Solar Panels or Asthma? Equity and the Built Environment with Jeremy Hays

Social equity is key to the work that we do in the built environment. Far too often, marginalized communities receive more of the burdens and less of the benefits of 21st century living – especially when it comes to housing. As an industry, it is our responsibility to address these disparities and come up with solutions that are inclusive of all people. But first, we wanted to grow our own understanding of the issues and hear what others are doing to prioritize social equity in the built environment.

Our guest for this month’s episode of Buildings + Beyond is Jeremy Hays. Jeremy has a wealth of knowledge, experience, and perspective that stems from a combination of social and environmental justice. We learn about how cities are incorporating equity into their sustainability plans, why diversity of perspectives can create better solutions, and how actively thinking about equity can help the transition to a green economy.

Episode Guest: Jeremy Hays

Image of Jeremy HaysJeremy is a Principal at Upright Consulting Services, Strategic Partner at Kapwa Consulting, and the former Executive Director of Green For All, a national nonprofit he helped found in 2008. His consulting practice draws on years of experience working with diverse stakeholders to design and implement equitable models of economic and workforce development in the environmental sector.  In his nonprofit career, Jeremy worked with scores of cities and communities across the country to pioneer inclusive approaches to creating shared prosperity and healthy communities.

Jeremy is passionate about translating commitments to racial equity and sustainability into measurable outcomes and increased capacity for change agents in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors.



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Buildings and Beyond is a production of Steven Winter Associates. We provide energy, green building, and accessibility consulting services to improve the built environment. For more information, visit


Robb Aldrich | Kelly Westby

Production Team

Heather Breslin | Alex Mirabile | Dylan Martello | Jayd Alvarez

Episode Transcript

Kelly (00:00:05):

Welcome to buildings and beyond.

Robb (00:00:08):

The podcast that explores how we can create a more sustainable built environment.

Kelly (00:00:12):

By focusing on efficiency, accessibility, and health.

Robb (00:00:17):

I’m Rob Aldrich,

Kelly (00:00:18):

And I’m Kelly Westby. Do you get solar panels or do you get asthma? My guest, Jeremy Hayes uses this question to highlight how communities with more people of color and more people with lower income receive more of the burdens and less of the benefits. Jeremy discusses, how the approach we take to climate change policy needs to include equity at its core, or we will inadvertently perpetuate the systems of inequity that are in place today. And when we work together, we can create bolder policy that addresses these issues holistically. Jeremy is the Principal at upright consulting services. His consulting practice draws on years of experience working with diverse stakeholders to design and implement equitable models of economic and workforce development in the environmental sector. We had a great conversation, so I’m just going to dive right in. So thank you, Jeremy, for being on the podcast with us today.

Jeremy (00:01:17):

Happy to be here. Thanks for having me.

Kelly (00:01:20):

And we’d love for the audience to get a little bit more about your background in getting into getting into this space. So how did you get into this line of work, kind of your equity consulting work that you do now?

Jeremy (00:01:34):

Well, you know, I’ve been working at the intersection of equity, sustainability and economic development for most of my career and I kind of fell into it if I’m totally honest, I started off you know, being quite concerned about equity issues. I grew up poor and lived in both public housing and subsidized affordable housing. And as I got to be older teenager, I was kind of angry about that and, you know, looking for ways to you know, make some change in the world. I didn’t use those terms, but I found community organizing and that was really healthy outlet for, you know, thinking about how to change some of the things that I had been frustrated with growing up. And so I really started off as an organizer thinking broadly about how to bring about positive change for low-income communities and communities of color. I’m white, but I grew up in low-income neighborhoods that were predominantly people of color. And then, you know, I, as I was sort of rounding out high school and getting into organizing and going into college, I just kind of fell into the environmental movement. It was certainly aligned with the values that I grew up with in my family, but it came about because the organizations that I was involved in had people that were, that were really concerned about the environment and that’s what they wanted to work on. And so I have always kind of been working in the environmental movement and trying to connect it to broader issues of racial and economic justice.

Kelly (00:02:54):

That’s great. And what is the difference between sort of environmental justice movement and the kind of equity and the environment kind of space that you’re in now?

Jeremy (00:03:09):

Well, ultimately, I’m not sure there’s huge difference or that there should be. I think the movements towards these concepts came from different places and kind of caught on, and people are using slightly different language in different places, but there are a lot of similarities, you know, the environmental justice movement was really born out of historically marginalized and disproportionately impacted communities, mostly communities of color that were saying, you know, why do we get all the burdens and none of the benefits of 21st century living, you know, all the toxic waste and the bad air et cetera. And we’re really fighting to correct the conditions that brought about, you know, increased rates of asthma poor living conditions, et cetera, in, in communities of color, where they were bearing the brunt of these environmental hazards. I think in cities, and I work mostly with local government and city government, and cities started talking about sustainability before they started talking about environmental justice. So cities were beginning to work with this concept of, we want to do something for the environment, we want to be sustainable. We want to be thinking about a clean future. We want to do something about climate change. And in some cities they’ve connected that in a traditional sense of sustainable development to concerns about economic development and social equity, but it really took the environmental justice movement pushing hard on cities and the federal government and others to be recognized and to start to weave concerns about environmental justice into, into policy. And, and I think one of the things that is interesting about the moment that we’re in now is that cities and the people that work with cities are starting to really come around and adopt at least principles of environmental justice and trying to center some of those concerns in the way that they think about sustainability and policy-making. Probably still not enough as we would ultimately like. But there has been a lot of movement at least over the past 20 years that I’ve been kind of watching this stuff.

Kelly (00:05:06):

Yeah. And taking a step maybe a little bit back, actually. How do you define equity?

