(Unedited) Podcast Transcript 383: A Communities First Infrastructure Alliance

May 19, 2022

This week we’re listening in on a one-on-one conversation between Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins of NRDC and North Star Strategies and Helen Chin, President of the Communities First Fund.  Stephanie and Helen discuss why this is an important moment for infrastructure equity and the creation of the Communities First Infrastructure Alliance and its principles.

You can find the White House’s Technical Assistance Guide linked here and Communities First Infrastructure Alliance Principles and organizations here.

You can listen to the show at Streetsblog USA or our hosting site Libsyn.

Below is a full unedited transcript:

Jeff Wood (1m 32s):
Okay. Yesterday, May 18th, 2022 for future listeners, the White House released a technical assistance guide to help communities access resources made available for the infrastructure, investment and jobs act. IIJA, IIJA some people call it included our lists of resources for communities looking to apply for funding as well as groups that provide technical assistance, including the communities. First infrastructure lions on this infrastructure week 2022, Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins and Helen Chin discuss why the infrastructure bill and American rescue plan provide opportunities to create more equitable communities and why the communities first infrastructure lions is an important step forward in creating an ecosystem for the support of the infrastructure bill and equitable distribution of resources.

Jeff Wood (2m 24s):
You can find links to the Alliance and technical assistance guide in the show notes. All right, let’s get to Stephanie and Helen.

Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins (2m 32s):
All right. So first of all, I just want to say thank you Jeff, for Talking Headways and all the ways in which she continues to bring to life all the great work that’s happening in pasta industry. I’m super excited to have this conversation with Helen chin in part, because she has been a thought leader in this space for years and most recent weeks, she has launched the communities first fund. And so I’m hoping Helen, you could talk a little bit more about communities first and what you’re doing. We first met, I believe almost seven years ago when I was at USDA, the us department of transportation working on the sustainable communities initiative.

Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins (3m 12s):
And you were a thought leader and thought partner in this space, in the philanthropic world with both that in Kenyon, from Ford as well. And so it’s really great to just connect and talk about this moment, this movement, and how we really start to put communities first. So just to kick us off, can you maybe just talk a little bit more about your journey and how you got into the space?

Helen Chin (3m 35s):
Sure. I entered the environmental space basically for my background. So as a first-generation to the United States, like the thing that my family always shared with me is like a love of the environment, but that was juxtaposed to actually living in an environmental justice community in Brooklyn going up. So for me, I sort of had like the tales of two cities, like the role that the built environment can play in shaping your community, but also the way that the environment can be a space of nurturing and of care for you, meaning like our lives in Jamaica. So it was, that was always sort of like part of what held me.

Helen Chin (4m 16s):
And then when I got out of school, I remember my mother saying what you got to do with the rest of your life when I graduated. And I was just like, well, I know I really do care about the places that we live and that I’ve always questioned because of you and my aunties. Like the, why is it that we live this way, but it isn’t that way for everybody else. So that was one of the things that really sort of drove my passion, trying to understand how to be able to create spaces that allowed my community to live a way of dignity, similar to like the paradise that they had seen in Jamaica and folks would be like, but they immigrated here and immigrated for a better life.

Helen Chin (4m 58s):
And I was just like, yeah, but the environment was never the thing that they were running away from. So when they came here, I was really trying to lift that up and hold that as a thing that I wanted to commit myself to in my passion, which was really centering my community and making sure that they had voice and agents see around like what their communities could look like and not be at odds with the environment. So that led me to the work. And it’s been a winding road where I’ve done environmental justice work. I’ve worked nationally, I’ve worked globally to working within philanthropy. And that is where we actually met was in philanthropy.

Helen Chin (5m 38s):
And for me, philanthropy created a space to look at like a 10,000 level view to see how all these parts kind of come together. Like the systems piece, the policy and the organizing work that was happening on the ground. And the thing that I always noticed that was really missing in those conversations was that it was very top heavy. Like we really never engaged and organized with communities in a way that sort of met with my original impetus for coming into this space. So as I reflected on a 13 year career at Surdna from my next chapter, I was just like how to be true to what I had always been holding of, like, how do we center those most impacted in the position to be able to self-determine and actually lay out a pathway for themselves to be in relationship with the environment.

