by Meg Jamison, Executive Director
In 2017, when SSDN set out to equip local governments to execute on a new program focus, we could not have known the challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic would impose on our work - nor could we have imagined the creative ways our grantees and partners would overcome those challenges. Over the last five years, we’ve watched and supported and commiserated with our local government teams as they faced each hurdle with patience, flexibility and a spirit of innovation.
All told, local governments in 17 communities across the Southeast leveraged more than $4.9 million in Southeast Sustainability Community Foundation (SSCF) funds over the last five years to help communities mitigate and adapt to climate change, focusing on sustainable and equitable energy and water systems. Those investments are already yielding dividends across the region, as local governments and their community partners have used SSCF funds - and the successes they achieved with those funds - as a catalyst to secure additional investments to continue and expand transformative sustainability projects for the communities they serve.
What emerged over the grant period was the awesome reality that in spite of significant struggles, equally significant successes were achieved. We witnessed example after example of what community-driven climate work truly looks like, taking in critical learnings that emerged along the way that will help inform and guide future programs.
Learning through listening
As we engaged with our local government and community partners during this grant program, and as we reflected on our work, several common themes came to light that are worth highlighting. The common thread is one of learning through listening. Listening to community members, community leaders, implementation partners - and listening to what the outcomes are telling us. Equally as important: being open to what we’re hearing so that those learning opportunities can yield even more meaningful results.
Listening to community members
You’ll never know the answer to a question if you don’t ask it first. Assumptions can be made and hypotheses can be proposed, but what we heard as a top observation from grantees is that getting in front of the people who are living with the problems we’re trying to solve is critical. Their input in defining the issue and developing the solution will improve the effectiveness and efficiency of our work every time.
In a project the City of Durham executed with SSCF funds, the importance of frontline community insights was clear: “Through direct contact with people in our community, we determined where we really needed to focus,” said Dan Sargent, Executive Director of Rebuilding Together of the Triangle.
In Sargent’s view, the intensive community outreach they did was worth every moment, as their conversations with local residents revealed important basic needs that required attention before the flood mitigation and weatherization projects they intended to install could have the desired impact. Without that insight, they might have missed the mark.
The Fulton County team expressed similar sentiments in reflecting on their work to develop resilience hubs. The team thought up creative ways to encourage community members to share feedback, offering grocery gift cards and giving away smart thermostats. Once COVID-19 restrictions eased, they held pop-up engagement sessions, providing more information to residents and collecting additional input. “Getting the feedback of those who would benefit from these services and who know their own communities better than anyone else ever could was perhaps one of the most valuable inputs to this project,” said Alex Trachtenberg, Energy and Sustainability Manager with Fulton County. “Community input was used to refine and iterate on our initial plans, allowing us to design a hub that most meaningfully met the needs of the people who would use it.”
This is a theme the City of Knoxville saw in their work to provide weatherization and energy efficiency resources for struggling communities - and it was a theme they’d come to understand from other projects over the years. They recognized that their success hinged on whether they’d done the front-end work of understanding how to best meet community needs. “We knew right from the beginning that the best outcomes would be achieved only if the communities we were trying to help were involved in the process,” said Brian Blackmon, Sustainability Director for the City of Knoxville.
The City of Miami got creative about getting community input, too. They chose to assemble an advisory board to help inform their resilience-strengthening program for affordable housing communities. “Feedback from the advisory board was critical,” said Jon Klopp, Resilience Programs Manager with City of Miami. “Some of the most important input you can get for a program that’s intended to help a certain group of people is to get those people engaged in the process. Getting practical insights from the very people who would ultimately be using this tool and benefit from it was foundational to our success. After all, the tool is only effective if people actually use it.”
From giveaways to pop-up engagement sessions, impromptu advisory boards, and good old fashioned door-to-door listening tours, grantees across the Southeast demonstrated to community members that their voices mattered - and the impacts these programs had on people’s everyday lives were more meaningful because of it.
Listening to community partners and leaders
Linking up with long-serving community partners and those who’d served as leaders in those communities for many years - sometimes for generations - was another critical element of success for grantees, but it isn’t always easy.
In Fulton County, Georgia, they found that making connections with existing community networks to help with fundamental outreach and education efforts was challenging during a pandemic. Focusing on partnerships had always been the central ingredient to the City’s recipe for success, but fostering those partnerships and developing new connections through online interactions wasn’t ideal. Ultimately they found a way to make virtual partner-building work, and it underscored for their staff the need for a longer term strategy around building and maintaining community partnerships.
The Knoxville team shared similar guidance, “If local governments haven’t already gotten engaged with equity partners, it’s time to have a strategy,” said Blackmon. “It’s all about prioritizing community relationships, and there isn’t a blueprint - there’s no cookie cutter approach. We got to this point through years of developing relationships, with lots of stops and starts along the way. It’s challenging work, but rewarding when you see meaningful outcomes.”
