from transportation discriminates, hitting poor communities of color the hardest.

Poor communities suffer disproportionately from exposure to traffic-related pollution because they are more likely than wealthier neighborhoods to be near busy roads and highways. Breathing lung-damaging exhaust from vehicles on a daily basis leads to higher rates of pollution-related diseases such as cancer and heart attacks. Race matters, too: even for people in the same socioeconomic class, people of color are more likely than whites to be exposed to pollution from cars, trucks and buses.

In fact, a recent Union of Concerned Scientists analysis that quantified pollution from on-road sources reinforces this finding.

4. Electric trucks and buses are cleaner than diesel and natural gas vehicles.

Electric vehicles have zero tailpipe emissions, meaning you won’t have to gulp pollution while waiting for the bus or walking down the street. In terms of global warming emissions, smog forming emissions, and particulate matter; electric vehicles powered by clean electricity have the lowest emissions compared to any other vehicle technology, including natural gas. The clean air benefit continues even when you look at “life cycle” emissions from electricity generation and hydrogen production.

And these clean vehicles will only get cleaner: California will get at least half of its electricity from renewable resources by 2030, has virtually no coal power in the state, and will end contracts for coal power imported from other states by 2025. California also requires that at least 33 percent of hydrogen must be produced using renewable energy, a standard the state already exceeds. Bottom line: We’re blazing a path toward clean power that other states can follow.

5. Electric trucks and buses are far more energy efficient.

Depending on the type of vehicle, electric trucks and buses are up to four times more efficient than diesel and natural gas vehicles. This means that for the same amount of energy used to power a vehicle, the electric vehicle will travel up to four times as far. This can lead to significant savings in fuel costs.

6. Electric truck and bus technology is here and ready to clean the air today.

This isn’t a pie-in-the-sky future dream. Battery-powered electric trucks and buses have ranges over 100 miles. One company recently announced a transit bus with a 350-mile range. Fuel cell trucks and buses have long had ranges over 200 miles. While these vehicles may cost more to purchase, reduced fuel and maintenance costs mean the total cost of ownership of electric trucks and buses is becoming competitive with traditional technologies. Electric trucks and buses can accelerate and climb hills as well or better than diesel and natural gas vehicles. They’re quieter, too.

7. The heavy-duty EV industry is creating good jobs.

Some of the leading electric bus and truck manufacturers in California pay assemblers $13-$20 per hour for entry level jobs, which is considerably above typical pay for assembly jobs in California. These jobs can also lead workers into higher-skilled, well-paid occupations. When we asked representatives of heavy-duty EV companies what jobs were likely to grow the most if demand for heavy-duty EVs increases, they unanimously identified assembler positions. Increased investment in this technology should spur growth of good, well-paying jobs—especially if unions and community benefits agreements like the one BYD struck are in the mix.

8. This industry can be a great source of jobs for underserved communities—if workers get the training and skills they need.

Leading electric bus and truck companies in California typically require one to three years of related experience for assemblers, a higher standard than assembly jobs in general manufacturing. Jobs in EV manufacturing, charging and maintenance require significant electrical skills. These requirements can be barriers to employment for people from low-income communities. But good, readily accessible training programs can overcome this barrier and make sure those most in need of good jobs will get a fair shot.

9. It will take conscious effort to bring workers from marginalized communities into the electric truck and bus workforce.

We don’t currently have enough training programs accessible to those who need them. Manufacturers can help fix this by partnering with workforce training organizations and community colleges to establish pathways for training and certifying workers from these communities and placing them in quality jobs. This emerging industry needs effective, equitable workplace policies, programs, and practices to ensure opportunity for all.

You may not hear much about electric trucks and buses, but they’re here and growing. We have to put the policies and actions in place now so that we can leverage the clean air and economic benefits of this technology to fight environmental injustice and give an economic boost to people most in need.

