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New EDF California program director wants Black voters to see importance of green issues

In July Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law the aggressive climate change legislation AB 398 which extends and improves the Cap-and-Trade Program. The program aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions which will enable the state to meet its 2030 emission reduction goals in the most cost-effective manner. Extending Cap-and-Trade is expected to provide billions of dollars to invest in communities across California. This legislation also had a companion bill, which establishes a groundbreaking program to measure and reduce air pollution from mobile and stationary sources at the neighborhood level in the communities most impacted by air pollutants. The program also requires the Air Resources Board to work closely with local air districts and communities to establish neighborhood air quality monitoring networks and to develop and implement plans to reduce emissions.

Legislation like this has primarily been guided by environmental activists, who are often not people of color. But now with many promises to reach minority and disadvantaged communities, the hiring of Quentin Foster may be a big win for those communities.

When Foster, the new program director of California Climate for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF,) was young, he learned a valuable lesson about how environmental policy issues affect people of color.

Foster grew up in foster care, and every year he went to a summer camp. At the camp, he noticed the air was cleaner, and the environment was less polluted than where he grew up in urban Los Angeles.

"I remember going into the mountains and going into the forest, and there was pristine air, and the environment was gorgeous. It wasn't until I returned homed that I realized there was something wrong. The environmental degradation in my community became starker," said Foster in an interview with California Black Media. "So I incorporated that experience into my professional career."

A few decades later, Foster works with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF,) an organization that specializes in using economics and science to provide recommendations to decision makers on environmental policy. Before he joined EDF, he was with California Environmental Justice Alliance, where he worked on social justice issues that relate to environmental policy.

Today, communities of color tend to be some of the most polluted.

"California has many communities that suffer disproportionately from poor air quality caused by major emitters. As someone who grew up in South Los Angeles, I understand the impact dangerous air pollution has on daily life. Like much of San Joaquin Valley, many of California's most vulnerable communities struggle with some of the worst air quality in the country," said Foster in a blog post.

Foster also admits that environmental issues are not high on the list of priorities for Black communities.

"There continues to be a lack of engagement on climate change from leadership within the Black community. Quite frankly, the environment isn't a priority because the politics within the Black community isn't demanding it. Part of that has to do with a poor job on behalf of advocacy organizations and agencies reaching out to the community to engage on the issue," said Foster. "There is also a severe lack of representation both within the advocacy world on climate and energy and also in government. We have to change that."

Foster says EDF plans to reach out to the Black community and discuss how environmental issues affect people's lives.

"One of the campaigns that I am excited about is the town halls that EDF will be joining in San Diego, the Inland Empire, and Bay Area that will include notable African Americans working in the environmental/energy space," he said. "The vision for this is to introduce the community to those of us working on these issues and provide information that can highlight why climate policy should receive the same level of attention that our other priority issues receive. Secondarily, for those of us who occupy this space to continue to provide our perspective in instances where there just aren't many (if any) African Americans around to weigh in on these important issues with our experiences."

According to a 2016 survey by the African American Voter Registration, Education and Participation Project, black voters didn't rank "green issues" high on their agenda. The study of 800 voters listed reducing homelessness, education, criminal justice reform, affordable housing and access to health as their most important issues.

But Foster says that green issues should concern African American voters. For example, he said money raised by Cap-and-Trade can go towards addressing the homeless problem.

"A huge contributor to homelessness is affordability, and with the Cap-and-Trade program that was extended this year, some of the revenues raised from that program will contribute to funding affordable housing efforts," said Foster.

He added that the gradual move from gasoline to clean energy vehicles could create more job opportunities in Black communities.

"We also have to push for job creation from this growing economy in our communities, so residents have an opportunity to participate in the green economy close to where they live. That also means ensuring there is a ‘just transition' that includes job training and educational opportunities for communities, especially for those where a long commute is commonplace," said Foster.

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