Montgomery County’s Climate Planning team, in partnership with Vision Zero, began the Resilience Ambassador pilot program in mid-July. The County brought on a team of five paid youth Resilience Ambassadors who were hired as part of the “COVID Corps” through the Department of Recreation. The goal of the program was to have Resilience Ambassadors connect with frontline communities about health emergencies like COVID-19 and the climate crisis. These communities are disproportionately impacted by transportation injuries/fatalities, energy cost burdens and pollution exposure as a result of structural and systemic barriers.
The Resilience Ambassador program was conceived with a number of goals in mind. First and foremost, it was designed to tie together the impacts of COVID and other inequities in an effort to elevate the experiences, visions, and solutions of communities most impacted by these crises. The program also served to increase the representation of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (such as Latinx communities), immigrant communities, and income distressed communities in the County’s climate and Vision Zero planning processes. By bringing people from a range of cultural, linguistic, racial, and socio-economic backgrounds to the table, the Resilience Ambassadors program enabled the County to be better equipped to center racial equity and social justice in these planning processes.
While the Resilience Ambassadors were originally going to conduct surveys, their roles expanded to facilitating community conversations. The Ambassadors participated in two weeks of training prior to beginning their community outreach. They also had daily check-ins and ongoing trainings with County staff. These trainings helped expand their knowledge on a variety of County initiatives, including connections to racial equity, Vision Zero, transportation, energy, and various health programs.
According to Resilience Ambassador Xochilt Medina, the trainings were “really interesting [and provided] the opportunity to learn about things I had no idea about.” Fellow Ambassador Omotola Fadeyi added that she “knew very little about climate change, how serious it is, and the disparities [that it perpetuates]” but has since learned about how issues like transportation access, extreme weather events, and systemic racism are all connected.
The Resilience Ambassador program was designed and coordinated by County employees as well as Climate Interns Marcy Delos and Julia McMurry. The two interns were central to the program’s creation. Delos researched similar programs in other cities and planned and led trainings with help from McMurry. Climate Change Coordinator Adriana Hochberg, as well as Larissa Johnson and Doug Weisburger from the Department of Environmental Protection, and Vision Zero Coordinator Wade Holland from the Office of the County Executive, all provided tremendous support through leading trainings and inviting guest speakers.
Johnson’s expertise in youth programming was valuable in making the program fun and interactive for the Resilience Ambassadors. Ambassador Eskinder Belayneh said he particularly enjoyed the energy trivia days and the “swag bags” they were sent with energy-saving and other environmentally friendly items such as reusable water bottles.
The Resilience Ambassadors had conversations with community members about everything from equity to health, transportation, safety and climate/energy justice issues. Because they were often reaching out to people within their personal networks, they were able to have more meaningful conversations based on a sense of trust. They also opened the door to ongoing conversations and empowering community members who have often been excluded from the conversation. The County compensated those who spoke with the Resilience Ambassadors as their lived experiences are embraced as expertise.
Belayneh and fellow Ambassador Walter Marquez were struck most by conversations with high-school-aged youth in their communities. Marquez said that he received many thoughtful responses from people younger than him which added nuance to his perspective. Many of the Ambassadors, including Quan’ell Kitchen, had conversations with community members about the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis. Kitchen engaged a lot with friends who are essential workers and have to take public transit daily. Her conversations focused on the ongoing risks of using public transit amid the pandemic.
Due to COVID, the Resilience Ambassadors conducted most of their outreach online through different media channels including texting, email, social media, and phone conversations. While many community members wanted to speak about issues related to the pandemic, the Ambassadors were encouraged to engage people in ways that evoke hope and solutions. One approach included having community members imagine their visions of the future with current goals and challenges in mind.
Through engaging with community members, many Ambassadors developed deeper connections with the people around them. Medina says that she has felt more connected with her community through speaking with others who “share a goal of seeing the County thrive.” She felt hopeful that the community conversations will enhance the County’s planning processes.
The program also provided an opportunity for the youth Ambassadors to grow as leaders and experience a work environment which they may not have otherwise. Fadeyi affirmed that she has built upon many useful skills through her work, including strengthening her communications skills through learning to engage with empathy.
The results of the Resilience Ambassadors’ community outreach are currently being consolidated and will be shared on the County’s climate webpage as well as incorporated into the climate and Vision Zero planning processes. The County plans to continue the Resilience Ambassador program in Fall 2020.