Hana Creger

Associate Director of Climate Equity

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With Super Tuesday behind us, it’s pretty clear who the candidates will be this November. Yet, with still much that is unknown about how this year’s elections will impact us, we’re taking stock of the Biden Administration’s policies and their impacts on our communities. In particular, many of us equity advocates are anxious about the future of the progress made over the past three years, including the historic federal investments in infrastructure through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA).

The IIJA has been touted as a historic win, and it is. However, it can and must be improved to have the intended impact and reach the communities that need those critical investments the most–communities of color. A new analysis from the Urban Institute seeks to answer the question Is Federal Infrastructure Investment Advancing Equity Goals? Spoiler alert: They’re not. Instead, they are mostly reinforcing historic patterns of disinvestment and harm in communities of color. This is being actualized through the construction of more polluting highways, and under-investment in safe, accessible walking, biking and public transit in underserved communities. For example, Transportation for America’s new report has found that more than half of IIJA funds have gone towards resurfacing and expanding highways, and just one fifth going towards public transit.

Unfortunately, the billions of transportation dollars being poured into communities are essentially being pumped into the same old machine, whose antiquated hardware enables State Departments of Transportation (DOT) to conduct business as usual. But against the backdrop of the worsening climate crisis and widening equity gaps, this status quo is no longer tenable. To stop the cycle of marginalized communities bearing the brunt of pollution and climate change impacts, decision-makers must reshape this once-in-a-generation investment opportunity. These investments have the potential to help create tangible benefits for our communities and avoid unjust and inequitable harms.

Yet, the reality is that IIJA alone was never capable of reforming the State DOT machine. State-level reform is needed to deliver more equitable and sustainable outcomes that guide better transportation investments in a way that reflects community needs. Historically, federal transportation funding opportunities have missed an opportunity to target more direct benefits to frontline communities. This is largely a result of State DOTs’ long standing practice of failing to prioritize equity and effective community engagement in their planning, policies, programs, funding, and decision-making.

In an effort to determine how to best support organizations and communities who would most benefit from these federal dollars, tamika l. butler consulting and The Greenlining Institute interviewed and surveyed nearly 50 stakeholders with knowledge and experience working with State DOTs to compile a report, Beyond Engagement: Equity Principles to Guide State Departments of Transportation and Community Collaboration. The report is aimed at helping advocates, community-based organizations (CBOs), and State DOTs better understand how to productively engage and collaborate with each other to advance more equitable transportation policies and programs. Additionally, it can serve as a guide for funders looking to understand what type of work would benefit from support.

The report recommends these five collaboration principles:

  1. Advance Equity Beyond Engagement
  2. Adapt Equity Strategies Based on the Political Context
  3. Embrace and Honor the Wide Array of Community Expertise to Work Across Sectors
  4. Elevate and Share Stories
  5. Refer to the Experiences and Lessons Learned of Others

The principles serve as a starting point for advancing equity at State DOTs, but users may need to adapt them to meet their specific community needs. The report details each principle with specific examples and recommendations for CBOs and State DOTs.

But what does our transportation system look like after the principles in this resource have been implemented? Based on this collaboration, what outcomes can state DOT and CBOs achieve when they engage and advance more equitable policies and programs?

Examples of Collaboration Principles in Action

  • The Charge Ahead California campaign is a coalition of environmental justice, equity, and environmental groups including The Greenlining Institute, Coalition for Clean Air, Communities for a Better Environment, Environment California, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Together they co-sponsored legislation to ensure Californians most overburdened by poverty and pollution would benefit from state-funded electric vehicle investments. Yet this was only the starting point. 

For the past ten years, the coalition has provided sustained education and advocacy to the state agency on how to further integrate equity and community engagement into their programs. As a result, the coalition successfully pushed the state agency to expand its programming from providing financial incentives for purchase of electric vehicles, to include a wide variety of community-driven, multi-modal clean mobility programs in the most underserved communities, such as Clean Mobility Options and the Sustainable Transportation Equity Project. As outlined in Greenlining’s equity evaluation and this UC Berkeley’s evaluation, these programs not only have community engagement requirements built in, but also include a community needs assessment to deliver tailored investments that meet various local needs. Advocates pushed hard for the inclusion of these critical needs assessments. (Stay tuned for more on this from Greenlining next month.)

These wins were a result of advocates and CBOs building relationships while educating agency staff, and every year pushing for equity to show up more strongly within their Funding Plan process. While these investments are certainly delivering concrete outcomes, the coalition is still working hard to push for more. Just like the practice of advancing equity, the collaboration between advocates and state agency staff never reaches a concrete end. It requires continuous evolution and setting more ambitious goals together. 

  • Another example is Forth and Greenlining’s partnership on the TEEM Community of Practice, which includes more than 30 organizations across five states: Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, North Carolina, and Virginia. The coalition recently released a TEEM Platform for Equitable Electric Mobility synthesizing three years of collective learnings and recommendations for federal and state programs to integrate equity and sustainability into transportation systems across the country. 

The platform is designed to serve as a national blueprint for how to ensure that key local, state, and federal investments in electric mobility deliver the greatest possible benefit to frontline communities. With the platform’s release, the next step will require these advocates and CBOs to build relationships with state and Federal agency staff and collaborate on advancing their equity recommendations. In some cases, this is already happening. For example, a member of the TEEM Colorado Cohort was recently nominated to join the Denver Regional Transportation District board, and in 2023 the Michigan cohort engaged closely with members of the State Budget Office to secure funding increases for transit, electric school buses, and other equitable and clean mobility options. TEEM, Charge Ahead, and other coalitions can leverage the Collaboration Principles to strengthen their efforts engaging with DOTs and other key decision makers.

Putting these engagement principles into action can help lay the groundwork to ensure that low-income communities and communities of color have access to safe, healthy, and reliable forms of transportation for decades to come. Yet, it’s important to recognize that one off CBO-government agency collaboration alone won’t necessarily lead to concrete measurable equity outcomes. To build and sustain momentum, the power-building ecosystem needs to be carefully cultivated, as outlined in this new Greenlining report, A Call to Invest in Community Power. Making equity real for communities requires sustained, multi-year commitment. This commitment requires a diverse range of willing partners and collaboration across sectors between researchers, coalitions, communicators, and more. Importantly, philanthropic funders are key to providing CBOs and advocates with long-term, flexible, and patient funding that can invest in leadership development, skills-building, and sustained capacity to retain institutional knowledge and expertise.

While community needs and base-building must be at the center of efforts, the ecosystem must be nourished by a diverse set of skills, capacities, and stakeholders. 

Hana Creger

Associate Director of Climate Equity

Read Bio