TRANSCRIPT: Sustainable Development in Action
In Conversation with Saharnaz Mirzazad
Below is the transcript from my interview with Saharnaz Mirzazad, Chief Deputy Director of Climate and Planning for California's Office of Planning and Research (Cal OPR). This transcript was generated by AI and lightly edited. Please listen to the full episode to experience the content in its native form.
SM - Saharnaz Mirzazad, AMW - Awoe Mauna-Woanya
SM: And all of these things are integrated, like the infrastructure. It's easy to talk about it, but you actually you need to put thinking like what doesn't exactly means? Like are we talking about like only the concept of digging once? Is it the concept of adding value to multiple infrastructure at the same time? What are we looking for and Also like being humble to say, we've got it wrong here. Let's rethink it. Let's have another conversation. And I think it was a really good exercise between us and the communities It took us a long time, the first time, but then we got it. I think you got it. And it worked. And I hope it will continue to work.
AMW: Welcome to Fostering Our Earth, a space for imagining and detailing what a sustainable future really looks like. I'm your host, Awoe and I interview practitioners who are working to create this future in their own fields, whether it be energy, mobility, food, housing, and so much more. That clip you just heard was from my interview with Saharnaz Mirzazad Dad, chief deputy director of Climate and Planning for California's Office of Planning and Research O PR for short. Saharnaz Harness has worked with local and regional government for over 15 years on infrastructure development, climate resiliency and community development to advance climate and equity goals. Now, I previously worked with Saharnaz when I interned at Cal OPR PR just a few years ago, and with her extensive experience actualizing change for so many people and communities, I thought she'd be fantastic to share a bit about the role governments play in combating climate change and building sustainable communities. Without further ado, let's just jump right into this conversation, starting with Saharnaz's background and journey to her current role with Cal's OPR.
SM: My name is Saharnaz Last name was Mirzazad I am an immigrant. I came to U.S. in 2010. My background in my motherland was mainly on community development. And when I got to U.S., I focused my energy on climate change and sustainability. And the first job that I had in the U.S. was with a ICLEI local governments for sustainability, which shaped my view of how climate change related actions can be implemented in local level. I worked there for a while in that nonprofit organization, and then joined the City of Thousand Oaks for a short period after the Paris Climate Agreement to be part of the implementation of big goals that we put into the agreement. I was there for one year and then I saw a job announcement related to a new program in the statewide program called Transformative with the Climate Communities Program, which was really kind of a dream job for me. It was marriage of like what I used to work back in Iran and community development and my passion in the climate change area. So I applied and I got the job moved to Sacramento to be part of the movement and standing of the program. I was the program manager for a couple of years and then promoted to deputy level in a Strategic Growth Council to oversee the investment portfolio there. And fast forward now, I am Deputy Director at the Governor's Office of Planning and Research, which oversees the state planning and policy and climate change policy in general. And excited to share what I know with you all
AMW: Absolutely. You've been working in planning and community development for a while. What is your mission like? Why do you care?
SM: For me, it's more about people and what's happening to people as a result of Kind of like self inflicted once The climate change is a man made challenge right? Something that we created as a human being, but not everybody equally suffering from it. There are people that contributed less but suffering more. And that's really like something that was like the forefront of my mind when I was working on this and kind of how my drive was kind of represented in my work in the last couple of years is like we need to think through a lens. That for so will fix the issue for everyone. But make sure that we are addressing the people that have less contribute, but suffering now
AMW: Yeah, I totally feel you. It's this unequal distribution of the burdens of climate impacts and those who are benefiting from it. You know, it's like totally disparate, whether it's at a local scale or in the U.S. or even globally, all the time we're seeing, flooding in Pakistan or in Nigeria or in these islands all throughout the world. But the reason for all these floodings and all these impacts is because of our overconsumption, our, high emissions. that leads back to it. So I totally feel you both on a global scale and on our local scale here in the U.S., here in California as well. So you've worked for the last five, six years, in the public sector, working for government, whether it's at the city scale or at the state scale, what do you think is the government's role in climate and sustainability planning? we've we've talked about, your care for people and you're working in the public sector. So like, what's the government's responsibility?
