Leadership Counsel advocates at the local, regional, and statewide levels on the overlapping issues of land use, transportation, climate change, safe and affordable drinking water, housing, environmental justice, equitable investment, and government accountability. Our work is characterized by our partnerships with community residents and organizational partners and is focused by our goals of (1) ensuring that processes, programs and policies do not disadvantage, but rather benefit, low income communities of color; (2) holding decision-makers accountable to these communities; and (3) ensuring inclusion of rural regions in programs and decisions related to land use, water, environment, climate change, transportation, housing, and investment.
Our strategy is to co-power community leaders and organizational partners to fundamentally transform the culture in which decision making occurs. Co-powerment is the acknowledgment of equal power held by residents, communities, partners, decision makers, and other stakeholders and the ability to work together to leverage expertise to truly develop shared solutions to address priorities and create change.
Healthy Land Use Planning
Land use policies and plans reflect the priorities of local government, constitute the DNA of the built environment, and drive investments and choices having direct impacts on families and communities – sometimes beneficial and sometimes deleterious – occasionally short-term but always long-term. Air toxins hover over some neighborhoods because a land use plan placed residential uses next door to dense industrial uses. School children contend with pesticide drift because the land use plan cites schools adjacent to fields and requires no protections for the schoolchildren. Domestic water and wastewater pipes skirt a community because the city that provides the water and wastewater has chosen not to annex the neighboring community. Affordable housing is only available in one part of the city because the land use plan does not allow dense development in the other three-quarters of town. New towns sprout up and existing towns sprawl– as existing communities persist without basic infrastructure – because the land use plan allows all but unbounded growth in open space. Equitable planning can help existing communities thrive by, for example, providing parks and green spaces for residents.
In partnership with community leaders, we address community-identified priorities such as increased park space, pedestrian safety, protection from industrial pollution and other unhealthy land uses, affordable housing, access to reliable wastewater and drinking water service, and increased access to basic services and amenities. Our General Plan, Specific Plan, Housing Element, Zoning Ordinance, and Sustainable Communities Strategies advocacy promotes planning and investment in existing communities rather than sprawl and new town development, inclusionary housing policies, protection from industrial and other unhealthy land uses, access to basic amenities, improved active travel and transit opportunities, and increased access to parks and recreational areas. In addition to long term planning and land use advocacy, we challenge individual land use and zoning decisions and work with local agencies to seek funding to advance shared land use and planning goals.
Transportation serves as a cornerstone for access to opportunity, public and environmental health, and climate resilience. Residents leaders in both the San Joaquin and Coachella Valleys have identified transit and pedestrian safety as priorities for planning and investment to further both environmental and public health goals and increase access to critical educational and employment opportunities. Sidewalks, bike lanes, curb and gutter, and street lighting are essential to healthy communities. Through our advocacy to ensure that transportation planning and investment reflect transportation needs and a commitment not to exacerbate environmental stressors related to the transportation sector, we have increased investment in pedestrian safety in several communities and increased transit access with innovative rural transit options.
Safe Drinking Water and Wastewater
Arsenic, nitrates, coliform, hexavalent chromium, and other contaminants taint the water that runs through tens of thousands of taps in homes and schools throughout California. In the face of the recent drought and long-term changes to precipitation and groundwater levels, many households reliant on private wells find their well dry or at risk of running dry.
Many Californians have no access to reliable and safe wastewater treatment but instead rely on outdated and often failing septic systems, which are on land parcels too small to sustain waste treatment through onsite treatment and disposal systems. The threat to public health runs high in these communities with fecal coliform and other bacteria lingering in the soil and threatening drinking water sources.
Often, lower income communities and small communities face the biggest barriers to securing safe and reliable drinking water as the costs of treatment and new wells are out of reach. At the same time, continued pollution– such as the case with nitrates from fertilizers and animal waste – exacerbates the drinking water crisis in California. Yet, the cost of drinking water continues to increase. Because so many Californians must buy bottled water for drinking and cooking, the economic security of families throughout the state has become unstable.
We advocate for funding to address the costs associated with drinking water and wastewater service, while also addressing the root causes of service inequality and deficiency: land use, local government, over-pumping of the aquifer, and pollution. Our work includes legal advocacy to protect drinking water sources from agricultural pollution and state level advocacy to secure funding for drinking water and wastewater service and infrastructure. We also advocate for land use planning and policies that prioritize drinking water and wastewater service to communities without adequate services, and we provide legal support to communities negotiating with cities and service providers for improved services.
In the San Joaquin and East Coachella Valleys, low-income residents struggle to make ends meet, often paying well over half of their income on rent. And often, this housing does not meet basic health and safety standards and is in neighborhoods that have long faced public and private neglect and disinvestment, limiting access to the most basic amenities and resources. We work alongside residents to elevate and advance residents’ priorities for safe, affordable housing options and fair housing choice through local and state level policy advocacy and legal advocacy.
Our local and statewide advocacy has resulted in increased investments in affordable housing in rural communities and the City of Fresno. Through housing element and general plan advocacy, we have held local and state governments accountable to their fair housing and affordable housing responsibilities and have highlighted the interrelated nature of affordable housing and other components of healthy neighborhoods: land use, drinking water and wastewater access, transit, and basic infrastructure.
Climate change affects both human health and economic opportunity. Increased heat increases heat stress vulnerability and further impacts air quality, increased precipitation leads to flood risk while decreased precipitation impacts drinking water supplies and employment options. Lower income communities are often those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change – not only from a geographic and environmental perspective, but also from an economic perspective. Communities are organizing throughout the San Joaquin Valley and Coachella Valley to address climate change impacts, while ensuring that climate change policies benefit their disproportionately impacted neighborhoods which are consistently left out of long term planning and investment decisions.
Our climate change work focuses on resilience, which includes both mitigation and adaptation strategies. We work with community leaders and organizational partners to identify climate change impacts and prioritize strategies for greater climate resilience through local, regional and state efforts. Key strategies that have emerged include advocating for funds to support mitigation and adaptation efforts in disadvantaged communities; engaging in land use planning to improve quality of life and reduce reliance on personal vehicles; ensuring direct emissions reductions of greenhouse gases, criteria pollutants, and short-lived climate pollutants from stationary and mobile sources; and advocating for statewide climate change legislation that addresses public health and economic goals of lower income and environmentally vulnerable communities.