Human Services Agencies Can Advance Environmental Justice

Human Services Agencies Can Advance Environmental Justice

Jan 05, 2023
On the Evidence, a Mathematica Podcast. With Michael A. Becketts, Tracy Wareing Evans, Shavana Howard, and Matt Stagner.

On the latest episode of Mathematica’s On the Evidence podcast, guests Shavana Howard, Michael A. Becketts, Tracy Wareing Evans, and Matt Stagner make the case for state and local human services agencies to play a central role in responding to climate change and advancing environmental justice.

At first glance, state and local agencies that administer human services programs might not seem like critical players in the governmental response to climate change. They aren’t charged with protecting the environment. They don’t maintain green spaces, oversee energy policy, or monitor the weather.

Yet these agencies are experts in one area that is essential for any governmental response to climate change and severe weather events: people. They are responsible for improving the well-being of individuals and families, especially individuals and families who have low incomes or are in crisis. From increased food insecurity to higher utility bills and displacement caused by ever more frequent extreme weather events, the field of human services is already faced with climate change’s deleterious effects on people’s well-being.

Human services agencies frequently serve places and populations that stand to lose the most from climate change but have the least ability to adapt. With their deep roots in those communities, human services agencies might also be in the best position to develop programs and policies that will address those communities’ needs while amplifying their strengths. This episode of On the Evidence examines the role that the field of human services can play in securing environmental justice, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”

Last year, Mathematica and the American Public Human Services Association (APHSA) partnered to host an event with practitioners in state and local human services about what their agencies could do to mitigate harms caused by climate change and build resiliency in communities. A subsequent magazine article published by APHSA shared key takeaways from that convening, such as listening to the expertise of community members who are most vulnerable to the harmful effects of climate change and supporting them in leading local efforts to develop equitable solutions; educating staff within human services agencies about the role that they can play in securing environmental justice; and coordinating across agencies to address social and environmental factors that affect people’s health and well-being. Both the event and article followed on the heels of federal activity to elevate environmental justice as a focus for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Our guests for this episode are Michael A. Becketts, Tracy Wareing Evans, Shavana Howard, and Matt Stagner.

Becketts is the director of the Fairfax County Department of Family Services.

Wareing Evans is the President and Chief Executive Officer at APHSA.

Howard is an assistant secretary for the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services.

Stagner is a vice president at Mathematica.

The national conversation about how the field of human services can help environmental justice is just beginning. We hope this episode continues the dialogue and spurs more thinking about how human services agencies can pursue the dual mission of promoting equity and minimizing the harm caused by climate change. Regular listeners of the show won’t be surprised to hear a discussion about the role data can play in informing our understanding of climate change’s inequitable effects in communities and how to best address them.

Listen to the full episode.

View transcript

[MICHAEL A. BECKETTS]

Who's staying in the panhandle of Florida that was decimated by Hurricane Michael? Who's staying on the coast of North Carolina that was flooded, 30 counties flooded in North Carolina due to Hurricane Florence?

You know, there are lots of people who want to rebuild and stay, but there's some people who have to. And so strategically, we have to, through a human services lens, really be considerate of what are the resources that we have to actually take care of the people who stay. Not only those who stay by choice, but who stay because they don't have other options.

[J.B. WOGAN]

I’m J.B. Wogan from Mathematica and welcome back to On the Evidence, a show that examines what we know about today’s most urgent challenges and how we can make progress in addressing them.

On this episode, we’re going to talk about environmental justice and the role that the field of human services can play in advancing environmental justice.

This episode stems from a partnership between Mathematica and the American Public Human Services Association, better known by the acronym APHSA. Last year, Mathematica and APHSA hosted an event with practitioners in state and local human services about what their agencies could do to mitigate the harms caused by climate change. Key takeaways from that convening also appeared in a magazine article published by APHSA.

When you think about government agencies that are critical for responding to climate change, the agencies that run our social services programs might not be at the top of your list. They aren’t charged with protecting the environment or maintaining our green spaces. They don’t oversee energy policy. They’re not monitoring the weather.

But they are responsible for improving the well-being of individuals and families, especially individuals and families who have low incomes or are in crisis. From increased food insecurity to higher utility bills to displacement caused by ever more frequent extreme weather events, the field of human services is already dealing with climate change’s effects on people’s well-being.

They already serve communities that stand to lose the most from climate change but have the least ability to adapt. And they might be in the best position to develop programs and policies that will address those communities’ needs while amplifying their strengths.

The national conversation about how the field of human services can help respond to climate change is still in its infancy, but we’re hoping this episode continues the dialogue and spurs more thinking about how agencies can pursue the dual mission of promoting equity and minimizing the harm caused by climate change. As one might expect from a podcast called On the Evidence, we also spend time thinking about the role that data can play in informing our understanding of climate change’s inequitable effects in communities and how to best address them.

