A former high school principal, Kimball Thomas recalls being disheartened to see young adults loitering in some of the struggling neighborhoods of Tallahassee, Florida. He saw them in the streets and in parks, at bus stops and near convenience stores, “doing absolutely nothing,” he says. Some of those same kids call him their “street” principal.
Thomas heads TEMPO (Tallahassee Engaged in Meaningful Productivity for Opportunity), a city initiative he launched three years ago to curb violence by helping “disconnected youth” between 16 and 24 years who aren’t in school and who are unemployed earn their GED or secure a vocational job. The program has had 640 participants, many from “promise zones”—areas designated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as having the highest poverty and violence rates in the city. Thomas says some 7,000 teens and young adults are eligible, and the city hopes to reach 1,000 participants by 2020.
For Abena Ojetayo, Tallahassee’s first chief resilience officer, TEMPO is also an important element in the city’s recently adopted community resilience plan, which calls for developing climate-adapted infrastructure, but also puts “public safety and preparedness” as the first goal. That means ensuring that the most vulnerable communities in the city can bounce back from disasters, natural or man-made.
In recent years, Tallahassee has seen plenty of both. After Hurricane Hermine in 2016, a mass power outage plunged most of the city into darkness; some parts of the city were without electricity for more than a week. Hurricane Irma in 2017 and Michael in 2018 also delivered back-to-back blows to the city. But the resilience plan also acknowledges other kinds of community threats, such as gun violence: In 2018, a mass shooting targeting women at a Tallahassee yoga studio left two people dead.
Over a quarter of Tallahassee’s 193,000 residents live in poverty—double the national average—and the Florida capital tops the list for the most economically segregated city in the U.S., according to a 2015 report by the Martin Prosperity Institute. “We know that communities of color and poor people have historically been vulnerable to almost any kind of disruption or shock,” Ojetayo says.
Across Florida—and the country—those communities are more likely to live in high-risk flood zones but are less prepared for major storms. Racial disparities in recovery efforts, meanwhile, leave families in limbo and unable to move to higher ground. Absent major storms, they’re also less likely to cope with sea-level rise and extreme temperatures. In Miami, for example, inadequate drainage systems mean less-affluent residents bear higher social costs when frequent so-called nuisance flooding during high tides prevents them from going to work.
At a recent Resilient Cities Summit—held by the National League of Cities, the Urban Land Institute, and the U.S. Green Building Council—resilience officers from several cities suggested organizing focus groups to include the voices of their most vulnerable populations in their climate adaptation plans. Ojetayo argued, though, they should play a bigger role. “What I’m arguing for is that [cities] engage them directly in the solutions-making process, in a way that is economically viable for them,” she tells CityLab. “Because they need money.”
In other words, don’t just listen to them: Hire them. And train them for jobs in the industries that will build and maintain the infrastructure needed in a warming world.
Ojetayo says that not only can TEMPO spur “economic vitality” among Tallahassee’s poorest communities by helping its low-income youth find employment, but the city can potentially tap those coming out of the program for sustainability-related infrastructure projects.“The real challenge is not just getting them into the program, but getting them placed in a meaningful way,” she says. “How do we engage them in our [resilience] solutions in a way that’s not just free?”
Some participants, like 23-year-old Charqueisha Flowers, have been placed into a new city initiative called Build Up Tallahassee, which prepares disadvantaged residents for commercial licensing test and enrolls them in a 12-week paid apprenticeship with companies that work on city construction and maintenance projects. Her last job before she became unemployed was at a Walmart. Now she’s learning how to install water meters, and alternates between attending licensing classes taught by the public works department and going to work sites with city crews.
“We want to start building a class of skilled laborers, so that when we build road and bridges, they’re ready to go to work,” Thomas says. Participants have also been placed with companies that work on the city’s drainage system, for example, and underground utilities.
Others have an opportunity to work directly for the city. Ojetayo is currently trying to get at least two TEMPO participants placed in her department, to assist with carrying out the city’s resilience plan. She says they’re still figuring out what their roles will be exactly, but she’s looking to put their knowledge of their neighborhoods and their connections to use. While the city has traditionally hired people with higher educational background, she argues that local governments should also consider the value of having candidates with “lived-in experiences.”
“If we think about climate resilience, there are infrastructural [solutions],” Ojetayo says. “But there is also this social cohesion piece that a seawall won’t fix.”
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