Equitable Resilience: A View from the Bottom Up

  • Marcia Manong Malden Resident, Steering Committee and Project Team
    Malden River Works

What is it that we environmental justice communities of color want out of this thing called equitable community engagement? We are not a homogenous group of people with the same interests or aspirations. We don’t all possess the same ethnicity or language or lived experiences. But we do share a desire to be treated with dignity and respect as we strive to identify problems and find solutions to the systemic poverty trap that leaves us struggling for basic human needs. By harnessing our experiences, knowledge, and skills as community leaders, we can achieve social justice solutions through democratic participation, bridging the gap between community and governance in a way that achieves true community-driven decision making.

I live in Malden, Massachusetts. I, like most of my fellow community members, help to make this a minority-majority city. It’s a city where only 48 percent of residents speak English at home and 45 percent were born outside the U.S. But this profile is not reflected in city leadership. Malden High School, for instance, has the most racially diverse public high school population in the Commonwealth, yet the teaching and administrative staff do not come close to representing this diversity. The same is true of elected officials and municipal employees serving our community.

When I think about equitable resilience in relation to community engagement, I think about power dynamics and the typical transactional projects steered by municipal government employees or well-meaning nonprofits. These projects are shaped by an imbalance of equity and power that usually results in critical decisions made on behalf of communities, with limited or token input on the part of community voices—or in some cases without their knowledge.

I have experienced this imbalance firsthand. Inequitable community engagement is damaging and discouraging. Its effects are long-lasting. Community members of color are often excluded or marginalized by mainstream transactional top-down processes, or find themselves invited to a process where the goal is more about getting the glory and credit for quickly completing a project rather than ensuring diversity, equity, and inclusion as essential and constitutive components of the project.

Typically, those with influence in a project affecting low-income communities of color are those who bring money to the table. Low-income community members—who bear the impacts of historical and ongoing disinvestment and marginalization are typically seen to be without resources, power, or voice—continue to be ignored, notwithstanding the vociferous and impassioned promises of public officials and servants that this time every voice will count.

Before agreeing to become involved with the Malden River Works for Waterfront Equity and Resilience Project, a dozen or so of my neighbors, all persons of color, met to discuss the possibility of engaging in this new initiative. Our collective question was: would our previous experience renovating a public park in our neighborhood be repeated? In that earlier project, city officials and planners had reached out to us to seek input on what we wanted in the renovated park. Loud and clearly, we wanted a place for our youth and young adults to be able to gather and play. Basketball courts would best serve those twin goals. We were reassured that we had been heard. In the end, decisions were made to remove basketball courts from the design and in favor of tennis courts. Added to this insult, the City’s renovated park had gates that were locked except for a very limited schedule. This park is situated next to the largest low-income public housing complex in Malden. The message sent to the 250 households living in that housing complex, whether intended or not, was: “You are not wanted. We don’t trust that you people represent the image we wish to convey to the new users of a park the city has spent millions of dollars upgrading.”

In spite of my skepticism based on the marginalization and tokenism in previous municipal civic engagements, I became involved with the Malden River Works for Waterfront Equity and Resilience Project (MRW), for two reasons. First, I knew that if I wanted to see equitable processes, I must be at the table working toward an inclusive and transformative shift in the status quo. Second, I wondered how the already socioeconomically and environmentally vulnerable community I live in would be able to mitigate the impacts of climate change: flooding, storm water drain pollution, excessive heat islands, and increased climate-related adversity. With limited resources and minimal access to power, how do we plan and prepare for the inevitable ramifications of global climate change?

So, I took a risk once again. This time it’s paying off. Those who hold the purse strings made it clear from the beginning they were looking for projects that do not reinforce existing inequities and won’t create new ones. Consequently, the project—initiated by the Friends of the Malden River—began intentionally seeking a governance structure, namely the Malden River Works Steering Committee, that is inclusive of the diverse Malden population and under-represented communities of color. In 2019, Malden River Works for Waterfront Equity and Resilience was awarded the inaugural Leventhal City Prize from MIT’s Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism. Malden River Works offers an opportunity for eliminating barriers, encouraging inclusion, and promoting representation of multicultural people of color at the decision-making table. I cannot stress enough that if we wish to honor community involvement and equity in projects and processes, then it is critical that community groups are involved from the start.

The Malden River Works Project had to address challenges that come with an inclusive and equitable process, such as: building trust among different parties, translating materials and providing interpretation for meetings in relevant languages, offering meeting times that work for the target audience, being mobile and fluid with community outreach, not passively waiting for participants to come, providing some form of activities for children during meetings, and utilizing social media networking to keep participants active and engaged. A challenge that has yet to be addressed is understanding that when millions of dollars are spent on projects, equity and inclusion should not just be defined by the number of Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) at the table and voices represented, but also using an equitable lens in the planning process and including BIPOC businesses. Achieving this will require greater efforts to reach out and find BIPOC businesses that are often overlooked when thinking about procurement of services.

In measuring its success based on community involvement (ensuring community needs and assets are integrated into process and inform planning) and community collaboration (ensuring that communities have the capacity to play a leadership role in implementing decisions), I would say the Malden River Works project is midway toward achieving these goals. We have had successes that we can be proud of and know we are setting the right example for equitable community engagement. Our project has yet to be tested where there is contestation regarding decision-making; this is when you get to the nitty-gritty of how equitable and democratic your processes are.

The strength of our continuing community engagement comes from connecting with and communicating honestly with individuals and established ethnic interest groups in various neighborhoods of Malden. I believe everyone who is tasked with or remotely connected to climate change must acknowledge climate justice as an essential component of sustainable climate resilience and appreciate that environmental justice communities can add value to the discussions and understanding of climate issues and solutions. Their lived experiences speak volumes to what tangible resilience is all about. Now we need only ensure that this work translates into transformative change and a more equitable distribution of power, knowledge, and resources for people of color that endures and is passed down generationally far beyond this Malden River Works Project.