My guests for this episode are Shavana Howard, Michael A. Becketts, Tracy Wareing Evans, and Matt Stagner. Shavana is an assistant secretary for the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services. Michael is the director of the Fairfax County Department of Family Services. Tracy is the Chief Executive Officer at APHSA. And Matt is a vice president at Mathematica.

A full transcript of our conversation is available on the blog associated with this episode at Mathematica.org. That’s also where you’ll find other resources mentioned on this episode.

I hope you find this conversation useful.

[J.B. WOGAN]

All right, so we're going to jump into the questions here. We're going to be talking about the role of human services in advancing environmental justice. And I want to hear, what does environmental justice mean to each of you and how does it connect to your work? Michael, I thought perhaps we could start with you.

[MICHAEL A. BECKETTS]

Sure.

[J.B. WOGAN]

What does environmental justice mean to you and how does it connect with your work?

[MICHAEL A. BECKETTS]

So when I think of environmental justice, the first thing that jumps out for me is the impact of climate change and more severe, more frequent adverse weather events like hurricanes, tornadoes. I think of the wildfires and even the droughts out west and the impact that those things have on the people in our community.

As I was sort of thinking about this, I like to think that everybody in those affected areas when something comes up has their own stories. And however, like personal and community resources determine how those stories end. And often, as after the federal government, state government, local government support sort of pull away, the emergency needs of the affected communities, especially those people that had pre-existing challenges, sort of are left with sort of rather significant choices about where they stay, where they live, if they're going to move.

And I often sort of think that it's not unusual for us who are sort of removed from the situation by distance. We're easily able to critique the problem and sort of from a privileged place, ask questions like, why do people stay there? Like, why won't they just leave if it's going to flood? And we know it's going to flood year after year. You know, every time a hurricane comes to New Orleans, I'm thinking, man, I wouldn't want to live in like the Lower Eighth Ward, right? Why do they stay there? But that's such a privileged place to sit. There are lots of people who can't just get up and go. And the people who are often left with the choice, and I put that choice word in quotation marks, are often there because of ties to the community, ties to the land, ties to other people, and sort of socioeconomic disadvantage.

And so it's not so easy for people to just get up and go. And so when I think of environmental justice, I actually think of sort of what's our role in government, especially in government, to really be thoughtful around the built environment and how we create scenarios and build to those scenarios that people who are in those affected areas can be helped and can sort of continue to thrive in the communities that they love so much.

[J.B. WOGAN]

Okay, thank you. And Shavana, after hearing Michael and his views, what does environmental justice mean to you in Louisiana? What are the stories and experiences there, and how does it connect with your work?

[SHAVANA HOWARD]

You know, I echo everything that Michael said. You know, since 2020, I think we have actually had six disasters in our state, and a flood, and some of the same communities being impacted by those disasters, like, repeatedly.

You know, we as a department are actually tasked with sheltering individuals within our state in the times of disasters. So not only do we have the direct interaction and connection with them when they're actually trying to access benefits and programs, but we also have this other time in which we provide the same support to these individuals. And, you know, one of the biggest challenges we have is it's the same individuals who process all these SNAP and TANF applications.

And not only that, but they're the same individuals also living in, you know, the 8th Ward that was impacted by the disaster that are, you know, moving, whether it's temporary or not, to another parish of the state so that they can provide support, you know, for the citizens of our state in the event of a disaster. You know, it's not a surprise. I think, you know, Louisiana has a high rate of poverty, high rate of food insecurity in our state. And so, you know, when you think of the impacts that disaster already brings, it really just, you know, exacerbates the current challenges that many of our citizens face every day.

You know, and speaking of, you know, the sheltering duties that we continually do, I mean, Ida's been gone for over a year, and we are still sheltering in our state. We still have over 1,500 families who have not been able to go back home, right? We are helping and working to support FEMA and some of their work for their direct sheltering and trying to transition individuals back into their homes. But we still have a lot of people who have no homes. We have a lot of our offices that are still closed from Ida that we have not even started to open back up to provide services to the community.

And so, what does that mean to those in the community who have actually gone back to the community and we don't have this place for them to come and to see us? And so, we've been trying to figure out, how do we build an infrastructure, increase access for individuals who've been impacted so we can still provide those resources, services, and supports. And so, it's a lot. You know, I hear a lot of stories from individuals who are trying to access our programs and our resources, and they're just, usually, they're just tired.

They're tired -- tired that they don't have a home to live in. They're tired that they don't have food to eat. They just don't know where to go. There's no transportation. I mean, there's a lot of challenges that, you know, that they're experiencing, especially when we think about environmental injustice in our state, especially a state that's been impacted so much by so many disasters over the years.

[J.B. WOGAN]

Tracy, I want to turn it over to you now. I noticed you, among others, on this call were nodding your head when Shavana was talking about this dual problem of people who are, you know, at high rates of poverty, most vulnerable from a sort of socioeconomic standpoint, but also most vulnerable to things like flooding, other extreme natural disasters. How is APHSA thinking about the way to define environmental justice and the way in which it connects with your work?