Helen Chin (6m 31s):
So it is not used against them, but it is actually something that is generative to them. So with that, I launched the communities first fund and thanks to partners at amalgamated foundation and at race forward, I’ve had the opportunity to be able to launch this effort, which really looks at how we embed racial equity into the culture and the practices within philanthropy and the public sector.

Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins (6m 56s):
It’s interesting. Cause I feel like I’ve always been an everyday environmentalist growing up. And yet when hurricane Sandy hit the New York New Jersey region, it was like the first time that I truly felt that it was my full mission to really be part of the change in a very different way. I think that for as much as I saw the impacts of extreme weather in the Gulf south, when we had our region flooded without lights for weeks, for some places, our trains underwater, it was for me a reality that we weren’t prepared for this moment or the magnitude of what was to come. So it’s, it’s great to kind of hear the journey because I think many people have a connection to place and to their communities and to the environment and very different ways.

Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins (7m 41s):
But yet when we start to talk about climate and climate change, it starts to offer this divide. It’s interesting because I think during my tenure at USDA, working for secretary Fox, what was beautiful is that working for a mayor, secretary, he was always able to connect the work that was happening at the federal level to the local level. And I really see and have continued to see that as the connection frame of how do we bring things at scale, as you talked about kind of that top down approach, also being able to bring the voices from the local level up as someone who also works for a local city and even during my time on the hill. I think what I saw was the implications that in Washington, sometimes we can often make decisions for people in places and not necessarily hold the wisdom that is truly those who are living in those communities in many different ways.

Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins (8m 36s):
So it’s been a beautiful journey as well to kind of work at scale from local to federal, but also bridge the work during my time at the natural resources, defense council NRDC, I think being able to center race as a climate justice and as a climate issue was important because I don’t think many people think about the implications of how climate change in our government policies continue to further exasperate the challenges that are happening in communities across the country. So one of the reasons why I was hoping that we could get together is really about the fact that president Biden and Congress has made some large investments in communities across the country.

Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins (9m 24s):
Really looking through both the $1.9 trillion from the American rescue plan act ARPA and the historic $1.2 trillion of infrastructure, investment and jobs act Isaiah last year. And together collectively there has been almost $3 trillion invested in communities in response to both COVID and our aging infrastructure. And so I was hoping that we could talk about what it really means this moment and the magnitude of funds that are going to be happening in place and how communities should be and could be put first as part of that discussion.

Helen Chin (10m 7s):
I am so excited about the moment that the Biden administration has ushered in from the day one and where he came into office. Because for me, there are a handful of things that he did to codify an understanding around the role that the built environment infrastructure has played on our lives and whether it be the American rescue plan or the infrastructure investment in jobs act, I job those come later, but like on day one, he talked about racial equity. And I thought in that moment, that is the acknowledgement of the past harm that we as a country have inflicted on certain people along the lines of race, class, and gender.

Helen Chin (10m 57s):
So within that is executive order around racial equity. I really thought that there was an opportunity and an opening to be able because of this acknowledgement begin to repair some of the past harm, but also it created a space for us to reimagine something different and then comes along. I joke I’m like O M G in that the, I joke that infrastructure, investment and jobs act, we are talking a trillion dollars. That is the largest investment that we have seen since the fifties with regards to infrastructure. And as we think about how infrastructure was used and weaponized throughout our history, the fifties kind of codified that it put that into place because it was building generational infrastructure systems juxtapose to the fact that we were living in a time where infrastructure was used as a tool for, for our oppression, for isolation, for keeping people from the ability, especially communities of color, from their ability to be able to prosper, have access to opportunities.

Helen Chin (12m 6s):
It’s all of it is woven together. It’s hand in glove. So a lot of times when we talk about the role of the built environment and racial justice folks seem to think as like two separate things and it’s never connected. And I remember even like my time within philanthropy folks would be like, what does the built environment, what does environment have to do with racial justice? And I was like, it’s everything. But like the fact that the environment is used as, again, a tool that is weaponized to either harm communities or oppress them or isolate them on one end. But it’s also a means in which we extract and we’re just taking, but this acknowledgement from the administration around one, a commitment toward an articulated commitment around racial equity and then the investment, it creates a real opportunity to, again, re-imagine something different and be able to put resources to building on that.

