Hands of many skin colors fist bump in a circle

Where We Go from Here: Transforming Government — and Leading With Equity

Written by Frank Cardenas, SGC Councilmember

Throughout my life, I have seen much progress in the sensitivity and responsiveness of governments in California with respect to racial inequities. Surely more work remains ahead of us, and it is imperative that we continue to move the needle, which is why the opportunity to work on such complex, wicked problems is what I find most exciting about my role as a Councilmember for the California Strategic Growth Council. For over a decade, this State body has been intentional in identifying solutions that seek to jointly advance climate action and racial equity, with the understanding that these issues are inextricably linked. The way that I came to understand this direct connection is based in my experience as an educator.

Ten years ago, I was practicing law, but I knew that I was being called to do something more meaningful, so I closed my law office and began teaching in the California State University system at Cal State Los Angeles. In addition to my course in corporate governance, my main course traces the evolution of modern capitalism and the histories, theories, and narratives we tell ourselves about capitalism. My understanding of the origin and nature of the predominant economic model of the past five hundred years as one based on extraction, exploitation, and, racialization coincided with my deepening awareness about the causes of climate change and the linkages between human and environmental degradation. In short, the environmental and human-imposed damage we have practiced for centuries are linked historically, developmentally and even psychologically. As my understanding of this became clearer, I also realized that my students at Cal State L.A., who are approximately 66% Latino, 16% Asian, 5% Black (in sum 95% non-white), are the children and products of this colonial, extractive economic model that forged our inequitable, fossil-fuel-addicted global system. In my role as an educator, I came to see the irony of these descendants of a largely colonial economic and racialized system learning marketable skills despite the climate catastrophe they are inheriting which closely traces their lineage. They’re trying to find hope in a world in which hope seems to slip further away with every dismal headline.

From all of this I’ve drawn the following conclusions. First, inaction, resignation, and nihilism are not our answers. We must rise above these natural but self-destructive inclinations. Second, it seems clear to me that climate action and racial equity must be dealt with together for three reasons:

1) The evidence is clear that racially marginalized communities, globally and here in California, suffer the effects of climate change disproportionately.

2) There is no separating racialization and inequity, our extractive economy, and climate change — these forces are one and the same and reinforce one another.

3) How we treat our environment (respectfully or degradingly) and how we treat each other (respectfully or degradingly) come from the same place in our psyche. There’s a kind of toggle switch in our prefrontal cortex that is responsible for planning complex cognitive behavior, including the regulation of our social behaviors. This aspect of our cognition and sense of agency can either devolve us to our basest selves or elevate us toward the more thoughtful self who thinks about the implications of their choices and behavior before acting. We must replace the kind of mindlessness that has created what we now must change in the world, with a mindfulness that can harness both the practical imperative and the justness that will mean trading individualism and instant gratification with the collective, and ultimately more durable, good.

This will not happen by banning books, teachers or lectures that try to teach us the painful realities of race or climate change. We will never fix the problems we refuse to acknowledge. This necessary step forward will only come from the hard work of incorporating mindfulness into our lives, systems, and processes. We must act out this mindfulness in every aspect of our lives. A challenge in this shift is that mindlessness is often not intentional and lacks forethought. Mindfulness, on the other hand, is a decision. It is more demanding of us. It compels those of us in government to interrogate persisting social inequities as we design and administer programs and policies that can either strip away past harms or exacerbate them. This is why I’m so impressed by the people I get to work with at the California Strategic Growth Council, a government body with the mission to build thriving, healthy, and resilient communities for all.

During my tenure as a Councilmember of the Strategic Growth Council I have witnessed a commitment to racial equity as a strategy to advance our other state priorities — housing affordability, climate resilience, and more. The intentionality behind bringing a racial equity lens to housing, economic development, and climate action policy is evident at every stage of our work: it is reflected in the data collection and assessment processes, policy development, and efforts to bring greater access to State resources. Further, the public deliberations of the members of the Council and the publishing of the SGC’s Racial Equity Hub and other resources bring greater transparency and accountability to this work. Good public policy can only result from processes that center and value community voices. SGC has a deep commitment to meaningfully engage communities and create opportunities inclusive of those that have been historically left out of State processes. In my short tenure with the Council, I’ve seen staff ground and shape their work to address community concerns, as expressed by stakeholders themselves, while continuing to explore how to do better. It is one thing to simply chronicle public comment and stick it in an appendix at the end of a policy document, and it’s quite another to see staff weave what they learned into their programs and the policy changes they bring forth. There’s a world of difference in the outcomes of those approaches. I have seen our staff work hand in hand with “frontline” communities, such as South Los Angeles, collaborating with and listening to the lived experiences of people who continue to endure racial and environmental injustice as they fight for justice in all its forms.

It’s no accident that both state and federal governmental entities look to the SGC for ideas on how to best embed equity values in their development and administration of policy. It’s no accident that the staff and members of the Council look like California. It’s no accident that a wide array of stakeholders across the state see the SGC as their partner as they work to create a more sustainable and equitable future for us all. Justice toward our communities and toward our environment will not come accidentally. Those of us that have the privilege and agency to serve and choose must make intentional choices. A commitment to just actions requires us to rise above. It requires that we be mindful of the consequences of our decisions, while we interrogate the structures and institutions that have enabled racial inequities to persist. It means we must lean into our humanity, made possible by a newer part of our brain, that enable us, if we’re willing, to rise above our biases and fears. In this regard I am reminded of the old proverb, “[A] wise man changes his mind, a fool never will.” The time for a real change in our approach has surely come.

Wicked problems of racism and fossil-fuel-driven climate change require that we understand that we are the answer to the problems we face and that we are all in this together. In form, the Strategic Growth Council is not unlike many other public institutions. What differentiates the SGC, and centers it as model for government innovation for community transformation is the people who drive its work and our collective commitment to advance racial equity. Simply put, SGC’s Executive Director and my fellow Councilmembers continue to nurture a group of people whose idealism is matched only by their faithful diligence. In the process and outcome of their work, they model the change we so desperately need.

With the global community at a crossroads in which both disaster and redemption are within our grasp, our nation and California have a central role with outsized influence. Our state has long been a leader in progressive social and environmental policies. The SGC, and the stakeholders we have the privilege to work with, will continue to work toward a more just and sustainable California for generations to come. There may be no higher calling.



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.