[TRACY WAREING EVANS]

Yeah, thanks, J.B., and I really appreciate and was vigorously heading or nodding my head in response to both Michael and Shavana's answers. And really, I think the question is as much about what human services is and could be as it is to ask about what environmental justice is and what it could be. For example, I mean, human services really are at the cornerstone of how we think about building well-being. You know, we provide access to things like child care and education and health care.

We can ensure food and housing security. We can promote opportunities for families to earn sustaining wages and begin to think about how to accumulate savings. And we can connect people to support systems that reduce stress and more. And we can do this in good times. And it's incredibly important that the human services system be there when we have challenging times, including the impact of disasters, climate disasters. And so really at the essence, I think, of both environmental justice and human services is this idea of how do we build resilient communities? And we have to recognize that not all communities experience the impacts of a changing environment in the same way.

And so what we're seeing across the nation is folks really trying to understand to get at the root cause of what any community is experiencing. We have to look at how our systems like human services and public health and housing actually intersect with the environment. It's, as you've heard, the connection to the same population served. There's a recognition of the cumulative impact on communities and how lack of access to services, jobs, transportations, and all those social supports that are part of the human services system can really have a more adverse impact on folks that are then impacted by things like a disaster. So I'll share that one of the things I've heard our team talk about is that human service leaders, we really can't be at the sidelines, right? We really have to be at the table.

And part of making sure that our systems are really working as seamlessly as we can for people, instead of people really having to work the system, particularly in response to a disaster when, you know, your head is completely focused on safety and well-being. And so our goal really is to try to strengthen those connections and help equip human service leaders across the country to be able to get ahead of issues, address things like food insecurity, and provide those kinds of supports early on that better position both people and the communities in which they live in order to be able to weather those life's ups and downs. And in this case, I mean the pun intended, right, of really being able to withstand what too many communities are experiencing today in the, in terms of climate change.

[J.B. WOGAN]

All right, excellent. Now, Matt, I want to turn to you. And here at Mathematica, we certainly have this big body of -- I'll look at you I guess in the computer. We have this, we have this big body of work on human services and around reducing poverty and increasingly more work around equity. But I think people might be surprised to know that we're also working in climate change. That's something I'm seeing more and more in the last couple of years. So how does climate change and environmental justice figure into Mathematica's work? And how are we at Mathematica, how are we thinking about environmental justice?

[MATTHEW STAGNER]

Thanks. I guess I would start by saying Mathematica is an employee-driven organization, staff-driven organization. And at the beginning of the pandemic, we surveyed our staff about the issues that they felt we needed to take a further step into. And two issues that rose to the top of that were the environment and related climate change and justice issues in general.

So environmental justice to me just brings those two together in ways that our colleagues were just talking about. That the impacts of climate change, the impacts of environmental events do not affect people equally. And particularly those who for 50 years we've worked with, who provide the healthcare systems and the human services systems domestically and the development programs internationally, those people are at risk. They're already experiencing more events more frequently. But beyond the individual emergency type of events that were alluded to, they're also more at risk as the climate changes in general.

So we hope to build on our expertise with those systems to help folks like our colleagues represent today to build, as Tracy said, a more resilient set of systems that can make sure that the damage that is there, that people do experience, is lessened. And that the equity issue is front and center, that no one deserves to take the brunt of these changes. And we should be helping our colleagues be prepared to help the people that they're already in the field helping as they face new challenges.

[J.B. WOGAN]

Okay, so what I'm hearing is that the field of human services already is helping people who are disproportionately harmed by extreme weather events and other negative effects of climate change. But that supporting role, the current supporting role, could evolve to be more proactive and impactful. Shavana, maybe you can start us off with this next question. I was hoping you could talk a little bit more about specifically the work that you all are doing now to prepare for the future to be a little bit more proactive.

[SHAVANA HOWARD]

Absolutely. So you know, there's so many opportunities and lessons learned from, you know, the way that we've responded as a state when it comes to natural disasters related to climate change. And some of the things, especially when you think of the direct services that we provide, that have been really key for us is really just increasing partnerships and collaboration. You know, understanding what our community partners are actually doing, what services they're currently providing, what resources they have available.

We've been working for the last couple of years, quite honestly, on working with United Ways for Louisiana that, you know, the 211. And it's really trying to use that Unite Us platform so that we can have a place that no matter where an individual goes, who they contact, there's one agency above all that you can go to and ask almost any question, they'll have all that information. And so, Unite Us, who is managed by 211 and the United Ways of Louisiana, is actually really helping us to ensure that our staff have the tools and resources using that platform to provide resources and support. You know, additionally, I think we learned so much from the many, many disasters that we've experienced over the last couple of years. And one of the things that we walked away with is, you know, the support and partnership that's increased within the federal government as it comes to responding to a disaster when you think of issuing SNAP benefits, in these instances, you know, disaster SNAP benefits.