Observations from community partner Rebuilding Together of the Triangle were also aligned with the importance of leveraging existing relationships in their project with the City of Durham. “The partnerships with our community organizations, who already had a presence in these neighborhoods and had the attention and the trust of residents so that we could glean those insights, was critical to the success of the program,” said Sargent. “The direct input of residents that those relationships yielded equipped us to tackle the right problems with the right solutions.”
Another Durham partner, the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association, concurred. “This sort of project cannot succeed unless we are a trusted resource in the neighborhoods we’re working in,” said Robert Meehan, Water Management Specialist with the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association. “Community and neighborhood leaders are the local experts, and we need to listen and have them drive the planning process. As we complete this phase of the project and consider how to expand it, the first step will always be to listen to our local community leaders.”
Our grantees experienced first-hand that well-paired local governments and community organizations working in partnership can make a bigger impact together when they combine government grants and resources with community-based networks. Listening to those with existing relationships and trusted voices makes for a more efficient way to work, and often achieves program objectives in a more time-effective manner.
Listening to outcomes
Listening to the right people is only part of the effort. Sometimes even when you get community input and work with partners to develop a program, there are still unknowns and nuances that impact your ability to achieve outcomes and meet the need. Many of our local government partners highlighted the importance of being willing to “listen” to outcomes as you watch the project unfold, and demonstrate openness to pivoting mid-stream if there are improvements or changes needed to better serve the needs of the community.
The City of Miami had precisely that experience. “As we got some of our first few building assessments in, pairing those with funding resources, the realities of how difficult it would be for building owners to take on debt for larger projects - even when the loans would be forgiven in a matter of years - proved to be a barrier,” said Klopp. “The folks we’re working with aren’t always accustomed to going through these kinds of processes, so we found that unless the owners are using this as simply a part of a larger, planned rehabilitation effort at their property, it was difficult for them to take on the debt.”
To address this challenge, City of Miami and its partners exercised flexibility and further honed its audience, revising its target to properties where the available funding was a better match and more likely to be able to cover the costs of a resilience project from start to finish. They also developed a funding guide to help walk property owners and residents through the application and approval process, including counseling on documentation requirements that might be required as the funds were used.
The City of Knoxville had a similar experience, discovering the need to flex after their Savings in the House programs were already underway. They recognized that they needed to incorporate what they were hearing from and seeing in the communities they were serving, and it became clear the program’s focus would need to be expanded to meet the need.
Program coordinators embedded with the City’s network of community partners were seeing that, like energy inefficiency, water inefficiency was driving up utility bills, which, for some families, was leading to financial vulnerability, debt, and even homelessness. Water inefficiency was also contributing to unhealthy and unsafe housing conditions that can cause and exacerbate medical issues that negatively impact health. Knowing that the overall negative impacts of energy- and water-inefficient and unhealthy homes worsens under extreme temperatures and other climate-related hazards, Knoxville recognized a different path was needed to more fully and comprehensively address the needs of Knoxville’s low-income residents and other vulnerable populations. They would need to expand SITH to include not just energy efficiency, but also water efficiency.
“The invaluable insights gleaned from community partners are what informed our new path,” said Blackmon. “Our partners’ feedback from the field resulted in the creation of an overall better program that met more needs for more people.”
The addition of the healthy and resilient home education program comprehensively addressed the monthly cost and health issues residents were experiencing. Ultimately, being open to community feedback led the City to incorporate water efficiency, improving Knoxville’s already-successful Savings in the House campaign, empowering lower-income residents to reduce more of their monthly utility costs, and improve home health through better usage habits and low-cost home upgrades.
It takes a certain amount of humility and courage to acknowledge the need for a pivot that better serves the community. Knoxville and Miami are just two examples of how listening to outcomes and acting on what we’re seeing can be the difference between a good program and a great program.
Thank you to the following SSCF communities:
The challenges and uncertainties of the last few years could have broken a lot of program plans, but our SSCF grantees persevered, demonstrating commitment and creativity in the face of previously-unimaginable challenges. Our grantees found ways to shift the order of planned activities to avoid COVID-delays, made the most of online interactions, and took advantage of changing circumstances to deepen relationships in communities. We all learned from each other and from our communities during these experiences.
Our foundational SSCF funder for this program was the Kendeda Fund, joined by the Kresge Foundation in 2018. Dennis Creech, from Kendeda, shared his thoughts on the approach of local governments and the outcomes achieved in partnership with community organizations from these grants. “This is changing the way our local governments are approaching their work. Local governments really took the time to engage with their communities more deeply in these programs, which is critical since the vast majority of the wisdom and expertise that’s needed to implement successful projects comes from local frontline communities. Through this program we’ve seen what can happen when we pair SSCF’s access to resources with those who know their communities best in order to achieve our objectives - that’s powerful.”
We all too often find ourselves busy with the actions of setting goals, completing tasks, and taking actions to achieve our objectives that it would be easy to keep moving and keep checking things off our list. We are pressed with deadlines and timelines and commitments. But as we’ve seen so prominently in the work of our grantees, stopping to listen and thoughtfully incorporate what we’re hearing is the key to successful, community-driven climate work that improves lives. We’re grateful to work with local governments and partners who recognize that, and who are making a difference for those who need it most.