A Green New Deal: A Conversation with Vien Truong On How We Got Here and Where We’re Heading

In recent months, the Green New Deal proposal has been front-and-center in conversations surrounding climate change. Based on several decades’ worth of ideas, the idea found its way into the mainstream thanks to the phenomenal efforts of the next generation of leadership along with yet one more round of highly publicized climate reports indicating an extremely urgent need for widespread climate action. For all the talk about a Green New Deal, however, much of the actual detail remains to be developed (learn more about the Green New Deal here). 

Vien Truong, former President of the DreamCorps, has worked tirelessly to bring equity, social justice and climate justice to the frontlines of the environmental movement and public policy. Prior to her role at Green For All, Truong was a central force in the effort to put environmental justice at the center of California’s groundbreaking climate policy mechanisms and cap-and-trade funding.

Vien Truong at Bioneers

Bioneers’ Teo Grossman spoke with Truong about the potential future of the Green New Deal proposal and how California’s climate action can serve as a template for national progress.

TEO GROSSMAN, Senior Director of Programs & Research for Bioneers: Starting with the basics, what is the Green New Deal and why do we need it?

VIEN TRUONG, President of DreamCorps: The Green New Deal is an idea that’s been in the dialogue in the public realm for over a decade now, but it was refreshed recently with the Sunrise Movement in collaboration and with the leadership of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whom I love, and Senator Markey. Both the Congresswoman and the Senator have introduced peer resolutions in the House and the Senate to get us moving toward an aggressive climate change plan meeting the science targets that we need in the next 10 years. That resolution has already the support and the sponsorship of over 100 people, which is great. So it’s growing in the national realm, and in the national dialogue.

We want to make sure that we continue to move that dialogue forward to meet the moment with a plan that grows the support necessary to realize the promises in the Green New Deal resolution.

GROSSMAN: The preamble to the Green New Deal legislation introduced by Ocasio Cortez and Markley specifically highlights the inequitable distribution of economic, social and environmental impacts resulting from climate change. You’ve obviously been focused on these realities for much of your career – how big of a deal is it to see what the bill collectively labels “vulnerable and frontline communities” called out in this way in proposed federal legislation?

TRUONG: It’s heartwarming and reassuring. It tells us the kind of leadership that is behind this work. For too long, when we talked about climate change solutions, low-income communities and communities of color, who really are at the frontlines of the problems, were left out of the conversation. But you really can’t address a problem if you won’t even acknowledge it. By having the communities cited first and foremost in this conversation has been amazing and reassuring that this is a priority for the leaders behind it.

I’m in Oakland, California, and when I look out the window here, I see West Oakland, where I grew up. For us, growing up in a community that has been surrounded on all sides by freeways and highways, we’ve been so close and proximate to the problems, literally breathing in the tail pipe pollutions. We have been deeply concerned and increasingly scared about what’s going on and how we’ve been left out of the conversation, even when directly impacted.

For instance, in West Oakland, you’re three times more likely to get cancer than anywhere else in the Bay Area. You’re five times more likely to have asthma than in other areas. The disease rates are so much higher than average that we now have a better prediction of your life expectancy based on your ZIP code than your genetic code.

That is made worse by realizing that the pollution problem is aggravated by poverty issues. This is an area that has been deeply underinvested in. The school system has been neglected for far too long. We have inconsistent, inadequate access to healthy foods and healthcare. When you put those two things together, it’s no wonder we’re now seeing a proliferation of tent cities in the community here. We’re seeing a proliferation of people who are working and can’t even afford the cost of living. In fact, in the Bay Area and in California, we have the highest levels of poverty because of the gap between the cost of living and the disproportionate amount of costs we are burdened with to be able to have a quality life. We live all of those realities on a daily basis, and I think that has made us feel more righteously indignant about the inability of our elected leaders to address and solve the issues in our communities with us.

So to have the leaders in Congress and the Senate recognize these issues, and with community-based organizations helping to lead this charge, it has been heartwarming and reassuring.

GROSSMAN: In many ways, the policy work that has taken place in California since the early 2000s could serve as a sort of blueprint for a national Green New Deal. You were certainly instrumental in the implementation of some key components of California’s leading-edge climate policy. What are the differences between what has happened in California in the past two decades and the proposed national Green New Deal and what can we learn from work already underway at state and regional levels?

TRUONG: I think California has been a clear leader nationally in setting strong environmental targets. From AB-32, which was passed in 2006, getting us on a path toward 1990 levels of pollution by 2020, which we’re on target to meet; to passing SB-100, which gets the state and the energy systems to 100 percent renewable by 2045; to policies that have been part of leading toward the largest investments of funds to low-income communities to green up; to the most ambitious charge for the transportation sector to electrify and green up as fast as possible; to really investing in communities to build and create their own vision, and then supporting that vision with investments from both the private and the public sector.