And so, in working with FNS, we've been actually able to do a virtual model for de-SNAP and move towards a hybrid model, meaning that we're no longer requiring individuals to go to the locations, so be in the parish or areas in which the disaster occurred, right? The virtual model allows individuals to stay wherever their new home is temporarily while they've been impacted and actually still apply for and receive and be eligible for those SNAP benefits that are desperately needed. So that has worked well.

And it's been a great model, especially since, you know, in a perfect world, you know, when an individual is impacted by anything that occurs in their life, they can usually rely on help, right? You can call on friends, you can call on families, and this virtual model allows us to call on other states who have not been impacted who can come and support us. And we were grateful that, you know, in moving with this virtual model, we actually received support from Oklahoma, from Texas, over 500 employees who came from other states to help support Louisiana as we responded to Ida because the demand was just so great.

You know, we issued, I think it was over 220,000 applications we processed just responding to that one disaster during Ida. And so, there's definitely a need and that innovation allowed us to do things a little bit differently. You know, we've been working a lot on increasing access and, you know, I think Tracy talked about that a little bit more when we talk about access, is trying to make sure we address and attempt to resolve some of the challenges that exist.

And when it comes to food insecurity within our state prior to the events actually happening and occurring, so that we are prepared. And so, we have worked a lot over the last year on increasing access so that individuals don't have to go to the local office, but they can if they're able to get there. But they can also be serviced by phone as well. And, you know, transportation is a huge problem in our state.

You know, a lot of Louisiana is rural. We don't have we don't have a huge transportation system that spans the entire state. We have challenges when it comes to broadband connectivity for the same reason, just because the rural versus the urban areas and what individuals are able to access. But there's just so many different opportunities and resources that we have learned that we can use to kind of move things forward.

And then lastly, I would say, you know, as we talk about food insecurity and kind of helping to ensure that we are reaching the individuals who need our services, you know, we've been able to partner with Urban Footprint, who is a data mining system in CPEX, that really has allowed us to look at the data of where does food insecurity, where does, you know, economic resources, where is there a lack of those services and those support. And using those services and partnering with our contractors to really do intentional outreach and put efforts in the places that need them the most, so that we can actually provide the support that's needed for children and families in the state of Louisiana.

So we've seen some great progress in those areas and actually connecting children and families with resources and support. And we're going to continue to kind of do that moving forward, because one of the things that, you know, when I came here, I learned is that, you know, this state is very resilient, right? And the one thing they do very well, especially since they've, you know, experienced so many disasters, is they always learn from past experience. And so, you know, sometimes I've heard people say, you know, we don't waste a disaster. We always make sure it's a learning moment, so we can do things better, do things differently for the public that we're here to serve moving forward.

[J.B. WOGAN]

Okay. So a lot of that is, if a disaster strikes, really having the infrastructure in place to have benefits as accessible as possible. So if people need to access the safety net, there are virtual options that can access it from other states. Okay. All right. Michael, I want to hear from you now. Are there parallels in Fairfax, Virginia, that are similar to what Shavana is talking about, or are there other ways, different ways, that you all are thinking about the human services field being more proactive and more prepared for climate change?

[MICHAEL A. BECKETTS]

Yeah, thanks for that. You know, I like to say to my staff, like, today was planned three months ago, and I had to be thoughtful strategically about how I was going to respond to today. And when I think about sort of this topic that we're discussing, you know, if we are sitting in the space of planning for this year's weather or next year's weather event, we are only planning to manage the crisis that we know will come to us, right?

That we should be working sort of in two different spaces simultaneously. One that helps us build immediate sort of structures and resilience to make sure, like Shavana has said, like, be able to access food easier, right? But we also need to be thinking more strategically. You know, we need to be thinking five years from now, 10 years from now, 15 years from now, even maybe even decades into the future. You know, the impact of climate change will continue to shape sort of the landscape, both literally and figuratively.

One of the things that I think is really important, and I think we saw this, you know, with Hurricane Katrina, that we also have to be very, very sort of thoughtful about how severe climate impacts migration patterns and examine really who's left in communities. I think culturally we understand, especially with like sort of growth of communities and urban flight, that people who are often left sort of in depressed areas are those people who are least advantaged to be able to take advantage of other opportunities in our communities. And if we start thinking about right now, who's staying in communities along the Gulf Coast?

Who's staying in the panhandle of Florida that was decimated by Hurricane Michael? Who's staying on the coast of North Carolina that was flooded, 30 counties flooded in North Carolina due to Hurricane Florence?

You know, there are lots of people who want to rebuild and stay, but there's some people who have to. And so strategically, we have to, through a human services lens, really be considerate of what are the resources that we have to actually take care of the people who stay. Not only those who stay by choice, but who stay because they don't have other options. Those are our people. Those are the people that human services folks sort of pay attention to and plan for. But we also recognize that as flight exists, as people with resources choose to say, you know what, I'm just not going to stay down on the Gulf Coast anymore. I'm going to move further inland. That the people who remain are the people that we serve.

