Details from FEMA: Applying Catalytic Models in Community Development

Written by Alexandra Gallo, Program Manager of US EPA’s Environmental and Climate Justice Block Grants Program and former SGC Analyst.

In 2018, over 160 residents and local business owners in Fresno came together and worked through a community-visioning process to develop strategies and projects to make their community healthier and more resilient as part of a $66.5 million state investment through SGC’s Transformative Climate Communities Program. Through the initial state investment and an additional $117.3 million in leverage funding, Transform Fresno has implemented extensive neighborhood-serving housing, food-system, and transit projects. Like any public project, Transform Fresno has faced challenges, but throughout this time, community leaders continue to lead implementation of Transform Fresno’s vision as a result of TCC’s collaborative governance structure that places community at the forefront of decision making.

Working on Transformative Climate Communities (TCC) provided me with great insight as to how we, as government — and more broadly, as funders — can work differently to design the types of programs that communities most in need deserve. With over $320 million invested since 2018, the TCC program is advancing a paradigm shift in community development by designing processes in which historically disinvested and heavily polluted communities drive decision making through the readiness, planning, and delivery phases of climate resilience and clean energy projects.

Being a part of the Transformative Climate Communities Program also taught me how a state can continue supporting place-based resilience for frontline communities by continually harnessing their expertise. For instance, in 2021, legislation mandated that SGC find funding pathways to enable meaningful climate equity investment in disadvantaged unincorporated communities (DUCs) — communities that have faced government neglect and lack representation and access to basic services. To thoughtfully increase DUCs’ access to funding, SGC convened a statewide working group that represented DUCs’ priorities and expertise. The result of this work has been the creation of more equitable pathways for DUCs to qualify for state funding.

The success of Transformative Climate Communities has led to incredible community-developed projects and offers a new model of community-led resilience with important lessons for policymakers and administrators at ever level of government.

Advancing Community Resilience Federally

In the summer of 2022, I was invited to join the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) inaugural exchange program to represent California’s approach to climate equity. I was also tasked with finding ways to embed into FEMA’s portfolio lessons learned from SGC’s programs including Transformative Climate Communities and Community Assistance for Climate Equity. As part of my work, I supported FEMA’s first-ever Climate Office and advised on the development of a new technical assistance program aimed at supporting up to 60 underserved communities in upcoming funding cycles. Critically, FEMA’s leadership is demonstrating a commitment to integrating the perspectives of states, tribes, local governments and territories into FEMA’s planning, and I saw many leaders and staff listen openly as tribal governments shared how FEMA can begin true partnership.

While at FEMA, I immediately recognized how applicable California’s climate equity approaches are to federal investment programs. With Justice40 and the federal government’s commitment to increase the flow of federal investments to disadvantaged communities, federal agencies are developing new programs and identifying strategies to help these communities access existing programs. Communities across the nation are facing ever-worsening climate catastrophes, complex and burdensome processes, and structural disinvestment, highlighting the need for near-term solutions to support community-led climate resilience.

To adapt to meet the needs of all communities today, federal agencies can meaningfully involve impacted communities, governments, and other partners in key processes, including program design. By doing so, federal agencies can address specific barriers to access so that historically marginalized communities can compete for these critical funds and other resources.

While state governments can help shape these program-design efforts, it is also important that state governments help historically marginalized communities prepare for the influx of new investment opportunities. States cannot afford to sit on the sidelines during this critical period during which their most vulnerable communities have the chance to secure billions of dollars for climate resilience. Building off of effective models, state governments can help ensure that communities at the margins can take full advantage of investment opportunities.

After reflecting on my experience with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) inaugural exchange program, a few more thoughts occurred to me as to how states and federal agencies can continue to make progress and enable transformation through these catalytic investments.