Jeremy (00:05:13):

Well, that’s a great question. And you know, one of the things that that we do is that is work hard with people that we’re working with to come up with their, you know, particular definitions of equity that work for them and their organization. So one of the things we say is that, you know, there’s not a cookie cutter approach here. This is a complicated issue and people really need to get into it and sort of coming up with an understanding of what equity is and what it means to your organization, to your city, and understanding what the inequities are and what the historical systems are that brought those about. That’s all part of the process of doing equity work. So while there’s no single definition that’s in use everywhere, there are some definitions that and some elements of definitions that are becoming increasingly common in, in cities and in some of the organizations that work with. And actually the one that I that I use the most often comes from a colleague of mine often consulting partner, Desiree Williams Raji, who is the founder and principal at a group called Kapwa consulting. She was an equity strategies manager for the city of Portland, Oregon for a long time, and has worked through the urban sustainability directors network to help other cities really think about how to center equity in their sustainability work. And she has this great definition that she borrowed or kind of adapted from the environmental justice movement and other work that was happening in the field and is built on that. And the way that she describes it is this, there are three kinds of dimensions of equity that we need to be aware of when we’re thinking about this work. One is procedural equity, which is a fair and equitable process. So this is about voice and participation in decision-making. You know, what we hear from communities and organizations that are advocating is, you know, “nothing about us without us,” this idea that if communities aren’t at the table making decisions, they’re likely on the menu. So that’s procedural equity and it’s about having that voice and inclusion in the process, especially and most importantly from communities that have been historically excluded from the decision-making processes and that bear a disproportionate negative impacts that received sort of more, that burdens less of the benefits of some of those policies. So that’s a procedural equity frame. Yeah. A lot of good work around that. And that’s why we talk about community engagement and community outreach and partnership as being part of that. Another dimension, the second of three, that Desiree uses in her work with cities is to say, there’s also this concept of distributional equity, and we need to be thinking about what do you get at the end of the day, right? The burdens and benefits and how those are distributed. Distributional equity is about impacts and about outcomes. So questions around distributional equity, are The policy goes into place. What do you get? You get asthma, or do you get some solar panels? You know, do you get a bill reduction you know, or do you get a longer commute to work, right? Like, how are the benefits, the resources with any given decision sort of distributed equitably and important within that concept is understanding what the current conditions of inequity are. Because equity is not fairness. I think most people have seen this popular image, right, where that often there are people trying to look over a tall fence and, you know, everybody gets the same size box and that doesn’t work. And so you have to actually kind of distribute resources with attention to where there are deficits and disparity.

Jeremy (00:08:27):

The third concept with equity that we’d like to use is recognizing that you can have a great process. You can have people come together and do a great process, include lots of voices. And then you can actually design a policy and implement it in a way that really is attentive to distributing benefits of that policy to people who need them most and addressing historical wrongs. But if you don’t change the actual structures, the systems, the institutions, and the way that they function over time, you’re always going to be playing catch up. And so the third dimension is structural equity or what Desiree calls intergenerational equity, because this is about changing the decision-making and accountability structures within institutions, so that they’re defending and extending equity gains over time. Sometimes I say, if we do structural equity, right, we could wash out all the good people from an institution, like all the folks who did all the training and learned and did all the hard work and made all the policies. We could take them out and replace them with brand new people. And the decision making and accountability structures in that organization would still help us take care of people that have been wronged in the past, and that are suffering today. So those are some of the other concepts that we work with, but that, that simple breakdown has been so helpful for cities and for other organizations that are working on equity issues, in large part because it is a complex issue and the word gets thrown around a lot. And one of the things that we noticed is we can go into a room with, you know, a dozen different people back in the days when we used to get to go into a room with a dozen different people. And we can all be talking about equity and saying the word equity, but we might all be meaning slightly different things. And so really getting into it and starting to break it down and take it apart and be really clear about what we mean is really important.

Kelly (00:10:09):

Right, absolutely. And you actually had talked about a couple of different definitions of equity and one that really resonated with me was about outcomes. I don’t remember exactly what it was. I don’t know if you remember off the top of your head.

Jeremy (00:10:24):

Yeah. In your outcomes. No, that’s exactly right. Yeah, one of the, one of the things that we say is when we do equity right, I mean, equity means that your identity no longer determines your outcomes, right? Like if we live in a world that’s racially equitable, right. We won’t see disparities between these different racial groups. I mean, the fact that, you know, African-American women are three times more likely to die in childbirth than white women. You know, you can dive into the research there, but ultimately what it comes down to is the reason for that is because they’re black and they live in a society that in which the game is sort of tilted against black women. And so that shows up in the data as much more likely to die in childbirth. And we see these disparities over and over again, when income on incarceration rates on health outcomes, et cetera.

Jeremy (00:11:14):

And that’s what we’re working with. We’re really trying to understand, well, what are the systems that produce those disparate outcomes and how do we begin to change them? And that concept of systems is another important piece of equity definitions. There’s a lot of really important work that needs to happen everywhere in America to address people’s understanding and sensitivity to different cultures and people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to unpack and take apart individual bias, implicit bias, and we could do all that work and we could still be perpetuating inequities because of the way that different systems have sort of worked over time to create disadvantage and disparity for people of color and women and LGBTQ and disabled people and others. And so what we’re really trying to figure out is like, what are those systems? And one of the concepts, again thatmy colleague Desiree uses is let’s talk about broken systems, not about broken people, right? Like, let’s think about this, not as like there’s a deficit among this group of people, but really to dive into that and try to understand, well, why is that? And how did we get there and how can we change it over the longterm going forward?

Kelly (00:12:23):

Yeah, absolutely. You’ve spoken before about how there’s an inherent link between progress in sustainability, in a city and progress and equity and linking them together, we can actually create bolder policy. Do you have some examples for that?

Jeremy (00:12:44):

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, that point is just so evident. I mean, I feel like it’s been evident for a while, but it’s becoming so much more clear as cities are increasingly understanding because of black lives matters and other movements. And I think you know, every generation gets smarter and more aware of the dangers and the pain associated with racial inequities and are set on doing something about that, that we’re just seeing more and more how focusing on racial equity is woven throughout all the priorities that we have across society. And sustainability is the place where that in many ways has always been part of the foundational concepts of sustainability or sustainable development. And yet we’ve sort of had to play catch up on that third E you know, a lot of cities have been really good on, you know, the three E’s of sustainability, our environment, you know, economy and equity. And cities kind of started a lot of them with sustainability departments and thinking about the environment and making lots of progress on reducing carbon emissions, and then started saying like, Oh, you know, we might be able to create some jobs and sort of tilt our economic development strategy towards this huge amount of work that we have to do to take our cities towards carbon neutrality or carbon zero and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And then kind of, you know, coming along behind for many years was this equity that was saying like, wait, we should also make sure that we are correcting historic disparities, that we’re building in opportunity for people who have been left out previously. And that this future that we’re talking about building, this healthy and sustainable future, is available to all is shared by all. And importantly is built by everyone is, you know, draws on the genius and perspectives of everybody within our community. And so that has really thankfully finally is coming to the fore in, in a lot of places. And what we see is that when we’re more holistic about our climate policies and we include equity dimensions and economic opportunity dimensions in them, we get a bunch of benefits. Some of those are that we get, you know, smarter policy and we can talk about that in a little bit, but one of the main benefits off the bat is we get broader constituencies of support for the types of climate policies that many in like the environmental movement or the mainstream, you know, green movement have been pushing for, for a long time. And I do have this example from my home city in Portland, Oregon, where Portland’s been a very progressive place on climate issues for a long time and has developed climate action plans is one of the early cities to develop climate action plans.

