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How GSA is working to advance equity and environmental justice

| Sonal Larsen, Climate Senior Advisor and Andrea O’Neal, Equity Senior Advisor
Post filed in: Civil Rights

Andrea O’Neal and Sonal Larsen

Earlier this year, GSA reaffirmed its commitment to decarbonizing the federal footprint and to exploring ways to power operations with carbon pollution-free electricity. This commitment is critical to combating the climate crisis, and it’s crucial we pursue this path in a way that advances equity and environmental justice.

For generations, the harmful impacts of toxic pollution and climate change have been disproportionately felt by low-income communities and communities of color. The Biden-Harris administration is working to change that by ensuring federal investments in climate and clean energy – including investments in our federal real estate portfolio – don’t leave disadvantaged and historically marginalized communities behind. 

At GSA, we are working to lead by example and reimagine the steps we take to build and manage buildings, procure and source products, and design and develop technology, by leading with climate and equity in mind. As the first-of-our-kind climate and equity senior advisors at GSA, we’re championing this leadership role in all our staff and stakeholder interactions.

GSA is an active member in the interagency group on Justice40, the whole-of-government effort to ensure agencies are examining opportunities in federal investments in clean energy to find ways to prioritize environmental and economic benefits to disadvantaged communities.

In April, GSA established, with community-based organizations, an Environmental Justice and Equity Task Group. The task group offers a biweekly forum for public exchange and provides stakeholder feedback to GSA’s Green Building Advisory Committee (GBAC) about how federal buildings can be more equitably designed and renovated. The task group is exploring three core cross-cutting themes: economic opportunity and development; public health, safety, and well-being; and resilience to disruptions and disasters. 

The NAACP, one of the task group’s conveners, recently held a town hall event for their members on environmental justice and federal properties. GSA was invited to participate alongside the White House Council on Environmental Quality and other administration connectors.  The town hall was a valuable opportunity to engage with community-based counterparts and provide an update on some of GSA’s work to combat environmental injustice. 

During the town hall, NAACP members communicated the importance of transparency and public engagement; of having community representation in the planning process; and of ensuring equitable access to facilities and being a good neighbor to the communities where federal buildings are located.

Throughout GSA, equity and environmental justice are uniting our workforce behind a common purpose and creating cross-cutting collaboration opportunities like never before. 

For example, right now, an agency-wide equity team at GSA is evaluating the success of small disadvantaged businesses in our federal contracting activities, and examining ways to improve equitable access to opportunities to engage in construction and building services contracts throughout the portfolio of federally owned and leased properties.

We’ve revitalized environmental justice strategic planning under the leadership of our Acting Associate Administrator for the Office of Civil Rights, Aluanda Drain. Our strategy places environmental justice front of mind in all our initiatives related to tackling the climate crisis and decarbonizing the federal footprint, including in our efforts to power our facilities by carbon-free electricity and to move our federal fleet to zero-emission vehicles.

Leading subject matter experts and GSA stakeholders from across our Public Buildings Service, Federal Acquisition Service, and Office of Government-wide Policy have launched initiatives to challenge their teams to think about new opportunities for environmental justice in GSA’s services and mission delivery. 

In addition to considering the environmental and justice impacts of what federal buildings are made of, we also need to consider the question of who designs, builds, and renovates them. 

Our Office of the Chief Architect, led by Charles Hardy, hosted an industry roundtable to discuss diversity, equity, and inclusion in the design and construction industry to find ways to address issues like underrepresentation in design firms, diversifying the pipeline of future leaders, and opportunities like K-12 design programs.

GSA is intentionally centering community voices and applying an equity lens across our agency’s mission. This kind of dialogue is vital as we work to advance environmental justice throughout GSA, including in our real estate portfolio. 

There’s far more work to be done, but together, these steps represent a robust, interconnected, intentional agenda with a chance for lasting and meaningful change.