Surdna Foundation 2014 Annual Report
Programs > Sustainable Environments > Q&A with Helen Chin
Helen Chin, Director, Sustainable Environments

Helen Chin, Director, Sustainable Environments

on responding to community needs

Helen Chin talks about the importance of using inclusive processes to ensure that infrastructure investments reflect the needs of low-wealth communities and communities of color. She discusses how tax dollars spent on highways, sewers, railroads, and other pieces of our physical infrastructure can and should have multiple purposes and many direct and indirect beneficiaries. Helen introduces an exciting new initiative to democratize the process for deciding how energy systems get built out in our communities.

How are decisions about infrastructure investment made?

For too long, low-wealth communities and communities of color have been left out of infrastructure decision making. When infrastructure was built, it rarely benefited them. At best, disinvestment in these communities isolated and pushed them further away from opportunity; at worst, it devastatingly ripped apart the cultural and community fabric. Highways built in the 1950s and ’60s, for example, physically divided low-wealth communities and communities of color—destroying tight-knit communities and erasing social capital. One of our priorities is to ensure that these communities are not just part of conversations about infrastructure, but they are shaping and driving those conversations. Infrastructure investments, which, after all, are paid for by tax dollars from these and other communities, should be assets leading to greater prosperity and more sustainable communities.

How can updating cities’ infrastructure affect and improve the lives of low-wealth people and communities of color?

In San Francisco’s Bayview/Hunters Point neighborhood, where much of the city’s wastewater ends up, for example, we are working with the leadership of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) to make infrastructure visible. We are shifting the historic environmental and social burdens this community has shouldered, like serving as the destination for the region’s wastewater, toward becoming assets. The SFPUC acknowledges that for the past 50 years, it has not adequately focused on building community assets. But now with a large capital investment planned over the next 20 years, the SFPUC is engaging Bayview/Hunters Point residents to understand and begin to address their needs—from alleviating blight and the noxious odors that permeate the neighborhood to building more open space and revitalizing the street scape. SFPUC is converting brownfields into green infrastructure that can capture stormwater and serve as open space. And, as a major employer, it is working with local schools to figure out how to prepare young people for possible careers and the pipeline of jobs at the SFPUC over the next 10 to 20 years.

Tell us why investments should stimulate economic growth, contribute to prosperity and improve infrastructure?

Though infrastructure investments such as highways, sewers, and railroads seem to have a single purpose, in reality they have multiple purposes and many indirect beneficiaries. However, few of these indirect benefits trickled down to residents whose tax dollars paid for the projects—and fewer still for low-income communities. We are now placing the community at the center of these decision-making processes and thinking about how investments can create multiple benefits including creating jobs and generating community wealth. Surdna is supporting an effort to democratize investment decisions so that the end users are co-architects at the center of conversations and are capturing some of the benefits.

Do you get a lot of blank stares when you talk about infrastructure?

Not all of our infrastructure issues are as visible as crumbling bridges. And, solutions can’t be applied overnight, as it is built out over a generation. So a lot of groups on the front line, who are addressing immediate, often life-or-death issues, don’t immediately understand how infrastructure touches their work, or why it’s important. We’re working to help groups identify different entry points into a conversation and help them understand how infrastructure impacts all of their work and the lives of its base over the long term. If you’re working on anti-poverty issues, for example, you might not at first connect the dots to infrastructure until you learn that the lack of reliable, safe and affordable transportation options can make it nearly impossible to reach jobs or education. Then infrastructure becomes real and very immediate. Infrastructure investments will shape a number of issues over the next several decades, so we are beginning to help front line organizations identify entry points and get prepared to address them.

What recent accomplishments are you especially excited about?

We’ve put a lot of energy into building our relationships with our grantees and working with them to move their issues. We’ve partnered with the Jobs to Move America campaign and have leveraged our relationships with critical decision makers to help them achieve some significant wins. Though recent victories seemed to have occurred quickly, in reality the campaign coalition has been in the making for five-plus years. It is an extraordinary coalition led by the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy with amazing leadership, and is the reason for its own success. What we’ve done is help enable that success by lifting up their wings so they could really soar.

And we have also been working intensively with the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, which Surdna helped create, to really elevate how government professionals think about their roles and how they impact everyone in the city. They are not just thinking about how to introduce healthier environments, economic prosperity, and increased social equity, the sustainability directors are starting to make social justice an important part of their work by supporting sustainability practices that improve outcomes for the entire community.

Tell us a bit about your life and career and describe how you came to do this work.

I’ve had several strong women in my life—my mother, my aunt, and my godmothers—each of whom instilled in me a sense of community and family. As a child of a single parent who emigrated from Jamaica to the United States, I saw our family rely on the broader community. It was my aunt who really inspired me to do more for my community and fight for those who lived on the margins. She’d tell me that to get somewhere we’d better be prepared to fight because there were systems pushing to keep black, brown and poor people down. By age 10, I was with my aunt on the front lines of protests, which felt to me more like raucous parties. But in reality we were protesting plans for an incinerator in my densely populated eastern Brooklyn neighborhood. This was my first exposure to fighting for my community and to a vision of what you want your community to be. As in many culturally rich and diverse immigrant communities, residents’ focus was on working hard and on the day-to-day effort to make ends meet. But my aunt said, “No,” to the injustice of poisoning one community to get rid of another community’s waste. She, along with her comrades, organized and fought to preserve the health of the community. So I became pretty active talking within the community. But then I came to realize that there’s far more impact—and passion—when people talk for themselves. So I began to see my role more as providing communities with the tools and confidence to advocate for themselves. This path is what led me to my professional journey working on environmental and social justice issues. And at Surdna, it’s been about figuring out how to give communities the resources to be a part of conversations and stewards of their communities. As a funder, when we do our work well, we partner with, and provide resources to organizations that might otherwise not be able to bring about change. Much of what we do is positioning really good people to do what they do best.

What gets you up in the morning?

We are working on an initiative now to democratize the process in New York State for deciding how energy systems get built out in our communities. As our energy infrastructure moves from a centralized system to a more reliable, distributed system, there’s an acknowledgement that the current centralized model of ownership and control no longer works. Utilities are not able to operate and profit under their current business models. So the state has committed to reforming its energy vision. But the fast-track process the state created to do this is complex and has no real way for communities to weigh in. Partnering with our grantee PUSH Buffalo and a coalition it has built around this issue, we are working to include the voices of end users on issues from rates to generation to distribution. PUSH is helping state residents understand their power system—where energy is coming from, how much it actually costs, who’s paying for it, how it gets distributed to us—all so that communities can actively participate in and guide the energy re-visioning process. This battle is about making sure there’s a participatory process and that the voices around the table are equipped to advocate for and demand outcomes that serve community interest.

How is privatization impacting infrastructure?

Now that the federal government no longer allocates a minimum amount for infrastructure repair, states and cities are scrambling to find new financing as funding sources diminish. So what we’re seeing is massive privatization as capital for infrastructure projects is coming from private entities. And this is a recipe for a hot mess and costlier projects. Competition is good—but this is not competition. What’s being created through privatization are monopolies in which only one entity now is guaranteed rewards. A few years ago, the city of Chicago negotiated a 75-year lease on nearly 40,000 parking meters for $1 billion to a private entity. So, Chicago essentially signed away the meters—at a net loss—to an investment bank. That’s an indication of what can happen when cities privatize some of their services and do it without any transparency or openness.