Jeremy (00:15:11):

And was also one of the early cities to start thinking about equity in climate action plans because of the work of the Bureau of planning and sustainability and people like Desiree Williams Raji, and others that work there. But, but like a lot of cities, Portland couldn’t really come up with with the amount of money to invest in making a climate action plan real, like we have these lofty goals about making our city carbon neutral you know, and having super efficient buildings and electric transportation and other things, but it takes resources to get there. And it takes the involvement of a broad community to be able to support the types of policies that are actually gonna make that stuff real and take it off of the plan that’s on the shelf and put it into practice. And what we saw recently was that as the city started talking more about equity and started engaging directly with communities of color and listening to environmental justice advocates and beginning to share information back and forth and develop better relationships of trust and understanding there was increasing capacity in recognition of the opportunity to change policy, to serve the needs of community color. And when I say that I’m talking about that that recognition came from communities of color. And what we saw in Portland was that communities of color came together and created a ballot initiative that said, we want all these things. We want healthy cities, low carbon emissions. We know the climate change problems are going to hit our communities hardest and earliest. We think that there should be investment in getting to the place where it’s a clean energy, low carbon city that includes communities of color and has them sort of in the front of the line to be implementing and benefiting from these changes. And so those communities put together a ballot initiative that suggested a small tax on big box retailers, so large businesses that operated nationally, but had a presence in Portland and took that to the ballot and ran a campaign and ended up passing that with 65% of the vote really overwhelming support for that.

Jeremy (00:17:17):

And what’s impressive there is that I don’t think the city of Portland or even the environmental organizations in Portland would have ever been able to get that done on their own, but once communities of color were in the lead, and they were talking about the benefits to communities these other ways in terms of jobs and economic opportunity in terms of better health outcomes, in terms of, you know, better learning opportunities and career pathways and connecting that to these investments in clean energy and low carbon infrastructure, et cetera. That’s when we saw that there was a much broader coalition of support for bold climate action, and we were able to get it done. And I think that’s a great example of sort of what’s beginning to take place around the country.

Kelly (00:18:00):

Yeah. And I think it’s such a great example because I think it speaks to this idea of a diversity of perspectives creates more holistic solutions, and like thinking holistically about the problem, we can create win-win wins. Even though I think sometimes we have, especially maybe these days we have kind of a scarcity mindset sometimes. You know, if something wins, then somebody else loses. If there’s time for sustainability, maybe we don’t have time for equity, but actually kind of when we focus on or when we kind of bring people together with different perspectives, we can actually create a solution that can benefit everybody.

Jeremy (00:18:41):

Yeah, you’re so right about that. Kelly and the Portland clean energy fund is the name of that ballot initiative, by the way, it’s the Portland the clean energy and community benefits fund and your listeners can check it out and look online. And there’s a coalition that came together around that, that, that tells a story of, you know, sort of how they thought about this and how they put it in place. But I want to be clear, this is this fund that passed on the ballot and is being implemented now, and it’s implemented so that there’s money that’s raised, and there’s a community taskforce that is very intimately involved in how those dollars are invested in reaching our climate equity goals here in the city of Portland. The price tag, the number on that, it’s between 40 and $60 million per year, that that initiative is putting together and investing in our climate equity future here in Portland. That is an enormous amount of money when we think about all of the climate action plans and cities around the country that have come up with brilliant ideas and sort of put them on paper for the longterm, but don’t have anywhere near to, you know, 40 to $60 million to invest in making those plans real much less, 40 to $60 million a year. And it was really both the courage and the genius of a really diverse set of people coming together, rooted in communities of color and the priorities of communities of color that made that possible. You know, that made it possible to say, I believe we can do this. I believe we can dream big. I believe we can put together the coalition that’s needed to pass this over the objections of these, you know, large national chains who don’t want to pay like a 1% business license fee is what is what where the money comes from. And so it’s really impressive to see what’s possible when we do put equity at the center lead with equity, we’re able to make much more progress than we’ve been able to make when it’s just the people that wake up in the morning, thinking about carbon emission reductions that are, that are going out to design an advocate for policy.

Kelly (00:20:31):

Right. Absolutely. And I feel like that is also a beautiful example of what you said before, which I don’t know if everybody caught, but I think that this is such an amazing thing to just put in your mind of, “do you get asthma or do you get solar panels, ” right? This is how do allocate resources to not just say okay, you don’t get the bad stuff, but how can we give some of the good things to the communities that have been disadvantaged in the past?

Jeremy (00:20:58):

Yes. And you know, this is increasingly becoming a priority for cities. And so I find myself a lot talking to cities and the organizations that work with cities and advise cities around climate and sustainability. And just trying to remind them that the landscape is shifting. You know, in some cities, climate has been a top issue for a while. In other cities, it’s never sort of risen to the top of the list. But I was recently involved in an initiative that went out and identified a couple dozen cities to help advance their climate priorities and said, you know, you look like you’re doing a great job, we’re gonna put in some energy and some resources and help you meet your climate goals. We’re really happy to be working with you. And when the leaders of that initiative went to the mayors to sort of alert them to their generosity and the support that they were going to be kicking in, the majority of those mayors said, that is great. I’m really glad to hear it. And what, what have you got on equity? Because I’ve got constituencies that are talking to me about affordability, you know, crisis and homes, and that are, you know, talking to me about that lack of good paying jobs. And they’re talking to me about how much time people working, people are spending away from their families and these long commutes and expensive, you know, paying for gas. And so what are you going to do about that? Because that’s what I’m, you know, dealing with sort of front and center, right? Like that my next election may hinge on how well I address those issues and I want to do something on climate, but I really benefit if we can tie our climate priorities to the priorities of these communities that are, you know, sort of getting sick of being at the back of the line, you know, suffering under these disproportionate outcomes and tired of getting ignored. And we’ve seen a lot of that pop up around police violence recently with the black lives matter movement. But inside of that, and alongside of that, there are communities that have been organizing for a long time to say, we want the future to include us. We want the future to correct these historic wrongs. And if you’re talking about a clean energy, zero carbon climate future, that sounds great. Let’s see how we’re in that. Let’s sit down and talk about how our priorities get folded into and centered in that work. And so you’re seeing a lot of cities now that are putting out, you know, RFPs for traditional energy stuff or partnering with organizations or hiring for positions within the sustainability department that are looking for expertise on equity, on racial equity, on economic opportunity. And I’m thinking about really how to, how to address these systems head on.

