Tamara Smith-Jones: The Need for Healing

Tamara Smith-Jones is the founder of Helping Others Maintain Earth (H.O.M.E.), an organization whose mission is community empowerment. She participated in the Green Foothills Leadership Program in 2022 and created a capstone project focused on social justice in East Palo Alto.

“The Leadership Program lit a fire under me in terms of realizing the urgency of the environmental crisis we’re facing,” Tamara said. “The crisis is real, it’s happening, and we need to start making changes now – yesterday, in fact. People think of climate change as something that’s far in the future, but a big part of San Francisco and the Peninsula could be underwater by 2100. That’s our grandchildren’s lifetime. Do we want our grandchildren to face that?”

Listening to and learning from her community

Tamara’s work in East Palo Alto and her conversations with fellow leadership program participants and alumni – such as Cade Cannedy and Violet Saena of Climate Resilient Communities – gave her a greater understanding of how to approach advocacy in her community. Drs. Melanie Tervalon and Jann Murray-Garcia’s cultural humility work in particular changed her approach to advocacy. Cultural humility involves listening to, learning from, and operating in partnership with the community you are working to help.

For example, Tamara explained, significant funding is available to help low-to-no-income households install energy-efficient, climate-friendly upgrades such as heat pumps, weatherstripping, solar panels, and more. These upgrades need broad adoption throughout all communities in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and they also save homeowners money on their energy bills. But many low-to-no-income homeowners hesitate to take advantage of such programs because they fear that bringing contractors and code inspectors into their homes might turn up code violations that they cannot afford to fix, or that could even result in their homes being red-tagged (declared unsafe to occupy). Many low-to-no-income households are living in older homes that have not been updated in many years, and may have large numbers of occupants. Environmental advocates who want to see energy upgrade programs succeed, need to take these concerns into account. This also applies to low-to-no-income and market-rate renters whose houses have not been updated, and who are afraid to recommend the programs to their landlords, in fear of retaliation and/or eviction.

“We can give people a path to help the environment and save money on their PG&E bills, but if we don’t also address their fear, they are not going to take advantage of the opportunities,” Tamara said. “Many of us have had traumatic experiences in our past and we don’t trust people from outside coming in and saying ‘We’re here to help.’ There’s a very delicate intersection between the trauma, the need for healing, and the need for community advocates to understand that we need to look beyond our immediate issue, because these things are all tied together… Listening to other participants in my Leadership Program cohort explain how they were approaching environmental issues made that clear to me.”

Addressing a hierarchy of needs

“Two things have to happen,” she explained. “It is incumbent upon us to help people understand why they should care, that the environmental crisis is real and it’s going to affect our families, and also we have to address the real fears that they have about losing what they’ve already gained. Once we do that successfully, and then they make energy efficient upgrades, then they become walking business cards or advocates for your program, they’re paying it forward, telling other people in the community ‘this is what (that program) has done for me.’ Now we’re not living in this space of fear of getting red-tagged or worse. It changes the climate in the household because they’re not living under that fear that’s preventing them from fixing their homes and contributing to a movement for environmental change… and that has a ripple effect outward, improving not just their living situation but other areas of your life, how you feel about yourself, and your ability to make a difference in the community. In some cases that’s the difference between surviving and thriving.”

“In my culture, African American/Black culture, for so long we’ve been operating on the first and second rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, focusing on psychological needs and safety and security, and we haven’t always been able to lift our heads up and look beyond,” she said, adding that most people need a baseline of psychological needs and safety in their lives before they become interested in working on larger issues. “We need to get to a place where we can lift our heads high enough to say if we don’t do this (advocacy work on a particular social or environmental issue), what’s going to happen to our community?”

Healing forward

This understanding has influenced Tamara’s work in trauma-informed healing with her organization, Lineage and Legacy. “Our tagline is ‘healing forward.’ We very much incorporate nature in the healing process,” she noted.

“An important question is, how do we get people out in nature? How do we package environmental causes in a way that people see that this directly impacts our everyday lives? Getting people to understand whether we’re shopping in a grocery store, attending gatherings, voting, all of those play into what will exist and what will happen five years from now, 10 years from now… Our individual votes do matter because we all make those decisions collectively, incrementally locally and nationally…it’s the difference between doom and gloom or making some headway. When you change one area it affects another area…. We cannot afford, given where we’re at, to operate in silos or live in bubbles. We have to look at each decision as a domino… Create materials that meet people where they’re at so they understand how their actions are important and how their contributions have an impact.”

The Leadership Program also added to Tamara’s skill set in other ways that have been helpful in her community work. “It taught me to use power mapping and how to get into city council meetings and influence decision makers,” she said. (Power mapping is a visual tool used by social advocates to identify the best individuals to target in order to promote social change.)

Tamara is now hoping to bring the Green Foothills Leadership Program to youth in East Palo Alto. The city is working on establishing a youth commission, and she suggested having the youth commission members participate in the Leadership Program. “I really think that this collaboration could be beneficial to all involved. For Green Foothills in the direction we’re going with diversity and inclusion and adding to the fabric of the Green Foothills family on every level – donors, board, staff, volunteers. For the youth they’ll see that it’s more about influencing policy. It’s not just about showing up at the council meeting, getting loud and making demands, but understanding now you’re that person, you’re on the youth commission, you’re the one sitting up there making the decisions and you need to take that feedback from the public. I think that experience is going to help them in the future… when they will then go on to run for office or other elected positions. And most importantly, beneficial to the communities that we all represent, building bridges for future generations to cross while healing in solidarity so they can enjoy everything we’ve worked earnestly to preserve,” she said. “That’s how much I appreciated the Leadership Program. It is life-changing!”

If you are interested in reaching out to Tamara about her healing work, she can be reached at [email protected] or visit her website www.lineageandlegacy.org

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