Fellowship Sparks Local Progress Toward Climate Resilience

By: Clarke Knight
March 10, 2019
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Est. Reading Time: 5 minutes
CivicSpark fellows build the capacity of local governments to respond to these emerging threats through a range of research, planning, and implementation activities. (Courtesy Kif Scheuer)
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Since 2007, Kif Scheuer, whoearned a Ph.D. in natural resources and environment as well as an M.Sc. and B.A. in architecture, has worked on local government climate change initiatives across California. Scheuer currently oversees the CivicSpark fellowship program, which has engaged over 200 fellows and some 35,000 California residents on projects concerning sea level rise, affordable housing, climate action planning, and sustainable transportation. Scheuer told ESAL about the program’s new “resilience” focus as they prepare to select their latest cohort of fellows.

CK: What drew you to the role of climate change director at the Local Government Commission?

Scheuer: Climate change itself! We need to dramatically accelerate action at the global scale, while also fostering action at the local scale. One of the things that attracted me to the Local Government Commission (LGC) was its almost 40 year history of being a credible voice for stimulating local action on a range of sustainability issues from smart growth, to energy conservation to climate change. Their member network, the events they put on, and the resources they provide offered me a platform to really expand my contribution to the fight against climate change. Since joining LGC in 2013, I have broadly been working across our climate, energy, and national service portfolio which includes our AmeriCorps program CivicSpark.

CK: What is CivicSpark?

Scheuer: CivicSpark is a governor's initiative from the AmeriCorps program, launched in 2014. Each year, our 90 AmeriCorps fellows serve for 11 months helping to build local government resilience capacity. We started with a focus only on climate change. In our third year in response to the drought we added a water track, and then last year we added what we call the “opportunity access,” track which focused on broader social equity issues such as rural broadband, transportation mobility, and affordable housing. As we’ve added these tracks – and seen how CivicSpark is helping local governments respond to a range of issues – we’ve come to realize that the program is not so much about the issues but is really about helping local governments respond to emerging threats, whether they be environmental or social equity. So for this coming year we have repackaged the program under a broader “resilience” umbrella that allows us to continue to support projects focused on existing issues such as climate change, water, or housing, but we can also be more flexible and address other emerging issues as they arise.

CK: Tell us a little bit about the fellows in the program.

Scheuer: Fellows build the capacity of local governments respond to these emerging threats through a range of research, planning, and implementation activities. Our 90 fellows are mostly recent college graduates who are trying to get a foothold in what we call a “social purpose” career. So we’re both trying to help local governments respond to these threats, and creating a career pipeline for emerging leaders. CivicSpark creates a pathway for these rising leaders to get project-based experience and see how work gets done on the ground. We want them to use their service to develop both technical and community change skills. Ideally we hope CivicSpark is the first step in a long career addressing the most critical threats our communities face. A significant majority of fellows who have completed the program are now working in a relevant position, so we feel like we’re definitely helping to grow the field of practice.

CK: Is CivicSpark unique to California?

Kif Scheuer

Scheuer: Yes, we serve just California right now. We’ve had a lot of discussions about trying to expand beyond California. We’ve looked at Colorado and Massachusetts. Both are very receptive environments for this kind of sustainability program. But we've also been growing substantially. We started in 2014 with 50 fellows, now we’re at 90 a year. So currently, we’re more focused on reinforcing and strengthening the program right here.

CK: What’s the benefit of addressing climate change and resilience issues at the local level, compared to the regional, federal or global level?

Scheuer: Obviously you can’t do one without the other. Ultimately we need to have global action and global frameworks, but California has always been at the forefront. You have great work going on outside of the state, but California has had a historical reputation of being at the forefront of environmental progress and has always been a testing ground for innovation. The phrase you often hear people say is, “so goes California, so goes the country.” The leadership shown in California compared to the absence of leadership elsewhere over the last few years has been profound. A lot the most significant action grew out of projects and initiatives that started at the local level. Many of our most progressive and innovative communities tried out solutions that later became policies at the state level, which then can filter up to a national and even international level. So working with local governments on resilience projects is an amazing place for our fellows to see how these issues are playing out on the ground and how a variety of strategies are being explored that could inform how we respond at a larger scale in the years to come.

CK: Can you describe one or two examples of particularly impactful CivicSpark projects?

Scheuer: One that jumps to mind was in San Luis Obispo County a couple of years ago. There had been a convening group of local government staff from the cities and the county. They had been working on climate action planning in each of their jurisdictions, but they didn't have the resources to move things forward. The air district and the county brought on three fellows who met with the group to review their collective climate action plan priorities and identified a couple items that everybody thought were important. The top item for this group was solar permit streamlining. So, over their service year, the fellows worked to tackle this one issue on behalf of all of the cities all at once. The fellows were able to do the research and identify state resources that help set up the conditions and structures for streamlining solar permits and ordinances. They also helped provide education to the permitting and planning staff about how to adopt best practices. If I remember correctly, some permitting staff were able to reduce the approval time from multiple weeks to just a few days, which is a really big benefit for contractors in these communities and ultimately helps accelerate adoption of renewable power.

Fellows have also done more analytic projects. In one project, fellows spearheaded the development of a “green region” indicators map in southern California and the greater L.A. region, working with the Southern California Association of Governments. They created a dynamic map to see where all 191 jurisdictions were at on a whole range of sustainability indicators.

With over 220 fellows to date, it’s hard to highlight just a few projects. We feel really fortunate that our fellows have been involved in some really cool projects and have done some really impactful work. If anyone is interested they can visit our website and look at the “our impact” page to see descriptions of all the projects, a summary of the impact we’ve had, and even look at posters of past projects.

CK: What’s next for CivicSpark?

Scheuer: We’re going to be recruiting our next cohort of fellows very soon, and we are looking for project partners to host our fellows. Some of your readers may actually be part of organizations that could host a fellow. If they are working in a public agency, an NGO, or an academic institution and are doing projects that would benefit local government resiliency efforts they should reach out to us. In 2019, our first priority deadline is March 15, and the second deadline is May 3. Also some of your readers may work in educational institutions where they are working with undergraduates who might be graduating soon and are interested in getting into these fields. We’re going to start recruiting our new cohort of Fellows in April, and we’d love to share information about opportunities to serve in CivicSpark as well.

Are you involved with an organization or effort that you think might be of interest to the ESAL community? Or have heard about an organization or initiative that you’d like to learn more about? Let us know here, and we may feature it in a future post.

Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL) is a non-advocacy, non-political organization. The information in this post is for general informational purposes and does not imply an endorsement by ESAL for any political candidates, businesses, or organizations mentioned herein.
Published: 03/10/19
Updated: 09/14/22
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