The Climate Crisis Requires Intentional Racial Co-Governance
Op-Ed: Grassroots organizers in Texas offer plan to cement equity in local recovery efforts.
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In 2017, Hurricane Harvey killed 68 Texans, including 36 in hard-hit Harris County, which includes Houston. The storm displaced 30,000 people and destroyed more than 200,000 homes and businesses. Despite congressional approval for $4.3 billion in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds to rebuild, low-income Texans of color received significantly less than their wealthy white neighbors. Because FEMA’s assessments used a cost-benefit analysis that tends to prioritize areas with higher property values, white neighborhoods with more expensive homes received the most funding. The average black resident of a low-income neighborhood in Houston received $84 in FEMA fundswhile the average white resident of a high-income neighborhood received $60,000.
Although the federal government provides the majority of stimulus money during a crisis, state and local governments have considerable power to determine how to spend it. Organizers from the Texas Organizing Project (TOP), a Harris County grassroots nonprofit, worked to change the balance of power in the county.
In Harris County, several boards and commissions oversee economic development, building standards, public safety, regulation and licensing, environment, and disaster recovery. These bodies are often made up of wealthy white residents, who have the time and resources to attend meetings and make connections to serve on councils.
TOP has been pushing for local councils to include more representatives from communities of color and working to ensure a fairer distribution of disaster funding, so that those most affected by climate change have the most their a say in how stimulus funding is spent.
As Celeste Arrendondo-Peterson, then TOP Housing Justice Director, explained, “We had to find a way to step in on the money and organize resistance against the habitual way Harris County spends money. money, which is found in wealthier, whiter communities — places where homes are worth more money. We wanted to influence the funding, how much money was in these programs, where they were spending the money, who they were spending the money on, and how they were spending the money.
Demos’ latest case studythe second of four in a series on economic democracyhighlights TOP’s three-pronged strategy to shift the balance of power in Harris County and establish a more equitable approach to disaster recovery and future resilience.
In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, TOP organizers went door-to-door in their communities to determine immediate needs and lay the groundwork for their larger strategy to build power and equity. First, they continued the work of their Boards and Commissions Leadership Institute (BCLI), an initiative designed to recruit, train and campaign for women of color to join local governance bodies, and has developed a diverse pool of candidates. In response to continuing inequalities in representation and power, TOP had launched BCLI and the first cohort graduated the same weekend that Hurricane Harvey made landfall on the Gulf Coast. Unlike wealthy white politicians who typically dominate boards and commissions, “our members and leaders have hands-on experience, they know where the problems are, what people overlook, because they’ve been overlooked for so a long time,” says Alpa Sridharan, TOP’s BCLI program manager, in the case study. Lived experience gives BCLI members the expertise to achieve tangible gains for their communities.
Second, TOP campaigned for and helped elect a new fairness-minded Harris County judge, who oversees county boards and commissions and has sweeping power over disaster relief spending. Linda Hidalgo, the candidate who was elected to replace Ed Emmet in 2018, remains in office today.
The third step in TOP’s strategy was to develop relationships with elected officials and bureaucrats, including Hidalgo, hold them accountable to their campaign promises, and build a model of co-governance in which community members and government officials work together to build a framework for equity for the distribution of disaster funds.
These tactics have had results. In 2019, Harris County passed the Harris Thrives Resolution, which included an equity-based framework that prioritized post-disaster projects for low-income communities that would not be able to rebuild through them. themselves. In 2020, the Harris County Flood Control District Task Force became the Harris County Flood Resilience Community Task Forcewhich emphasizes equity, health, safety, community engagement and increased transparency in flood recovery and resilience.
In 2020 and 2021, Harris County and Houston received $2.3 billion in federal funding for COVID relief through the CARES Act and the US Bailout, respectively. Government officials used the Social Vulnerability Index, a measure that uses variables often excluded from traditional cost-benefit analysis to assess how to spend that money. Considerations include communities’ income, percentage of elderly residents, their English proficiency, and percentage of residents without a vehicle, among other factors that can affect a community’s ability to recover from a natural disaster.
These crucial victories would not have happened without TOP’s consistent and focused focus on strengthening equity and democratic participation in local governance.
But Texas, both at the state and local level, still has a long way to go to build and preserve equity in the face of climate disasters. In March, a report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) found that the Texas General Land Office, the state agency responsible for distributing the funds — headed by Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush – denied Harris County more than $1 billion. . According investigation, Bush’s office “discriminated on the basis of race and national origin” and “substantially and predictably disadvantaged minority residents, with particularly disparate results for black residents.” Bush is currently running for Texas Attorney General.
Beyond Harvey, extreme weather events are occurring more frequently across the state. Due to climate change, storms are becoming more intense and flooding more severe. Texas power grid remains unstable more than a year after a 2021 freeze left 4.5 million people residents without power. As millions of dollars in federal funding begin flowing into cities through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and future climate disaster relief programs, the case study and TOP’s experiences provide a model for organizers in other cities who aim to build more equitable, diverse projects and representative local authorities as they also address the challenges of the climate crisis.
Daniella Zessoules is a Senior Policy Analyst at Demos.