A Farewell Reflection: Q&A with Juliet Ellis
Q. Looking back on your nine years at Urban Habitat, what makes you most proud?
I am most proud of the successful transition of Urban Habitat (UH) from an organization focused on process to one focused on having impact on a regional scale. In 2005, UH and its allies secured $300 million for the Lifeline transit program, which is the part of the Regional Transportation Plan that addresses the needs of people who depend on public transit for their mobility. This was the first time money was targeted to this program. In 2009, an additional $400 million was secured.
I am also extremely proud of the Boards and Commissions Leadership Institute (BCLI). There are two ingredients vital to institutional change: getting the right leaders into the right places and creating a vocal base that consistently demands change. The BCLI reflects UH’s evolution on thinking about leadership development and about getting those leaders into positions of power. It is exciting to see the growth of this model and we hope that it can be replicated all over the country.
In addition, over the last decade we have focused on building UH as an intermediary in supporting coalitions and networks of community-based organizations that can work with sympathetic policy-makers and elected officials to shift priorities to more accurately reflect the needs of our communities. We have successfully mobilized thousands of folks in communities, such as Richmond, East Palo Alto, San Leandro, and Oakland to participate in public hearings, develop policy proposals, educate elected officials, and win real gains in housing, transit, local hire, eviction protection, and cleaner air and water. Our recent victory in redirecting $70 million in transit funding from the wasteful Oakland Airport Connector (OAC) to Bay Area transit operators; a groundbreaking agreement on building affordable housing in Pleasanton; and securing inclusionary zoning and construction of affordable housing around the San Leandro BART station are examples of how public participation pays off.
The OAC victory is especially important because it is one of the few instances where stimulus money was taken back and the only example of it happening for lack of compliance in conducting a civil rights Title VI equity analysis. It shed new light on the issue of civil rights and its connection to transportation and helped us build new relationships with national civil rights organizations.
Q. As publisher of RP&E, what are your proudest moments and favorite issues?
When I first came to UH, the journal was often jokingly referred to as a bus—arriving infrequently with long gaps between multiple issues that came in quick succession. In the early years of my tenure, we worked hard simply to ensure that the journal was produced on time twice a year. Since 2005, when B. Jesse Clarke became editor, we have succeeded in extending the scope of the journal and developing quality writers to produce high quality articles.
I am thrilled that RP&E has grown into a preeminent national resource for social and environmental justice movements with a print run of over 3000 copies per issue. The website receives about 20 thousand unique visitors each month and serves over 1 million pages of content annually to readers around the world. Our coverage of the theory and practice of regionalism is unparalleled; our cutting edge analysis on climate justice and urban planning is unique; and our case studies, profiles, and interviews about movement organizing lift up the best practices of community organizations around the nation. Now, with the launch of Radio RP&E on our 20th anniversary, we continue to evolve with the changing technologies of publishing to reach new audiences through new media.
Over the years, there have been several favorite issues of mine but the one that stands out is Moving the Movement (2005), which was the second time RP&E had focused on transportation justice. Its release coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and was part retrospective and part framing of where transportation justice work was headed in 2005. It also allowed us to highlight some amazing local work and leaders. My other favorites are Who Owns Our Cities? (2008) and Race and Regionalism (2008). Both were really relevant and well done.
Q. How do you see RP&E’s contribution to mobilizing people toward progressive positions on jobs, transportation, housing, and regional planning?
RP&E is the only national journal dedicated to social and environmental justice. By covering the entire national scene of social change, it gives activists, academics, policy-makers, and philanthropists a chance to learn about and support issues and theories that might otherwise be out of their comfort zone. Environmental Justice, as it was initially framed, was often a site-by-site battle against the detrimental impacts of toxic waste, refining, or manufacturing and rarely about winning a fair share of the benefits of development. RP&E has been instrumental in putting forth a positive vision for change that focuses on solutions that can provide quality jobs, first class transit, clean air and water, and affordable and sustainable housing that will create a better environment for all—and in the process, address the historic race and class inequalities that plague the United States.
Q. What do you see as the main challenges ahead for the social and environmental justice movements of which Urban Habitat and RP&E are a part?
At times, it seems like our movements are splintering and under more attack and being less resourced. The EJ movement in the US was created using a decentralized approach. It’s not apparent to me whether this approach of having most of the work take place autonomously at the local level allows for the coordinated and focused effort needed to get long lasting change. Coming out of this last election I worry that the opportunities that seemed available within the context of the Obama administration are less likely to be realized.
Now with the right wing’s cooptation of popular discontent it’s more crucial than ever for social and environmental justice movements to develop the capacity to engage on all levels of the political and economic process. We need to be able to propose concrete solutions that are well-conceived and theoretically sound to discredit the (mis)leading that characterizes the current political and economic leadership of this country.
Q. What’s next for you personally?
I am excited to be joining the Public Utilities Commission as Deputy General Manager for External Affairs. This position is responsible for all the policy work of the PUC at the local, state, and federal levels, as well as the agency’s environmental work, the development of a new community benefits program, and all their communication and media. For years I have been intrigued by the potential impact that is possible via the public sector. If for no other reason than the scale that is in play both from a constituency stand point, as well as from a resource standpoint. Now I will be moving a little closer to the inside of the inside-outside strategy that I have been advocating for the last decade.