The proposed Green New Deal has already begun to stimulate new discussions of the role of transportation in fighting climate change and strengthening communities. Electrification of trucks and buses should be part of plans going forward to fight climate change, clean our air and – with help from the right policies — bring new opportunities to underserved communities.

Oakland Can Step Up Support for Diverse Small Businesses, New Report Says

Small Business Advisory Group Offers Detailed Recommendations

Contact: Bruce Mirken, Greenlining Institute Media Relations Director, 510-926-4022; 415-846-7758 (cell)

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA – As Oakland undergoes rapid development and increased gentrification, small businesses – especially those owned by people of color – find themselves in an increasingly challenging environment. In a new white paper, Advancing Racial Equity in the City of Oakland’s Small Business Ecosystem, the Small Business Advisory Group convened by The Greenlining Institute lays out a series of recommendations for how Oakland can help preserve and grow its diverse small business community.

“We commend the city of Oakland for placing racial equity front and center in its 2018-2020 Economic Development Strategy, and for seeking to build wealth in communities of color through entrepreneurship,” said white paper author Sharon Velasquez, Greenlining’s senior economic equity program manager. “The racial wealth gap, built through decades of redlining, will take concerted effort to close. The Small Business Advisory Group hopes its recommendations will jump-start a decisive policy agenda aimed at creating a small business ecosystem where Oakland’s entrepreneurs of color can thrive. We offer the city our partnership for implementation and look forward to convening with the Economic and Workforce Development Department regarding next steps.”

Key recommendations of the report include:

  • Prioritize the creation of a thriving economy by investing in the Economic and Workforce Development Department and Business Assistance Center. By ensuring adequate staffing and robust small business supports, the city will advance economic equity by providing entrepreneurs with critical resources for success. The Business Assistance Center urgently needs expanded hours, a revamped website and satellite locations around Oakland.
  • Collect data on the rate of commercial displacement across Oakland. Presently, no comprehensive data set on commercial displacement exists for Oakland that identifies the number of small businesses at risk of being displaced, the number of small businesses of color that have closed, nor the reasons why. In addition, the city should use data collection platforms to better understand the state of local small businesses.
  • Explore the implementation of commercial tenant protections. Though state law limits what can be done in this area, all possibilities should be explored.
  • Align all city plans so they all contain a racial equity lens, in line with the vision of the 2018-2020 Economic Development Strategy and the Race & Equity Ordinance.
  • Expand transparency and community engagement opportunities as the Economic Development Strategy and other strategic plans are implemented. This should include increased outreach to and communication with both individual business owners and Oakland’s ethnic chambers of commerce.


A Multi-Ethnic Public Policy, Research and Advocacy Institute

California Blazes a Trail for a Green New Deal

The Progressive
By Alvaro Sanchez

While politicians and activists debate the idea of a federal plan to fight climate change and boost our economy, the Golden State is quietly showing how it could actually work.

While politicians and activists debate the idea of a Green New Deal to fight climate change and boost our economy, California is quietly showing how it could actually work. The state has a successful model program that could be used by any community that wants to make itself cleaner, more livable and more prosperous.

It’s called Transformative Climate Communities, or TCC, and it focuses on ways that different agencies can work together with communities to make neighborhoods better.

As it is, most governments put each of its various functions in separate buckets. One agency approves transportation projects, another deals with housing, and so on. Often no one considers how their agencies affect each other or what residents need.

But TCC puts communities in charge of pulling these various pieces together, with a goal of reducing carbon emissions.

This might mean replacing old, smoky diesel buses with clean electric buses or light rail, building affordable housing near those transit stops, and connecting it all with improved pedestrian and bicycle pathways. It might mean planting trees that shade those new bikeways and sidewalks even as they take climate-damaging carbon out of the air. It could mean outfitting those new, affordable homes with solar power and designing them to be energy efficient.

And instead of applying to a dozen different bureaucracies for a dozen separate grants, TCC gives communities a “one-stop shop” where they can get the whole package funded.

