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Empowering Stakeholders to Co-Create Solutions that Address Inequity

Matthew Peterson, Krys Buckenwolf, Nicole Wroblewski, and Mekha Abraham | April 24, 2024

Strategies for Reducing Barriers to Participation within Energy Programs Targeting Disadvantaged Communities

Addressing inequality and ensuring that the benefits of the clean energy transition are accessible to all requires close examination of long-relied-upon processes that may have hidden inequities ingrained within them. As program implementers, we are aware that unintentional inequity can be embedded in programs serving low-income customers, despite the best intentions. TRC is working to better serve the distinct needs of communities whose needs have historically not been factored into program design, with the goal of establishing an authentic connection and ultimately delivering real benefits.

Case Study: Oregon Multifamily Energy Program

The Oregon Multifamily Energy Program (OR-MEP) Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Coalition which was created to confront systemic inequities within the program. OR-MEP, which TRC implements on behalf of Oregon Housing and Community Services (OHCS), supports the energy-efficient design of new and existing affordable multifamily properties.

The DEI Coalition brings stakeholder perspectives into the program and guides the development of new practices and policies to make offerings more accessible, focusing on those with the greatest need who have not yet benefited from the program. It is made up of 12 members across the state, representing diverse backgrounds and experiences, who are serving a three-year term.Through close collaboration with stakeholders from targeted communities, OR-MEP and the DEI Coalition are co-creating solutions to address systemic inequality that has inhibited eligible residents from benefiting from the program in the past.

Here are some of the lessons the OR-MEP team has learned on this journey:

1) Programs designed with good intentions aren’t exempt from negative consequences.

Every program policy impacts different communities in different ways. A decision that makes a process more streamlined for one customer segment might introduce more difficulties for another. To serve as many communities as possible, a program must consider the repercussions of every decision, no matter how insignificant it seems.

In 2020, the OR-MEP program team resolved to better serve customers experiencing racism and inequality by making the following commitments:

  • Be actively anti-racist
  • Equitably serve the people of Oregon, especially customers with the greatest need
  • Disrupt systems that maintain inequality, within the energy industry and beyond
  • Make purposeful change toward these ends

With these commitments front of mind in all OR-MEP activities, decisions are better aligned with the program’s mission of supporting the energy-efficient design of new and existing affordable multifamily properties and serve as a guidepost to doing better going forward.

The OR-MEP program team strives to continuously improve their approach, understanding that they won’t always get it right the first time. This work is not linear and requires continuous improvement. It can take different directions as the team evaluates the outcomes of program changes and new needs emerge.

2) The communities that programs serve should have a say in design and implementation.

While stakeholder groups can be useful for finding sources of inequity and brainstorming solutions, programs aren’t always accountable for following their recommendations. What makes the DEI Coalition different is that it is embedded within the program. It has a dedicated budget for the duration of the program, not just a finite number of meetings. They are not just participants in a stakeholder meeting but are consultants paid to advise the program team and OHCS.

At the onset of this journey to improve program equity, the OR-MEP program team recognized the need for external subject matter experts because none of them had the lived experience of the customers they aimed to reach. Instead of estimating what needs members of low-income communities have, the team decided it would be more appropriate to listen to members of these communities, compensate them at consulting rates, and learn firsthand how to best serve them.

When recruiting members of the DEI Coalition, OR-MEP specifically seeks out affordable housing residents, rural residents, members of Oregon Tribes, public or community health specialists and workforce development specialists. DEI Coalition members provide contextual background that grounds discussions in reality. Their perspectives are central to OR-MEP’s future efforts.

The DEI Coalition is made up of members that belong to communities in the utility service areas that OR-MEP serves, but also communities that the program can’t serve. This was an intentional decision in an attempt to bring in multiple perspectives. As a result of this diverse makeup, the DEI Coalition has made it a priority to expand OR-MEP to serve the entire state.

3) Community-based stakeholder groups must be supported and heard to succeed.

Research, surveys, or data trends cannot replicate the lived experiences of DEI Coalition members and their communities. The input DEI Coalition members provide makes every program decision more relevant and impactful. The DEI Coalition is essentially an extension of the OR-MEP team. Each member plays a critical role in achieving OR-MEP’s goals.

To help DEI Coalition members feel safe to speak freely, OR-MEP hired third-party facilitators Unrooz Solutions and Encolor Consulting, who oversee discussions and guide productive conversations. These facilitators serve as intermediaries, preventing the program team’s unconscious biases from influencing the DEI Coalition’s discussions while adding another layer of accountability.

Through honest conversations, careful consideration, and meaningful concessions, OR-MEP and the DEI Coalition have made visible changes to how the program operates. Both parties come together to draft suggested program changes before presenting them to OHCS for final approval. If any edits or compromises are necessary, the program team works through them with input from the DEI Coalition.

For example, together, the OR-MEP team and the DEI Coalition challenged and adapted long-held policies and procedures. We developed and implemented equity-focused selection criteria that move away from a “first come, first served” enrollment to prioritizing projects serving residents facing the greatest challenges and having the greatest needs.

4) Eliminating barriers must involve active collaboration with the impacted communities.

As the OR-MEP team learned early on while developing equity-minded changes to the program, not having people with relevant lived experiences in the room results in false, and sometimes inappropriate, assumptions. Not only can these well-intended strategies be outright ineffective, but they can also result in more harm.

The work TRC, OR-MEP, and the DEI Coalition do together wouldn’t have been possible without the client’s support. OHCS took the direct initiative to invest in the DEI Coalition,making the effort to memorialize the DEI Coalition in OR-MEP’s program rules and procedures. From the start, OHCS understood the value of the DEI Coalition and how it aligned with the agency’s equitable goals. Work of this kind can only take place with a client organization that supports and invests in the initiative.

Our takeaway from working with the OR-MEP program and other programs serving low-income customers is that we must work diligently to remove barriers to participation to maximize positive impacts. In our experience, the most ethical and effective strategy these programs can adopt is engaging members of the affected communities,with a seat at the table, to co-create solutions that account for customers’ real-life needs alongside energy priorities.

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