And it won't be unusual, but the challenge is we have to really start thinking now about who those people are, how they can be supported sort of well into the future. Because if we keep managing this year to year, we will never get in front of it. We'll always be reactive in the future. Fairfax does have some things going on in it that lets me know that we are planning sort of for the future. We actually have an office that's called the Office of Environment and Energy Coordination that has taken the opportunity to really plan across our county.

And, you know, we don't get very severe weather in the mid-Atlantic region. We're very fortunate. I find that to be a place of privilege when I sit across the table from Shavana in places where we're talking about weather crises. It's just not the same. But we get extreme heat. And for example, one of the things in our plan is that they have mapped every parcel of land in the county to understand the impact of severe heat. And so that way we can make decisions today based on what's going to happen over the next couple of years as the number of 100-degree days increases from the average of 10 to 20. And what does that mean for the elderly, for the disabled, for people who don't have air conditioning or access to cooling centers and, you know, in circumstances like that? And so we can be planful. It just takes communities to take the initiative and for local, state, and federal governments to resource those initiatives.

[J.B. WOGAN]

Just out of curiosity, that Office of Energy -- and was it Energy and the Environment?

[MICHAEL A. BECKETTS]

Office of Environment and Energy Coordination.

[J.B. WOGAN]

The Office of Environment and Energy Coordination. Does that coordination include coordination with your office? Do they have any kind of a working relationship with Human Services in Fairfax?

[MICHAEL A. BECKETTS]

Yes. And so we actually just released in November the Climate Adaptation and Resilience Plan. And that was not just these folks and engineers and others sitting at a table. It was an interdepartmental, cross-community dialogue that really helped us develop this plan. And it's called -- what's it called?

It is called the Climate Adaptation and Resilience Plan. And so members of my team were sitting at the table to help understand how climate change impacts our work. And so it wasn't done in isolation. It was done in partnership.

[J.B. WOGAN]

Okay, perfect. Tracy, we've just heard a little bit about how Shavana and Michael are incorporating ideas around environmental justice and making it operational in Louisiana and in Fairfax, Virginia. Let's zoom out here. You can speak a little bit from a national perspective, from the perspective of the APHSA. What are you seeing in terms of, you know, the work that you are doing around environmental justice and the work that your members are doing to prepare for the future?

[TRACY WAREING EVANS]

Yeah, I think I would step back and say that we probably all agree that the conversations around the intersections of human services and environmental justice really are still in very early stages across the country. Shavana and Michael are very strong leaders with strong community around them.

And I think we are going to continue to want to learn about how they're leaning into the work, but recognizing that -- and this is one of the reasons that we partnered with you all at Mathematica, was really to try to understand more what can we be doing, what should we be doing, and how do we really advance the collective work in ways that really get at what Michael was talking about in terms of kind of long-run change in the way our systems are operating? So that we can meet the immediate issues in front of us, right, the things that happen or have happened if you, you know, just look back over the last couple of years and what Shavana and the state of Louisiana have experienced, and then to where we really are building stronger and more resilient communities across the board. And asking ourselves what is the data telling us, you know, what questions do we have today?

How are we ensuring that we're leveraging the data in front of us in ways that are equitable and are addressing, I think, with a great deal of intentionality what we know are deeply embedded structural bias and inequalities, inequities, rather, in our systems. And I think the key there, it really is intentionality and to recognize, again, that we're in early stages, and so part of what we hope to do at APHSA is really create opportunities for leaders to share with each other what they're doing, how that's shaping. I think, you know, Michael's story just of the, you know, the partnership with the office that's focusing on the environmental impacts and thinking about that longer term and creating plans that are intentional and cross-sector focused is just one example of something that could be really helpful to other leaders across the country as they're thinking about what it is they may embed in their own communities.

And I'll just leave you with one other final point, and this is, I think, probably implicit in everything that we've all been talking about already, but that, you know, each community, there's a lot of synergies, and then each community is its own community, right?

And that is true within states, right, or even within counties and neighborhoods sometimes. And so creating opportunities for us to be able to drill down to that kind of data, to equip the workforce of human services, to be able to understand what power they sit with in order to support and work with and through community, I think, is another kind of key aspect that we're trying to figure out how to embed in the way that our service delivery can be most relevant and driven by community leaders, not necessarily, you know, a cookie-cutter application across our systems.

[J.B. WOGAN]

Matt, Tracy referenced the partnership between Mathematica and APHSA, but I don't know if we've fully articulated what the nature of that partnership is and what role Mathematica is playing. Would you want to speak a little bit more to what we and you are doing in that space?