The result: A community that’s cleaner, greener and easier to get around, with less air pollution and traffic and lower energy bills for residents. And hundreds of people are put to work making it all happen.

This isn’t a fantasy. It’s happening right now in five California communities.

Consider Fresno. This medium-sized city in the middle of the state’s Central Valley agricultural heartland has long suffered from poverty and air pollution. As required by TCC, Fresno’s plan was put together by the residents themselves – who are, after all, the real experts in their community’s needs.

The plan funds about two dozen projects with dollars collected from polluters through the state’s cap-and-trade program. These include affordable housing close to transit, bike paths, a community garden, home weatherization for low-income families, electric car, vanpool and bikeshare programs. Taken together, the projects will make life better for thousands of low-income residents, clean the air, and put people to work in a region with chronically high unemployment.

There are also full-fledged TCC plans in Ontario, Sacramento, and the Los Angeles neighborhoods of Watts and the northeast San Fernando Valley.

My organization, the Greenlining Institute, worked with state legislators to create the TCC program and has been able to offer technical assistance to several communities seeking to apply for funds. But we’re the first to admit that we’ve barely scratched the surface. This sort of comprehensive, community-led effort should happen nationwide and on a much larger scale.

What’s needed is a commitment to community-driven transformation and reliable funding.

The proposed Green New Deal offers the opportunity to do that. The idea that we can fight climate change, improve our neighborhoods and build prosperity for struggling communities isn’t some fantasy. California is showing how to do it right now.

COMMENTARY: Environmental Racism is Real, Destructive and Deadly

Black Press USA
by Stacey M. Brown

For many, Earth Day stands as a reminder of everyone’s role as stewards of the planet.

It’s a time to reflect and to plan ahead for a cleaner and healthier environment.

Still, for many others, it’s also a stark reminder about how African Americans and other minorities are often forgotten when it comes to the protection of their communities.

A March 2019 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) found that whites experience 17 percent less pollution caused by their consumption of goods and services.

On the other hand, Blacks and Hispanics experience 56 percent and 63 percent, respectively, more pollution than their consumption would generate.

Whites experience a “pollution advantage” while Blacks and Hispanics experience a “pollution burden.”

On his global issues blog, Dr. Robert Bullard said the study builds on a growing body of environmental justice literature showing racial and ethnic disparities in air pollution exposure.

It shows that particulate matter exposure in the U.S. is disproportionately caused by consumption patterns of whites and inhaled by people of color minority, said Bullard, the former dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University and the founding director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University.

Known as the father of Environmental Justice, Dr. Bullard currently serves as a Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at Texas Southern University.

“Our Environmental Justice movement has been trying to change this and related environmental inequities for the past four decades,” Bullard said.

While the study takes a somewhat different approach in examining disparities in air pollution exposure by examining consumption of goods and services, “its findings once again reveal blacks and Hispanics bear a disproportionate ‘pollution burden’ or costs, while whites experience ‘pollution advantage’ or benefits,” Dr. Bullard said.

“There is a clear disparity between the pollution white people cause and the pollution to which they are exposed,” he said.

The study concludes that “pollution inequity is driven by differences among racial-ethnic groups in both exposure and the consumption that leads to the exposure.”

There’s a name for this inequity, Dr. Bullard said. “It’s called environmental racism,” he said, noting a term coined by NNPA President and CEO Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr.

Chavis, whose also known as the “Godfather of the Environmental Justice Movement,” first coined and defined the term environmental racism in his 1983 work, “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States.”

Chavis said environmental racism is racial discrimination in the deliberate targeting of communities of color for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the presence of life threatening poisons and pollutants near communities of color and the history of excluding people of color from leadership of the environmental movement.

The civil rights leader also noted that there are different forms of racism, “yet environmental racism is a particularly insidious and intentional form of racism that negatively affects millions of Black, Native Americans, Hispanics and Asian Americans, as well as people of color around the world.”

