Guest post by Simone Ebongo Bayehe
County Executive Marc Elrich urged community leaders and environmental activists to open their platforms to more diverse voices at the Feb. 27 Climate Action Plan Town Hall and Open House.
“We’ve got to do a better job engaging low income and vulnerable communities,” Elrich said. “I look around this room, and I got to say this looks like every climate environmental group I have ever been in.”
The room Elrich was speaking to was —on its surface—a portrait of residents, curious passersby and climate activists who had the time, knowledge and access to congregate at the United Therapeutics Corporate Headquarters in Silver Spring.
It was also majority white and over the age of 20—a stark reminder to Elrich of why outreach within a county that boasts of diversity was crucial for the success of his 2021 Climate Action and Resilience Plan for a greener Montgomery County.
“We have got to find a way to reach out and engage the minority communities…so that this is a message that they can bring to their landlords and they can bring to their councilmembers,” Elrich said. “They are a third of potential voters in Montgomery County, they are not an insignificant block of people. They need to be our friends on this, and they cannot be scared away.”
Although Elrich applauded the dedication to action put forth by each individual and Climate Action Plan workgroup in the room, he asserted that engaging all voices was tantamount to ensuring efforts to combat climate change got done. For him, this is a matter in which everyone has a stake.
“If we want community engagement to happen in the most effective and meaningful way, we need to go to where people are, where they’re already convening, where they’re already having conversations,” Helga Luest, co-chair of the Public Engagement and Education workgroup said. “And that’s a big part of the next chapter of what needs to happen.”
Like Elrich, Leust believes that organizers need to make a conscientious effort to approach the conversation of climate change differently. Where the science and environmental frame has already been used, she suggests targeting a health frame that “brings it home for everyone.”
“When you’re talking about racial disparities and historical racial disparities, environmental injustice is something that has totally adversely affected communities of color,” Luest said. “The dream, at least from my perspective, would be to redesign government from a posture of charity, where we’re giving a handout and a hand up to people, to one of real equity.”
For workgroup member Paula Posas, outreach is only the tip of the iceberg.
“I think one of the messages that people really need to hear is that their actions can matter,” Posas said. “If you know that your voice matters and that you can move something or change something or make something better for other people or future generations, you’re empowered to do something.”
Douglas Weisburger, manager of the Green Business Certification Program in the county’s Department of Environmental Protection, believes that deliberate policies and efforts must be put in place in order to avoid exacerbating inequities.
“Montgomery County and so many jurisdictions are recognizing that addressing climate change is also an opportunity to address historic discrimination and racism,” Weisburger said. “And it’s sort of like an epiphany and it’s, in a sense, sort of a shame on white dominant culture to be so late to the ball game.”
The workgroup is currently working with members of the Montgomery County racial equity board and IMPACT Silver Spring to identify community leaders who are invested in continuing Elrich’s self-described “incredibly ambitious” plan.
County Executive Marc Elrich details his Climate Action Plans that he hopes will make Montgomery County a zero-emissions county by 2035 at the Climate Action Plan Town Hall and Open House. Photo by Simone Ebongo Bayehe
Simone Ebongo Bayehe is a graduate journalism student at the University of Maryland and a lifelong Montgomery County resident. She writes about entertainment, arts and culture and local government.