The Role of States

  1. State governments have expertise and understanding that the federal government cannot; state government staff should feel empowered to share their expertise with federal agencies. State governments often have strong reach and relationships with community partners, and state, local, and tribal governments working to implement complex infrastructure projects hold immense knowledge of what works and what doesn’t for their jurisdictions. States and state coalitions can proactively begin to catalogue proven equitable strategies and lessons learned to help federal agencies not only develop new programmatic models, but also to identify new flexible, innovative, and inclusive ways of implementing these programs. States should be forthcoming in guiding federal agencies’ work to design programs that are meant to have transformative impacts within communities.
  2. State governments can significantly advance outreach efforts to ensure underserved communities are aware of the federal funding opportunities available. Co-developing effective outreach strategies with new and existing partners can help increase access to critical information and promote readiness. As the federal government crafts eligibility criteria for funding opportunities, state governments can remain apprised of eligibility criteria and proactively provide guidance to communities. States can also give input on draft eligibility criteria for federal funding to proactively advocate for the needs of communities such as tribal communities and communities in unincorporated areas that national geospatial data tools may miss.
  3. While many state governments have capacity challenges of their own, smaller jurisdictions and community organizations will largely benefit from technical assistance efforts at the state level as federal government opportunities come online. State governments can begin to streamline current lines of communication, providing single or few points of contacts to help jurisdictions navigate and apply for federal funds. By streamlining and enhancing coordination efforts internally, state governments can be prepared to help problem solve complicated but important land use developments for communities during application periods.

The Role of Federal Agencies

As federal agencies begin to develop and administer new investment opportunities, they should replace historical top-down approaches with an equitable approach with communities at the table. Helpful first steps could include convening community and nation-wide organizations for feedback, building in the necessary time, when possible, to intake feedback on drafts, recognizing lived experience as expertise, and developing accountability systems for sharing how feedback is integrated.

  1. Federal agencies should view technical assistance (TA) as key to delivering on the White House’s ambitious Justice40 agenda. Federal agencies administering investments must ensure there are meaningful technical assistance efforts that are flexible to meet the goals and priorities of the community while also meeting program requirements. Staff administering technical assistance efforts should be skilled in the areas that communities need support in, and staff should understand that communities have complex and distinct histories with challenges to overcome and assets to be amplified. SGC’s technical assistance models have proven to significantly broaden access within underserved communities and can be replicated nationally.
  2. Federal investments should incentivize and prioritize collaborative governance as the foundation to their investment programs to sustain these investments in the long-term and redress harms to marginalized and disinvested communities. Collaborative governance helps ensure equity throughout every stage of planning, from community visioning to project delivery. In highlighting the TCC program, the Center for American Progress notes that collaborative governance is a “powerful method of organization that allows for collaboration and building a collective vision for community decarbonization in ways that meet the community’s particular needs.” By enabling processes that prioritizes diversity of perspectives, community engagement, varied authorities, and resident representation, governmental programs can help ensure investment addresses the communities’ unique needs and keeps them at the forefront of their decision-making.
  3. This is the first time many federal agencies will tackle such ambitious investments. Ongoing evaluation can help ensure that the investments achieve key outcomes for communities. Not only will evaluation help investment programs evolve with each cycle to address barriers and meet community needs, but evaluation can also support transparency and accountability across all entities which can help build trust if agencies are responsive to evaluation outcomes. Evaluation can also help build the capacity of under resourced entities, as relevant data and storytelling can support additional funding efforts. Third-party evaluation can help increase objectivity and transparency in evaluating investment outcomes.

As the federal government is making record investments in communities, they should consider new community-centered approaches that reach the most vulnerable communities to yield transformative results for the nation. My experiences with state and federal agencies, and in working directly with communities, has taught me this is not easy work — government agencies will need to develop a new and at times altogether different understanding of how to develop and administer new investments with diverse partners. Communities know best how to solve their problems and uplift their assets, and federal agencies can help enable transformation if they embrace community-centered models and welcome a paradigm shift in community development and assistance.



California Strategic Growth Council (SGC)

SGC coordinates and works collaboratively with public agencies, communities, and stakeholders to support healthy, thriving, and resilient communities for all.