By Alexandra Deluca
Green For All gives disenfranchised communities a voice in sustainability.
Like a rising tide that lifts all boats, a truly green economy should be all encompassing, and one Oakland, California, organization has committed to this goal by working at the delta of communities, pollution, and sustainability.
Vien Truong leads Green For All, a national initiative to build an inclusive green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty.
“Our mission is to create an inclusive green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty,” says Vien Truong, director of the nongovernmental organization Green For All. “We work on solutions at the federal, state, and local levels. A lot of work that we do is not only on policy but it’s also on politics and really engaging people.”
“We want to make sure that we’re doing it in ways that are really inclusive of people who are at the bottom tiers and really making sure they’re engaged in the change of the community. By people, I don’t only mean people of color and in urban communities but really broadly around people who are more disenfranchised,” Truong adds.
Born in 2008 out of an initiative by DreamCorps—the organization founded by Van Jones, former Barack Obama White House advisor and activist—Green For All works to give those disenfranchised communities a seat at the table and ensure that as the clean energy industry continues its astronomical growth (estimates put it at $200 billion in the United States and more than $1.3 trillion globally), it brings the jobs and opportunities to communities grappling with the twin problems of poverty and pollution.
Green For All’s work has ranged from creating van pools for migrant farm workers; to collating the Cash for Clunkers program, which provides electric vehicle subsidies to make green cars more affordable for working families (reducing the cost of an electric car to $5,000); to tackling the Flint water crisis and environmental racism. “What we know is when you begin to have so much deep inequality and levels of poverty in areas, you also tend to find deep levels of pollution,” says Truong. “Those two things go unsurprisingly hand in hand. We want to figure out what we can do to address both of those issues at the same time.”
The Flint River water that was treated improperly caused lead from aging pipes to leach into the water supply, causing extremely elevated levels of the heavy metal neurotoxin.
The problems are big but interconnected, and solutions should reflect the needs of the affected communities, Truong adds. “For example, how do we not only address the problems of super pollutants … for a community living by a freeway, but also be able to do it in ways that begin to think about how we can increase the quality of their life, [and] improve the quality of their life while reducing the costs of their living?”
Truong says she and Green For All found out about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, where cost-cutting led to contaminated drinking water that exposed more than 10,000 children to high levels of lead, like many did: on the news.
“I reached out to some of the organizers and people that worked in that area and asked, ‘How can we be of service? What can we do to help?’ What they said is that already what they’re seeing in media wasn’t quite a true reflection of what was happening in Flint, and that the voices of the community weren’t highlighted and that their stories weren’t reflecting the deep level of crisis,” says Truong. “More than 10,000 kids were being poisoned.” Green For All organized a bus tour that included media and celebrities such as Mark Ruffalo and Antonique Smith to keep the story in the news. Green For All also held a press conference for residents and continues to call for polluters in Flint to “pay for what they break,” through its “Polluters Pay” initiative launched on Earth Day this past year.
“We still continue to provide technical assistance and support where we can,” says Truong. “One of the things that I think we are known for—that we try to be really mindful of—is really to be in true solidarity, which means that we don’t see our work as charity. We know that for different decisions by our policy makers we could end up very well in the same position of not having any reliable drinking water.”
“What we want to do is make sure that no other city has the same consequences as Flint has had, and then that we provide support from experts on different issues around community benefits, around utilities, around job requirements, etc., to the Flint organizers there so that they can benefit from the country’s best experts. We’re happy to help be the conduit to connect them to Flint,” she adds.
Green For All’s ultimate end goal in Flint is similar to Truong’s involvement five years ago in California’s Climate Investments Fund, which mandated that 25 percent of the state’s cap and trade funds go to disadvantaged communities. “A group of us came together to [make sure] that the revenues generated would not skip over low-income communities, which oftentimes happens, and instead really looks at how do they begin to address the issues in the communities most impacted by pollution,” she says.
Today, 35 percent of the total revenues of cap and trade are funneled into the most impoverished and polluted communities, which are identified through a mapping system called the CalEnviroScreen. That money has thus far generated close to a billion dollars in revenue.
“As soon as the law was passed, we asked the community members who live in those areas…where they thought the money should be spent,” she says. A year of town halls, workshops, church meetings, and webinars later, funding has been created for programs such as free solar panels, an energy efficiency program, urban forestry, and free bus passes for seniors and students.
Looking forward, Truong, who spent part of her career at the Greenling Institute before returning to Green For All in 2011, worried that relying on cap and trade—basically, the emission of polluters—to fund clean energy work was not a long-term solution. “I wanted to figure how we could move away from relying on cap and trade revenues and to begin accelerating the work much faster,” she says.
Truong convened six large banks, including USGBC member companies Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and J.P. Morgan Chase, to create a fund that leverages some cap and trade revenues with bank financing “to bring down the cost of capital to transform whole communities at a time,” she says. The idea was introduced into law in California by the Greenling Institute and the Asian Pacific Environmental Network this legislative cycle, and the $140 million Transformative Communities Fund is projected to create billions of dollars of additional funds that can be used by private or public stakeholders. “They can apply for funding to have financing transform whole communities at a time,” says Truong. “Not just one solar panel or bus or van pool project, but really looking at how to begin with solar and affordable housing and public transportation, and fund the work of climate action plans that many cities and communities have in California.”
For Truong, an Oakland native who continues to live and raise her family there, the work continues both at home and, with Green For All, anywhere creative solutions can improve the lives of disenfranchised communities. Truong says goals for next year include work in Appalachia and alongside leaders of tribal communities. In Oakland, where there has been an increase of fuel cell buses and a push to electrify trucks around one of the biggest ports in the country, one in four people in West Oakland lives with asthma.
“We’re seeing some changes, yet a lot more has to be done,” says Truong. “Which is why I pushed for the leveraging of funds the way that I did, because I think what we have to learn…is how to be more creative and really how to engage partners who want to be part of the work.
“If I can create models that work for financial institutions, tech companies, and leverage the support and engagement of celebrities [to create] results in policy that actually support the market—in a lot of ways all of these feed into one another.”