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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Task force hopes to engage Milwaukee residents to help bring climate and equity plan to life

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Susan Bence
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WUWM
Climate and economic equity task force held a hybrid public forum to drum up more public input on its proposed action plan.

A task force including a smattering of public officials has been working the past few years on a plan to address climate change and racial justice in Milwaukee. In the coming months members will ask the Common Council to approve the framework.

Called the Milwaukee City-County Task Force on Climate and Economic Equity, the group recently held a forum to collect public comments. The task force hopes of engaging a broad cross section of residents before heading to the Council.

About 50 people gathered in downtown Milwaukee’s Central Library last Thursday evening as the City-County Task Force on Climate and Economic Equity kicked off its public comment period.

Others joined remotely from the Sherman Phoenix and Tippecanoe Library.

State Rep Supreme Moore Omokunde opened the event, recalling the task force’s creation nearly four years ago as awareness peaked that climate change and environmental justice needed to be addressed.

READ Milwaukee Is One Vote Away From Creating A Climate Task Force

“We have to achieve climate justice and at the same time we can talk about economic equity and get back some of those jobs that we lost,” Omokunde says.

Task force members have chiseled out a path to what might seem unattainable goals to dramatically decrease greenhouse gas pollution, increase racial equity and position Milwaukee for a prosperous future.

According to Erick Shambarger, head of the city’s environmental collaboration office, the plan must be embraced as city policy.

“We want to create new, good paying, family-supporting green jobs that pay at least $40,000 a year and focus our recruitment on people of color,” Shambarger says.

READ Building Buy-In For Green Jobs Seen As Path To Climate Resilience And Racial Equity In Milwaukee

That’s one of ten big ideas the task force came up with, along with healthy home energy upgrades and greening the electric grid.

Shambarger says the city won't be starting from scratch. There are existing programs to build on. For example, "Milwaukee Shines that provide loan and group buys for solar energy on people's homes." says Shambarger. "And our Me2 program that provides loans for energy efficiencies: boilers, furnaces, things that reduce energy costs while helping save the planet."

Another focus of the task force is expanding public transportation with low or no emissions.

Ted Kraig, who chaired that committee, says it envisions retooling infrastructure allowing people to drive less and bike and walk more.

“So that pedestrians can get across the street more easily without having to cross a six-lane street when you only have like 20 seconds to do it,” Kraig says. “And the best thing about that is actually, neighborhoods that have that kind of infrastructure also benefit. It’s a real economic development engine.”

Linda Frank's committee developed strategies to protect existing natural areas and to restore what's been lost to seas of asphalt, "Bringing more trees into the neighborhoods, especially those neighborhoods that lack green space," she says.

As positive as tree planting and creating walkable, healthier neighborhoods might sound, volunteer Maithilee Kanthi shared concerns raised by folks who tuned into the forum remotely.

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Susan Bence
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WUWM
Task force volunteers Maithilee Kanthi shared questions from people who tuned into the public forum from laptops and phones.

“How can we be sure when we beautify the city while also increasing the risk of green gentrification,” Kanthi says.

Task force member Rafael Smith says it must be top of mind that the most vulnerable people could be at risk of being driven out of their neighborhoods as they become more attractive and resilient.

“So many times, development happens in our city and it leads to people being forced out. And that is one of the dangers. So we have to be very intentional around developing, making sure we put in place ways we don’t force people out of the community,” Smith says.

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Susan Bence
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WUWM
The 50 plus people who joined the task force at Milwaukee's Central Library had plenty of questions as you can see from piles of notecards.

Some in the audience wanted to know who’s going to pay to reach what might seem impossible goals.

Erick Shambarger of the city’s environmental collaboration office says while there’s no hedging the fact Milwaukee is strapped for cash there’s hope on the federal horizon.

“The Federal Infrastructure and Jobs Act and the Climate Bill, also known as the Inflation Reduction Act. So there is billions of federal dollars now available for this plan. Now our job is to get this plan adopted and go after that money and go after that money and make it happen,” he says.

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Susan Bence
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WUWM
Task force volunteer Jennifer Evans urged community members to weigh in on the climate and equity action plan.

READ Advocates hope residents join coalition to address climate change and racial disparities in Milwaukee

Volunteer Jennifer Evans says a wider swath of engaged community members is also essential to “make it happen”.

“Thinking about climate change and racial injustice can be overwhelming, but as community members, we have a responsibility, an opportunity, to keep ourselves informed, to keep this issue front and center, to advocate for its implementation,” Evans says.

Residents can comment on the proposal through November, and Evans says, to ensure it is enacted, "This is too important. We can't let it be something that gets put on a shelf," she says.

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Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.
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