Nefertiri Sickout, chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer for the City of Philadelphia, and Christine Knapp, Philadelphia’s sustainability director, tell SmartCitiesWorld why inclusivity, equity and diversity are critical in getting engagement from residents on climate action.
Nefertiri: The city has several priority areas regarding diversity, equity and inclusion, and specifically racial equity.
Workforce equity is a key priority area as we seek to build a workforce that reflects the diversity of the communities we serve across all functions and across all hierarchy and leadership levels. Pushing through these changes requires an organisational cultural shift to make sure that the workspace environment is inclusive. It also requires introspection on policies, procedures and practices in order to reduce institutional barriers and help achieve more equitable outcomes.
The second area focuses on advancing a shared framework to embed racial equity as a governing principle in the City’s budgeting, community engagement, service delivery, and significant strategic initiatives. This strategy incorporates a set of shared principles into organisational practices and policies aimed at dismantling institutional barriers that may inadvertently maintain racialised disparities and advancing more intentional strategies to improve the material conditions of BIPOC communities. Another focus is on promoting equitable procurement, contracting, and entrepreneurship outcomes so that every person and every business has the chance to grow successfully. Additionally, training and building capacity of employees to advance a more diverse, inclusive and equitable organisation is a core priority.
Finally, advocating for policies, programs, and systemic changes that maximise inclusion and equity for both the community of people with disabilities and the LGBTQ+ community is also central to our work. And community engagement is another area that is core to the city’s inclusivity goals. We want to be sure that we partner with the community and that there’s cross-sector collaboration in our equity strategy—which will ultimately benefit all of our residents.
Nefertiri: I do. The Kenney administration is doing great work around housing outcomes, education equity, environmental equity, workforce equity, and more. This work has an important, though not always immediately recognisable impact, and we are seeing some success in terms of stability and positive outcomes related to certain sectors and communities.
There are successes but I think we then need to be more intentional about how we demonstrate the successes of this work to the community. Otherwise, it can seem like the things that are particularly concerning right now – the pandemic and the rise in gun violence, plus the exacerbation of existing disparities around health and economic outcomes – are the only headlines. While those are also critical issues, as it’s what we’re all experiencing, that doesn’t negate the focus and the intent to continue pushing forward more equitable outcomes and strategies in all of these other spaces.
I’ve had challenges in how to engage the community in this work – more because of lack of capacity than anything else. Philadelphia is a city of 1.6 million people and a government that’s 30,000 strong; we have great resources in this office, but the work has been almost entirely focused internally. We would have to build up another arm of the office entirely to have an externally facing component, or partner with other departments in a way that we can then layer in that focus. It is a lot more work – necessary work, but it takes additional time and commitment.
Christine: I think my office (the Office of Sustainability) and Nefertiri’s office (Mayor’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) have a lot in common. They’re both relatively small in size, have become more common within the last decade in cities around the country, and touch almost every single department within City government in some way. Establishing the work and parameters of these offices has been a big part of the challenge to date, and from there, the questions we have to ask are: to what degree is this work the responsibility of those offices, and how much is it the responsibility of everybody in city government? I don’t think there’s any expectation that Nefertiri and her small team are going to single-handedly solve the deep-rooted racial inequities we’re still seeing. It is the work of the entire city government and all of its departments to carry that work forward.
At the root of the work that Nefertiri and I are doing is addressing and rectifying some of the societal issues that arise from an exploitative capitalism-based economy, whether that’s the exploitation of Black and brown workers, exploitation of natural resources or otherwise. Essentially, we’re trying to help unpack centuries of oppression. It is no coincidence at all that we’re facing a global pandemic, a climate crisis, and a racial equity uprising all at once – they’re all interconnected and have a common root in exploitation.
Nefertiri: The work that both of our teams are doing is crucial to making Philadelphia sustainable and resilient, but we want to go beyond resilient, too. I see the communities here as resilient already, but that’s not enough. You don’t want to just be resilient, you want to flourish, and you want everyone to have the opportunity to flourish.
"We’ve been talking internally about the shift from sustainable to regenerative – how can we propel forward and not just meet a basic standard that can become quickly outdated?"
Christine: We’ve been talking internally about the shift from sustainable to regenerative – how can we propel forward and not just meet a basic standard that can become quickly outdated? Facilities are a good example – there are lots of city buildings in a state of disrepair, but the benefit of repairing them is short term unless we also futureproof them. We also talk about these things in terms of how they relate to communities and individuals as well. The steps beyond sustainable and resilient are the real challenge, but they’re worth it.
Christine: I would say we’re definitely seeing that on climate issues. My office has been running a pilot in Hunting Park, which is a neighbourhood of Philadelphia that we have identified as being particularly heat vulnerable – it can be as much as 22 degrees (Fahrenheit) hotter than the coolest areas of the city. The population of Hunting Park is also more vulnerable for a combination of demographic reasons, such as income and age. The first summer of our pilot there was a lot of surveying, listening and gathering information from people about how they were experiencing heat, and what they wanted to see happen to make the neighbourhood cooler in the long run.
From that, we put together the Beat the Heat Hunting Park Community Heat Relief Plan. It’s our first community-led plan to address climate impact, and we’ve been working with residents to implement the recommendations that they put forward. We hear a lot about co-creation with community and this was one of our first major attempts at it. It’s less policy-oriented and more programmatic; for instance, we’re implementing green stormwater infrastructure and supporting tree planting and looking at setting up community resiliency hubs, too.