Kelly (00:23:26):

Yeah. And you’ve mentioned, I know we’ve, we’ve brought up equity sort of generally, but solving for racial equity lots of other items follow and that things get better for everyone. Actually, if we think about racial equity, even though obviously we have to look at a lot of different lines, but I know that’s why things do come back to to that.

Jeremy (00:23:51):

That’s right. Yeah. Thanks for bringing that up Kelly. That’s one of those additional core principles that we talk about when we, when we help cities and, and help organizations think through their equity definitions, we talk about those three dimensions of equity, the process, the actual outcomes and the longterm structures and institutions and how all of those need to kind of be thought about and then ultimately work together. And then we have these principles, you know, think about systems. And one of those principles is lead with race. So when we’re doing equity work in cities where we’re focused on leading with race, the government Alliance for race and equity, Gare, great organization that is made up of cities and counties around the country that are, that are taking a proactive approach to racial equity. They point this out in their materials really well and have some research that says we need to lead with race for a couple of reasons. One of the reasons is, is that it’s a difficult conversation for most Americans, most white Americans in particular. And that if we aren’t really explicit and leading with a conversation about racial inequity or racial disparity and, and measures to address racial equity, head-on, it tends not to be picked up. Like when we say, Oh, we’ll get around to that later. Or, you know, like we’re talking about equity, you know, in general, we still see the disproportionate outcomes for people of color in the country. So it’s important to lead with race. Because it doesn’t have a history of getting addressed unless we’re really explicit about it and putting it at the fore. But one of the things that we’ve also learned is that we lead with race because it’s where most of the disparities, it’s kind of the strongest variable, right? When you look across a bunch of different identity groups and look at sort of asthma rates or economic opportunity or other things, race keeps coming up as the strongest determinant of your future, right? So people from the same economic backgrounds that are racially different actually end up, this was, you know, this was one of the key findings of this seminal study on toxic waste and race that dr. Bob Bullard did back in the nineties. He said, you’re, you’re more likely to live next to a toxic waste site if you’re a person of color that regardless of income, right? So it’s information like that, that shows us this is really important. And what we found is when we address race, when we solve for racial disparity, things get better for everybody. So we try to point out that leading with race doesn’t mean only talking about race or, you know, not focusing on the disparities that women and veterans and disabled and LGBTQ folks also face in the economy and in society.

Kelly (00:26:19):

And I’ll jump in quickly there because I was actually called out on this podcast earlier, we had the commissioner for the mayor’s office for people with disabilities and we try to use the person first language. So people with disabilities, that was just something that that came up on our podcast earlier.

Jeremy (00:26:36):

That’s important. Thank you. Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.

Kelly (00:26:39):

Yeah. And I think even just having those, having that thought, I can tell from the way that you talk about it, definitely thinking about these concerns, people first, something that struck me earlier that you had said about, you know, don’t talk about broken people. Like these are people that are living in the, within these systems that are broken and how do we solve those systems? You know, there’s nothing wrong with the people within them. So I think you definitely speak to that in your work.

Jeremy (00:27:04):

Yeah. It’s really an important concept or we get you know, we get a lot of stuff that just doesn’t work. One of the examples that’s come up in my work a lot has been, you know, focusing on economic opportunity in the green economy. And so we’ve talked about, you know, green jobs and I worked with a national non-profit organization called green for all, but that helped sort of really think about like, what are the opportunities in a green economy and in a low carbon economy to create jobs and opportunities for people of color at risk youth and others that have kind of been left out over time. And one of the things that we saw early in our work was that there was a, almost a an immediate default to, well, we need more job training programs, right? We need more education programs and job training programs for these disconnected youth and people of color or formerly incarcerated, right? Folks who have real barriers to employment. And there was this kind of instinct that if we just filled the deficits among, you know, certain people, like got them the education and the support and the services that they needed, which they need, right. Folks have barriers to employment because they’ve been dealing with these systems for so long, that that everything would be okay. And what we found out is like we could train up a lot of people and give them all kinds of skills and all kinds of ready. And we see people, you know, just incredible people doing really heroic work in terms of learning new skills and picking up, you know, new careers and hustling and hustling. And still, we don’t see the situation changed because we haven’t addressed this larger issue of exclusion within the broader economy, right. And access, especially to good paying jobs and, you know, jobs with prevailing wage and, and you know, benefits and other things.

Jeremy (00:28:47):

And so that’s where, you know, it’s just so important that we don’t let ourselves default into thinking about like, Oh, we have to, you know, fill these gaps in these individuals. We need to fill gaps in the system that are allowing people to fall through the cracks and focus there. And part of that work is helping people out with what they need getting what they need. But if we just do that and we don’t focus on, what’s been keeping them down or what put them in that situation in the first place, then we just, aren’t going to make much progress.

Kelly (00:29:13):

Yeah. That’s an excellent point. Do you have other examples? We talked about Portland, other examples of where climate policy like the city engaged really with disadvantaged communities directly, and they were able to come up with sort of creative and impactful solutions together?

