Sitting at a small cafe on Larkin Street in San Francisco this past weekend, drinking an exceptional cappuccino, (ah, the joys of being a journalist), I had the immense pleasure of an hour-long call with Natasha Juliana, co-leader of Cool Petaluma, a grassroots committee in Petaluma championing the need for action around climate change on a local, national, and global level.
Along with co-lead council member D’Lynda Fischer, (who originally founded this initiative) and their exceptional group of committee members, representing different facets of the community, Cool Petaluma has succeeded in securing the Cool Cities Challenge grant for $1 million to implement climate change practices during what may very well be our last chance to turn things around environmentally. (2030, the goal year for zero carbon emission, is not a random number; environmental scientists have indicated that if we cannot reduce our planetary impact by 2030, we face irreversible, irreconcilable damage. A frightening thought.)
Natasha and I talked at great length, and while we certainly appreciated the severity and criticality of the situation, our call was largely centered around hope, joy, and faith in the human capacity for adaptation and change.
Cool Petaluma, and the Cool Cities Challenge are built around joy, creativity, and generative energy, rather than fear-mongering and anxiety. “It’s about using positive energy and creativity to effect change.” said Natasha. “The negative energy silos us, we get scared and retreat, but when we switch from scarcity to abundance we feel that we can help; trust is fostered.” I couldn’t agree more, and as we move out of the acute heartache of 2020, we’re all looking for a sense of positivity, potential, and hope—energies that are generative, and don’t leave us feeling defeated and afraid. The coolness of the Cool Cities Challenge is exponentially increased because of this ethos.
At this point you’re no doubt wondering, what exactly is Cool Cities Challenge? Let’s dive in.
The Cool Cities Challenge: Ripple Effect
It started with Cool Block, a nonprofit initiative of the Empowerment Institute founded by CEO David Gershon in 1981. Cool Block is about growing community, reducing carbon emissions, increasing emergency preparedness, and developing collaborative ability, block by block. Think of this as the ripple effect of positive change, with each block being the stone that sets the water in motion. Cool Block is the umbrella initiative under which the Cool Cities Challenge operates, funding cities who are ready and able to implement this block by block change, from bottom to top and top to bottom. Here’s what it looks like:
Bottom to Top
The bottom to top portion of the Cool Cities Challenge is the grassroots piece — let’s look at how Petaluma has done it. Working with the community, the city of Petaluma has recruited 300 Cool Block leaders, now in training now to lead their blocks through a four-and-a-half month process in 2022, addressing disaster resilience, water stewardship, carbon reduction, neighborhood livability, and empowering others. Block leaders will be knocking on their neighbors’ doors, getting to know their blocks, establishing community, trust, and a sense of connection that we’ve been missing as much as we’ve been missing the mark on caring for our climate. Test blocks have been run in San Francisco, and in Palo Alto (where Goshen founded the program) but this is the first time entire cities have been funded.
2022 is go-time, when we see how these three flagship cities work (Los Angeles and Irvine are the two other cities awarded the 1 million dollar grant), not only internally, but with each other, to share tactics, gain strength, and increase connectivity. There is no competition between the three cities, but rather a shared motivating goal. As Natasha pointed out, “We only win if the whole planet wins. We need to pull everyone onto the ship and make it a joyful journey. This is about taking care of each other, which is what we want — we’re fostering a sense of community and re-socializing around these incredible shared goals. And we’re reconnecting ourselves with nature, asking how we can bring nature back into our cities, back into our lives.” The training programs these three cities have been participating in for the last three days have been, says Natasha, some of the more inspiring and joyful experiences she’s ever had. “This is so collaborative, so supportive — it feels like a whole new world of possibility is opening up. I have now talked to hundreds of people and my hope for humanity has soared.”
Top to Bottom
While the community is working to implement change block to block, the Moonshot Strategy team is working on policy, finance, technology, bureaucracy, etc. (The teams are called Moonshot teams as a reminder to have faith in human capacity. Some people might feel like these city transitions are unrealistic in scale. We also thought we couldn’t put a man on the Moon.) Moonshot teams look at the bigger picture, in the event that the Cool Blocks run into a snag in city or county policy. They work to rewrite government, school, and residential policy for better living, implementing city strategies that support every aspect of the Cool Block initiative, and pave the way for synergistic communities to thrive. Petaluma has already established eco-conscious boundaries, such as banning the building of any new gas stations, considering the implementation of an electric trolley, and making the city more bikeable.
How it will Go: Cool Cities = Cooler Planet
Petaluma, LA, and Irvine are in training, implementing their bottom to top and top to bottom strategies, over the course of three years. The funding will be split between staffing and community projects, and here’s how the Cool Cities Challenge will move out from here: In January of 2022 Petaluma, Los Angeles, and Irvine will officially begin their programs. In January 2023, 25 cities will run in California, and 25 cities will also run nationwide. January of 2024 this initiative goes international, (I get chills writing it), and we’re looking at a globe of committed, funded citizens working to end climate change, bring communities closer together, and foster our natural, joyful existence on planet Earth.
With so much joy in my heart at the thought of this initiative moving through the world, righting our operatives, bringing us together, and securing a safe future for our children and grandchildren, I had to ask Natasha where she thought pushback might be, and how we could work to overcome it. My concern lay specifically with big business, resisting change in favor of immediate financial profit. Natasha’s response was founded in logic, and though not necessarily morally motivated, very comforting: “I believe we are reaching a tipping point. At some point big business is going to see the writing on the wall. The extreme nature of our natural disasters, the interruption of supply chains, the breakdown of so many systems, is going to be so impossible to ignore that change will become the only option, even if their motives remain capitalist in nature.”
I asked her also about the political division this country has been facing since 2016, and how we struggle to collaborate when social media platforms (particularly Facebook, which is finally being called out for willingly inciting division and perpetuating hate speech for the last five years) exacerbate political and cultural walls between us. Natasha had this to say: “The way this program is laid out is very non-partisan. Cool Cities isn’t anti- anything, and it doesn’t other anybody. You will have some outliers, yes; those who will never adopt something, but we’re setting it up in such a way that everyone in the community will see benefits in their daily life (social, economic, security-wise), and it won’t matter what political persuasion you are. We’ve been swayed by the media to think we’re so different, but by and large we all want the same things. We want to feel safe, and eat good food, and keep our children safe, and our parents; we’re coming at this from an angle built to diffuse the idea that we’re irreconcilably different. When the fire is coming you’ll want to know your neighbor. It doesn’t matter if they’re libertarian or liberal. The block by block level is great for this — we start to break down these walls, and when it’s your neighbor, you have a shared interest. We already have so much common ground there to begin building this bridge.”
If you’re a Petaluma resident, this is your moment! Go to Coolpetaluma.org and get involved in this Earth-saving, humanity-redeeming movement, built around joy and connection. Get to know your neighbor, and bring more love into your life. This is a wide open opportunity. If you’re in any other North Bay or Marin County city, let’s get after this, because 2022 is right around the corner, and it’s our moment to step up, for the planet, for each other, and for ourselves. We deserve this connection, this healing, and we have every single ingredient necessary to make it. All we have to do is put them together, together.