[MATTHEW STAGNER]

Yeah, we've been very excited to speak with Tracy and APHSA. I would say one of the most important things we're doing is to try to develop a learning agenda. So as both of our colleagues from states and counties have noted, we don't really have a full sense, of the effects of these events and the best ways to respond. So we've held a couple of listening sessions and work sessions to try to understand what leaders at the state and local level are thinking about, if they're thinking about these problems, how they think about these problems fitting into the hundreds of other day-to-day problems they are trying to tackle.

And I think we've hit on a couple of the key things that have come out of that so far. One is this resilience idea that we're trying to build systems that will be resilient and adaptive as we see more and more climate issues affecting the populations that we most care about. I think a second one is just getting the word out that this is an important thing for people to focus on, that it's coming, it's already affecting human service agencies, and it will affect more of them in the future. So our work with APHSA is evolving and carrying into the next year, and we'll see where it goes, but it will really be driven by people like Shavana and Michael and the issues that they're facing and the ways that we can help refine those, get the word out, and begin to work on the best ways to address these challenges.

[J.B. WOGAN]

This podcast is called On the Evidence, and its premise is that rigorous research and other forms of timely and reliable information can inform our understanding of problems and how to address them. So I wanted to put this question to the group, what is the role of research and data in advancing environmental justice? And maybe, Matt, we can start with you again.

[MATTHEW STAGNER]

So this is, I think, a very different evidence problem than others that I've worked on in my career and that I imagine my colleagues on the podcast have worked on. But I think there are two basic issues. One is, there's a ton of evidence that this is affecting the people that we care about, and it's affecting them disproportionately and in negative ways. So we need to organize that evidence and get it out to leaders of human service agencies in ways that energize them to address these issues.

Secondly, I think there are ways to use the relationships that human service agencies have, the data that they have, to begin to test and try. I don't think any of us on this podcast would say we know the answers. We're trying to understand the best ways to respond to things like extreme heat, worsening air quality, other consequences of climate change, the kinds of disasters that we've talked about today. So data are available and are critical for identifying who's affected and how they're affected. And they will be, I think, important as we begin to make changes and adaptations.

A couple of examples. One is, Mathematica has developed, as an example of how to use data in this way, a thing called Climate Watch, which gives you a chance to look at how heat waves and Medicaid-related expenditures for health issues related to heat are connected, where in the country those things are happening, and what some of the cost issues are of how those kinds of costs are coming at the systems that we care about. Another example I would give out where we're already there as human service agencies is the Low-Income Home Energy Program, or LIHEAP, which already, for decades, has been helping people deal with energy needs when they don't have a lot of income. But now their energy needs are changing, and they're changing from heating, still, of course, an important issue in much of the country, but also air conditioning and access to cooling will be important.

So human service programs, again, will have to be changing and, we hope, will have to be resilient. And to me, resilience and evidence go hand in hand, because we have to try things, we have to learn from them. Shavana already nicely alluded to the fact that, sadly, every event is also a learning opportunity, and that's the way human service agencies will have to think about this. We will be affected, we'll try things, and hopefully, organizations like Mathematica will be able to help build an evidence base that's as adapted locally, as Tracy said, because every place will be affected differently. But are there approaches and ways to build the kind of resilient human services system we'd like to have?

[J.B. WOGAN]

All right, before we leave this question, does anyone else have thoughts about the role of data and evidence? I love the example earlier, Michael, you gave about the extreme heat data that Fairfax is gathering that can inform which residents are being most affected by extreme heat. Are there other examples like that?

[SHAVANA HOWARD]

I do have an example, and I was just thinking about something that I think, actually, Matt was just kind of talking about. You know, we use a lot of research and a lot of data, like, you know, because we are tasked with responding to any disaster and/or event that requires this department to shelter, we train for it all year long, every year, right?

So whether a disaster comes or not, as soon as, you know, disaster season ends, we are training for the next one to take all those lessons learned and moving them forward, and a lot of that is reviewing and using the historical data of the clients, the parishes that are impacted by disasters, and trying to do some type of analysis of what the projections will look like as far as, you know, when we actually, you know, put everyone into a readiness phase, if you will. A lot of what we do on the emergency preparedness side is, of course, military-related, is kind of how we're responding, right? Because it's that militant situation that you have to be able to get up and go.

And so, our staff are trained year-round on how to respond, and because of the training that they've received for many, many years, it helped us to respond to even just the COVID pandemic, quite honestly, right? They were prepared and knew how to support, because even during COVID, we are tasked with sheltering individuals who were tested positive at, you know, the shrimp farms, whatever the case may be, that were isolated at campsites, whatever the case may be. You know, it's our department that actually still stands up those sheltering responses for the state. And so, I think there's a lot of data and research that is used in lessons learned, hot washes, as we call them, to kind of plan for the future. I think one of the challenges we have sometimes, though, is realizing and even recognizing, you know, what other resources and support do we provide individuals who are displaced, right, outside of what we can actually control?