Helen Chin (13m 3s):
So the possibility for me, they’re endless, but what is going to be most important is that we can’t continue to do it in a top-down way where, you know, I’m sure the government thinks it has all the answers. I’m also sure, many folks in power, whether it be philanthropy, whether it be the private sector, seem to think they have all the answers, but the reality is that they don’t, but they have other resources who have the answers are those who are actually been most impacted, I believe. And I hold true. Like they hold the wisdom of what it will take in order for them to be able to prosper and grow and what they need is support and the resources to be able to put forward a vision that capitalizes on their wisdom and the priorities of their community.

Helen Chin (13m 50s):
But it’s going to mean that we actually collectively orient ourselves to who has the expertise to be able to bring forward a new proposition around the role that infrastructure can play.

Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins (14m 3s):
Yeah. You know, I think for me, one of the things that I’ve been thinking about is both the bi-partisan infrastructure deal and ARPA definitely presents a once in a generation investment. And for me, I see it as an opportunity to really embed community led solutions on equity, on our climate priorities, in our nation’s infrastructure. I don’t know how many people truly understand that, where we were building our infrastructure in the 1950s, that it was a different America where we literally were segregated by race and our infrastructure in many ways, continued to advance much of that divide, not just on race, but also on class.

Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins (14m 46s):
So you can see across the country, both in urban and even in rural, just thinking about where off-ramps replaced, who had access to the communities were really a limited space for people to really move the way that they wanted to, but it also granted new ways for people to move more quickly and to invest in a different way and regions across the country. And you see the growth of specific regions because of the infrastructure that was placed in what I do see as this opportunity that you’re talking about is really also an opportunity for state and local governments to make some different decisions than they’ve had in the past.

Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins (15m 30s):
The majority of the resources will go directly to state and local government leaders. And so for example, for transportation, about 70% of that money is going to go directly to the state and local government. And I’m not sure that there has been a true response in place as to how to support what is going to happen on the ground. And what we know is that place matters that your zip code has more of a determining outcome for your life expectancy than your genetic code. And so across the country, each state is kind of doing their own thing, but also limits the opportunities that can ensure that our entire nation is really in the same place or how we can move towards progress collectively.

Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins (16m 16s):
And I think that that is one of the opportunities that this bill presents in many ways. One of the things that she talked about with the executive order on racial equity, and there was also an executive order on climate change and the importance of that, and there was a specific call-out of an idea around something called justice 40 and the original premise came from something that was happening in New York, which I know, you know, a lot about. And the thought process was that if 40% of the population is being impacted by disadvantaged investments, then what would it look like to put 40% of resources to ensure that there are greater outcomes on the benefit side?

Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins (17m 1s):
And it got elevated as a campaign commitment, that was an executive order, but I know we’ve discussed the importance of maybe we’ll shifting from a justice 40 to really unlocking all of the federal resources and it kind of justice, 100 framework, right? That you would prioritize the federal resources that are made available to help those who have most been impacted by the decisions I was hoping we could talk a little bit more about justice and what that looks like in the infrastructure investments that may be coming into place to you.

Helen Chin (17m 34s):
One of the things I just want to echo on, what you talked about is like the justice 40 is it is the aspiration of thinking about like how we apply this investment at the federal level, with some intentionality around the built environment around climate, around environment. One of the things that I hold though, is, as you mentioned, is like, it talks about benefits. It does not talk about actual investment. It does not talk about all of government. There’s a lot of caveats and those caveats, then what we know to be true, because we’ve seen this other times in history is that what we’re starting to do is whittle away the dollars that are at the table.

Helen Chin (18m 18s):
And now what we’re left with is the crumbs, in some instance, but for me, it’s not even the crumbs. It is just like the, the scent of like what that pie is because without true dollars associated with it, it’s up to the discretion of everyone. And my thing is though, again, we have a legacy within this country where we use infrastructure as a way to segregate folks or to isolate folks and there’s harm that’s there. And one, we have the executive order around racial equity that is acknowledgement of that. But then the translation into that is justice 40.

Helen Chin (18m 59s):
And then you don’t put any dollars associated to that. There is no incentive for anyone to change their behavior and I’m going to stay high and say, there’s no incentive, let alone a stick for anybody to change their behavior. So why do it? So for me, justice 40 is a nice idea, but in order for it to actually have teeth, it will need dollars associated with it and mechanisms for accountability that don’t exist. So the thing that I hold is why, when I think about centering communities first, and being able to constantly be enforced like the need for communities to have standing, to have voice, to have agency defer to that, that justice 40 proposition.

