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Bringing Equity to Recovery Efforts in the Upper Texas Gulf Coast

How One Regional Resilience Initiative is Building Power in Communities

Major climate disasters disproportionately impact low income, low heath, and communities of color. From health to home to economy to well-being, these communities are often the slowest to recover too. If they can recover at all. 

Take for example the Upper Texas Gulf Coast region and the impact of Hurricane Harvey. In 2017, the Category 4 hurricane devastated the area. The massive storm claimed 107 lives while leaving over $125 billion in damages. Over three years later, recovery is still ongoing for parts of the region with the largest populations of low income, low heath, and communities of color.

Unfortunately, recovery efforts continue to be planned and executed without equity and inclusivity in mind. In turn, long-term recovery efforts are often inadequate or fail to reach those most in need.  

Ongoing and future efforts must happen in a way that builds community resilience to ensure those with the highest need benefit. The only way to do this is to ensure these highest-need communities have a voice in the recovery and decision-making processes that affect them, thus enabling them to bounce forward following a disaster and withstand future ones.

Critical Opportunity

Recognizing the region’s rich history of organizing and advocacy for social and environmental justice causes, and the need to address a lack of equity and inclusive decision-making in regional recovery practices, the Upper Texas Gulf Coast Regional Resilience Initiative (UTRI) was born. The initiative is a collaborative effort between Texas Southern University (TSU), the Coalition for Environment, Equity, and Resilience (CEER), and the Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC) and seeks to lead the development of an equitable and comprehensive resilience action plan to guide regional implementation while working to increase social, economic, and environmental resilience.

ISC’s Communications Manager, Radiah Shabazz, recently sat down with the other UTRI partners to hear from them about current opportunities as the initiative works to establish equitable recovery and resilience-building policies and procedures in the region. Read the interview below with CEER (Iris Gonzalez, Teresa Davis, and Brittney Jenkins) and TSU (Dr. Earthea Nance and Dr. Sheri Smith).

ISC: Equitable recovery in your region is rooted in a rich history of organizing and advocacy for equity and racial justice. What are the critical opportunities to advance this work you see right now? How does the UTRI project – the partnership between CEER, TSU, and ISC – enhance progress on those opportunities?

CEER: There’s a surplus of critical opportunities in front of us in terms of what gaps and inequities exist across the region–not just from major storms but also in the wake of environmental disasters, oil spills, explosions, etc. All things are very fresh in the minds of folks, and with climate change continuing to knock at our front door, issues are only being exacerbated, multiplying, feeling more urgent. It takes working in a coalition to be able to achieve the level of systems change to unravel the reasons, systems, and relationships that created the inequitable systems we see today. A partnership with global organizations like ISC and TSU, along with the growing coalition of CEER hasn’t existed before, so we’re examining how we can be influential in this theory of change. Robust community organizing and power building have happened at the local level, but we want to build a power network at the regional scale that is real and can be activated to respond to those critical opportunities. It’s always the same folks experiencing the cumulative impacts of pollution; it’s the same folks impacted by pandemic. It is all tied to the longstanding legacy of racism, and solutions need to be brought from a social justice systems perspective. One opportunity is to continue to nurture these opportunities to be working together for solutions. The partnership has allowed us to do the work, building relationships and empowering communities. 

TSU: We want to adapt and translate what is being taught in the classroom to connect to the real world–real case studies, such as the work that CEER is leading. We are connecting real issues to the university so it has to adapt and change in how we teach and prepare students to be leaders. Being involved in this larger project is forcing that and it’s a good force. This [work] provides the evidence needed to do that.

ISC: In addition to advancing justice in recovery and resilience building, you are building out a regional advocacy body to escalate and scale equitable policy efforts. Why a regional approach? What has been accomplished so far and what role does the partnership between CEER, TSU, and ISC play in supporting this work that could not or would be more challenging to accomplish without the partnership? What is the value of a regional approach?

CEER: Just thinking of what harms the community at the local level and thinking about CEER’s eight-point plan, a lot of that comes back to state or federal level legislation. So it’s not just building local power. They have been able to pay and get a return on their investment in turns of what policies exist in the state of Texas. We also know that these events affect the region and don’t have boundaries. There have been some very tiny wins at the state level and much of that has come from persistent environmental groups. But it doesn’t have the precision CEER is trying to build. 

We’re speaking with people in the community that have missions to tackle some of these issues and they use the work of TSU to promote regionalism. They can provide evidence of the work being done. And show people that others care.

TSU: Coastal degradation caused by climate change, flooding issues, pollution from petrochemicals, they all are regional issues and the funds allocated to address those issues are Federal funds managed by the State. The gulf coast faces life-changing climate change – because of the size and spread of the petrochemical companies – it’s this region that experiences these problems. It makes sense to have regional groups to be able to deal with the state.

ISC: In the last several years, the region has experienced a heightened number of climate events, which have disproportionately impacted populations of color and low-income communities. Describe the climate in the region now in terms of recovery, how folks are faring, and where there is a significant need for continued support and investment. 

CEER: Much of the community recovery was due to the community coming together and helping themselves. They become resilient; they seek help where they can but they’re more accustomed to helping themselves. Communities found solace in churches, but with COVID churches were unavailable. People have become hopeless, Many are finding ways to survive because they don’t’ believe help is out there. When CEER comes in with help, it takes a little bit for people to accept it. They have a long list of needs. Financial support isn’t coming into the communities at a consistent level. There were food insecurity and transportation needs. Communities haven’t been able to recover from Harvey and they still have a lot of needs. CEER is hoping to support communities in their path of recovery and ownership 

ISC: Talk about why it is imperative to have data-informed equitable recovery strategies, especially in our current context. How has the partnership helped to advance these strategies? Where is support still needed? 

CEER: it helps to get a clear picture of who’s getting the help. When we have been able to show up and complete questionnaires and surveys, it shows where the need still exists and where the impacts are and what needs to be given more consideration. 

Data is important when asking for accountability and transparency, especially from people and community; sometimes lived experience is very different from data and that in itself is data. Community-based participatory research models put researchers in service to the community and say that community members are also researchers; lived experience counts as data. this is of critical importance when we talk about equity and critical disinvestment when we are talking about who is on the front lines, who are disproportionately impacted, etc. Data helps tell, verity, and track the story as solutions get implemented. 

TSU: Data has been used to build an inequitable landscape is used to justify doing everything. We’re talking about understanding a problem from a different perspective; who is the data serving? Who is serving who? We have taught communities how to do asset mapping, do flood maps, and have connected them with other HBCUs for technical support. They know that we’ll serve them. We’re moving towards being able to train local communities similarly so they are empowered by data rather than victimized by it. 

ISC: What advice would you offer to others who are interested in building equitable recovery in a partnership? 

TSU: The biggest piece is for organizations to learn about each other first — learn about strengths and weaknesses and what they have to bring to the table. It helps with communication and knowing the field. The ultimate goal is not for everyone to attend every meeting; the goal is for the system to work for [the people]. The goal is for people to have enough leverage and power so the system works for them. They want to get equitable service. They don’t need to create the whole system — we want them to be treated equitably.

CEER: Know your target population. Know who’s in the community. Know what languages are spoken. Know the culture. Know the issues. Work moves at the speed of trust. Work with people you trust and know that building trust is a long term activity. It’s something you have to nurture. It’s something we’re still spending time on. Part of the theory of change for CEER is bringing together partners that don’t often stand together. Part of the success of having unusual partners is that it will catch the attention of people so we can build a table that doesn’t exist yet. And again, that depends on building trust. 

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