In Buffalo, New York, low-income residents suffer from a multitude of health problems due to housing conditions and environmental issues in their community.
I recently sat down with CSI Racial Equity Fellow Eric Walker, resident of Buffalo and member of the Environmental Justice Action Group of Western New York, whose mission is to build healthy communities by assuring that people of color and/or low-income people participate meaningfully in the creation of sound and fair environmental health and protection policies and practices. Eric Walker is also one of the co-founders of PUSH Buffalo, a local membership-based community organization fighting to make affordable housing a reality on Buffalo’s West Side.
As a Racial Equity Fellow, Eric will conduct surveys, one-on-one interviews and focus groups to understand how his community understands energy security. Additionally, his work will focus on generating ideas from community members to promote community organizing on energy security.
To read my interview with CSI Racial Equity Fellow Linda Campbell, view here.
1. Tell us a little about yourself.
I learned a lot from both my parents – I get my critical analysis from my Dad, and I get a lot of morality from my Mom. I got into justice work by virtue of the fact that when we were growing up, the Hudson Valley experience was in decline. Both my parents lost their jobs in grand fashion. We were really poor for years and it sucked, but it was the first clear point when I saw that corporations were not interested in the people who worked for them. They left people to pick up their lives. And in the middle of all of that was Public Enemy – Fighting the Power. All these issues were being politicized by music; and I channeled my analysis and my anger through that.
After high school I went to Buffalo, and I studied sociology and geography. After, I stayed around, trying to figure out if I wanted to make money or do something different. I hung around a bunch of different social justice groups. This was the mid-nineties, and there was all this Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and anti-globalization stuff. It was not at my gut however, making puppets and banners to stop the FTAA; it was not what I wanted to do.
I realized that work didn’t speak to me. I needed to do my organizing from a place that was visceral. Then, I met Aaron Bartley who I started PUSH Buffalo with. Rooted in our founding of PUSH Buffalo was knowing that oppression is something that you see and feel very close to you. It’s right in your face. Oppression is not something that is far away if you can’t get a job or if you live in a bad apartment because you can’t afford anything better; there are a lot of things that come with that, so I wanted to engage people in that space.
2. What do you do now?
The work I’m doing now [with Environmental Justice Action Group: Western NY] is an extension of the work I did with PUSH. There were important lessons on how to organize that were made clearer after years of working in energy, sustainability, efficacy, etc. Right now I’m trying to think about how to engage low-income people of color in the energy policy making spaces through things that are at the gut level. The gut level means understanding the connections between how housing quality drives energy insecurity [energy security: uninterrupted availability of energy sources at an affordable price] and how energy insecurity has very strong, direct impact on people’s lives. I want to engage those folks to understand the degree to which they feel like energy insecurity is a problem in their lives directly, so I can ask them what they think is driving that, what relationship it has to climate change, and ultimately what they can do about it.
You can’t really ask someone, “Can you help drive the efficiency portfolio standards and make them better?” Nobody cares about that. But if I ask you, “Do you want a way to make your energy bills go down?” That’s a much more engaging proposition. One of the aims is to give people the ability to interface with the institutions that manufacture their oppression. If I can marry a visceral engagement strategy with ways to give people a technical capacity to interface with those institutions, we have a winning formula to do some transformative stuff.
3. Do you see current opportunities in engaging your community on the work that you do?
I think people care, if you use a green and healthy home framework [helps families consume less energy, create a home free of health and safety hazards and lower cost of living] as a point of engagement for meeting people where they are at, so we can talk about energy, then yeah. The number one barrier to all these programs I helped develop is retrofit readiness needs. That means knowing the structural integrity of your home, why you can’t perform a blower door test, the reason why you can’t get financing, the reasons you are last at the line when the contractors need to come into your home. It’s also understanding that our children are being poisoned by the legacy issues around older housing.
Nine of the 26 highest zip codes for childhood elevated blood levels are in the city of Buffalo. 90% of the houses in Buffalo are heated with natural gases. If you look at the Asthma maps in New York, six of the zip codes for highest asthma rates for children under 10 are in Buffalo. What I want is people to say to themselves, that’s messed up, and it shouldn’t be like that. We need to change the way we design, develop, and implement and evaluate programs if any of them are to work.
4. Biggest challenges you’ve experienced in your field?
On-the-ground organizing is difficult, I don’t care what the issue is, it’s like mining for gold; it takes a while to hit the vein.
5. Biggest lessons you’ve learned?
Everybody is working on a different set of assumptions. You have activists, a bureaucracy you’re trying to interface with, funders and regular people working on a different set of assumptions. The programs that people need access to should be accessible. They should be designed to alleviate the problems people are seeking access for. There should be a level of transparency and accountability in the programs being implemented and evaluated, so people who have ideas to make programs work better, shouldn’t have to look through a haystack for attachment points to do so. Finally, the assumptions that communities and activists share is that the folks who participate in these programs are alienated from the programs they want to participate in, are valuable enough to be engaged in the design, development, implementation and evaluation.
Bureaucrats think the right level of technological innovation, market-based incentives, regulation and opportunity for participation in a way that they are comfortable will solve all problems. No level of technological innovation will work if the folks who need them don’t have access to them. Folks will not get involved if they feel they are going to be conned by a contractor. They are well-intentioned, but faulty.
6. What do you hope to achieve during your fellowship?
It will be a survey to see how people understand energy security and seeing if they understand it as a problem and what they would do about that. The second part of that research is individual conversations on their experiences and focus groups with people to generate ideas on what they can do as a collective.
The goals are simple. The analysis and recommendations that come out of my survey work will be useful for the next step of my work, which is to fuel an engagement and outreach campaign to get people to participate in program reform where they know it. If these are the barriers, then how will we get people to advocate for reformative programs in ways that talk to where people are right now, and turn that into bigger advocacy.
7. Last comments?
I would say that the problems that exist in the energy sector aren’t isolated to the energy sector. Structural barriers exist for people to participate cross multiple issues, and aren’t isolated to Buffalo. Organizing and advocacy needs to happen in the places where you are. Thinking about how I apply this work to other issues and places is always a parallel thought. If we do our work well, we can think of replicable tools, replicable strategies and replicable trainings that can be used across issues and across multiple communities.