Helen Chin (19m 44s):
When what communities actually have said they wanted is to justice 100. And by that, I mean of the, we are, as you said, putting out over a trillion dollars on the street. So why do I want the scent of it or some crumbs? Why can an equitable proposition be tied to every dollar that goes out the door? And folks will say it is complicated. It’s hard, we’ve done it this way. For me, those are excuses. There’s a real opportunity here. And we were able to build this country on another proposition in the fifties. What would it look like to actually institutionalize putting communities that have been most harmed at the center of the decision-making, but also the response that we need in that moment.

Helen Chin (20m 30s):
And then what that means is it’s a justice 100, it’s not the crumbs, it’s the whole pie that we need to think about how we change and how we change the systems from making the pie or the distribution of the pie, and then who actually benefits for it. And that is my hope is that the federal government as law, as well as because you mentioned those dollars, the way that they flow are actually going to cascade down at the state regional and local level. And there’s a real opportunity to re-imagine for everyone, how those dollars actually land, but we have to be intentional around again, this proposition that we are here and accountable to the communities that we have harmed or left behind in the past.

Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins (21m 13s):
I want to hit on the point of the difference between intent and intentionality, because I think that oftentimes we’ll say, well, we intend to have a certain outcome, but that intentionality requires work right. And the intent of justice 40 was to establish this whole of government approach to secure environmental justice and spur economic opportunity for disadvantaged. Those that have been historically marginalized and overburdened by pollution, by underinvestment and housing and transportation and water and wastewater infrastructure. But it hasn’t been codified into law nor has it been resourced through the federal appropriations process. So it makes it really challenging as you said, to enforce it for states to actually implement the visions in many ways.

Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins (21m 58s):
And I think that this is something that people need to understand, because we’re all saying that we’re excited about justice 40, but the actual guidance that was issued really just as a set up side for 21 programs. And those are a small portion of the trillions of dollars that have been made available through Isaeh. The other piece that I think is important for folks to maybe understand when we talk about this notion around justice, about putting communities first is when we make investments that truly do center, the wisdom of community, as you’ve been talking about, it offers the space for us to ensure that we can move together from an economic justice space together, that we are better as a whole than as our parts.

Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins (22m 50s):
And I think that the case for why we should really think about how we sent you, those communities that have been most impacted really kind of comes to the reality that it costs us so much more when we don’t tell them there’s one piece that I was hoping that we could talk about more specifically to, as it relates to president Biden’s actions and how he’s thinking about this moment and the work that has been happening. I know that there’ve been a lot of equity action plans that have been issued by each agency. And there also has been a release of all of the federal funding through build that gov that shares how these resources come together.

Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins (23m 30s):
I think one of the things that we were talking about was what would it look like if the federal agencies overlaid the maps of where there’s disadvantaged communities with the resources that are made available to Isaiah to unlock those dollars. And I was hoping we could have a conversation of how you bridge both the ARPA funds and the Isaiah funds for greater progress, because I know you’ve been thinking a lot about that. I’m not sure that people are really thinking about the COVID relief as a mechanism for being able to advance community infrastructure projects. Could you talk a little bit more about some of the work you’ve been thinking about on this?

Helen Chin (24m 7s):
Yeah, Stephanie, that is actually a really salient point because I do think that there is a real opportunity because one of the things that we saw with the opera funds, the COVID relief funds was a handful of things that I’m going to try to keep order of them. So the first is we were asking folks to re-imagine how they, they do business. And some of the inertia has been, we can’t do that, but during COVID what we saw, whether it was the federal government, whether it was philanthropy, people were moving money in a much different way. So let’s remember that point. The second was, we were asked to deploy dollars in a different way.

Helen Chin (24m 47s):
So a lot of times the dollars that we move our transactional, we’re gonna build a road. We’re gonna address a pipe that may have led in the system. We’re not really thinking about. And what COVID brought us to is what’s the capacity that needs to be in place for those folks on the ground to be able to absorb the dollars, but also have the flexibility around those dollars to be able to meet the needs that the comprehensive needs of things that were happening. And by that, what I mean is you were seeing organizations that their mandate on a day-to-day basis may have been like organizing, or it may have been, you know, you had organizations like, like in New York, lower east side community development group called goals.