“Environmental justice is the corrective antidote to the reality and prevalence of environmental racism,” Chavis said.

While studies like the one performed by PNAS continue to reveal that race is a major predictor of exposure to goods and services to air pollution, conditions aren’t helped when politics come into play.

A recent press release from the nonprofit Earth Justice said President Donald Trump’s policies continue to “chip away at the shield against environmental racism.”

Particularly, the NEPA Act has come into the cross hairs of the president.

The NEPA ACT requires review of federal projects before they proceed – among other things to assess environmental, human health and socioeconomic impacts on communities.

Properly implemented, it gives every person a voice in decisions affecting the wellbeing of their local community, from providing comments on project design to pointing out how a project could harm clean air and water, according to Earth Justice.

It’s far more than an obscure environmental statute: The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe made use of the law to fight back against the Dakota Access Pipeline project in 2017.

And today, advocates are charging that the Trump administration is violating core NEPA protections in its quest to build its border wall.

Simply put, NEPA is one of the most effective tools in the fight against environmental racism.

It is essential to ensuring that communities of color, who so often bear a disproportionate pollution burden, get a say in the decision-making processes that are most likely to affect their health, resiliency, and vitality, environmental experts said.

And without robust NEPA requirements, policymakers are left to make decisions that will have real impacts without a full understanding of the consequences.

“The underlying message of environmentally racist tactics and strategies is that certain neighborhoods and certain people matter less than others, and that geographical vulnerability is inevitable when in fact it is socially constructed to be this way,” said Dr. Deborah J. Cohan, an associate professor of Sociology in the Department of Social Sciences at the University of South Carolina Beaufort.

“The problem with racism and society’s response to it is that we have failed to see this most basic thing: that in order to do that much damage to a community, one must so thoroughly objectify and dehumanize the people in it that they become things that can be discarded and forgotten about,” Cohan said.

“People’s ability to thrive under these hostile conditions is greatly compromised,” she said.

Extensive data show that low-income communities of color still breathe the worst air and have excessive rates of pollution-related illnesses like asthma and other respiratory problems, Bruce Mirken a spokesman for The Greenlining Institute, said in an earlier interview.

“As we move away from oil, coal and gas to fight climate change, we must consciously bring clean energy resources and investment into communities that were for too long used as toxic dumping grounds,” Mirken said.

Bill to Maximize Clean Energy Benefits Passes First Committee

AB 961 Directs CPUC to Consider Benefits Like Cleaner Air, Improved Health, Jobs for Underserved Communities 

Contact: Bruce Mirken, Greenlining Institute Media Relations Director, 510-926-4022 (office), 415-846-7758 (cell)

SACRAMENTO — Today the Assembly Committee on Utilities and Energy passed AB 961, which would require the California Public Utilities Commission to consider “non-energy benefits” – impacts like job creation and improved public health – when evaluating clean energy projects. The bill is sponsored by The Greenlining Institute and backed by a broad array of environmental justice groups, solar developers, environmental groups, and progressive nonprofits.

“California leads the nation in clean energy innovation, but the benefits too often don’t reach low-income communities of color because the Public Utilities Commission never measured how these projects cut pollution, improve community health and boost the economies of underserved communities,” said Greenlining Institute Energy Equity Legal Counsel Madeline Stano. “What gets measured gets done, and this bill will make sure that officials look at the whole picture when they evaluate clean energy projects.”

“Energy efficiency programs have the potential to deliver so many benefits to local communities, especially communities that bear a disproportionate environmental and economic burden,” said Jodi Pincus, Executive Director of the Rising Sun Center for Opportunity. “We’re doing those communities a disservice if we only count the energy benefits and dismiss things like safety, affordability and workforce development.”

“California’s clean energy investments in social and environmental justice communities are highly impactful in providing broad benefits, including increased health and safety, increased resiliency, new economic opportunities, and reduced energy burden for low-income families,” said Stanley Greschner, Chief Policy and Business Development Officer of GRID Alternatives.  “AB 961 ensures these societal benefits will be quantified and measured over time. Doing otherwise, California is selling itself short when it comes to measuring the success of its clean energy investments.”

