Harnessing Grassroots Power to Push for Green Policies

Originally posted on TuftsNow

Community organizing helps make climate solutions a reality, says Racial Equity in Policy and Planning Fellow Patrick Houston

A climate organizer before coming to Tufts as a Racial Equity in Policy and Planning fellow, Patrick Houston, AG24, saw “decades stacked on decades of disinvestment and marginalization of communities of color.” Illustration: Joel Kimmel

by Jennifer Wehunt
January 9, 2023

Patrick Houston used to think the most important factor in bringing about change was starting with a good idea.  

“After undergrad, one of the biggest impressions I had was, if we can get brilliant people in rooms making thoughtful policy, the smartest ideas are going to win,” said Houston, AG24, now a master’s candidate in Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning (UEP) and an inaugural recipient of Tufts’ Racial Equity in Policy and Planning Fellowship. The program provides financial support to policy and planning students who enter graduate school with demonstrated experience in advancing racial justice.

 A few years working in climate activism refined Houston’s theory of change. “There’s not a lack of good ideas,” he said. “We’re lacking the political will to implement them.”

Higher Ed, Bigger Goals

Houston’s own big ideas didn’t originally include college. Higher ed wasn’t a given for kids from his North Philadelphia neighborhood of Hunting Park, he said. But a couple of years after high school, and with what he calls some gaps in his knowledge, he enrolled in the Community College of Philadelphia and then Swarthmore. Both were transformative, he said, and he emerged fired up over two issues.

“One, I could not turn away from the climate emergency,” he said. “And two, I wanted to build power in Black and Latinx communities.”

Following college, Houston worked as an organizer and campaigner with the advocacy nonprofit New York Communities for Change. There, he had a hand in a number of significant climate campaigns, including successful fights to convince two governors to ultimately reject a proposed 23-mile fracked-gas pipeline in New York Harbor and a proposed gas power plant in Brooklyn.

People Power

What made the pipeline and power plant campaigns successful was everyday people banding together, people “who signed petitions, who showed up to rallies and marches and protests, to multiple public hearings,” Houston said. “They taught me that a critical component in change is building grassroots political power.”

To mobilize against the pipeline, Houston knocked on a lot of doors. “We had to go into the communities who were located close to the proposed pipeline, who would frequent those beaches, who would be impacted by any spills that happened in the waters,” he said. He found the proposal “was overwhelmingly news to people. They were not aware of this project. When they heard about it, most would raise concern.”

Defeating the pipeline required both empowering local residents and tapping into an already-impassioned network of climate activists and organizations, Houston said. “When you put it all together, we had a diverse constituency—from low income to upper-middle income, from old people to young people, from Black to Latinx to white—across a considerable geography.”

Building a broad-based movement “made it harder for elected officials to ignore the persistent pressure we were applying,” Houston said. It also made the victory sweeter. “There was a sense of, ‘Oh, we can shape our futures.’”

Patterns of Neglect

Houston sees some similarities between North Philadelphia, where he grew up—“overwhelmingly Black and low-income, with some of the highest asthma rates in the country”—and the Far Rockaways and South Bronx in New York, where he worked. “These neighborhoods have suffered from patterns we see a lot of: decades stacked on decades of disinvestment and marginalization of communities of color.”

That can make it hard to hold on to hope. “I’ve had moments where despair is knocking at the door,” Houston said. In those moments, he looks to the past, “when humans faced existential crises and prevailed,” he said. “The history of people like me, Black people in America, provides a lot of examples of that.”

He also looks to his upbringing, where he pinpoints the origins of his own environmental activism. “We spent a lot of time outdoors in Philadelphia’s beautiful park system, and we were a large, low-income family, so we were always cognizant about our energy consumption,” Houston said.

Theory and Practice

A similar combination of passion and practicality, along with a focus on antiracism, led Houston to apply to UEP. “I really appreciated that mix of: How do we deal with the world as it is, the practical component, but also envision and work toward the futures we need?”

Even as he anticipates putting his master’s to use as a planner in Philadelphia, “It’s hard not to see myself returning to the public sphere, building macro people power to effect large change at the speed necessary for the crises we face,” Houston said.

City planner or public official? Whatever combination of planning and public service the future holds for Houston, he knows it will require not only good ideas or people power but both together.