Helen Chin (25m 37s):
Goals had the move from the historic role in mission that they were doing to being a direct service provider because folks were in harm’s way, folks needed support. And they had to pivot in a way that we had not seen before. But the thing that was interesting is the way that you saw ARPA dollars flowing even philanthropic dollars, where it was, it created an openness and a flexibility for folks to absorb those dollars and then just meet the needs of what their community needed and build their own capacity so that they can meet that moment. So for me, those are two valuable lessons that can then be carried forward.

Helen Chin (26m 17s):
As we think about this big wave of dollars coming from the infrastructure money, meaning there’s an opportunity to do things differently if we are intentional about it and don’t shy away from it. And the second thing is there is an opportunity to think about how we use those first wave of resources through ARPA, to be able to help people build their capacity at the local level, so that there is a state readiness for those dollars coming in those next round of dollars coming in from Ida. And I think that’s where the real opportunity is. And what you’re seeing is some states, some are thinking about it that way you have some cities are thinking about that way, but you also have communities thinking about it that way.

Helen Chin (27m 2s):
Meaning I’ve never been able to be eligible for federal funds just because of the way that the rules are written, but now me a community based organization and a CDC can actually capture dollars in a new way. So the question is, how do I translate the fact that there is now this opening to think more broadly beyond a transaction to thinking about like how I pull investment back into my community in a way that I have not seen in my lifetime. I think that’s where the opportunity is. And like I said, I feel like a lot of communities are using this moment as an opportunity to think about like, how do I make myself ready with these dollars?

Helen Chin (27m 42s):
So again, I can capture larger federal dollars or even private dollars to be able to bring back into my community.

Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins (27m 49s):
One of the things that I love that she’s talked about is the notion of leveraging the millions of philanthropic funds to truly leverage the billions of private capital funds to unlock the federal dollars. When we first met, it was on the sustainable communities initiative, and this was an opportunity to bring together the U S department of transportation, HUD, the housing, urban development, and the environmental protection agency EPA to really work together on community plans. And the one thing that the sustainable communities offered was that level of technical assistance to community based organizations and also local government entities to really think about both community plans that were supported by and really centering community vision.

Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins (28m 38s):
What was not made available was the capital dollars that would be needed to support the vision and the build-out and philanthropy has over the years, invested a lot of resources to support these community plans. And where I see this opportunity to connect the work is really being able to now leverage the capital resources that are being made available through the ARPA and Isaiah funds to do something different. So it’s my hope that folks across the country will really think about those community plans that have been worked on collaboratively for over the last decade, and really think about how these new resources of dollars could advance those local visions in this moment,

Helen Chin (29m 22s):
In addition to the sustainable communities, partnership grants, which gave folks the opportunity to begin to put pen to paper around vision and put plans forward, the Obama administration also created multiple other pathways where you saw communities coming together around plans. One of the things that you talked about early on was like hurricane Sandy. One of the opportunities has been a thoughtfulness during the Obama administration to be able to create space for people to re-imagine what a just recovery would look like and adjust rebuild would look like. So whether it was Katrina or Sandy, and then there was also something that HUD was holding, which was the natural disaster relief conversations.

Helen Chin (30m 4s):
It was allowing communities that had been hit by natural disasters to actually put forward a vision around, like, what does adjust rebuild look like? So you have communities, especially a lot of communities on the east coast going all the way to the Southeast, as well as the Midwest and the west coast that actually have like really strong plans that look at how to build not just their climate resiliency, but also their economic resiliency so that they could weather these storms longterm. So I think that there’s a lot of space to be able to build on philanthropy has taken up the helm and has supported the continuation of some of that work, but not at the scale that actually, I think we envisioned during the Obama administration.

Helen Chin (30m 44s):
So there was a real opportunity, I think, with this administration to be able to live into a lot of the work that has been done already.

Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins (30m 53s):
You know, one of the lessons from hurricane Sandy that I learned was just the importance of being able to support both the feedback loop of the way that the dollars were impacting place. What we had were folks on the ground who could also elevate up how the issuance of the guidance or the language would change things. And one of the things that I think is kind of interesting in this moment is that the Biden administration has been very intentional about putting out requests for information and guidance on the various things that they’ve been issuing. And I hope that listeners were willing to take that as an opportunity because they really are incorporating a lot of the recommendations that we’re seeing. The other piece that I’ve taken from the local level in my lived experience is that for as much as I’ve loved the community plans, that philanthropic dollars have funded the connection between really bringing those community plans to the public process, don’t always happen.

Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins (31m 48s):
And it takes both government officials to go connect with communities and really hear that and bring them into the process and also for community to also do the same in learning. And I think when you’re able to offer the space for each other to meet each other in our respective work, there’s so much more that can be done together. I know the last couple of months you’ve been working to truly organize philanthropy, to really understand what it means to meet this moment. Can you talk a little bit more about the briefing that you held and why it was important to emphasize the role that philanthropic dollars can play?

Helen Chin (32m 25s):
Yes. So one of the first do a quick shout out to who has taught me that lesson because in philanthropy, we always talk about leveraging capital. What I’ve seen is like climate and economic justice movement leadership, specifically someone named Taj James, that I’ve had the pleasure of working with when he was at movement strategy center, he always talked about philanthropy’s role is to be the flexible seed capital. And that was millions of dollars, right? He says, but that seed capital was critical to unlocking the billions of dollars that we saw within the private sector, because what philanthropy was doing was being able to model what good practice was, being able to see what was necessary.

Helen Chin (33m 11s):
Being able to build the capacity of the folks on the ground to be able to put forward a vision and a plan that then needed to be acted on. So in this moment, there is a real opportunity for philanthropy to think about their dollars, their millions, to not just capturing the billions from the private sector, but capturing trillions from the federal government. And as we went into conversations around how to best organize philanthropy, what we were holding for them was how can you in this moment, because many of us over the last couple of years have been very intentional, especially on the climate side, around building the capacity of frontline movement folks in a different way.

Helen Chin (33m 55s):
We are not doing all that we could be doing, but the reality is like we have started. And the fact that you are seeing communities like Richmond, like a Buffalo, like a new Orleans that are ripe and ready for a deeper level of investment and engagement from the federal government is because philanthropy has created the ecosystem, meaning supporting the groups to be in relationship with the local government in some cases. But in some cases you’ve just supported the roots and the communities to be able to self-determine in a way that shows that they are ready to absorb capital and resources at the federal level.

Helen Chin (34m 37s):
So what I would say we were pushing for at that meeting was for philanthropy to see this moment as a moment to double down on those investments and continue to build the capacity and the readiness of folks on the ground so that they can capture those larger dollars. But the other thing is philanthropy. What we were pushing on philanthropy is like philanthropy. You also have to know your role. We have been working for years to build an analysis around how justice and equity lives within our own philanthropic giving. You have lessons to share with the federal government to help move this process along. You also have relationships with folks on the ground to be able to say to the federal government, I’m going to actually step aside and who should be sitting at the table by these groups that have come together and have been resourced in such a way that they actually have a clear vision and a plan of what investment looks like in their community.

Helen Chin (35m 36s):
But the last thing that philanthropy and the last role that philanthropy needs to play is around accountability. Your positional power puts you in a place where you can. And that’s one of the things that we tried to articulate at that conference is that you actually have the ability to turn back to the federal government and hold them accountable for what those investment dollars look like as they touch place. So even if you don’t care about equity and a lot of folks in philanthropy, just worry about the impact. Just think about it this way. How are you making sure that the impact around your millions is actually being met by the federal government is going to require that you hold them accountable for getting a return on their investment, around the millions that they have invested and turned back to the federal government and say, we want to see those trillions now flow on the investments that we’ve made, whether it be in Navajo nation, whether it be in Buffalo, whether it be in new Orleans, it is going to be critical for philanthropy to be able to play that accountability role if we are ever going to truly get to the proposition that communities are actually at the center of this.

Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins (36m 45s):
Thank you for that. So, Helen, I know you’ve curated a set of principles that have come from decades of movement, leadership and practices. Can you talk about what they are and why they’re critical for this moment?

Helen Chin (36m 58s):
So one of the things that I was holding when I heard about the executive order on racial equity was what was going to be the connective tissue around values that we put forward. And when we talked about actually thinking about equity in a different way, the first thing that I was thinking about was who makes the decision and the, how so, what was most important was those most impacted are the ones who make the decision and the, how needs to be that we are centering the wisdom and the expertise of those who have been impacted to be able to put forward a vision, a plan, and a solution around what it means to, again, self-determined for themselves.

