Project advances power of everyday people against environmental racism

Submitted photo James Trice

In 2003, James Trice found himself out of a job. After Trice worked for years at Children’s Home Society and Family Services (Now Children’s Home Society & Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota), the organization eliminated Trice’s position as well as a program he had innovated that showed clients how to engage directly with city and state government to get their needs met and their voices heard on policies that affect them. 

That program was the Public Policy Project, and in 2003 Trice turned it into an independent, nonpartisan organization designed to demonstrate that Blacks, Native Americans, other communities of color and low-income communities have power and put them in touch with strategies to exercise that power. As Trice says: “Who is more fit to address the issues that people are facing than the people who are facing them?”

The Public Policy Project (PPP) bills itself as an independent provider of public policy consulting, leadership training, civic engagement, lobbying, strategic planning, and advocacy services. Trice, along with Lead Consultant Sam Grant, Asthma Outreach Coordinator Shaundelle Darris, and North/Northeast Green Zone Organizer Roxxanne O’Brien, in part, teach people to assert the power they already have to advocate for and represent themselves. 

“People have far more power than they realize,” says Trice, “the issue is then how to use that power, that’s what some people don’t understand. We don’t empower anybody. The Public Policy Project does not suggest that we empower anybody. We help communities realize their power and how to use their power.” 

In recent years feedback from Northside residents revealed a concern for environmental issues that went beyond the focus on pristine wilderness and rainforests commonly associated with mainstream environmental movements. Residents identified the impacts of shootings, over-policing, unemployment, underemployment, substandard housing, and food deserts, as well as manufacturers who are clustered in or near low-income communities who disproportionately bear the burdens of tainted air, soil and water. 

Those pollutants still plague 

“Of course clean air, soil, and water are important,” says Trice, “but you have people who live in apartments where there is lead paint around their kids. They don’t want to complain to the Health Department about their landlord because they felt like if they complained the landlord is going to kick them out. Homelessness is an environmental issue.” 

As part of the 2017 settlement between the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Northern Metals, the metal recycling company agreed to pay $600,000 for community asthma and lead reduction work in the Hawthorne, Sheridan, Bottineau, and McKinley neighborhoods that were the areas hardest hit by the poor air quality. PPP facilitates the Northern Metals Advisory Committee, which is tasked with making recommendations for the allocation of the $600,000, which will identify and support families suffering from asthma and elevated lead levels due to the air pollution.

PPP has a contract with Minnesota Community Action Partnership to facilitate engagement around the proposed Upper Harbor Terminal Project to develop the 48-acre area along the Mississippi River between the Lowry Avenue and Camden bridges. Although the river flows past several Northside neighborhoods, access is currently limited both by I-94 and by the presence of manufacturers and factories on the river. PPP holds community meetings and learning tables for residents to learn about what developers are proposing in an effort to prevent displacement of current residents or further limiting river access for current residents.

PPP also runs the monthly meetings of the Northern Green Zone Taskforce, which was formed as part of a 2017 resolution created by Minneapolis Councilmembers Phillipe Cunningham, Jeremiah Ellison, Kevin Reich, and Steve Fletcher. The task force seeks to implement an ambitious 12 goals around the creation of green jobs, better and more affordable housing, pollution mitigation, and improved livability on the Northside of Minneapolis.

Lastly, and also in 2017, PPP created the Environmental Justice Partnership with the mission statement: “The EJCC visualizes, creates and implements ecological, economic, and strategic investments to end environmental racism.” With a McKnight-funded grant through Pillsbury United Communities, the WJCC seeks to develop an environmental justice assessment and action plan for North Minneapolis. The council is made up of Black residents and “agents of change” on the North Side.

PPP is distinctive in the way it innovates and models new ways of community engagement by meeting people where they are and anticipating their needs. For example, with the Upper Harbor Terminal development, discussions about the project are held within the community, rather than downtown. “It’s welcoming,” says Trice. “It’s on the bus line with easy access. If you have a car, you don’t have to worry about parking. We feed people when meetings are held during dinner time and we’ve got food for your kids. We’re going to have ASL interpreters for deaf people. We accommodate them as much as possible.

“We’re creating a model that’s never been done,” Trice says of the Upper Harbor Terminal learning events and meetings. “We’re sitting down and working with [developers] and they’re not making a move, they’re not putting a shovel in the ground until community residents have an input on what’s going to happen. Hopefully, this can be a model for cities around the country to begin to interact with communities that are going to be affected by development.”