You know, as a state agency, we just oversee SNAP or TANF, you know, we don't provide much assistance in the education department or the child care or housing, but how do our relationships and our partnerships allow us to meet in the same space so that individuals don't have to navigate through all these systems, but we can help them to navigate them themselves? And we're doing that using the data and things that we've learned from our past to kind of help us to move forward.

[J.B. WOGAN]

When you have a natural disaster, like the hurricane and flooding, do you staff up? Is there a temporary workforce that's hired up to respond to those things, or do you have to use the existing workforce? I was thinking about the parallel with COVID and contact tracing, where you had a bunch of temporary contact tracers who were added to the public health workforce to respond to COVID. Is there something like that for climate change?

[SHAVANA HOWARD]

There is not, unfortunately. It's the current staff that we have that are trained to do this other portion of work, that know as soon as we start putting them in ready mode, which, you know, we do a lot of texting to our staff and through our training process to make sure they know, you know, a storm is entering the Gulf, stay ready, which means as soon as that happens, you're going to take off the hat of SNAP and you're going to put on the hat of shelter and responsibilities, medical assistance, whatever it is that they're tasked to do in order to, you know, support individuals who are actually in the shelter. And the state owns, I mean, several large mega shelters that we use when we talk about supporting, you know, supporting citizens of our state to make sure that they're safe during the event of a disaster.

[TRACY WAREING EVANS]

J.B., can I just make one point on the evidence and research question? Because I think again, this is implied, I think, in the conversation we just had, but it's so important that we consider what qualitative data is telling us. So applying research strategies that draw on the direct experience of people who are using our systems or, to Shavana's point, the workforce itself and what its experience is, right, in that immediate response. And then the longer-term, quote-unquote, recovery that we often talk about when we are dealing with a disaster. But as we think about things, you know, think about the evolution of environmental and climate justice based on what's actually happening and with more frequency, it's not a once-a-year type of scenario, right?

We're talking about, you know, much faster and much more frequent experiences. And so, making sure that we're building feedback loops and kind of ongoing research questions that are informing that learning agenda that Matt was talking about, I think, is really important, and just making sure that it's not just the quantitative data that we're taking a look at.

[J.B. WOGAN]

That's a great point. And for listeners who can't see our video screens, Matt just gave a thumbs up in endorsement of Tracy's comment there. So I want to end on an optimistic note, on a hopeful note. And climate change and social inequities, which are sort of the, you know, two pieces of the DNA of environmental injustice, are both weighty topics that can leave people feeling paralyzed and helpless. But solutions do exist, and people like yourselves are working on advancing environmental justice, which that in itself gives me hope. When you think about the role of human services in advancing environmental justice, where do each of you find hope? And let's start with Shavana here. Where do you find hope?

[SHAVANA HOWARD]

I was very hopeful just through having partnerships like this, right, that bring us together to talk about, you know, to learn from other states, to understand, you know, how are they responding? What resources and supports do they have in place? We also, you know, have an amazing governor here in Louisiana, Governor John Edwards, actually put out an executive order that required a task force to work on a climate action plan that reduced, you know, mostly the emissions, you know, by 2025, all the way through 2050 to zero.

And so, there's a lot of intentional work. That task force has been working now for over a year, has received feedback from all state agencies, as well as community partners and stakeholders, to try to figure out how do we better support resources within the communities. And it's looked at a lot of things a lot differently than it has historically. I also appreciate just the willingness for so many others who aren't necessarily in the state of Louisiana, but who live in this shared space, to really bring different ideas to the table. And then, you know, I talked a little bit earlier about just the work that this state has always done historically when it comes to a disaster and how resilient they are. Our staff are truly phenomenal and very innovative and very creative and talented.

And so, what I appreciate a lot is just their ability to kind of speak up and to bring these situations to our attention of the resources that are currently happening. You know, like, for example, in New Orleans, they have a quarterly meeting that is doing constant updates on climate change and its impact on the community and the people in which they serve, and how DCFS can support those resources and those efforts. And really, it's just them understanding that there is a connection to bring the information back to figure out what can we do differently, which has helped to shape the direction in which we have started to move in as we're talking about local access, you know, outreach and resources, and trying to ensure that there's, you know, just equity throughout the state as far as access for transportation, for housing.

There's a lot of inequities that currently exist, and I think we've talked about that a lot on this podcast. But it gives me hope just to hear so much of these conversations in such a positive light, especially when we talk about lessons that we've learned and directions we're moving in in the future.

[J.B. WOGAN]

Tracy, where do you find hope in the role of human services in advancing environmental justice?

[TRACY WAREING EVANS]

Yeah, I find hope, probably not surprisingly to folks listening in, to leaders like Shavana and Michael, who are themselves leaning in, right? I think it can be very easy in the complexity of these jobs to dismiss -- that is one extra thing that, you know, can't be taken on.

