How Would Oakland Community Groups Spend $30 Billion? We Asked Four of Them ...

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An aerial view of container ships docked at the Port of Oakland on March 6, 2019, in Oakland, California.  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Let's say you're a Green-New-Deal-type environmentalist hell-bent on avoiding planetary destruction while also fixing societal problems like economic inequality and racial injustice. Then, somehow, someway, just as California is digging itself out of a pandemic-induced recession, you have $30 billion to invest any way you want.

What are you going to do?

In early October, environmental groups convened a livestreamed panel with some of California’s climate intelligentsia for just such an exercise. Organizers are testing the waters for putting a California Climate and Clean Air Initiative” on the 2022 ballot and hoped the conversation could generate some policy ideas. For example, Kevin de León, former president pro tempore of the state Senate, wanted to spend money on building infrastructure for charging electric cars, plus a cash incentive for low-income people to buy them. Senate Majority Whip Nancy Skinner wish-listed $10 billion toward affordable housing near job centers and funds for green hydrogen, carbon sequestration and electric vehicles.

Environmentalists often argue economic stimulus is a tea best served with two lumps of clean energy and a heavy dose of social justice. So now that the policy bigwigs have opined, we decided to bring the same fantasy question to community organizations working in Oakland, a city where chronic exposure to particulate matter from smog generated by the heavily trafficked port and spider-webbed freeways exacerbates lung and heart disease in poorer neighborhoods; and where air pollution can also enable the spread of COVID-19.

So we asked activists from four organizations: If you were suddenly awash in $30 billion worth of funding, what would be your priorities for Oakland?

Here’s how the groups would want to spend those billions ...

Crystal Huang, worker-director of People Power Solar Cooperative, a grassroots-led initiative to develop community solar in the East Bay.

The Idea: Community members can “control their own power; literally, financially and politically.” The group develops community solar projects, where neighbors pool resources to invest in shared solar projects.

How would you spend $30 billion?

“Building community solar projects,” she said. “People who don't normally have the ability to get financial benefit or social benefit of solar power can own the solar system through the cooperative. Regardless of their living situation or whether they own real estate, they can participate in the energy transition.”

Sonrisa Cooper, community development program manager with the Greenlining Institute, which advocates for economic opportunity and empowerment for people of color

The Idea: Cooper recently co-authored a report calling for a “radical rethinking of community development.” The “Greenlined Economy Guidebook” outlines a framework for government leaders and businesses to invest more equitably. 

How would you spend $30 billion?

“Policymakers are talking about recovering from COVID and the recession," she said. "There is a very real threat of exacerbating the existing inequities, if economic recovery efforts aren't done with equity as a priority.

“We would make recovery efforts explicit about race. Redlining, urban renewal, even the foreclosure crisis of 2008, all of these policies were race-conscious. We shouldn’t use a race-neutral blanket policy to correct harms that have been done in communities of color, especially when they're being disproportionately affected by COVID, by the recession, and now by climate change.”

Noni Session, director and co-founder of the East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative, a democratically run cooperative that creates affordable housing for people of color living in the East Bay.

The idea: Lift Oakland out of recession by facilitating home ownership and investing in local businesses.

How would you spend $30 billion?

“We would turn that $30 billion into a low-interest technical assistance housing redevelopment fund,” Session said. “We would target standing housing stock, empty lots for land and housing acquisition projects.

“We often treat housing and the economy as two separate issues that need separate solutions. But they should be thought of together. When markets rise and dip, when folks’ tenancy is tenuous, our economic networks always take the first hit, particularly for small holders and small operators like Black and Brown Oaklanders, who are the canary in the well for those rises and dips.”

Amee Raval, research director for the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, which advocates for communities in Richmond and Oakland’s Chinatown.

The Idea: Raval recently co-authored a report calling for California policymakers to invest equally in both hard infrastructure (think climate-adapted bridges and seawalls) and social infrastructure (think services and well-being initiatives).

How would you spend $30 billion?

“Our members describe Oakland as a wok for pollution,” Raval said. “It's surrounded by freeways on every side and it's in close proximity to the port, with all that diesel pollution. We want investment in existing community institutions.

“We need $30 billion, probably more. Working-class communities of color are being hardest hit by the COVID pandemic, by fires, by heat waves, and power shutoffs. Many people already have asthma, respiratory illness and autoimmune disease from breathing polluted air daily.

“That’s why we need to strengthen the existing social fabric in communities, coordinate with local governments, invest in resilience hubs and services, and train workers and community members to prepare for and respond to shocks.”