Community Voices: building the capacity of those at the forefront of change

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About the Author: Joan Vanhala works for the Hennepin County government and was recently was selected as a member of the Environmental Justice Advisory Group of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. She has previously worked as a Coalition Organizer at the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability.

When working to promote environmental justice, there is one expert who is more knowledgeable than all the others – the community member. The community member lives the issues and therefore carries an understanding of their nuances and complexities that outsiders will never truly grasp. When we work on environmental justice cases it is vital that we actively listen and respect the voices of the community.

I have witnessed how bringing these voices to the forefront can initiate substantial policy change. In the Twin Cities region of Minnesota, as one component of their Partnership for Sustainable Communities planning grant from the federal departments of Housing and Urban Development and Transportation and EPA, the city took an innovative approach to build community capacity. This energized the communities throughout our region to join in the planning of eight major transit infrastructure investments. In 2011, our metropolitan planning organization—the Metropolitan Council—received a sustainable communities planning grant to support a local initiative called the Corridors of Opportunity.

As a part of this initiative, my organization, the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability, was asked to serve on the community engagement team with a University of Minnesota organization, the Minnesota Center for Neighborhood Organizing, and a community-based funder, the Nexus Community Partners. The budget included $750,000 for community engagement of under-represented communities.

It could have been an easy decision to divide these funds amongst our three organizations. Instead we set up a nonprofit-government partnership to re-grant these funds directly to the environmental justice groups.

CESC Met Council Sept 2015

Metropolitan Council

Recognizing that working collectively creates strength, these communities came together from across our region to form a community engagement steering committee, which partnered with the Metropolitan Council to establish regional standards in community engagement by co-authoring the Public Engagement Plan.

This plan utilizes an approach that is grounded in the principles of equity, respect, transparency, relevance, accountability, collaboration, inclusion, and cultural competence. As a result of this plan, the internal practices of the Metropolitan Council have shifted from simply implementing projects for the community to actually engaging with the community throughout not only the development of transportation infrastructure, but also regional planning, waste-water treatment, parks, and housing.

Not only does this document shift practice within the Metropolitan Council but it is also being studied by other local governments within our seven counties and 182 cities within the region.

In addition, several members of the steering committee led the charge to ensure equitable development from public investments within transit corridors by creating the Equitable Development Principles & Scorecard. The goal of the scorecard is to ensure that the principles and practices of equitable development, environmental justice, and affordability are applied in all communities as they plan for economic development and wealth creation that benefits everyone.

Metropolitan Council

Metropolitan Council

An example of equitable development has been demonstrated by the Aurora St. Anthony Neighborhood Development Corporation, which was founded to recover and preserve, revitalize and grow the historic African American Rondo community in St. Paul that was devastated by the 1960s construction of Interstate 94. Along with preserving and strengthening community ties, the neighborhood development corporation has revitalized their community by partnering with three transit oriented development projects: Rondo Library and Apartments, Frogtown Square, and the newly built Western U Plaza.

With the support of government and non-profit advocacy groups, our communities have established themselves as a powerful voice in our Twin Cities region. As a result of their organization, they have been able to develop and implement plans and policies that are making a difference in securing sustainable outcomes for all community members, especially those most impacted by infrastructure development.

This outcome can only be achieved when we bring the one expert who is more knowledgeable than all the others to the table – the community member.

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