New NAACP Report Offers Guidelines for Equitable Community Involvement

by Jacqui Patterson, Mandy Lee, Garry Harris, and Esther Obonyo

Community activists attend a Philadelphia zoning board meeting. Photo: Jacqui Patterson

As NAACP members and environmental and climate justice advocates, we have all seen the power dynamics, exclusion, and harm that can come from status quo development projects.

For example, in Garry Harris’ community in Portsmouth, VA, the Economic Development Authority and Rush Street Casinos executed a development agreement and proposal for a $300 million, 400,000 square foot casino in 2020. The proposed site is located directly adjacent to one of the largest low- to moderate-income Black communities in the country. Further, the community is largely composed of seniors and retirees on fixed incomes. According to city officials, the site was chosen for its urban location and proximity and visibility to the highway.

This project is still in progress, and the Casino has not provided any meaningful opportunity for community engagement, such as town halls, focus groups or deliberate large-scale public convenings. In fact, one local official openly said “citizen involvement would slow down the process.”

Instead, the project moved through closed-door conversations and a referendum vote with citizens not fully informed of project details and potential negative outcomes, resulting in 67% of voters in favor. Local officials and the media have primarily focused on the Casino’s point of view, which promotes the economic benefits of the project. Some residents express the feeling of being bombarded with marketing literature and lacking direct engagement over multiple years. Without an adequate impact assessment or Community Benefits Agreement, neighbors fear missed opportunities to mitigate harmful outcomes and achieve the maximum benefit to the community from this project.

As such, community members are organizing themselves to confront the issue of development-induced displacement. As Garry observes: “Communities with little or no investment are now being targeted by investors driven in search of fertile ground for development. These situations have created robust markets that transform vacant and barren property into lucrative investment holdings for developers and gentrification. Investors are being driven in part by the use of Opportunity Zones, which offer lucrative tax breaks at the federal level for investors. However, these opportunities for investors in the zones have created mixed results for residents living in or near them.”

The Center for Sustainable Communities, along with numerous environmental and social justice and advocacy groups (including the local Portsmouth Branch of the NAACP, Portsmouth Citizens Advisory Groups, Portsmouth Environmental Grassroots Coalition, Center for Progressive Reform, Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University) are working collectively to do a cumulative impact assessment of the burdens created by development. These include: an assessment of existing health and related disparities; noise, light and air pollution; gentrification and displacement; equity and environmental justice implications; reduced overall quality of life; and other environmental and community perspectives.

The goal is to build a case and collect data to demonstrate that, without intervention, investments such as the Rivers Casino lead to displacement of people from their established neighborhoods and job centers, weakens communities’ bonds, causes a loss of economic and generational wealth, increases homelessness, and decreases internal community mobility. Nearly forty questions about the project, including community engagement and project impacts, were compiled by coalition members and submitted to the developer with no response as yet.

The network of the Centering Equity in the Sustainable Building Sector Initiative includes more than 600 working group members, partners, and supporters, representing more than 30 states and a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives. Photos: Felicia Davis — October 2019 CESBS Working Retreat Attendees in Virginia Beach; Jacqui Patterson — August 2018 CESBS Launch Summit Attendees in Pittsburgh

Does the situation in Portsmouth sound familiar? For Black, brown, and low-income residents across the country, marginalization is the status quo practice for development and policymaking. Nearly everything about current development processes favors stakeholders with ample resources, time and privilege — and excludes marginalized groups. Systems and scenarios for development vary widely, are opaque and can involve a range of decision-making bodies.

We know that sustainable building can be a tool for justice, or it can perpetuate injustice. We are the NAACP Centering Equity in the Sustainable Building Sector (CESBS) Initiative, and we are so excited to share the first installment of our Guidelines for Equitable Community Involvement in Building & Development Projects and Policies.

The CESBS Initiative, like other efforts of the NAACP Environmental & Climate Justice Program, is anchored in the Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing, which centers frontline community leadership. A just transition from mainstream development to a more sustainable, equity-centered building sector should not merely welcome the historically excluded, but indeed, be led by those voices. Sustainable buildings, as well as the processes and professions that make them a reality, can and must directly benefit communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis, economic inequality, and systemic racism.

Community members must be involved in key decisions related to the planning and approval of projects that affect them. Fortunately for community members everywhere, Rosa González of Facilitating Power and the Movement Strategy Center have helped define what meaningful and equitable community involvement actually means, using a spectrum to guide us.

The Spectrum of Community Engagement to Ownership, Image: Facilitating Power

The NAACP CESBS Initiative calls for all projects to strive for community ownership on the spectrum of community participation (level #5 in the above graphic). Community involvement (level #3 in the above graphic) is the absolute minimum level of engagement that we expect from our industry, government, and community leaders, as well as ourselves.