Jeremy (00:29:31):

Yeah. Yeah. Thanks for asking that. It’s good to get to the specifics there. This is happening all over the place. And it’s really impressive to see that these relationships are being built and that cities are increasingly prioritizing conversations with historically marginalized communities and communities of color and disproportionately impacted. And we’re starting to see that really show up in policies and changes. So I’ve got a couple of examples where I want to point this out and kind of drill down a little bit. So recently Denver, Colorado went through a a process to come up with a pretty comprehensive proposal for climate change action in the city. And to put that on the ballot and to attach a proposed tax or a couple of different revenue mechanisms that would allow the city to pay for these things that the city wanted to do around, around climate change. And as part of developing that, that overall vision for what’s, what’s going to happen in the city of Denver, they put together a real diverse stakeholder task force, right? It was called the Denver climate action task force. And, they met over a series of public meetings and this, you know, included, you know, members of city council and business leaders and community leaders from communities of color and, and labor and et cetera. And then that stakeholder group also held some public conversations and went out and they, you know, you can look at their report and see all the ways in which they tried to tap into the genius and perspective and hear the concerns and priorities of impacted communities. And what we saw come out of that was pretty impressive to me. I’ve been looking at climate plans and cities for a long time and this one is impressive for a couple of reasons. One is, it makes very clear, right at the beginning that this climate plan should have equity at the center of it. So there’s a, there’s a, a statement and something very early on that says, you know, the task force is committed to making Denver a more equitable city and recognizing some of those historical situations that have, have created where they’re at. Their definition of equity says equity means addressing broken systems, connected to racial injustice and historical inequity. And then they get right down into the details. So in the final recommendations and the plan that’s going to the ballot with a proposal to raise some revenue from the people at Denver to take them into this climate, you know, low carbon future and address climate change. And in the building section in particular, they have this language in the plan that says, you know, climate work in buildings must be done in a way that enhances quality of life reduces energy consumption and eliminates household energy burden on low income household. Every solution outlined below must be implemented with these following things in line. So they have a lot of the types of things that we’re used to seeing in terms of energy efficiency programs, clean energy programs incentives, you know, regulation supports financing. But what they do is they wrap around this this idea that these programs should not increase costs on vulnerable low-income households, right? We should be thinking about how to make households more affordable at the same time that we’re upgrading them, we should create opportunities for people of color and native Americans to work in the clean economy, include occupant comfort and health throughout, and ensure that policies don’t compromise low-income tenants or put risk on communities relative to displacement. So these things are important for a couple of reasons. I mean, we’re, we’re beginning to see how the city is sending a signal to the marketplace and to others that work on building energy policy, how these are going to be priorities and how we’re all going to have to bring our collective genius to sort of figuring this stuff out, right. It’s like another piece of the puzzle. It’s how do we reduce emissions and also increase equity at the same time? And that just takes, you know, some hard work and some figuring that out. But one of the things that there, I think that they’re referencing here is that this is important because this is what the people of Denver want. Right. And if we’re going to raise the money and build the political consensus, that it’s time to do something about climate change, this is what the actions have to look like. Right. And I think that’s that’s pretty significant. We see this happen in other places too, you know, Washington DC recently developed and passed a building performance standard. And a lot of cities are moving towards this of having done their energy benchmarking and developed incentive programs to help buildings reduce their energy use. They’re now starting to say, we really want you on a pathway towards bringing your energy consumption or energy use intensity down to a certain level on a certain timeline. And in, in Washington DC, there was deep engagement with the affordable housing community and the folks that work with folks that are living in affordable housing and are dependent on that housing for stability, community stability, and access to economic opportunity, et cetera. And they worked back and forth. And we see now in the development of the compliance pathways and alternative compliance pathways and the implementation of that building performance standard, we see attention to and respect for the concerns and priorities of the affordable housing community. But we also see, and I think this is really important, that those folks aren’t going to be left behind, you know, that we’re not going to lock away potential carbon emission reductions or energy savings, because we just say, well, we can’t figure out how to serve those communities with the best energy efficiency technology. So we’ll just like, you know, maybe they don’t have to do it right. And that happens a lot In the work, or it has happened a lot in the work. And so one of the other benefits of doing equity work is that we’re much more certain that we’re going to bring everybody along. If we kind of put the folks that need the most help and might be have the most barriers to making the changes that are needed to make across society. If we put those folks right in the center of our thinking about how to drive this change, you know, sometimes we focus on that low hanging fruit, and what ends up happening is like, we get all used to picking low hanging fruit. We never like, you know, think about building ladders or other things. And that the rest of that fruit just stays up in the tree, you know, and we never get back to it cause it’s not low hanging, we’ve built ourselves around this low-hanging fruit. And I think part of what equity is saying is, you know, let’s do the hard stuff first. Like we’re good enough. We can figure that out. And you know, the low-hanging fruit may, may still be there and there’s a tension there and we need to work that out over time, but you’re starting to see it in policies like in that building performance standard in, in Washington DC.

Kelly (00:35:50):

Yeah. And I think you had spoke to this before, too, that there’s an analogy to the the sort of anti-racist movement. If you, if you’re not thinking about equity in your policy, because the systems are obviously already in place to make to the, you know, the systems and structures are already in place to, to make things unequal, if you’re not actively thinking about it, then you’re just playing into the systems that already exist and you’re going to perpetuate it.

Jeremy (00:36:19):

Yeah, that’s right. I think that’s a really important concept, you know, recognizing that it’s not just about our intentions or kind of like what we believe or think about other people, you know, prejudice and bias are really important to identify and to root out, but at a certain point, these systems are in place and they’re operating. And if we don’t kind of bring equity to the, to the forefront of our minds, we end up inadvertently reinforcing, reinforcing those systems. Ibram X. Kendi has a best-selling book out now called you know, how to be an anti-racist. And one of the foundational concepts in that book is you’re either anti-racist or you’re, or you’re very much not, right. Like when you’re participating in a system that is a system that is creating benefits for some people and burdens for other people and historically excluding and marginalizing some people and giving voice and power to other people. If you’re not actively taking apart that system, you’re inevitably reinforcing it just by participating in it and kind of going along with it. So that’s one of the concepts that we work with is saying like, look, we’re not, name-calling, we’re just trying to point out that this stuff doesn’t happen all by itself. You know, and important for all of us to take a very proactive approach to thinking about what this looks like. I mean, one example I’d like to give from my own upbringing when I first started getting into energy efficiency and incentive work I was looking at the kind of incentives and how dollars were spent and looking at total resource costs with utility you know, the ways in which utility dollars were meant to change consumer behavior and move us towards greater energy efficiency. And I was looking at the ways some of those dollars were spent and it’s like, Oh, I see you get rebates for energy star refrigerators. And, you know, that’s good. You want people to have energy star refrigerators. But the thought that occurred to me was like, you know, when I was growing up, we got our refrigerator out of the want ads. Like we got a used refrigerator from somewhere, cause it was cheap. Like we didn’t buy a brand new refrigerator. And even if we did, like, I’m not sure between, you know, my single mom and hustling to school and daycare and everything else that we would have filled out all this paperwork and gotten it in the mail just right to get, you know, $500 back on a really expensive refrigerator. So to me, I, you know, I had these questions about what what’s happening here, like who, who is benefiting from our investments in energy efficiency when they all sort of take on this shape and flavor. Now, I think we’re doing really well in recent of, of being aware of that and really thinking about how to deliver benefits to folks that need them most, and that are least likely to participate in most likely to get, get locked out. But that concept that you, that you brought up, you know, you’re either, you’re the part of the problem or you’re part of the solution, you know, that, that old concept, I think it, it yeah, it has, it has some merit.