AB 961 formalizes a recommendation in the California Energy Commission’s unanimously adopted SB 350 Low-Income Barriers Study that the state establish common definitions of “non-energy benefits,” develop standards to measure them, and prioritize projects that promote them in environmental justice communities, the communities that suffer from the worst pollution and economic stagnation.

The bill now moves to the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

For further background on AB 961, see Madeline Stano’s recent blog post.


A Multi-Ethnic Public Policy, Research and Advocacy Institute



Bill to Ensure Diversity in California Insurance Passes First Senate Committee

SB 534 Would Require Largest Insurers to Report Supplier Diversity and Governing Board Diversity

Contact: Bruce Mirken, Greenlining Institute Media Relations Director, 510-926-4022 (office), 415-846-7758 (cell)

SACRAMENTO – Today the Senate Insurance Committee passed legislation to promote diversity in California’s insurance industry, SB 534, introduced by Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena). The measure, which was supported by testimony from the California Department of Insurance, members of the department’s Insurance Diversity Task Force and The Greenlining Institute, would require the largest players in the state’s $310 billion insurance industry to report on their level of contracting with businesses owned by women, people of color, veterans and LGBT individuals. It would also require insurers to report on the diversity of their governing boards and set goals for supplier and board diversity.

“SB 534 will ensure that California’s insurance providers think about diversity when they make procurement decisions and choose their boards of directors,” said Greenlining Institute Health Equity Director Anthony Galace. “California leads the nation in diverse-owned businesses, which creates the ideal environment and opportunity to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion among insurance companies and other large businesses.”

Data collected by the Department of Insurance in 2017 showed that 80 percent of major insurers’ governing board seats were held by men while just 12 percent were held by people of color. Of nearly 2,400 total board seats, only 14 members self-identified as LGBT, while 13 percent of insurance companies reported zero women and 35 percent reported zero persons of color on their boards.

SB 534 is modeled on a number of prior, highly successful diversity initiatives based on reporting and transparency, which have stimulated large increases in corporate contracting with California’s diverse businesses. The bill now moves to the Judiciary Committee.

For further background on the bill, see Anthony Galace’s blog post.


A Multi-Ethnic Public Policy, Research and Advocacy Institute


Bill to Ensure Diversity in California Insurance Has Senate Hearing Today

SB 534 Would Require California’s Largest Insurers to Report Their Supplier Diversity and Governing Board Diversity

Contact: Bruce Mirken, Greenlining Institute Media Relations Director, 510-926-4022 (office), 415-846-7758 (cell)

SACRAMENTO – This afternoon the Senate Insurance Committee will consider legislation to promote diversity in California’s insurance industry, SB 534, introduced by Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena). The measure, also strongly supported by Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara and The Greenlining Institute, would require the largest players in the state’s $310 billion insurance industry to report on their level of contracting with businesses owned by women, people of color, veterans and LGBT individuals. It would also require insurers to report on the diversity of their governing boards and set goals for supplier and board diversity. The measure is modeled on a number of prior, highly successful diversity initiatives based on reporting and transparency.

WHAT: Senate Insurance Committee hearing on SB 534

WHO: Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena); Department of Insurance Senior Deputy Commissioner and Legislative Director Michael Martinez; President/CEO of Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics, Inc. and Department of Insurance Diversity Task Force member Linda Akutagawa; Golden Gate Business Association board member and Department of Insurance Diversity Task Force LGBT representative Jay Greene; Greenlining Institute Health Equity Director Anthony Galace; members of the committee

WHERE: State Capitol, Room 112

WHEN: Wednesday, April 10, 1:30 p.m.

For further background on the bill, see Anthony Galace’s blog post.