And instead, I think really understanding that the lens of environmental justice and understanding what's happening in our climate and in our communities is part of trying to further a stronger and more impactful human services system. And I would say, kind of echoing what Shavana is sharing from the ground, is understanding that communities know what they need. And communities often sit with a lot of ideas of what to move forward, and it's really incumbent upon folks who sit with the ability to pull some of the levers of policy and practice and understanding research to be able to move what communities really have designed as the way forward and really help make that happen. And I think we're seeing a lot more of that, and that definitely gives me hope for the future.

[J.B. WOGAN]

Right, that's great. I saw some nodding heads when you said communities know what they need. That ties back nicely to your earlier comment about prioritizing the qualitative data as well, both from the workforce and from the residents. Matt, I want to turn to you. Where are you finding hope?

[MATTHEW STAGNER]

Well, I will echo some of what my colleagues already said and note that I think one of the most hopeful things is that human services people are fueled by hope and a positive outlook. They could not get up every day and do the work they already do. Now, climate change is going to put another stressor or is already putting another stressor on that, but these are people dedicated to serving the people that they serve and willing to lean in, to use Tracy's term, on all kinds of tough challenges, and this is another one that sadly is added to that.

I also think that many of the data and tools and partnerships already exist. I don't think we have to invent so many new things to learn and build evidence in this space. We just have to try some things, gather some data, listen to the community. I think we don't necessarily know exactly what to do, but we have the tools to learn what to do and what will work. And finally, I take hope in organizations like APHSA, who for decades have been focusing on the need for human services systems and coordination and togetherness and problem solving. So again, those are muscles that have already been built and we have to use them in new ways, but we're not starting from scratch.

[J.B. WOGAN]

All right, Michael, I'm going to give you the final word here on giving us hope.

[MICHAEL A. BECKETTS]

Yeah. Being in a community like Fairfax, we try to build towards resilience and making sure that we are strategically focused, but it's often not the case in some places. And one of the things that I find hope in, and this is listening to Shavana and Tracy speak, I'm hopeful because we have forums like this that are actually sort of creating awareness of the issue.

That is really helping create the idea, plant the seed that we do better together in our planning and envisioning the future, that having human services practitioners and leaders and visionaries at the table when we're thinking about sort of how to best serve communities who are affected by climate change is, I think, the way to go. So it's encouraging that we're not alone sort of in our thinking. You know, a storm doesn't just hit one part of Louisiana. It doesn't just hit one part of the Gulf Coast. And so planning together and taking ideas from other jurisdictions.

When I was in North Carolina as Assistant Secretary and Hurricane Florence flooded 30 counties, we actually looked toward Houston on how to better sort of do sheltering for folks and how to best sort of really look at how we make sure that people who were homeless prior to weren't homeless after our state level and local interventions. And so we're not in it alone, but forums like this raise the issue to a more public space. Because Houston can sit and plan, right, but we're all watching. I watch Louisiana. I watch North Carolina. I watch Florida. And I learn lessons. And I'm not afraid of picking up the phone and calling my peers when hurricane, when hurricanes, lots of hurricanes. But when COVID hit, right, natural disaster, hits tons of people, I'm worried about what was going on with how was I going to manage child welfare? How was I going to manage sort of public assistance benefits? So I looked towards New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and King County in Seattle. I reached out to APHSA and said, like, how do I get, like, telephone numbers to some people who can tell me how things are happening? Because in that environment, there were three weeks before it hit me. We saw it coming. I had three weeks to plan. And I was able to rely on sort of a network of people who were willing to share. We have to have the courage to ask the questions of each other.

[J.B. WOGAN]

Thanks again to my guests, Shavana Howard, Michael A. Becketts, Tracy Wareing Evans, and Matt Stagner. A full transcript of our conversation is available on the blog associated with this episode at Mathematica.org. That’s also where you’ll find other resources mentioned on this episode.

This episode was produced by me and my colleague, Rick Stoddard.

As always, thanks for listening to On the Evidence, the Mathematica podcast. To keep up with future episodes, subscribe on your favorite podcast player or follow us on Twitter. I’m at JBWogan. Mathematica is at MathematicaNow.

Show notes

Read the article in Policy & Practice, the official publication of APHSA, about the role of human services in securing environmental justice.

Learn more about Fairfax County’s Office of Environmental and Energy Coordination and its Resilient Fairfax Climate Adaptation and Resilience Plan.

Read the announcement from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services about the establishment of its Office of Environmental Justice.

Learn more about the intersection of environmental justice with human services policies and programs through an infographic created by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation.

Read a memo from Wareing Evans to members of APHSA about connecting the work of human services to environmental justice.

Explore ClimaWATCH, an interactive online tool that can support communities seeking to understand and adapt to the local effects of heat waves on their residents’ health.

Learn more about Mathematica’s interdisciplinary climate change practice.

About the Author

J.B. Wogan

J.B. Wogan

Senior Strategic Communications Specialist
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