Building a Cross-Sector Coalition: Sustainable Communities for All and CA’s Cap-and-Trade Program


Why should community developers care about cap-and-trade and what do carbon emissions have to do with low-income households? As it turns out, the fields of environmental sustainability and community development have significant overlap, particularly in the area of transit-oriented development, where issues of affordability, equity, and displacement converge with concerns such as vehicle miles traveled and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The need to bridge these two fields has become even more pressing in California as a result of the State’s cap-and-trade program which was implemented in 2012. This market-based regulatory framework creates requirements for GHG reductions while simultaneously generating billions of dollars in proceeds that the State can reinvest in other climate change prevention efforts. In response, numerous organizations launched intensive lobbying campaigns to try to influence how the funds would be appropriated. A new cross-sector coalition called Sustainable Communities for All (SC4A) successfully championed a joint platform that prioritized social equity and proposed allocating a significant percentage of cap-and-trade revenue to provide transportation choices and build homes affordable to lower-income households near transit.

The SF Fed embarked on this study to shine a light on the inner workings of a collaborative partnership that works on behalf of low-income communities, illustrating both the challenges and the lessons learned from such efforts. These lessons are briefly summarized below:

Lesson 1: Clarify the rationale for cross-sector partnership

  • While parties may generally acknowledge the need for integration, they may not immediately understand the points of intersection across sectors or they may struggle to explain why partnership would be mutually beneficial. Be patient and thorough in clearly identifying the areas of convergence and the rationale for working with new partners.
  • Similarly, don’t presume that all parties have a clear understanding of each other’s true priorities, which often go unstated, particularly when new partners are working together for the first time.
  • This clear rationale should also be clearly communicated to external stakeholders.

Lesson 2: Build trust through committed participation

  • Establishing trust among new partners is vital to the success of any cross-sector effort, and it often begins with making a demonstrated commitment to active participation. Building trust takes time, but SC4A partners that “pulled their weight” and stayed visibly engaged in the work ultimately earned the trust and respect of other partners.

Lesson 3: Acknowledge and manage power dynamics

  • Partnerships will vary in their power dynamics, but, regardless of whether there is an even distribution or a severe imbalance in real or perceived power, the group stands to benefit from openly acknowledging the existing structure. This allows partners to then actively manage the power dynamics and create an environment that enables cooperation and compromise.
  • Acknowledging current power structures also prepares the group to strategically consider how the introduction of new partners might impact existing relationships and operations.

Lesson 4: Set boundaries and manage the scope of cross-sector efforts

  • An inherent tension exists within cross-sector work—an initiative needs to be broad enough in scope to be inclusive of many different interests, but narrow enough that partners all have a clear sense of why they’re together and what actions they need to take to achieve their goal. In order to effectively manage scope, partners must be willing to set boundaries. These boundaries can be permeable and flexible, but lines must be drawn in order to maintain focus.

Lesson 5: Prioritize the use of data to drive action

  • From an advocacy standpoint, the effective use of data is critical for influencing key decision makers. Identifying, getting access to, and analyzing the appropriate data can require significant effort; groups need to be prepared to devote time and resources to these tasks. By prioritizing the need for data, SC4A was able to identify and act upon multiple emergent opportunities that led to the development of game-changing research.

Lesson 6: Understand the preferences and processes of key decision makers

  • Key decision makers, such as policymakers or funders, likely have their own preferences and processes for how they work, which may be nuanced and not clearly communicated to outside parties. In order to understand and strategically align with these preferences, cross-sector partnerships need to be willing to regularly engage with front-line staff representing these decision makers.

These lessons are not new or revolutionary by any means—the

need for collaboration, trust, and communication are known requirements for any healthy partnership
. But too often, these factors are presumed to develop on their own, rather than being the result of an intentional, patient process. It may be tempting to attribute SC4A’s success to any one of its tactical efforts, which included developing data-driven research, building statewide support for its proposal, or carrying a unified message to lawmakers in the Capitol, but it’s important to remember that all of these achievements were enabled by the trust that existed among partners.

Read Building a Cross-Sector Coalition: Sustainable Communities for All and California’s Cap-and-Trade Program

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the management of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco or of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.

About the Author
Laura Choi is executive vice president of Public Engagement at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, where she provides overall strategic direction and leadership for the Community Development, Government and Civic Relations, and Regional Business Engagement teams. Learn more about Laura Choi