It has been reassuring to see that even as the federal government steps backward, we have seen states and leaders in California stepping forward. The results speak for themselves. California has gone from the eighth largest economy to now the fifth largest economy in the world. Based on what we’ve seen, all of this scaremongering in the national conversation pointing to job loss and economic ramifications is unfounded. Actually the reverse has been evidenced in truth. We have seen the economy grow, and more jobs have been created because of California’s doubling down on climate policies. Businesses have risen because they now have consistent, transparent and committed language that allows for them to build and plan, and to invest in their work being responsible not only to their employees and to the shareholders, but also to the planet and to the environment.

California is one of the largest states with one of the largest economies, and it has been able to demonstrate that these policies do well, by doing better. We can now let the federal levels and other states know that this is possible, and that they can also step up and—I would say not even try to meet California, but try to beat California. As much as I love California, this is the time when I think we need people to actually be better than we are here.

GROSSMAN: There’s a bit of a paradox that I’ve been struggling with regarding where solutions need to come from. In many ways, it’s the federal and large-scale systems that are broken and have gotten us to this point. They’re brittle, not particularly nimble, unresponsive to rapid changes and, by definition, are large, centralized bureaucracies. Much of the innovation and pathways forward in a time of climate crisis are coming from smaller scales, highlighting the need for different, more resilient systems – decentralized smart grids, local food economies, water systems that aren’t reliant on pumping water over mountains. How do we reconcile the need for something on the scale of a wartime mobilization that only a federal actor can bring when so much of what we need is going to be built and implemented at a local, regional or state level?

TRUONG: It’s not a surprise to anyone that in order for us to reach the scale and promise of the Green New Deal, we’ve got to have buy-in from people and groups beyond the federal government. Even having support on the state and local levels isn’t enough. We’ve got to have the top-down and the bottom-up work.

Top down, we need the federal government to direct the energy systems, the utilities and the power plants, to double down and keep protection around clean air and clean water. We’ve got to make sure we’re creating a fair playing field across the country to create and enforce fuel efficiency standards for car manufacturers. There are so many things that the federal government can and must do for us to rise to what the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says we need in order to meet our targets in the next 12 years. It’s a lot of demands, and it’s necessary.

At the same time, in order for us to get anything passed at the federal level right now, we need Senate buy-in, which is Republican-dominated, and we need our president to sign off on the law. Right now, that is very unlikely on any ambitious climate policy. In order for us to wait for Senate and presidential buy-in, as well as to get a plan in place and implemented, it’s going to take at least half the time that the scientists have told us we have to dramatically reduce pollution. We need to do it within 12 years. We don’t have that amount of time to wait for the federal government to really step up and do the work.

That means that right now we need a bottom-up strategy. We need cities to work toward investing in renewables at the local level and to support the workforce development needed to make that happen. Cities need to help green up their municipalities, green up their utilities, their schools, and their hospitals. We need the states to commit to strong targets.

In order for us to meet the transformation that we need in the Green New Deal, we’ve got to have the top-down and the bottom-up strategies: the federal level working to help transform and create the platform needed, and also the localities and the states to do the same.

GROSSMAN: I detest the political horse race type coverage of the Green New Deal (long on political speculation, short on relevant policy details) but given you have some experience getting unexpected legislation through a major governing body, I am curious what you think needs to happen to see it through? Considering your experience with coalition building and working to craft legislation, what are the important steps you feel can bring about the bold actions that are needed? How do we avoid getting bogged down in conflict among various stakeholders?

TRUONG: I’ve continued to grapple with that question in my work. I’m the youngest of 11 kids, and I feel like I was born in a circus, like I was born to build coalitions, because I just saw a whole lot of siblings fighting over everything. I grew up in Oakland during the crack years, and it was a time when there were a lot of gangs, there was a lot of trouble, and I saw a lot of fights in schools. Being in a home and in a community and in a space where there was always fighting  taught me that I hate fighting. I always want to be focused on what we’re trying to accomplish

When people are fighting and shouting and they can’t hear each other, it’s the people who are the most vulnerable and who are most in need of support that are left behind. They’re forgotten and neglected. They’re the ones who suffer because we cannot get our acts together.

That experience as I was growing up is now many times worse on a national scale with our political and elected leaders. While the left and the right have been fighting, we have seen criminal justice problems slip between the cracks, and we have seen our planet burning up. California literally saw Paradise burned to the ground. Meanwhile, we still see people shouting over each other trying to get air time.

