When Barack Obama was campaigning for his presidency, hope was a clear theme. Now, over a year later, I had the privilege of going inside the White House complex and being filled with that hope he promised. Yesterday afternoon, I attended the Clean Energy Economy Forum, in the company of mayors and business people, non-profit directors and faith-based advocates.

The Forum was split into two parts, with an opportunity to hear both the federal perspectives on why action now is important as well as what community leaders are doing at local and regional levels. The focus was on “livability” and “sustainable communities,” with discussion around collaboration between groups with different interests and purposes striving for more comprehensive solutions, examining transportation, housing, energy, environmental, and health impacts.

Secretary Ray LaHood from the Department of Transportation (DOT) and Secretary Shaun Donovan from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) lifted up both the success of their collaboration with each other as well as the impact of the Recovery and Reinvestment Act. They talked about how greening public housing improves health conditions for people of lower incomes, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and saves the government money. Housing and transportation are two of the largest costs people pay for, and good planning can help reduce the personal and environmental impacts of long commutes for all people, especially people of lower incomes. Approximately $100 million will be available this year for funding regional integrated planning initiatives, and grant recipients will be selected by the partnership between HUD, DOT, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Secretary Donovan said that communities of color cannot be left behind in this movement, like they were in the tech boom of the 1990s. I hope to see policies reflect that!

A moderator led a question and answer session between the panel and the audience. It was incredibly powerful to witness the Administration’s commitment to working towards livable cities and their willingness to seek guidance and feedback from people on the ground. Sitting in that forum made me feel like I actually live in a democracy–one that cares about seeking input from a variety of sources.

The practitioners on the panel in the second section were quite sharp and full of good insights. Doris Koo, President & CEO of Enterprise Community Partners, Inc. started off saying, “Smart growth is not smart unless it is equitable,” and quickly made clear her commitment to greening affordable housing. Rabbi David Saperstein, Director & Counsel of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, spoke eloquently about the clear connections between religion and environmentalism (“creation care”), and the unique role that faith-based community organizing can play. Religious groups are concerned with a multitude of issues, which can bring into light the synergy between seemingly different issues, and at the core, carry a special responsibility to the poor. With some 400,000 congregations nation-wide and about 150 million members, churches can carry profound influence in public policy.

There is much work yet to be done, but this meeting has strengthened my faith that we’re on the right path and having some of the right conversations. To paraphrase Ron Sims, Deputy Secretary of HUD, there are some people who say these things can’t happen. Then don’t do them! But don’t stand in the way of those who will make them happen. Rumi said, “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” As a religious community, let us be the ones that seek love. Let us break down the barriers and make things happen.

About the Author
Rowan Van Ness

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