A Multi-Ethnic Public Policy, Research and Advocacy Institute



Bill to Maximize Clean Energy Benefits Has 1st Hearing Wednesday

AB 961 Would Require CPUC to Consider Benefits Like Cleaner Air, Improved Health, Jobs in Underserved Communities 

Contact: Bruce Mirken, Greenlining Institute Media Relations Director, 510-926-4022 (office), 415-846-7758 (cell)

SACRAMENTO — On Wednesday, April 10, the Assembly Committee on Utilities and Energy will take up a bill to require the California Public Utilities Commission to consider “non-energy benefits” – impacts like job creation and improved public health – when evaluating clean energy projects. Environmental justice advocates consider it essential for the state to look beyond direct, energy-related impacts and consider the many other benefits that clean energy projects typically bring to underserved communities, which often struggle with high pollution levels and a lack of economic opportunities.

WHAT: Assembly Committee on Utilities and Energy hearing on AB 961

WHO: Assemblymember Eloise Gómez Reyes, Greenlining Institute Energy Equity Legal Counsel Madeline Stano, Self-Help Enterprises West Goshen Community Member, Lucy Hernandez

WHERE: State Capitol, Room 437

WHEN: Wednesday, April 10, upon adjournment of the Communications and Conveyance Committee (approximately 1:30 p.m.)

For further background on the bill, see Madeline Stano’s recent blog post.


A Multi-Ethnic Public Policy, Research and Advocacy Institute



Assembly Health Committee Passes Bill to Boost Diverse Small Businesses

AB 962 Would Track Major Hospitals’ Contracting with Businesses Owned by Women, People of Color, Veterans and LGBTs  

Contact: Bruce Mirken, Greenlining Institute Media Relations Director, 510-926-4022 (office), 415-846-7758 (cell)

SACRAMENTO — Today the Assembly Health Committee approved AB 962, introduced by Assemblymember Autumn Burke (D-Inglewood) and coauthored by Assemblymember Rob Bonta (D-Oakland). The bill uses reporting and transparency to encourage California’s $230 billion hospital industry to boost its contracting with businesses owned by people of color, women, veterans and LGBT people.

“I am very excited that AB 962 passed out of health committee today,” Asm. Burke said. “It is crucial that we continue to encourage increased diversity in our state across all levels. Promoting economic opportunity for our diverse businesses has benefits that extend well past the hospital-supplier relationship because when our diverse businesses benefit, we all benefit.”

“Hospitals are uniquely positioned to build relationships with the communities they serve by partnering and contracting with diverse businesses,” said Greenlining Institute Health Equity Director Anthony Galace. “The data provided by AB 962 will enable California to leverage the expansion of the state’s health sector to benefit small businesses that employ people of color, women, LGBT people and veterans.”

The measure, sponsored by The Greenlining Institute, is modeled on a successful program overseen by the California Public Utilities Commission, which over three decades has sparked massive increases in contracting with Minority Business Enterprises by California’s regulated utilities, as well as a similarly successful program that was administered by the Department of Insurance.

AB 962 now moves to the Assembly Appropriations Committee. For further background on the bill, see Anthony Galace’s recent blog post.


A Multi-Ethnic Public Policy, Research and Advocacy Institute



Whose Renaissance Is It?

Teaching Tolerance
By Jay Ehrenhalt

When Chris Dolgos noticed upscale boutiques cropping up in Rochester, New York’s trendy South Wedge neighborhood, he knew there was more going on in his city than just gentrification.

Rochester’s downtown revitalization allowed Dolgos, a longtime resident of the area and teacher at Genesee Community Charter School, to wander through coffee houses, salons and eclectic gift shops; his sixth-graders could visit new ice cream stores and sample organic produce at the Rochester Public Market with its brand-new, state-of-the-art, indoor pavilion. But, at the same time, Dolgos’ class knew about residents having to move out of their homes because they could no longer afford to live in their neighborhoods.

“People want to live in the South Wedge or the East End,” relays Dolgos. “It’s displacing people who’ve lived there for so long because landlords are realizing they can jack up the rent.”

