May 19, 2022 - From the May, 2022 issue

Marta Segura: LA City’s First Climate Emergency Mobilization Director

Early in 2021, Mayor Eric Garcetti launched Los Angeles’ first-ever Climate Emergency Mobilization Office (CEMO) with a mandate to coordinate the actions of the Mayor’s Office, City Council, and community leaders to meet the commitments of L.A.’s Green New Deal while centering the voices and needs of LA’s frontline communities. TPR interviewed CEMO Director Marta Segura, a longtime environmental justice advocate who has spent decades designing programs and social change campaigns to address inequities and health gaps in communities across Los Angeles. Emphasizing the opportunity to model the Biden Administration’s Justice 40 initiative in Los Angeles, Segura highlights CEMO’s ongoing virtual Climate Equity LA workshops and efforts to engage frontline communities to advise the city’s approach to building decarbonization, community resilience, and climate equity metrics. 


“The City of Los Angeles can be a model for the rest of the nation in operationalizing the Biden Administration’s Justice 40 initiative.” — Marta Segura, M.P.H.

Marta, in announcing CEMO, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said: “Our Climate Emergency Mobilization Office will be a source of solutions for this generational challenge…(and) with a proven leader like Marta taking the reins, our City will stay focused on the core promises of our vision: greater equity, lower emissions, a thriving economy, and a zero-carbon, green-energy future.” Please elaborate on your office’s mandate.

Marta Segura: The mandate and vision is dedicated to building collaborative, innovative, intersectional, and equitable climate solutions, that support community climate resilience and limit climate-related health burdens for all with a laser focus on frontline communities.  We intend to accomplish this with meaningful civic climate dialogues across the city of Los Angeles, but particularly with the grassroots organizations, and disinvested-in communities, like South Los Angeles, Wilmington, East Los Angeles, and the San Fernando Valley. Our vision integrates equity as a through-line and we have co-designed a blueprint for innovative governance to accomplish our goals.  As we move forward with equitable climate policy and infrastructure investments from those policies and their subsequent implementation.

Marta, as the Mayor noted in publicly introducing you, your background for this work is impressive. Elaborate for our readers the learned experience that you bring to this to the tasks assigned.

I think the common thread has been that I am interested in creating, healthy and thriving communities across Los Angeles because we still have some of the most  pollution burdened areas in the nation and historically disinvested have been left behind for far too long. I have a master's degree in public health and environmental health sciences, but I've always been a student of mother earth and the environment. My advocacy has focused on environmental justice communities because I saw from an early age that is where the polluters and freeways exist and where the health inequities were the greatest. This lit a fire in me, and I knew that I needed to be part of the change and solutions.

Much later in my life and career, I was invited to be a planning commissioner for the city of Los Angeles as well. And that gave me a whole different perspective, outside of being an advocate for those issues and a professional in public health because once you know how the city policies are created, it gives you a lot of leverage to improve upon those policies.  While I was a commissioner, we spearheaded the passing of Clean Up Green Up, the first ordinance adopted by the city to address cumulative health impacts resulting from a legacy of incompatible land-use patterns in several neighborhoods
I also led the first Equity Day and the passing of the Healthy LA ordinance, Recode LA, the city’s first sustainability plan among many other great changes to our General Plan. Yet, creating policy is only part of the equation, we must implement and execute and bring the policy to life.

Marta, our readers might also be interested in learning about your past work at the California Endowment and L.A. Neighborhood Land Trust.

Yes, I was also a program officer at the California Endowment when it was first launched. That was quite an education because I had never been a Grantmaker only a grant seeker. Since a lot of the funding was going to Northern California and to organizations not led by people of color, my mandate to bring more funding to Southern California, particularly to marginalized communities and organizations led by people who looked like and represented the experiences of those they were impacting. The policies to invest in these community-driven people of color-led organizations did not effectively really exist then, since funders had a model of funding organizations that had a track record, great grant writing capacity, and what they called the absorptive capacity. Basically, you had to have money, to get money.  Before TCE and the California Wellness Foundation, foundations in California hadn’t really caught on to their role of building organizational capacity for areas that had been left out of the funding streams.  We worked hard to ensure we built capacity equally across the board in Los Angeles and California so that all communities could thrive that were having an impact on their communities.

Then, yes, I worked for the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust. It was at the beginning I was offered a position as an Associate Director. That was quite the experience as well because raised funds and co-designed parks with the members of the communities that were selected as park-poor areas of the City of Los Angeles.  That organization had a great impact, and it tripled the parks in many parts of Los Angeles, like Council District 13, where I subsequently serve as a District Director. The LANLT model served us well because they paid to be the community members to be the caretakers and the stewards of their parks.

Charged with developing an equitable climate action roadmap for the City of Los Angeles, elaborate on how you and your office have organized and prioritized the implementation of your responsibilities.  

