At Just Solutions Collective, we are working to broaden and deepen the understanding of equitable and effective policies and projects to build the capacity of communities to replicate, scale and build support for justice-centered solutions. We took a deeper look at the Portland Clean Energy Fund (PCEF) and spoke with Oregon State Representative and long-time community advocate, Khanh Pham, a founding leader of and spokesperson for PCEF. In addition to serving in the Oregon State Legislature, she is a Senior Fellow/Strategist on community reinvestment with the Just Solutions Collective.
The Just Solutions Collective will be hosting a webinar led by Khanh Pham, titled, The Story of PCEF: From Campaign to Implementation on Friday, January 7, 2022 at 1:00 pm PST/4:00pm ET for people who want to learn more about how PCEF was won and later implemented. For registration, please visit: https://jsc-pcef.eventbrite.com
About PCEF & Interview with Khanh Pham:
In 2018, PCEF was passed as a ballot measure initiative to provide funding for climate action that advances racial and social justice. According to the City of Portland’s website, the Fund is “anticipated to bring $44 – $61 million in new annual revenue for green jobs, healthy homes, and a climate-friendly Portland”.
With overwhelming community support, voters were able to accomplish passing PCEF after many years of organizing, community-building, policy development, and fundraising. PCEF is the nation’s first municipal climate justice fund created and led by communities of color”. In preparation for the webinar, we interviewed Khanh Pham about her involvement with PCEF, campaign challenges, and words of advice for any cities interested in adopting a similar model.
Zully Juarez: What was the impetus for creating PCEF? How did you all form your coalition?
Khanh Pham: PCEF started because frontline communities knew that we urgently need to transition from an extractive economy to a more just and regenerative economy, and that our communities–BIPOC and low-income communities–were being excluded from the opportunities that building a new green economy will bring. PCEF offered a way to create a stable funding source to ensure that clean energy jobs, job training, and investments would support communities who are being hit hardest by the impacts of climate change–like the deadly heat waves that killed over 100 people in Portland in the summer of 2021.
Our coalition started with a small group of about 6 orgs including the Coalition of Communities of Color (CCC), as well as APANO, NAYA and Verde, (all members of CCC), 350 PDX and the NAACP Portland Chapter. For the first few months, we had very open-ended meetings to discuss the concept of this mechanism to raise money for climate justice initiatives. We were really just building relationships between our groups because we had never worked together before. CCC didn’t really have strong relationships yet with a lot of the environmental organizations and there was definitely a lot of mistrust given the history of the environmental movement. We spent the first six months getting to know about each other’s organizations and better understanding the concept of a gross revenue tax on big billion-dollar retailers to help fund a just transition in Portland, prioritizing low-income and BIPOC communities.
Zully Juarez: How did you all decide on the revenue mechanism and how it would be spent?
Khanh Pham: We actually started with the idea of a gross revenue surcharge already baked into this idea for a climate fund, and then we added the racial and economic justice priorities for how the money would be spent through the coalition-building process. We generally all liked the revenue mechanism. We wanted to focus on billion-dollar corporations because we know that people are really concerned about affecting mom and pop stores, but we knew that at such a high threshold of $1 billion in sales nationally that would not touch family-owned businesses or local businesses. We wanted to focus on retail businesses because manufacturers can often threaten to leave the city, town, or state that the tax is being implemented. So retailers have a much harder time moving because they have to physically be there to provide that good or service.
We wanted something that was going to be durable, that wasn’t dependent on the very pollution that we’re trying to eliminate–a dependable source of funding to support just transition projects. We knew that our global economy and the global supply chains that these big-box retailers depend on are actually responsible for a great number of greenhouse gas emissions that are not currently being accounted for. Therefore, we hoped that this measure would actually level the playing field so that the true costs of these global supply chains would be internalized a little bit better.
In terms of how it would be spent, we wanted to make sure that racial justice and economic justice are really centered as we take climate action. We wanted a percentage to go to renewable energy and energy efficiency. We knew that job training and training the new workforce and folks who have been left out of our current economy have new opportunities in the green economy. We knew that green infrastructure is also important and we wanted to have a 5% fund for future innovation to fund projects that we couldn’t even imagine but that could both reduce greenhouse gas emissions while also promoting racial justice and economic justice.
Zully Juarez: How did y’all decide to run it as a ballot measure?