Kelly (00:38:56):

Yeah. And there was an LA times article about UCLA researchers looked into where the, where those dollars were going and it was looking at a policy. I’m actually curious your thoughts on that. It was looking at where electricity was consumed the most and definitely high consumption in the wealthier areas. So sort of wealthier folks may be getting more access to the energy itself. And then getting more funding through these rebate programs, these rebate programs that they looked at were related to, I believe electric vehicles and solar panels. And you had mentioned something the other day about, you know, is it equitable to put EV charging stations everywhere? Or is there another framework we need to see? Do people in different locations need access to a low carbon alternatives in different ways?

Jeremy (00:39:59):

Yeah, I think, well, I think that report is great and the write up in LA times is good. So I’m glad you’re going to share that. And this sort of goes to just thinking about like, what is our framework for thinking about what our climate future should look like for understanding what the problems are that we have now and understanding the roots of those problems or that the history of how those problems came to be. And I think the question around EV charging stations is, you know, not so much, should they be everywhere or not? They ultimately should, or we need to electrify transportation and think about smart ways to do that. But sometimes when we’re introducing one of the other principles of equity, which I hadn’t mentioned here, so we’ve got those three dimensions and then principles, like, you know, it’s about the systems and lead with race. One of the other principles that we work with is that equity work is accountable to impacted communities, right? And part of what that means is that communities that have been disproportionately impacted and historically marginalized, they’re the ones that get to define what the equity priorities are, because otherwise we get strange outcomes, right? We get confusion when, you know, sort of historically privileged people are designing policy and they’re saying, Oh yeah, we’re going to do equity. And I know what that means. I’m, you know, putting EV chargers out in the world. So equity means like everybody gets an EV charger and maybe in the long, I mean, certainly in the long run, it’s important that we all have access to low carbon transportation, but if you’re have a limited amount of dollars to invest in solutions and in meeting community needs, it’s incumbent on us, especially with an equity framework, to ask what are the priorities in this community and how do those priorities align with our climate objectives?

Jeremy (00:41:41):

So one of the things that we know when we go out and talk to folks in low-income communities of color and sort of ask people like, you know, how’s it going? You know, what’s going on with you? Like, where does it hurt? You know, where’s the pain today. We usually get some version of, you know, the rent’s too high, my paycheck’s too low, right? Like that, that’s where I’m feeling the most pain. And you know, there’s also health issues and, you know, lots of issues, right. But I don’t have access to an EV charger isn’t as high on the list of some of those other things, which doesn’t mean we can’t put if you chargers into communities, but the question is how do we put EV chargers everywhere in a way that addresses that rent’s too high paychecks too low? Like, can we get folks, you know, manufacturing, these EV chargers and, and being a part of installing them, you know, can we get folks that are part of the installation process and building that infrastructure that are bringing home good money from good jobs? There’s some great work that’s happening in Los Angeles. Actually, there’s a there’s a local EV charger manufacturer in the Los Angeles area. That’s done some installations, Dodger stadium and elsewhere that is focused just exactly on this, on engaging people from communities of color in the business end of manufacturing and installing these. And you know, what happens when that’s happening, when people are having their highest priority concerns being addressed by climate actions and climate solutions, they tend to be a lot more for them. You know, some of the rap on EV chargers is, you know, that’s yuppy catnip, and here comes the gentrification. Once you see one of those go in the neighborhood, you know, things are changing and, and, you know, it’s not gonna be too long before you get moved out. But in neighborhoods where people have participated in, you know, the economic benefits of electric vehicle infrastructure, the attitude is really different about the benefits of that and what it means for the communities that it’s going into. So I think that’s one of the important points that we we’ve tried to make around this concept of doing equity work means listening to impacted communities, understanding those priorities and finding elegant and thoughtful way to, to come up with win-win solutions. Right?

Kelly (00:43:48):

Yeah, absolutely. We actually did another episode too on kind of workforce development with some folks that work on specialized training for high school students, local high school students in New York city. There’s was along the lines of technology and building and controls, but yeah. How do we connect people to the jobs that are created by the policy that we’re making, that’s benefiting everyone.

Jeremy (00:44:14):

Yeah. That’s so important. And also making sure that the policies kind of have connection points, right. Again, like not always, you know, not relying on supply side solutions in the labor market. Like, well, if we just train these people and develop them, which has to be done, and it’s really important and has helped lots of people improve their lives and, and find new and exciting ways to kind of live out their own hopes and dreams around a green future. But again, if those people are just working and getting trained, right, or those programs are working in training, you know, at risk youth or high school youth or whatever, and there’s not something on the other side that says, Hey, we’re the city we’re spending money on this, you know, energy efficiency program, or we’re going to upgrade all of the buildings in the city, or Chicago just led an RFP for people to supply electricity to the city that’ll help them meet their goals of a hundred percent renewable electricity in the next several years. And what Chicago did was they were very clear. Like we want people to come in and help us meet our goal of having renewable energy. But part of our goal for having renewable energy is that there are also economic benefits that that energy is produced locally. And that the component pieces that go into this are benefiting people in the Chicago region, that there are specific opportunities for minority owned businesses and people who have been left out of economic opportunity, especially in the green sector to be a part of this. And so that really helps. And the city of Chicago is saying what’s important to us about the way that we spend this money is not only the carbon emission reductions in the clean energy, but the way that we get there. And that the way that we get there includes people of color includes racial equity, includes opportunity for young people and workers and businesses in the city of Chicago that are struggling right now, and that need prevailing wage jobs, you know, living wage jobs and business opportunities. And we’re trying to create a future that includes both of those. And you’re just starting to see that more and more across the board in cities.

