In the South Bronx neighborhood of Hunts Point, local nonprofit The Point Community Development Corporation (“The Point”) is working with the community to use arts and culture to identify just solutions to the environmental and economic challenges in the industrial neighborhood. One of those solutions is community solar: “The Point” is partnering with Groundswell to develop a community solar project that would bring affordable, resilient, community-owned energy to the neighborhood, which houses the second largest food distribution center in the world.

Through first-person poems, outdoor murals and other initiatives, The Point's Community Development Director Angela Tovar facilitates events that explore local experiences with challenges such childhood asthma or unaffordable heating bills, to empower residents to connect their own experiences to economic and environmental revitalization efforts.  A Chicago native, Tovar grew up in an industrial community similar to Hunts Point and is passionate about letting the perspectives of community members lead the Point’s work in urban planning and environmental justice.

Groundswell caught up with Tovar to discuss racial and economic disparities in clean energy solutions, and why she thinks citizen storytelling can bring new voices to the climate justice movement.

On flooding, industrial pollutants and environmental racism in Hunts Point

We have the second largest food distribution center in the world located in Hunts Point. It brings in $5 billion annually and feeds nearly 21 million people a day so it’s obviously a really important piece of the city’s ecosystem and a huge job generator. Although Sandy's arrival at low tide largely spared the neighborhood, there's been a focus ever since on the dangers the area faces from coastal flooding. Of course that focus has largely been on safeguarding the distribution center. We've been working to make sure the city takes into account the impact on the community and the sustainability of any new projects.

It’s interesting that Hunts Point is surrounded by water because while it's vulnerable to flooding, it's also home to a major industrial area where there are quite a few abandoned brownfields as well as many businesses that store toxic substances. The health concerns from the volume of toxic substances and air and noise pollution from the more than 15,000 trucks that drive to and from the distribution center everyday, put the community at risk. 

Hunts Points residents are literally breathing different air than those in predominantly white, upper class neighborhoods. This community, and similar low-income communities of color, are disproportionately at risk and it impacts everything from residents' health to their livelihoods. 

Through our own research, we’ve found our neighborhood has one of the highest energy burdens in New York City. Traditionally, a community’s energy burden will be around 1 or 2 percent of their income. In Hunts Point, we’re looking at around 8 or 9 percent going toward utility bills. Residents know they're at an unfair disadvantage so we try to focus on helping them participate in coming up with solutions, such as developing community solar projects and battery storage. 

On poetry pop-ups and relating climate change to daily life

We have worked with artists, such as the famous Bronx poet Mariposa Fernandez, to engage with our community and relate how residents talk about climate issues back to their everyday lives. Our poetry workshops and art installations have been a wonderful way to give residents an outlet to share their experiences — from their concerns about flooding in the neighborhood to public health issues — and then to connect all of those things back to climate justice.

It’s challenging to get people to engage in talking about many of these issues, which can be very technical in nature. But people are very much experts about their own lived experiences. So someone might not know the solution to alleviating the neighborhood’s energy burden but does know that their utility bills are so high that they’re having trouble paying their other bills and their rent. We try to meet people at a place where they can share their lived experience. We do so in a number of ways, from engaging youth leaders, to bringing in artists from the community, to hosting a podcast.

On The Point's wealth and ownership model

Not only are we trying to put in place plans for a cleaner economy, we are also trying to improve upon wealth and ownership. Our business model focuses on how we can generate revenues that are directed back to the community. That’s our first priority for the next 12 months — how do we make sure individuals can truly benefit from our clean energy programs and don’t have to jump through any barriers to be able to participate. One way for us to guarantee that is if we can own the community solar infrastructure outright, we can then dictate how those services are provided to people in the long term. For example, we don’t want the terms of service to change in the next couple of years because the partnership might have changed. We want to make sure this is a service given to the community permanently. 

On partnering with Groundswell

We value our partnership with Groundswell because we have an expert guide, a group that has done this before and really understands the value of community participation but also decision making and implementation. We’re navigating through this process with a vision in mind, but having not done this before, we don’t have the expertise to understand some of the challenges we could face on a project of this scale. Any time you have a partner who really understands the core values of your work, they can support you in important ways.