To make this shift to meaningful and equitable involvement, delegated power, and community ownership, we need to shift mindsets about the amount of planning, time, and resources that are needed. Engagement must avoid the pitfalls of tokenism and extractive activities, including the “optics” of such.

The Chicago Mobile Makerspace, a 2020 NOMA NAACP SEED Award Winner for Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in Design, embodies the idea of meeting people where they are. Photo: Chicago Mobile Makers

When we get this right, the process and outcomes of planning, design, development, and investment can be deeply transformative. Take, for example, the collective love, care, and energy that went into Oakland’s Mosswood Park Community Center and Master Plan, one of the report’s five case studies, shifting it from status quo engagement practices to deeper community involvement:

The project to rebuild a community center and enhance the surrounding 11-acre public park in Oakland’s Mosswood community, which is still in progress through Summer 2023, adopted Racial Equity Design Goals for education, health, and community life, acknowledging the following:

Working within a historically Black community, with the knowledge that safety for Black, Indigenous and people of color communities (BIPOC) in public space has been severely lacking for a long time and is overdue to be addressed, the City of Oakland and the design team are committed to act on closing these disparities. The built environment has the unique responsibility to manifest values and close disparities by broadening windows of opportunity for BIPOC communities whose voices have been historically silenced and minimized by racism.

According to the Mosswood Master Plan, “While no outreach can be complete, the results of this intensive process resulted in a strong overlapping web of input from community leaders and individuals.” The design team used a variety of methods over a nine-month period, including:

  • Partnership with Art is Luv, a Black-led community arts organization
  • Establishment of a Project Advisory Committee
  • A detailed map of stakeholders
  • Visits with community organizations
  • Interviews, focus groups, and in-person “listening sessions” around the park
  • Six interactive workshops featuring individual and group discussions, art, games, and walking tours
  • Participation in events around Oakland, including those hosted by and for the Black community
  • A multi-lingual online and print survey, mailers, posters/flyers, a banner, an article and print ad, social media, and e-blasts

Activities that celebrated children’s participation were created for all of the events. To promote children’s involvement, the design team provided special superhero name tags, raffle prizes, and lollipops, and allowed children to lead their groups

Various key decisions were informed by community preferences, including an agreement that the baseball field would be preserved as a “no-build zone” and the continuity of all existing programs, as well as revival of a few beloved historic programs that had faded over the years.

Mosswood represents just the beginning of the learning and transformation process, coming in at a level #3 or #4 on the Spectrum.

The NAACP Guidelines for Equitable Community Involvement are written by and for community members, residents, tenants, and neighbors to get organized and equipped to participate in development. The document can also be an enlightening read for building and sustainability professionals. In this document, we provide a menu of ideas and solutions that are as practical as possible, that help residents gain clarity into the operations and motivations of other actors, and that can be adapted and applied through policy as required components of codes, assessments, certifications, standards, institutional protocols, and other regulations. To the best of our ability and the most digestible extent possible, we answer these questions:

Who makes decisions about development?

How does development usually happen?

How is policy developed for buildings and development?

What can community engagement look like?

How do I bring my voice and other voices that are typically left out to the decision-making process?

How do I initiate actions or resistance efforts?

How do we plan for bringing neighbors and partners together?

How do I get allies who are in decision-making positions?

What do I say when I hear that “there isn’t time for community involvement?”

How should my community monitor, evaluate, and learn from community involvement experiences?

These guidelines are the result of dozens of small-group conversations among more than 150 CESBS Initiative members since February 2020, including six co-authors and co-editors, with the support of NAACP staff and external groups referenced in case studies. We thank each and every person who has spent time and energy on this project with us. We invite newcomers to share your stories and feedback to help us maintain the Guidelines as a living document. Viewers are welcome to share questions, comments, and suggestions directly as comments in this version of the Guidelines.

This article is adapted from a new report released today from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Centering Equity in the Sustainable Building Sector (CESBS) Initiative. Patterson is the Founder and Director of the The Chisholm Legacy Project: A Resource Hub for Black Frontline Climate Justice Leadership; Lee is the program manager for the CESBS Initiative within the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program; Harris is the Environmental Justice Chair of the Portsmouth NAACP & Founder and President of the Center for Sustainable Communities; Obonyo is Associate Professor of Architectural Engineering at Penn State University and Director of the Global Building Network.

This article was published in collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, which is supported by The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation.

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A changing climate means a changing society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project (URP) is committed to a greener, fairer future.

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A changing climate means a changing society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project (URP) is committed to a greener, fairer future.

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