Khanh Pham: We first went to the city council and four out of five city councilors at the time refused to support it. However, this reinforced our truly grassroots campaign strategy since we knew even if City Council passed it, it was likely to get challenged by corporations who would run a ballot campaign to repeal whatever we passed. We figured if we’re going to have to go to the ballot and defend it anyways, we might as well start on the offensive and talk to our neighbors and run a truly grassroots campaign to build a strong majority of support for PCEF.
There are two kinds of power: money power and people power. Since we didn’t have money, we knew that we’d have to really build a broad-based movement with all the different sectors; labor, small businesses, environmental organizations, and BIPOC lead organizations. And that’s what we did, we built this really powerful, broad coalition to go up against Walmart, Comcast, and big banks like Wells Fargo, the biggest corporations in the world. That was part of our political strategy.
We knew that we would have to build real people power behind this because the big corporations were going to be fighting against this tax. Not so much because the City of Portland was going to have such a huge impact on them but because they didn’t want other cities to start replicating it, so they are going to fight hard against this one.
Zully Juarez: What inspired you to get involved and take leadership on the campaign?
Khanh Pham: I’ve worked on climate justice for many years. In both climate justice organizing and other kinds of organizing, we constantly get told that there’s just not enough money for the things that our communities need. I was really excited about this idea of raising real money from some of the wealthiest corporations in the world who had just gotten this 40% tax cut from the Trump administration. With a goal to redistribute some of that wealth to serve communities who are experiencing the impacts of climate change first and hardest.
I was working at the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO), as their Environmental Justice Manager and it was a privilege to be able to help form the coalition and build it. I learned so much about elections, how to run a ballot measure campaign, how to gather signatures, how to win endorsements, and do media events. I think all of us grew in so many ways during this campaign.
I still think of it as one of the biggest honors of my lifetime. It was such a highlight and honor to work with these community-led organizations on an initiative that really reflected all of our values. I just had a baby at the time and I was reading a lot about climate justice and climate change and thinking about the world that she was going to inherit and just felt a real urgency to take bold action in a way that is both urgent but also grounded in the understanding that we have to address systemic inequalities as we take climate action, and we really need to center racial and economic justice as integral to climate justice.
Zully Juarez: What were the biggest challenges the coalition faced?
Khanh Pham: We had so many challenges. All of our organizations were new at electoral organizing. None of us had ever led a ballot measure campaign before. We also had very limited funding. However, those challenges led us to run our campaign really differently than traditional ballot measure campaigns. Traditionally, ballot measure campaigns hire a campaign director and really seasoned campaign staff who have experience in how to collect signatures and run a petition drive.
This forced us to adopt a more horizontal structure, where different people were able to volunteer for different roles, we had to establish a more distributed leadership structure amongst our steering committee. It allowed us to build stronger relationships and benefit from all the different strengths of all the different people and organizations involved.
It was both a challenge and an opportunity for us to experiment with new ways of organizing because I think ultimately, our organizations are not going to be able to depend on funding in order to be able to win the things that our communities need. We have to be able to figure out structures that allow us to still take on powerful interests even when we don’t have funding.
Zully Juarez: What words of advice would you give to people who are interested in adopting a similar model in their city?
Khanh Pham: Getting alignment on the values and goals is crucial. It’s so important to make sure you’re consciously nurturing and developing strong relationships and trust between organizations because those structures will be tested.
Every city is different and so what works in Portland may look different in a different landscape. I would encourage groups to not be afraid to innovate. But I do think that it was really important for us to choose a revenue mechanism that was not regressive, that wouldn’t have a disproportionate impact on low-income and BIPOC communities.
For folks who want to learn more, I encourage them to read our PCEF campaign report written by Adriana Voss-Andreae, one of the cofounders of the PCEF coalition:. We wrote this specifically to share with other organizations and cities who might be interested in adopting this for their city or local jurisdiction. Finally, I encourage them to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org since my goal here is to share more information about how we built our coalition, navigated the campaign, and the lessons learned.
Author: Zully Juarez, Senior Research & Policy Analyst at Just Solutions Collective
Collaborator: Khanh Pham, Oregon State Legislator and Senior Strategist at Just Solutions Collective
The video-call interview took place on December 15, 2021.
Opening Photo Credit: Madison Rowley