Helen Chin (37m 42s):
The other pieces also looking at how are we positioning them to be decision-makers. And for me, I’m really holding that piece because a lot of times what we talk about, whether the public sector or the philanthropic sector, we talk about being able to support participation or engagement. And I was like, this moment is not about a participation or engagement because usually what we do and what we know to be true is like the community is the last person to know what’s happening. They usually know right to day to day before the ribbon cutting. So my thing is, if we are really being intentional around equity, this isn’t a moment of, I would even say, co-creation allow them to create.

Helen Chin (38m 25s):
And then what our job is is to give them the space, to create meaning the resources and the means to do that, whether it’s the capacity or the technical, that is going to be critical for what it is that they do. The last thing is, is that what we have to do is actually be responsive and acknowledge what the past harm has been and be accountable to that. So the thing that the principals are looking to do again, as you mentioned, is be able to curate what folks on the frontline have said. They needed to be able to have standing with regards to self-determination and that is centering their wisdom, being accountable to them and acknowledging the past harm and giving them space to be able to not just design, but to develop and implement around the solutions that they put forward.

Helen Chin (39m 20s):
So, Stephanie, one of the things I want to elevate and make sure that I bring your voice in, because you have a lot of lived experience with the public sector. And when I talk about being able to meet where communities are and giving them the space to be able to put forward a vision and a plan, the thing that I hold from my time in philanthropy that was missing was that we never really gave folks the support that they needed, whether it was physical capacity or whether it was technical assistance. And I’m just curious how your time in the federal government, and also in local government, how that resonates with you, the need to be able to create spaces for technical assistance that are actually aligned with the values of the community that they’re serving.

Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins (40m 10s):
So, first of all, I think it might be important for the audience listeners just to kind of recognize that when I’ve been referencing community, I’m holding both community-based organizations that are often not the eligible entities and small, and mid-sized communities, municipalities, local governments, and part because the level of capacity and support to take on this level of federal resources are very similar. In many ways across the country, the states have always distinctly received the formula dollars that are allocated to them and they decide where they may want to invest. And in this moment there’s more flexibility for the resources to go directly to local entities.

Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins (40m 53s):
And there’s also an opportunity to do more discretionary programs. So I really see this moment as an opportunity to bring both the community-based organizations, the local municipalities and the leadership teams there in addition to the federal and state level together. But I’ll say is that the last few years I’ve been working with others to advocate for the level of investment that was passed. But what I realized coming out of this moment through the signing of the infrastructure investment in jobs act was that there’s been limited coordination at scale amongst each of the groups. And while it’s exciting, and ARPA has really opened up our eyes to new ways for us to partner, I’m hoping that partners on the ground can take the lessons that they’ve learned even over the last two years to do something different.

Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins (41m 46s):
And so, as a result, I think that it’s important that the ecosystem that’s required to support the equitable implementation of Isaiah be created and really connecting the conversation between this moment, the need for being able to have guiding principles that you talked about and shifting from a moment to really a movement where we really center what is happening on the ground, centering those who are most that need centering the vision of what we want to invest in, because what we do today is going to have a lasting impact, not just for tomorrow, but for the next generation.

Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins (42m 28s):
I’m hoping that the listeners will really think about their role in this moment and how they may be able to ensure that they’re on the right side of history and being able to use their agency, their power, their access, to really push for more equitable outcomes. I feel like 2020 brought to life. So many things that we’ve turned a blind eye to economically socially, politically, and even just as it relates to our own public and environmental health and the cumulative impacts of us not being able to address our infrastructure system. That’s been aging, the civic infrastructure, people being able to be on the ground offers a new opportunity for us to imagine something different.

Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins (43m 13s):
And so I’m excited to potentially partner, not just with the listeners, but more over advocates across this country to really push, to be in community with each other and provide the space where the coalitions and the associations of the associations and the leaders that need to be accountable to community vision, come together to both meet this moment and establish the civic infrastructure that’s going to be needed for the long-term possibilities because these dollars offer an opportunity for us to do something different. And if we miss this moment, I’m not sure we’ll have another generational opportunity to change the way that we do business.

Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins (43m 54s):
And so my hope is the creation of an Alliance that will bring together leaders in government philanthropy, as you’ve talked about and the role that they can play in the investment and being able to bring the resources to communities in a way that support the community plans that we’ve been talking about, the solutions that really go to the heart of what is needed for this moment and opportunity that the priorities of our lasting infrastructure that really ensure that we all thrive

Helen Chin (44m 26s):
As we think about what it will take in order to truly reorient how government works and for us to then operationalize then how it plays itself out on local level, meaning how those dollars move, how systems are changed to center communities. First, one of the things that we have been mindful to think about is those principles. So the first thing folks can do is adopt those principles, live those principles, sign onto the principles. The thing is if we are truly going to be accountable to community, we need to start living what those principles are in a way that they show up, not just in the way that we do business, but in our values.

Helen Chin (45m 8s):
That’s the first thing. The second thing that folks can do as I think about the audience for the podcast is we will be launching in the summertime, the communities, first infrastructure Alliance. There’s a real opportunity to be in relationship with community in a different way. And we are creating the communities first infrastructure Alliance, which would be, which is a space that we’ll be bringing together community as well as the practitioners and the federal government and local government in a way that we can build. And co-create together

Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins (45m 43s):
Over the last few months, both you and I. And so many other thought partners in this space have been working to co-create the infrastructure Alliance, and it’s really an opportunity to both center. The wisdom of community leaders, movement, environmental justice leaders, and community leaders with equity national equity leadership, to really support the technical assistance that they may be needed on the ground. And moreover, being able to work, because this has been a required kind of a 50 state strategy to bring together the associations of associations, where many folks get their accreditation and get some of these best practices and share out what, what is happening on the ground.

Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins (46m 26s):
And so over the next couple of months, what I think we are hoping to achieve is an opportunity not just to coordinate and share information in a more intentional way, but really going into the regions and being able to support learning exchanges and dialogue, being able to do best practices and trainings for folks who are interested in really wanting to figure out how do we really put communities first, really also being able to support more engagement with community-based organizations into the government process. Because I think that within itself sometimes is the missing element we pay for consultants times, but we often don’t pay for communities time. And so really thinking through how do we bring community into the conversations?

Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins (47m 9s):
How do we also ensure that we’re supporting the work that can happen for the longer term, how folks can get involved is elevate your voice at the most local levels, being able to speak and elevate to the governor’s, what you’re expecting for those projects. One thing that I may bring to listeners reminder is that in order to unlock federal dollars, there’s often an 80 20 match. And the question of where that 20% comes from is one that we often don’t talk about, but there’s a real opportunity to leverage both the philanthropic dollars that may be available in regions, but also potentially the Arco funds. One of the things that was offered through the treasury department’s guidance on ARPA was greater flexibility of the funds.

Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins (47m 53s):
And so the resources that have been made through ARPA could also be leveraged in this infrastructure act and being able to leverage those funds as part of that matching conversation. I’m hoping that folks can stay tuned and how they can get engaged, but it’s our hope that we may be able to go into places across the country and really support more regional learning exchanges, being able to elevate webinars and trainings that are happening both at the national level and at the local level to ensure that everyone can really be part of a new conversation for how we invest in place. The final piece that I would say that especially during my time at VOT, there was so much that could be done with a soft power meaning being able to get out of our offices and going into those communities and doing the walk assessments and being able to actually see what different places really are looking and look like when we did that work, it just changed things.

Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins (48m 51s):
I’m not sure how many engineers actually go to the places that they’re doing the studies on. And when you come out and you actually walk the place and experience places that lived as the user does and their lived experience, you kind of changes your recommendations in a very different way. So I hope that folks, especially as we’re getting out of COVID and really trying to figure out our new normal, that we will explore the places that we believe we know, but with those who actually are living there every single day and take the opportunity to learn from them, how they’re experiencing place, if you’d like to stay updated, as well as sign on to the adoption around the principles, please visit the website, which is communities first that hell.

Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins (49m 37s):
And I just appreciate you taking the time to talk and share kind of the wisdom that you’ve learned. Similarly, it’s been a privilege to be part of this discussion and bringing the lived experience of the work that I’ve been able to do over the last few years. Stephanie, thanks so much for creating space for you to be in conversation with you. It’s always a pleasure and I look forward to our next conversation.

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