We now have a blueprint, which I don't think we've ever had before, which basically is to engage the community from the very beginning across Los Angeles and ask them what priority areas they want to address.

With priority areas established; we will co-designed curriculum this year, with members of the community having input, for example, into building decarbonization, and community-driven climate resilience.

What's interesting about our processes is that we have a lot of participation: small groups within the sessions, polling, and surveys, and, in addition to that, we have commissioned focus groups. We're going to take all of that data and pull it together and create a report of recommendations and findings that will be delivered to the Climate Emergency Mobilization Commission, which we launch in July. That commission will then deliberate on those recommendations and findings that create the Equitable Climate Action Roadmap.

Those documents will also then be delivered to members of the city council and committees to help advise and influence climate policy to be more equitable for the City of Los Angeles.

CEMO has just concluded a climate equity virtual workshop series; could you share what those preliminarily findings were?

Well, I honestly can't because the research is still underway, and we are still pulling together the data, but I'll share what I observed as a participant.  

What I observed as a participant in the series is that people are very interested in helping the planet and decarbonizing and ensuring that LA is at the forefront of equitable climate policy. And they're excited to be part of the process.

However, and this is where all cities need to pay attention, we need to understand what the potential unintended consequences and costs are to the members of our community, particularly middle- and low-income members of the community that are already paying much higher utility rates, whose housing has not improved, and some of whom live in terrible housing conditions where there is mold, dilapidated paint, leaking roofs, and un airconditioned housing for families during extreme heat storms of Los Angeles. So, they want the city of Los Angeles to identify potential funding sources for these landlords to ensure that the costs of decarbonization and climate adaptation don't displace members of the community. The community had very moving and brilliant wisdom about how the City and other elected officials could improve their lives in the face of the Climate Crisis.  That's part of  what I observed as a participant, so the recommendations or findings will bring more depth and we’re still compiling our report.  That’s also the exciting aspect to this, their voices will be seen and heard at the Climate Emergency Mobilization Commission and at City Council meetings, to support the shaping of equitable climate policy.

Given your prior grantmaking experience, how challenging will it be to connect grant-maker funding to CEMO’s findings and recommendations?

Financing can be complicated, but it doesn’t have to be for philanthropy.  I do think it's a phenomenal opportunity for Grantmakers to engage on this multifaceted topic. These kinds of investments not only fund the health of our planet, they fund the health of our communities, and it also helps ensure that our communities are not bearing the burden of the renewable energy transition. We also have already begun to connect with Grantmakers.

Philanthropic funding will also ensure that the workforce development and the economic policies that are going to shift into new technologies can have a very positive effect on people, communities, and most of all workers. We want to make sure that philanthropy is in the middle to bring together all the lessons that we've learned in the past when we've had other economic transitions, particularly post-pandemic. I think that would be an amazing partnership.

But the financing of the renewable energy transition will not just rely on philanthropy. We're trying to figure out if there are some best practices out there that combine federal government, state government, philanthropy, and local government, and then also financing mechanisms by which we could make this a long-term investment, not just a pilot program for a year or two.

To follow up, given that CEMO is tasked with innovating governance strategies to ensure communities and equitable solutions are at the heart of the city's climate strategy, what innovative government strategies might the Commission likely recommend going forward?

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What's unique about the Climate Emergency Mobilization Commission is that it's represented by the most pollution-burdened communities of Los Angeles. Seven of its members are represented by those communities. We also have labor, climate experts, youth, and the Native American community represented. Since it has this level of not just diversity, but thought leadership and experience, we believe that having this kind of commission is innovation. An office like mine has never had a commission connected to it.

Another innovation is that we're not just having virtual events, we're having engagement and data gathering to create a report that will then inform the Commission on the steps that it should take to advise the council. Since you have climate experts and a community from the most impacted areas on both sides, you have a mirror of that conversation happening that will be lifted when it goes to council.

That's the innovation that we are hoping to improve upon because this is its first year. We're testing the model and we're going to improve upon that model year after year.

To be slightly provocative re CEMO’s mandate: is there a disconnect presently, between the city and frontline communities with respect to LA’s climate program priorities?

Well, if it hadn't been for the council members, this office would not exist. I think what's happening is that the organizations advocated for this office and programs like this; Council responded and said, we will fund CEMO. So, there is a connect, right? And, in fact, there's a growing connect between the community voices and the Council.

The beauty is that the council is very excited, interested, and supportive of the work that we're doing. All cities are trying to figure out what does authentic, meaningful community engagement really look like? I think our city is no different. We're doing that with CEMO, trying to figure out and show Council what authentic, meaningful community engagement looks like and how that translates into policy.