Kelly (00:46:11):

Yeah, absolutely. And so is there a role that, you know, we have as building scientists, experts, consultants, you know, maybe architects or engineers or developers that are listening, is there a role kind of would you say this is more on the policy level or is there sort of a building by building role as well?

Jeremy (00:46:33):

I think both. And I think those things hopefully are related, you know, I hope that people that are designing policy or talking to engineers and architects and contractors and others that are making these solutions real because that, you know, we’ve all seen policy, that’s not connected to the practice. It doesn’t look right. It doesn’t work right. So I think good policy people are listening and, and there are a couple of roles that I think are important for kind of the building scientists and consultants and experts that are working on sustainability and green buildings. You know, I keep talking about these principles and maybe we should lay them out for your reader somewhere, but you know, one of the other principles of equity work and there are just five, I’m not hiding the ball here. I just didn’t want it to lay it all out. So there’s just three dimensions, then it kind of five pillars. There’s this principle of power, you know, that doing equity work is a lot about understanding power and sort of who has power and who doesn’t. And in particular like how power operates in systems. And one of the things that we know about power is that it’s often invisible. It’s not always explicit. You know, there are ways in which people have influence and shape outcomes in ways that aren’t always clear. And so part of our work that we all need to do is to say, well, where do I really have influence? You know, where do I have the ability to kind of set the agenda? One of the things that Desiree talks about the definition of power, she borrowed this. I wish I could remember the person that she heard it from is, you know, power is the ability to define what’s real. I think that might be Glenn Harris, the founder of of an organization called the Center for Social Inclusion used to work in the city of Seattle, but power is the ability to find what’s real right. To say, like what matters and what doesn’t what’s on the agenda or in the analysis and what isn’t, what’s sort of like outside the scope, right? So building scientists have a lot of power to say, I know you asked me to look at this, right. But I know you care about this. I’ve read your climate action plan. I know what your priorities are. We do this all the time in subtle ways, right? We have our ideas about, you know, the best way to achieve this or leaning in that way and others. And so recognizing that we also have the ability to ask some questions and to bring things into the scope and just say like, well, I see that your climate action plan says that you want to be doing these things in a way that, you know, benefits historically disadvantaged communities. Like here are a couple of ideas I have about that. How do you want to bring this in? Or even just to ask, what are your priorities in this project, you know, for, for how we think about racial equity in, you know, scoping this, building it out, designing it. There’s also ways in which continuing to ask questions all the way down to just the simple level of doing the work, right. So, which is not simple, but I’m talking more like on the contractor end. So if we’re going into a building and I’m proposing a set of upgrades and we’re bringing on a contractor to perform those upgrades, one of the questions that we might ask the contractor is where do you hire your people from, you know, or would you be interested in meeting some training providers that work with the, you know, people in this neighborhood that have barriers to employment?

Jeremy (00:49:39):

You know, maybe just a little introduction between some of the folks at the community organizations that are working to help people with economic self-sufficiency and career pathways, a conversation between them and the kind of support that they’re giving their job trainees and you, and learning about your organization and the kinds of jobs that you may have coming online, you know, this year, maybe because of the money we’re spending on this building, or, you know, in the future, those types of things can be powerful as well. We all need to just start looking for opportunities to kind of, you know, change the system a little bit. And sometimes the system is as simple as, well, you know, I’m a contractor and when I need another person, I just go on Craigslist because, you know, I can usually find somebody that has some construction experience that’s out of work and, you know, hire them up there. And saying well, maybe, maybe, you know, you could hire from this program, which, you know, really you know, does a good job of training folks and reaches into these communities that have been historically excluded. And that could be part of the way that we think about success in this project. So I think there’s a lot of opportunities for folks that are working on the project, but it starts with just getting comfortable with these terms and concepts. You know, I’ve been doing this work for a long time and I can talk passionately about it, cause I’ve been running my mouth about it for years and race and racial equity are difficult conversations for people to have. And so, you know, reading that book, talking to your partner about it, talking to your boss about it, doing the Brown bag, lunch, you know, asking tough questions, being okay with not having the answers. You know, this is not easy stuff. In some ways, fixing racial inequity in America makes the problem of climate change, look like, you know, a cakewalk, right? Like all we got to do is like reduce carbon emissions and we know where they come from already. And like, you know, we have some technologies that would actually reduce them, like no problem. like picking apart all the ways in which our various systems have been built over time and layered on top of each other to create real suffering amongst some communities and, and sort of outsized opportunity and benefit and privilege in others that’s going to take some work. And so just being up for the challenge is, is a big part of what, what all of us can do.

Kelly (00:51:47):

Yeah. And one of the things that I’m hearing you say is, it’s a process. There’s no equity checklist that you can just check the bunch of boxes. This is a process and a mindset shift. And we have to be looking at things in different ways, kind of like the idea of universal design that we’ve covered before in this podcast as well. It’s just, you know, how can we look at things a little bit differently? How can we ask a little bit different questions? And how can we bring different people to the table?

Jeremy (00:52:18):

Absolutely. It is. I just couldn’t have said it better. It is absolutely a way of thinking and a mind shift. Right. And it is absolutely not a checklist. In fact, interestingly, one of the things that we’ve noticed, so racial equity in cities, you know, we, we started formalizing this practice in a lot of cities in Seattle was way out ahead of this. They had a thing called the racial race and social justice initiative in Seattle, which did some great work and has influenced some of the national approach in cities and sustainability departments. And one of the early tools that we developed was this racial equity toolkit or the racial equity lens. Right. And it was essentially a set of questions that we wanted to remind project managers and policy designers to think through that simply asks like, well, you know, who’s going to be impacted by this and what kind of racial or ethnic groups were going to be impacted and, you know, what are some potential unforeseen consequences and what are the issues that they’re suffering with right now already?