We’ve been able to replicate that in other areas of work, too, such as energy burden. Philadelphia has one of the highest energy burdens in the country, due in part to how old our city is. We actually stopped working on a policy that we were pursuing to address energy burden to speak to people in high-energy burden communities first. We’re trying to embed those community conversations as part of our routine before we try to tackle new policies now. It’s important for us to hear directly from the people who are most impacted by these issues before the policies are set in stone.
Taking that to another level, we’re launching the city’s first Environmental Justice Commission. It’s a body not just for the Office of Sustainability to engage with, but for other departments to access for feedback on policy setting as well.
Coming back to the initial question, though, by being inclusive, are we encouraging more collective action? In Hunting Park, the community-based organisations there are now major heat advocates - they understand climate change, they understand what it means for Philadelphia, they understand how it’s showing up in their community in terms of heat. The Hunting Park Neighborhood Advisory Council (NAC) recently ran a GoFundMe campaign, which the city supported on in terms of language and communication. It’s goal was to raise $2,500 to buy 10 air conditioners to improve comfort for residents; they raised $25,000. They did that themselves and, in the end, had enough extra funds to pay for the units to be installed for seniors and those that couldn’t do it themselves.
Christine: It has been really interesting. It’s summertime on the East Coast – of course it’s hot. But people don’t necessarily recognise that they’re hotter than their neighbours who live a mile away. They don’t realise necessarily how much hotter it has been this year than it was 10 years ago. Once we brought some of that information to them and showed the data through average surface temperature mapping, and explained the public health consequences of that heat, they understood and could start piecing things together.
All of the areas that are hotter than average in Philadelphia are low-income areas and communities of colour. During the pandemic, a lot of those people were our frontline workers who were maybe working out in hotter temperatures, and so their health was being put on the line. Bringing the information to the community acted as a bit of an awakening moment. In verbalising it, we empowered those people.
I think our major issue comes back to what Nefertiri said about being part of small offices. To activate a truly comprehensive externally-facing campaign, we’d need additional resources to amplify the stories we’ve already been telling on these important issues. We’ve had one person through grant funding working in the community in Hunting Park, but the question is how to scale that work up. Scaling up is the real challenge because there are so many of these communities like Hunting Park – not to mention those with other environmental stressors and disparities in terms of flooding, air quality, brownfields, contamination and so forth. Like Nefertiri said, we need to figure out how to partner with others who can bring this work forward.
The City’s Office of Civic Engagement and Volunteer Service – is setting up a new AmeriCorps programme focused on improving access to resources for community members. My hope is that we can partner with the program to help us do more outreach in the community. It is going to be a programme of young people who are from communities that the city is specifically targeting and zip codes that are often hard to reach on a variety of different topics. From there, as an issue is raised or a campaign is needed, they can be deployed into the community because they have the relationships in the community to get that information out. I’m thrilled because that feels like a solution without having to worry about fundraising for staff to get out into the community.
Christine: One of the most helpful things we’ve done is the heat-mapping I mentioned earlier. Sustainability offices usually have a lot of data because they are relatively new offices, and the feeling is that they had to capture a lot of data to prove their value. If they have that data, I’d recommend putting it on a map and starting to layer over demographic information. I’d say the chances are very high that they’ll start finding ways in which climate change is a racial and social equity issue. When the data proves that argument, it becomes core to a city’s climate work and a significant part of why they’re addressing climate change at a municipal level.
Nefertiri: Across America, there are organisations that provide technical assistance around equity, and more specifically racial equity. One that we’ve worked with for a while is the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE). They have a framework for jurisdictions and municipalities that are looking to embed a racial equity approach into local government: "Normalise, organise, and operationalise."
The normalising level represents training because we need a shared understanding and to use shared language when we talk about equity. In terms of organising, the focus is on building teams and infrastructure to create more intentional and sustainable change in local government.
And operationalising an equity commitment requires a number of key steps, including disaggregating data by race, ethnicity, gender and other key demographics. Examining disaggregated data will help to inform where challenges are and the development of targeted strategies to address those gaps.
"We have so many different communities that are marginalised – by gender, religion, sexual orientation, nationality – and part of the work is understanding that race is the differentiator amongst all groups"
In terms of the work, we got started with pilot projects, by partnering with colleagues who were leaning into an equity focus and developing focused projects. For example, we ran a small health equity pilot project around examining the targeted marketing of tobacco in a community and what that community’s priorities and perceptions were around tobacco usage, particularly for youth and young adults and found a misperception of the danger regarding menthol products. Another pilot involved complaints on certain housing issues from residents who were experiencing longer wait times for the city to respond, and what the policy implications of that are. A final example is a pilot we did with respect to a certain position in the city where the hiring outcomes were predominantly non-people of colour. We looked at the hiring process, where people of colour were falling out of it, and found that one issue was around the written exam as an institutional barrier to workforce equity, as written exams do not always predict success on a job for certain positions. One strategy was to change the written exam to an oral exam for this particular position. Everyone did better on the oral exam, with people of colour rising from 10 to 12 per cent of all test takers to about 60 per cent of top scorers on the exam.
As you achieve small but insightful wins with those pilots, then you can start to organise and integrate a larger, more systemic strategy with more champions and more sponsors. The work is hard and it can be messy. We have so many different communities that are marginalised – by gender, religion, sexual orientation, nationality – and part of the work is understanding that race is the differentiator amongst all groups. As you start to be more intentional around racial discrimination and inequity, then you start to create a framework and the required tools to address all types of marginalisation.