By Tira Okamoto

Scanning the ballroom room of the California Adaptation Forum, it was easy to see a room full of policy wonks, young urban planners, and the seasoned agency upper management. Squint a little harder and the more marginalized folks came into focus – the people of color, the youth activists, the seasoned community organizer, the working parent.

The irony is that we were gathered together to listen to a plenary session on equity in climate adaptation and yet the audience felt like the ironic Mean Girls lunchroom scene where Gretchen Wieners tells Lindsay Lohan’s character – “you can’t sit with us.” I remember thinking – Are we practicing what we preach? Are all the right people in the room and who is missing or did not have access to get in the room? Will we keep repeating environmental injustice?

I was sitting with 787 adaptation professionals at the three-day biennial California Adaptation Forum (CAF) in Sacramento (August 2018). I had just spent a year working for the Resilient by Design | Bay Area Challenge and attended the Forum to quell my inner climate adaptation nerd. The thick conference program in my lap described all the Forum workshops, plenaries, break-outs, accelerators, and other types of sessions, many of them focused on climate justice, equitable climate adaptation, social equity, and tribal considerations. The program also referenced an Equity + Tribal Advisory Committee convened before the conference to help with program development, diversify attendance, and elevate the conversation on equitable climate adaptation. Clearly much thought had been put into emphasizing equity at the Forum but was that messaging falling on deaf ears?

Over the course of the three-day Forum, I sat in all sorts of sessions on equitable climate adaptation: Applying Creative Practice in Resilience Planning, Restorative Climate Resilience: How to Communicate with Communities, Beyond Ecology: Traditional Knowledge for Holistic Adaptation to name a few. Speakers left and right emphasized that climate change will impact low income communities of color first and worst. “Climate resilience is not about bouncing back, it’s about bouncing forward,” said Chione Flegal from Policy Link during a panel on climate smart infrastructure. “Infrastructure gives us an opportunity to tackle inequity and disinvestment in communities of color.” Attendance at equity focused sessions I attended ranged from packed to sparse – maybe the topics weren’t as sexy as managed retreat and financing adaptation.

In the weeks following the conference, I spoke with many of Equity + Tribal Advisory committee members, asking them to reflect on the committee process, the committee’s impact on the conference program and attendance, and what changes can be made in future iterations of the Forum. Most had a positive experience.

The committee began their process by discussing overall goals for participant diversity, and equity and tribal inclusion in the program, as well as specific outreach strategies and proposal scoring.  The committee then reviewed submissions for potential sessions and gender, race, age, and sector dynamics. Much of the discussion focused on whether sessions on equity should be scheduled into their own track or be integrated throughout the conference program. The 2014 California Adaptation Forum did not have an equity track but the 2016 Forum did, creating community building opportunities but division.

“There’s always tension about whether to weave [equity] into every single session or give it its own separate track,” said Lucas Zucker from the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy. “You get your planner types… who can go through the entire conference never being exposed to any of the equity content.” In 2018, the committee ultimately decided to integrate equity across the conference tracks and worked hard to make speaker recommendations to create more diverse panels.

King tides on Bay Area waterfronts preview flooding conditions approaching many communities soon.  Photo: BCDC ART
Climate justice can mean listening to youth in frontline communities such as these fourth graders from Hunter’s Point, San Francisco participating in the Y-Plan Resilient by Design Youth Challenge.


For committee member Sam Diaz from Resources Legacy Fund, the sheer “number of sessions everyday – breakout sessions, plenaries and workshops – that were explicitly focused on equity, environmental justice and tribal sovereignty… [helped] highlight different positions and perspectives as we grapple with these issues.”

Committee member Sona Mohnot from the Greenlining Institute was a panelist during the well-attended Kickoff Workshop titled Exploring Success Stories of Equitable Climate Adaptation Work, which she felt was “a really powerful start to the conference that grounded everyone in the issues. People built on that knowledge during the rest of the Forum.”

Diaz, who attended the same Kickoff, felt it really showcased what these groups have already accomplished. “What we heard was that it may not be called ‘climate change adaptation’ but they’ve been doing the work for many decades,” he said.

The committee also worked hard to remove barriers to participating in the conference. Resources Legacy Fund, EcoAdapt, Union of Concerned Scientists, East Bay Community Foundation and other organizations sponsored scholarships for nearly 50 people to attend the three-day event. Julia Kim, the Local Government Commission representative who facilitated the Equity + Tribal Advisory Committee, also referenced outreach to local youth organizations and universities as well as outreach within the Committee’s existing networks. In analyzing the demographic data post-Forum, Kim said almost 25 percent of Forum attendees were people of color, with more than 13 percent of respondents declining to answer.

Committee member Phoenix Armenta from the Resilient Communities Initiative said “The change between the last [forum] and this year was significant in terms of the sheer number of people of color who showed up versus the number of people of color who were there before… There was a really good tribal representation and I think that almost every workshop had some sort of equity perspective in it.” Some committee members like Armenta received or helped their fellow panelists apply for scholarships. Lil Milagro Henriquez-Cornejo from the Mycelium Youth Network, a conference speaker, found the scholarship application easy to fill out and was able to attend all three days of the Forum without much cost from her own pocket.

However, both committee members and speakers alike emphasized more could have been done to attract a greater diversity of participants. Many people I spoke with identified the challenges of being the only person of color in a room at events like the forum and how a lack of racial diversity can play into further marginalization of attendees of color. Armenta felt that the public was missing: “When you have two hundred of the best climate adaptation professionals in the room together, that’s an opportunity… but I didn’t see [the Forum] being used as a venue to train the public to get involved in this issue.” Anecita Agustinez who serves as the Tribal Policy Advisor at the California Department of Water Resources felt the Forum was “cliquish” and more could have been done to orient first-time conference goers to the event. Henriquez-Cornejo enjoyed her time at the conference but would have liked to see more community organizers with on-the-ground lived experience speaking at and attending the event. She reflected that she would have a hard time bringing the middle and high schoolers she works with to the Forum because “it’s not a space designed with them in mind. The space wasn’t created to give people that are most impacted a sense of ownership or… community.”

Which begs the question – how much can this particular conference do to change structural barriers that prevent and deter marginalized communities? For Kim, the Forum is “a single event. It’s just a snapshot in time – so how do we leverage this opportunity where folks are gathering to highlight important issues and attract a diverse audience while being mindful that there is a lot of work that [still] needs to be done.” Many of the people I interviewed offered smaller-scale changes to increase accessibility and foster inclusion: reducing any and all barriers to attendance (cost, location, scheduling, etc); orientation sessions each day for first-time conference goers; regional delegation meetups in each region before the Forum; break-out groups designed to support youth and frontline communities.

From my perspective, the take-home from the Forum boils down to plenty of substance but not enough critical mass and open ears to change the dialogue on equity within the climate change adaptation field. Zucker described the adaptation professionals and speakers representing frontline communities as “ghosts passing through each other,” talking about the same issues yet not truly seeing each other.

It’s like we forget we are people first and our work is second. Every single person I interviewed started thinking more holistically and intergenerationally about climate adaptation when I asked them: “What brings you to this work? Why is it meaningful to you personally?” This work is inherently personal and political. For me, I fight for climate justice with my grandma and my future granddaughter in mind and heart.

As Sara Moore, a state agency representative and Forum attendee, put it, she feels like working towards equitable climate adaptation is like we’re paddling a canoe – we paddle a few strokes on the right side, which pushes the canoe to the left. Then we paddle a few strokes on the left side, pushing the canoe to the right. Somehow we move forward.

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