Jeremy (00:53:14):

Like where, where are the people that are going to be impacted sort of situated on the broader landscape? Are there disparities? Do they have voice in this process or have they in the past? So a whole lot of questions that were designed to just help us think about race a little bit, but what we found out that started happening, I owe this observation again by a consulting partner, Desiree Williams Raji at Kapwa consulting, you know, what she noticed is that in the busy lives of, you know, project managers and advocates and associates, what would happen is people would grab that racial equity lens or that racial equity toolkit off the shelf, and they would run through it and just like answer the questions. Okay. Yep. Answer that question, answer that, you know, like done and pulled it up and put it back on the desk and move on with the project. And it’s like, that’s not the point. And so nowadays what we’re doing is we’re saying, well, no, I’m not going to give you the set of questions. You’re going to come up with the questions. What do you think are the important questions to be asking in order to understand the ways in which inequity might be at play here and how your project would play into that and how it could actually help mitigate and correct those systems? And what we find is when people, you know, do that work, that extra work of kind of working through and generating the questions themselves, it starts to result in the type of mind shift that people need to bring into their work every day. You know, every decision, every interaction like it just, you know, it takes time, it’s a skillset, but you’re right. Total mindshift.

Kelly (00:54:31):

Yeah. And that definitely reminds me of, you know, lots of LEED checklists discussions of, well, I checked the boxes, so we’re sustainable now.

Jeremy (00:54:42):

Checklists are helpful, you know, checklists the save lives in hospitals and there’s a place for them. But sometimes, really, really complex problems. It’s a, it’s a both, and, you know, we know checklists, but we can’t just rely on the checklist. You know, you still gotta do your deeper, you know, analysis and diagnostics, and you still have to train yourself to be observant about what’s going on and to see things that you, you hadn’t been trained to see before. Right. And that’s, and that’s really hard. And one of the core skills is being open to asking questions and not having the answers, which I think is harder for people from some disciplines than others. Some of us have been trained that we, you know, we need to have the answers and questions that go unanswered or are not good. And actually in this work, sometimes, you know, sitting with the right question for a while produces profound results down the road. When, you know, we, we sort of come to see things in a different way because we’ve been sitting with a question that’s been hard to answer for a while. And that’s, and that’s where the change is really happening.

Kelly (00:55:38):

Yeah, absolutely. I’ve read it was a leadership book, but it said, you know, there’s no growth without feeling uncomfortable.

Jeremy (00:55:50):

That’s going to be true around this work for sure. And that’s part of the reason we have to be so explicit about it. Cause honestly, like, you know, a lot of folks would rather not do this work, you know, and a lot of white people in particular would just rather not think about it and you know, there’s all this guilt and fragility and you know, other stuff that gets in the way, and then people of color are dealing with all of the pressures of actually living in a world that is, you know, the scales are tilted and the playing field is not level and you’re excluded and you’ve got personal microaggressions going on. And so, you know, people of color don’t want to be like having to educate white folks are leading on the development of the overall equity strategy or just be the ones that are constantly bringing it up. Like that’s not their job. So yeah, this is like, it’s, it’s hard stuff and it is uncomfortable. But again, like the more that we sort of say, well, that’s the thing I can do. I can lean into that discomfort a little bit. You know, I can, I can be a little more courageous about bringing these questions up and trying to center race and equity in the work that we do, even though right now, I don’t really see how it all fits in and I feel clumsy and I feel awkward and I’m afraid I’m going to get judged. You know, like just trying to, you know, bring enough enough sort of steadiness and courage to, to be a part of this change that’s sweeping America right now. And, you know, we all need to know to get in on this we’re 50 years past the civil rights movement and 400 years of slavery. And like, you know, it’s time to make this stuff happen. And the climate movement talks about the future. And I think the people that work in the climate movement are some of the most visionary people in America. And we need all of us to have a vision that includes, you know, practical things that we can do on, on racial equity and, and having that be at the center of this, the work that we do in the future we see for ourselves.

Kelly (00:57:36):

Wow. That was a good call to action. Speaking of the future, we like to ask everyone, when we have you back on the podcast in five years what do you think we’ll be talking about then?

Jeremy (00:57:49):

Ooh, boy, that’s a good question. I the future is hard to see, especially in 2020, you know.

Kelly (00:58:00):

Right. Five years, talk about 5 days…

Jeremy (00:58:02):

Yeah. You know, I really hope that we are certainly well past sort of whether, you know, we should be centering racial equity in our climate work and in our economic development efforts. And I, I hope that we’re also sort of past the the, the early stages of like, well, how do you do that? And how do you get situated for that? And, you know, I hope that what we’re doing is we’re talking about the amazing examples that we’re seeing, of you know, what really works like in that we’re learning all the time about ways that we are correcting this system. And that we’re, you know, we’re just simply, you know, centering health and happiness and opportunity and, and a sense of, you know, wellbeing and peace for everyone. And that that’s really part of the way that we’re measuring success. And so that our conversations in five years, or maybe, you know, they’re inclusive of like, what do we do about carbon emission reductions and what do we do about disproportionate rates of asthma? And what do we do about deep racialized economic disparities, or what do they look like? But that we’re also talking about, you know, what’s the latest solution that is really centering this wellbeing, right? And this opportunity and this, you know, this vibrant participation in American life what does that look like? And, and how can we build on that? You know, that we’ve sort of brought these things together. And that we’ve, I don’t know what the language will be, but I’m interested to hear, like, what is the language that we’ll be using to measure our success and to talk about who we want to be as a society, as a culture going forward. Because I don’t think that, you know, in some ways, like we need to talk about reducing carbon emissions and we need to talk about correcting racial disparities, but we’re, we’re about so much more than that. Right? And so in some ways like that stuff is just trying to correct the broken systems that have gotten us into this place of, you know, danger and despair sometimes. And I hope in five years, we’re feeling like we’re solving those problems. And we’re, we’re really thinking hard about, you know, the, the upside of our collective work and energy and, you know, putting our genius towards, towards solutions that you know, that are, that are really happy that aren’t just fixing broken stuff that are actually like taking us into the future that we want to have.

Kelly (01:00:26):

Well, thank you so much for being on the podcast today, Jeremy.

Jeremy (01:00:29):

Absolutely. Kelly, thanks for having me. It’s been a pleasure.

Kelly (01:00:35):

Thank you for listening to buildings and beyond to learn more about the intersection between sustainability equity and economic development. Check out our show notes at Buildings and beyond is brought to you by Steven winter associates. We believe that our world is not as sustainable, healthy, safe, equitable, or inclusive as it needs to be. We continually strive to develop and implement innovative solutions to improve the built environment. If you want to join us on our mission, visit Thank you. And we’ll see you next time.

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