CEDAR RAPIDS — A lush canopy of newly planted trees. Weatherproof housing. Additional bike trails. More farmers market produce.
These are a few of the things that Mugisha Bwenge, the founder of United We March Forward, a nonprofit serving refugees and immigrants, envisions in Cedar Rapids when the community is engaged in local climate action.
“The world is changing, and there are ways that we can make it better, just as simple as that,” Bwenge said.
He is one of the people participating in “ground teams” that are working with the city of Cedar Rapids to engage community members, especially those from underserved populations, with the drafting a Community Climate Action Plan.
Process starts Oct. 22
After the Cedar Rapids City Council in February backed a resolution recognizing the urgency of local action to address climate change, the city is launching an engagement and planning process with virtual kickoff events Oct. 22 and Oct. 29.
In these events — held via videoconference — city staff will provide updates on current efforts, and community guest speakers will share perspectives on climate action, resilience, equity and meeting the needs of vulnerable residents.
The events launch the three-month first phase of the planning process to educate the community on climate change and gather input.
Community members may complete a survey to share their experiences with extreme weather and views on climate issues. The survey will open Oct. 22 at cityofcr.org/sustainability.
The ground teams will help city staff reach beyond survey respondents to ensure equity and diversity in its feedback from residents, said Eric Holthaus, the city sustainability coordinator.
He said leaders from neighborhood associations and nonprofits will help populate those ground teams.
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The council resolution calls for a plan to reduce greenhouse gases; boost resilience to adapt to extreme weather events; ensure basic needs are met, such as access to healthy food, clean air and water, and tree-lined streets; and prioritize vulnerable residents.
Applications for a Climate Advisory Committee also will open Oct. 22. Its members will provide oversight on the second phase — drafting the action plan — from January through September 2021. The city will finalize the plan in the fall of 2021.
Holthaus told The Gazette city staffers looked at climate action plans across the country that seemed to prioritize equity.
The idea for ground teams came from Indianapolis, he said. Indiana’s capital used street teams to embed with the community and attend events for the city’s Thrive Indianapolis plan unveiled in 2019. The plan focuses on systemic environmental injustices affecting historically marginalized community members.
“I’m excited about the trajectory that we’re on,” Holthaus said. “It just seems like we’re making great progress, we’re keeping our commitments and we’re really looking to engage our community in an equitable and exciting way with the Community Climate Action Plan.”
America as leader
Bwenge said he sees his responsibility as informing the immigrant and refugee community about what policies and action the city is taking to address climate change, and to incentivize them to get involved and see that they have a role in climate action.
For this population especially, Bwenge said, it is important to remember that America is a leader, and these residents may tell people from other countries, “this is the best way to go, and America is doing it.”
Monica Vallejo, the Hispanic program specialist with the Young Parents Network and a representative of the Council of the League of United Latin American Citizens in Cedar Rapids, is also part of the ground teams and said this process benefits everybody.
Problems stemming from climate change have nothing to do with skin color, she said.
“They do damage to everybody,” Vallejo said.
Everyone is a stakeholder, Bwenge agreed.
“It’s going to take unity, but in regards to climate change, it’s important because it is something we have to address,” Bwenge said. “If we don’t, we’re not going to have clean air.
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“We’re not going to have things that right now we might take for granted, but I think we do — we have to come together and work as far as making sure we save our planet.”
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