Last November, a new coalition of organizations of color and environmental groups in Portland, Oregon, made history by passing the Portland Clean Energy Fund (PCEF). This fund was established through the first-ever ballot measure created and led by people of color to fund climate justice and jobs in the United States.
To celebrate the one-year anniversary of this historic victory, the Ready For 100 campaign joined with leaders of the Portland Clean Energy Fund coalition to look at the incredible efforts that launched and have sustained PCEF.
From the early days of the Portland Clean Energy Fund coalition, it was important to its leaders to advance climate, economic, and racial justice simultaneously. The ballot initiative does this by providing funding for clean energy job training, renewable energy projects, and energy efficiency work. The fund is specifically designed to benefit low-income families and communities of color who are disproportionately harmed by climate change and environmental injustice.
In other words, PCEF contributes toward a just energy transition -- a transition to clean energy and a regenerative economy that advances justice for the communities who are most affected by the climate crisis, as well as racial and economic inequities. Low-income communities and communities of color bear the brunt of the impacts of climate change, facing grave health effects from longer smoky fire seasons, heat waves and heat islands, and poorly insulated housing that results in higher exposure to heat and cold.
Thanks to PCEF, Portland will see more equitable implementation of clean energy, more jobs, shared food gardens, and tree canopy in neighborhoods dense with concrete.
Photo by Rick Rappaport
"Nearly every step of the way, we faced opposition and skeptics saying it couldn’t be done. What kept us going was the spirit of the movement and our vision to bring communities of color and low-income communities to the center of the transition to a clean energy economy," said Jenny Lee, Advocacy Director at the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon. "On election night one year ago, Portland achieved a historic victory -- not only were we the first community of color-led initiative to campaign to fund climate justice and jobs, and likely in the country -- we were the first to win!"
Building this coalition and vision did not happen overnight. Advancing climate, economic, and racial justice required a new kind of organizing and leadership, which resulted in what leaders dubbed the “green, Brown, Black” coalition. This group combined the leadership of frontline organizations¹, with the organizing capacity of environmental organizations². When the new coalition came together, leaders wanted to ensure the communities with the most need were not economically burdened by the clean energy transition, but rather that Big Business would pay its fair share. PCEF charges billion-dollar retail corporations a 1% “Clean Energy Surcharge,” bringing in as much as $60 million in new revenue annually for clean energy and clean energy jobs.
Photo by Damon Motz-Storey
These retail corporations contribute to climate impacts with their large-scale creation and distribution of products and yet don’t pay their fair share in taxes. In every sense, marginalized communities disproportionately pay for retail corporations’ contribution to the climate crisis.
Too often, our opposition offers climate justice campaigners false choices between reducing pollution and advancing social justice, or between meeting the needs of one impacted community and another. The powerful PCEF coalition offers a new model, pushing for a real climate justice solution for Portland’s frontline communities. It took years of building relationships and trust, and dozens of coalition meetings, before even filing the ballot measure.
Photo by Rick Rappaport
The PCEF coalition embodies an organizing tenet of frontline leadership and privileged capacity. In Portland, well-resourced environmental organizations like the Sierra Club took a step back and listened to the goals and strategies of organizations that work with frontline communities. We stepped back but didn’t lean back -- our frontline partners wanted our help and our know-how, they didn’t want us to passively wait for direction. So, we worked together.
In the year before and since the groundbreaking victory, the measure has faced attacks and smear efforts from big corporations including Walmart, Best Buy, and AT&T. Despite that, PCEF continues to serve as a powerful example of how communities can transform their energy sector while addressing inequities and making sure everyone in the community benefits from the transition to clean energy.
Nearly every step of the way, we faced opposition and skeptics saying it couldn’t be done. What kept us going was the spirit of the movement and our vision to bring communities of color and low-income communities to the center of the transition to a clean energy economy.
Jenny Lee, Advocacy Director at the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon
PCEF leaders want people across the country to learn about the groundbreaking work happening in their city, and to hear the stories of the diverse group of people who continue to push for a cleaner, healthier, more equitable city. Coalitions that authentically represent the most vulnerable communities can and should be fostered everywhere. Community by community, this is how we’ll achieve a clean energy future for everyone.
To learn more about the Portland Clean Energy Fund, watch the webinar with PCEF leaders telling the story in their own words.
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¹ Verde, OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon, Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, NAACP Portland Branch, Coalition of Communities of Color, and the Native American Youth and Family Center.
² 350PDX, Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, Audubon Society of Portland, the Sierra Club Oregon Chapter, and Columbia Riverkeeper.