The rents had been low because Rochester, much like Detroit and other Rust Belt cities, had been a city in decline. Once a hub for manufacturing giants like Xerox, Kodak and Bausch + Lomb, the industrial center declined in the last two decades of the 20th century as companies downsized. The city lost many major businesses, jobs and much of its population. But, more recently, Rochester’s medical, arts, communications and education sectors have attracted millennials back to the city. Its downtown population has more than doubled in the last 15 years.

While Dolgos welcomed downtown’s newfound prosperity—what some have dubbed an “urban renaissance”—he continued to wonder about Rochester’s other neighborhoods. He decided to explore the idea with his students.

“We talked about the downtown renaissance: the new restaurants, the stores, our expanding children’s museum with its proposed nearby affordable housing units,” he says. “The city of Rochester is doing a lot of big things, but it always comes back to, ‘Are we doing enough for the people who need it the most?’”

What followed was a year-long expedition into Rochester’s renaissance, which Dolgos and his co-teacher, Alexis Stubbe, devised at their EL Education school. The project, partly supported by a Teaching Tolerance Educator Grant, explored how the city has reinvented itself after decades of economic downturn. Students investigated the ways the city’s renaissance has included some residents while simultaneously excluding others. “Our students are perfectly poised to examine the neighborhoods they call home, identify what works and what doesn’t in their communities, and collaborate with local and national experts to make sure our city’s renaissance is an inclusive one,” Dolgos explains.

Exploring Barriers and Bridges

To better understand their community’s identity, the class investigated their own identities—and those of their fellow residents. Dolgos and Stubbe framed their expedition as an inquiry into the question, “Whose renaissance is it, Rochester?”

The entire project was centered around the theme of “barriers and bridges”: barriers being anything holding back individuals and communities, and bridges being anything bringing them together.

The class launched into a three-mile walking tour through neighborhoods in their city. They took note of physical barriers like railroad tracks and the Inner Loop, a 1950s freeway expansion project that cut swaths of residential zones off from downtown and cleaved the city in two. Students also noticed experiential barriers like homelessness, gun violence and poverty. At the same time, the class pointed out bridges—physical ones, like the Erie Canal aqueduct, and metaphorical ones, like public art, community gardens and murals.

Students noticed disparities in neighborhoods’ amenities right away. As Dolgos recalls, “They posed a lot of questions like, ‘Why are there soup kitchens here?’ ‘Why are these corner stores filled with this kind of food?’ ‘Why is there garbage on the ground here, but not in another part of the city?’ Kids picked up on these things and asked about who’s getting the benefit and who’s being taken advantage of.”

Rowan Nordquist, one of Dolgos’ sixth-graders, reflects on growing up sheltered from much of the city’s poverty and crime: “Once you step outside my neighborhood, you see the real world. I was basically living in a reality where everything was perfect, but now I’m moving out into the real world. … I had not seen it before. It’s really different.”

Dolgos and Stubbe wanted to explore the notion that cities, just like people, have malleable, fluctuating identities. To do so, they integrated the Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards into their curriculum, organizing their syllabus around the Standards’ four anti-bias domains: Identity, Diversity, Justice and Action. The lessons began with an inward investigation of identity and progressed in sequence through the last three domains. (Learn more about the Identity domain in PD Café on page 15.)

“The standards helped us to focus on questions of who we are as people and do we really understand ourselves,” Dolgos remembers, “because before we can understand the people living on the west side or the north side of the city, we need to know who we are and where we come from.”

To further explore the topic of personal identity, the class collaborated with teaching artist Almeta Whitis. This is where support from the TT grant came into play. Whitis, a storyteller with literary arts nonprofit Writers & Books and former performing arts professor, helped students compose monologues of self-expression. Rowan, for example, depicted a tumult of inner struggle. In his monologue, titled “I Am a War Inside,” he wrote, “A battlefield exists inside me. It is a war to balance my heart and mind.”