The Dream Corps and I have been focused on the solutions that we need at this moment. Who do we need to work with in order to make those solutions happen? Who’s ready to actually throw down and make some change? Because if we don’t, we’re going to see these continued problems in our communities. I’m going to see my family members losing 12 years of their lives because of the increased amounts of pollution and poverty. Those things are going to continue without end because people are fighting with each other, and I just can’t have it. I just can’t deal with it anymore. I’m done with it.

At the Dream Corps, we have been working to build partnerships with unlikely allies. For instance, last year we were able to help pass the First Step Act, which The New York Times said was the biggest criminal justice reform bill in a generation. That has led to giving more rights to incarcerated women, to unlocking and freeing people who have done their time and served their penalties, and are now able to rejoin communities much earlier than they had expected. We have been able to hold events in all 50 states calling for a day of empathy to support people who have been affected by the criminal justice system. People who are now moving forward with empathy, saying “Instead of fighting against each other, how do we fight with each other for a better future for all?”

We at Green For All have realized that this climate change conversation has been seen as a white conversation for too long, even while African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans are more directly impacted by these issues. Survey after survey is saying that these populations care even more because we are breathing in the polluted air and drinking the polluted water. Our team is making sure that we’re growing the community of people who realize their right to sit at the table of these conversations and to shape solutions.

For instance, we’re calling all artists to be part of this as part of our #fuelchange work. We’re having artists, hip-hop musicians and poets contribute to sharing the word about why climate change and tail-pipe emissions actually matter to us, and why and how we can be part of creating solutions.

We’ve been partnering with a bunch of amazing folks across the country. At the end of the day, if you’re tired of fighting and trying to shout at each other, you’re tired of the bickering and animosity and just want to work with other people who share your values, your solutions, and want to do something good in the world, we want to be one of the homes where you can find some of your peers to do that.

GROSSMAN: Is there anything else that you want to share with the community here in terms of the work Green For All is doing?

TRUONG: One thing we haven’t talked about yet is business. I’ve just come back from a few conversations with big and small businesses, and I think that there’s a bit of heartburn around businesses’ part in the Green New Deal. There’s been a profound lack of their voices, and I think that’s on both sides. We can do better at inviting business voices to be part of the conversation, and we need businesses to step up and take leadership around how they can help realize the dream of this Green New Deal.

When I’m in these conversations with my friends in the environmental sector and the social justice community space, there is some justified suspicion around big businesses. For far too long, we have doubled down and over-invested in businesses that have contributed to getting us into this mess. And there’s a belief that if they got us into this mess, they can’t get us out of it. But I think that even though that’s a justified concern, it’s over-attributed.

Right now, we have a lot of businesses that are actually trying to do good and to do better — from having stronger emissions targets, to hiring people that can diversify their voices and perspectives, to committing to their communities. We have seen businesses continue to green up their supply chains and continue to diversify the contrast they have to low-income communities. There are a lot of businesses that are trying to do better, but they can benefit from activists and leaders helping them figure out how they can go even further.

For folks who want to hear more examples, some of our friends at GreenBiz.com are chronicling the journey of businesses that have been trying to do better for a long time. I think we need their help. Nonprofits can only go so far. Leaders at the federal and state and local levels can only go so far.

Right now, when we have this scale of a pollution and poverty problem, when we’re dealing with the reality of 12 years left to deal with dramatically reducing pollution, we need businesses that have access to capital, that have access to supply chains, that have access to business acumen, that have access to shaping and influencing policymakers in ways others may not have, we need to work with businesses to meet the promise of this Green New Deal. I implore for us to make sure that we are not forgetting important sectors and important partners that can help us realize this goal.

I also want to note that my support and push to make sure businesses are at the table does not mean we should have unmitigated support for businesses just because they stamp green on their labels. There’s a lot of greenwashing out there; a lot of businesses want to capitalize on this new consumer demand for better business models and better business systems, and they slap on a green sticker and think that’s enough. That’s not enough. We want to make sure businesses have strong targets, strong regulations around hiring from the community, and that they’re paying workers a good wage and making sure that they can actually afford to live in their communities.

I am done with waiting for other people lead the conversation. Now it is our time. And in order for this to happen, we need all in.

Learn more about Vien Truong and her work by visiting The Dream Corps or by watching her keynote address to Bioneers. For more on the Green New Deal, check out Bioneers’ #GreenNewDeal page.

Keep Your Finger on the Pulse

Our bi-weekly newsletter provides insights into the people, projects, and organizations creating lasting change in the world.