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ClimateCARE: Engaging a vulnerable community to face climate change threats


Phil Giffee, Executive Director,
Hannah Dorfman, AmeriCorps VISTA Member
Neighborhood of Affordable Housing

Challenge: Pollution, rising sea levels and climate change threaten East Boston. The majority of the 40,000 residents in the neighborhood are immigrants and people of color who faced social, economic and linguistic barriers to understand and address these issues until the Neighborhood of Affordable Housing's inclusive community engagement process began.

Grayscale photo of rowhouses

East Boston is perhaps best known as home to Logan International Airport, but it also has six subway stops, three tunnels, two bridges, a major highway and is bordered by Masschusetts' second-most contaminated waterway, Chelsea Creek. Overall, it is the fifth-most environmentally-burdened community in the state. A collection of five islands joined by a 19th century landfill project, the neighborhood is surrounded on three sides by water and has no land connection with the rest of the city of Boston. This makes it particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels and coastal flooding, when residents can become isolated from work and family with no access to public safety providers, such as fire, police or hospitals. Many of the residents are poor, non-native English speakers and people of color who had little awareness of these climate change threats and lacked the means to influence policies to address these issues. After multiple local conversations and meetings with informed experts, Neighborhood of Affordable Housing (NOAH) found key concerns included the need for information about transportation disruption and evacuation routes in the event of a dangerous storm, revised flood maps residents could understand and translated materials for non-English speakers.

NOAH worked with neighbors on environmental justice issues for decades but to address these emerging problems, the East Boston-based organization launched a campaign in 2015 called Community Action for Resilience through Engagement or EB ClimateCARE. Backed by significant multiyear resiliency grant funds from the Kresge Foundation and support from NeighborWorks America, the program has three key elements: boosting community engagement, working with the city on climate change actions and partnering local residents with city and state agencies to forge preparedness and response plans.

Grayscale photo of a mural depicting various people in a cityRaising awareness about the potentially devastating effects of global warming has been critical in this environmentally challenged, overburdened community. An initial survey, performed by NOAH's environmental youth program, found that fewer than ten percent of East Boston residents had any idea of the dangers posed by global warming. NOAH recruited university climate experts to hold technical briefings in the residents' native languages, offering education on areas such as climate change impact science and ways to gain influence in policymaking. Community members participated in a series of supported community planning process workshops to collaborate with key agencies and departments on prioritized action plans for Boston's climate change resiliency efforts. To boost attendance, NOAH provided free food, childcare and translation services to residents, many of whom work two or three jobs at or below minimum wage. Community insights proved crucial to the preparation phase of the three-year ClimateCARE resiliency plan. Thirty residents participated in the workshop series and six have been selected as delegates to a working group tasked with deepening inter-agency plans, holding officials accountable on climate change issues and helping inform more residents of the coming changes and challenges. The City of Boston has proven to be a strong and supportive partner, as have Logan Airport and other agencies.

Resident delegate Heather Rents said ClimateCARE has been particularly effective in giving the community influence in policymaking. "We don't always get a seat at the planning table and our voice is not always included," she said. "This program has helped us effectively engage in meaningful conversation with stakeholders from transportation, infrastructure and government agencies."

Founded in 1987, NOAH is a leader in community development and environmental justice advocacy and ClimateCARE serves as another example of engagement with a range of stakeholders. A youth survey following ClimateCARE's initial phase found a sharp increase in storm surge awareness in East Boston. In 2015, NOAH engaged over 2,000 community members in its many environmental campaigns. A waterfront access program provided a safe boating and kayaking clinic with 1,800 local participants. NOAH hopes to build a national model from its supported community planning process to engage communities on climate change awareness and resident-led actions.

Through our experience with ClimateCARE we learned about three effective elements that will be implemented in NOAH's future projects:
  1. Promoting awareness and understanding residents' concerns through surveys and community meetings to discover what is most relevant to them.
  2. Facilitating participation by providing services such as translation and childcare.
  3. Partnering with city and state agencies to collaborate on effective and feasible action plans.

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