The Story’s in the Numbers

The course expanded outward, delving into the identities of the school, students’ communities and, finally, into their city. To examine the next two domains of the Social Justice Standards—Diversity and Justice—the class reviewed demographic data for Rochester and explored how the numbers told the story of a community.

Students discussed literacy, poverty and health disparities across demographic groups. They examined the statistics behind redlining—duplicitous tactics employed by the banking and real estate industries to keep people of color out of certain neighborhoods or to keep them from becoming homeowners. The class discussed how discriminatory practices segregate communities by income and race.

“We looked at poverty rates and census data about where the poverty rates occurred,” recalls Dolgos. “The kids could see a correlation between poverty and race. They said, ‘Why is it like this?’ ‘How’d it get like this?’ There are a lot of things that people talk around, but nobody wants to address the root causes of poverty and systemic, institutional racism.”

Dolgos, Stubbe and their students examined the report Hard Facts by ACT Rochester—an organization dedicated to community problem-solving—to dig deeper into the enduring link between poverty and race.

Ann Johnson—ACT Rochester’s director and a guest lecturer in Dolgos’ classroom—explained that, while nationally African Americans earn just 62 cents for every dollar their white counterparts earn, in Rochester it’s only 48 cents.

“How could we be so different from the United States when, as a region, we’re pretty similar? We looked at the life cycle of a person, from infant mortality to reading and unemployment rates,” Johnson says. “We found that people of color do not have the same results throughout their life as their white counterparts.”

Once they got a good handle on the problems, the class began thinking about solutions. They met with community members devoted to removing achievement barriers for all Rochesterians. Kevin Kelley, a city planner, spoke with students about the city’s next development proposal, the comprehensive Rochester 2034 plan. Kelley and the students reviewed the successes and challenges of Rochester 2010: The Renaissance Plan, and discussed the tension between planning for the future of all city residents and working with limited available resources.

Listening as Learning

Students next set out into the city. They spoke with Rochester residents about the strengths and challenges of their surroundings. Sensitive to entering communities that were not their own, students made sure to keep respectful listening top of mind. “You don’t make judgments; you don’t take action. You’re just listening,” Dolgos explains. “We have to listen to people’s stories and honor their truth.”

From Rochester, students then embarked on their “Four Cities” tour, splitting up to visit Oakland, Detroit, Pittsburgh and New Orleans—all places experiencing recent urban renaissances. They met with community organizations to learn about their inclusive, equitable urban planning efforts. “The big word about that was equity,” says sixth-grader Rowan. “You have to fit everyone’s needs.”

In Oakland, for example, students met with staff members from The Greenlining Institute, a policy, research, organizing and leadership initiative for racial and economic justice.

Staff spoke with students about advocating for urban environments where communities of color thrive and race does not present a barrier to economic opportunity.

Painting a Positive Picture

The class capped off their year-long expedition with a city-wide art project, painting four murals across the city. They collaborated with guest artist Shawn Dunwoody, a lifelong Rochesterian and activist focused on community-based forms of urban development. Dunwoody connected students with business proprietors who had planted their roots in Rochester decades prior.

The students sought community input for the murals’ designs and messages, and students from four different schools even pitched in to help paint. Every mural featured an affirming message, including one from abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who once lived in Rochester: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

At Genesee Charter’s Exhibition Night, attended by community members, students’ families and a representative from city hall, the class presented their findings in a multimedia storytelling presentation featuring their project’s interactive website. The site includes photos from the mural project, student journalism, insights from the Four Cities tour and recommendations for how the city can foster an inclusive and equitable urban renaissance. They titled their presentation “Whose Renaissance Is It? A Closer Look at Rochester’s Renewal.”

Looking back, Rowan characterizes his experience of the year-long expedition as “eye-opening.” “Before this project, I had blindfolds on,” he recalls. “But then during the project, they lifted the blindfolds off of my face.”