What we've been talking about lately is a whole of government approach, and we have many examples within our policy already, like the safety element and a number of other elements of the general plan. We have already been advocating for this health in all policies, environmental justice in all policies, and we want to ensure we bring that into the fold and work with other departments and bureaus so that we can have a collaborative approach that understands how to un-silo and integrate these different, but similar mandates. We don’t want to be duplicating efforts, but reinforcing and adding value to how we achieve these goals.  One example we must explore is the application of community benefits plans, and co-design these with community, especially during the decision making of what kind of infrastructure development we need and where.

Drawing on your experience on the City’s Planning Commission, what lessons have you learned regarding the challenges of effectuating an integrative approach to governing and synthesizing policies into a cohesive plan?

There were so many lessons there, but I'll start with this. Each council member from the 15 districts has an enormous amount of influence and power over policy, particularly for their own council district. It does take a village and it does take a social mandate to influence that elected office or collective elected offices. To their credit, they wanted that social mandate and they wanted CEMO to bring them that voices of the community and ensure that these voices are heard and influence their policy, so we have come a long way.

I learned, back in about 2013, that whenever community was not engaged or involved, the elected official exercised his right to representative democracy. In the absence of community, that's what happens. That's why we want to ensure that these voices are heard. Council is helping me to do that, so that these unintended consequences don't reoccur.

The other one I'd have to say is that special interest groups vary in power drastically. Some special interest groups are heard a whole lot more than others. As a person who was appointed to that position, you must balance those interests to ensure that community  voices are equally heard. 

When I was growing up in San Jose, California, I lived in a neighborhood that was demolished. Every member of that community was displaced. Why? They were building a freeway overpass and wanted to build a children's museum. Everybody in my neighborhood, including myself, without real notice, was displaced. When I became a planning commissioner, I came with a real sense of purpose to ensure that people were heard and not negatively impacted. I bring that with me throughout all of my career.

Some might argue that we can't build big, innovative projects unless somebody can come in and deal politically with resistance to change from neighborhood opposition. How do you respond to that point of view?

If we want to progress, we should be more democratic. We also want to bring change that has a positive impact on the vast majority of the community. We must progress in terms of how we integrate meaningful community engagement, conversation, and decision-making.

What we've had in the past, even with Cap and Trade and other well-meaning policies, are seen as false solutions by the most affected communities. With Cap and Trade, we exacerbated the pollution burden on the already pollution-burdened communities. People in my position now realize that if we don't include the voices of the disproportionately affected, we're not going to have climate solutions that actually save our planet. Nobody's going to win. We're not engaging the frontline communities or disadvantaged because it's charitable or it's the morally right thing to do. We're doing it because we need to ensure that climate change is mitigated and resolved, and we can't do that without everybody, especially the most impacted communities. There have been too many false solutions that excluded their voices.  If you exclude people from the decision-making process and you don't come up with solutions that can match those concerns, then you must figure out a better way.

For example, the whole community I lived in was displaced. What does San Jose need today more than anything else? Housing. Was that overpass necessary? Probably not. It brought increased pollution burden where there were schools and hospitals, and they could have really benefited from keeping those homes and that area zoned for residential development. 

These are complex decisions, but we need to cast a wider net in these conversations to make the decisions that benefit the greater good. This is a phrase I use often: sometimes we have to go slow to go fast, and that is what I would recommend for those that want to eliminate resistance and especially for policymakers.

Let us close, because of time and space in our newsletter, by asking you to both preview what next month's CEMO’s climate equity metrics and policy workshop will address; and, if you could, what from those workshops you are likely to share at Verdexchange’s VX2022 June 19-22 in Los Angeles.

Like I was talking about earlier, we need a whole of government approach with a lens on equitable policies. In my perspective, we need the federal government, the state government, and the municipal governments to be aligned on this Justice 40 Initiative that is designed to distribute no less than 40 percent of infrastructure investments to these pollution-burdened environmental justice communities.

One thing is creating an initiative like Justice 40, the second thing is operationalizing it. Assemblymember Isaac Bryan has proposed a California State Bill, AB 2419, that offers an approach by which to help the state of California operationalize Justice 40 at the local level.  Both he and Capri Maddox Esq., who is the General Manager of the Civil Human Rights and Equity Department at the City of LA will speak at our Roundtable.  General Manager Maddox oversees the auditing of the city's policies for equitable approaches and will help CEMO and the City to see policy through an equity lens.  We will ask them both what we must do to achieve equitable climate investments in Los Angeles.  Capri Maddox Esq. has an entire department to ensure that we have this whole of government approach with a lens on equity at the local level. If these conversations happen often and we are listening, I think we can get to our goal of equitable climate solutions that actually make a difference for all of us.  The City of Los Angeles can be a model for the rest of the nation in operationalizing the White House’s Justice 40 initiative and building a model that prioritizes meaningful and innovative governance and community engagement from the frontlines and beyond.

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© 2022 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.