SM: So let's go back to some of the roots of the issue. Right. Like our dependency on fossil fuel. Where does it come from? It comes from the fact that us as a society and the government has invested in fossil fuel, make and subsidize is in a way that they are dependent on it and we can get away from it easily. So when you think about that, it's our responsibility to actually reverse that and kind of like find a way to get away from fossil fuel to. In the quality of life that people want and deserve in more sustainable. Energy and also something that we can actually sustain the planet in long term for future generations. So that's my lens to this. And the government role I see is like how we can use our public dollars to facilitate that, how we can make sure that we are bringing and changing the market in a way that it could reduce our dependance on fossil fuels, how we can reduce harm on people that are being harmed as a result of all of this, dependency on fossil fuels and how we can get ready for the things that will happen regardless, regardless of how quickly we move. So that's like the way that my mind frame works. There won't be ever enough public dollars to address everything else, but being smart is what the government role is, where we can invest so our dollars can make a difference to shift the market where we can invest to shield the people that wouldn't have any other choice except that public dollars that we have. So those are the things that I think the government needs to play a role. Yeah, that makes sense. And with that, for you personally, what are your sort of guiding principles in supporting government spending for people what governs your decision making. I hear a lot of, words like equity and justice, but community led community driven oriented. what are your sort of principles? Well a couple things is the intersectionality and the co-benefits of what we do? We definitely what we are investing in should provide multiple benefits. It shouldn't be just like one aspiration, just like look into one aspect of what we are doing, like how we can make sure that while we're investing in different, you know, issues, we are providing multiple benefits that it's not like a one sided or like short sighted actually in potential opportunities that it can provide. The other thing is that. I believe in the fact that the government is representative of the people and it can't govern without having their buy in. And as much as we can exercise our democracy, we should do it. And in many of the work that we do, especially at local level, we need to maximize the opportunity for people to make decisions for themselves. I don't think that the government should make the decision for them. I think if we can facilitate and guide, but at the end of the day, we should look for opportunities to help them to make the decisions for themselves and what we would like to offer could benefit them and how it could help them to get to where we want to get together as a society. And those are. very important for me as a public sector employee and in the forefront of my mind anytime that I think about like working with the communities and all of it. And personally I like to be the voice for people that don't have a voice. And that has been very important in the personal lives.
AMW: Wow. That's really awesome. I like this perspective of the government enabling communities to make decisions You use the word facilitating and you also like being this voice for people that's that's really awesome. And I wish that government wasn't so. chaotic it always feels like this is chaotic.
SM: It is chaotic. Think, you know if it's not chaotic it's probably not democracy. Mhm. we are people, we are like we have opinions, we have different interests and, and I have lived in a country that doesn't exercise democracy and. I have seen it the other way. Mm hmm. In so many ways. This is beautiful. Yeah. And I appreciate it because people need to voice their opinion regardless of how we like it or we don't like it. But. Having that and providing the forum for it is great. The process to get somewhere will be messy and challenging but. It includes people and it's better than just like this is the way that we are going and then everybody might source that without considering that people's opinion in itself. I actually don't mind it. Yeah. Part of the beauty of this whole thing.
AMW: No, totally on that. What do you find to be some of the biggest barriers or challenges, especially when you are representing people or giving them a voice to voice their best interests? what are the struggles or the barriers to enabling that?
SM: Oh, there a couple of things that come to my mind. Things. It doesn't happen in a silo, right? You have to collaborate with different entities and different level of governments to be able to move things forward. And if they these different level of government are not on the same page, then it becomes challenging. So like setting goals that you have buy in and then makes things much more smoother. And I think the other challenge is the problem of the political cycles. Many of the works that people do in the government are bound to the political cycles. A good example is like money from the federal government like that coming down to the states like But why deadlines to spend them? Like now everybody is scrambling to spend those money. It's the same thing. The local level is state level and. The end goal is like, okay, we need to benefit these communities. But everyone from every side of the aisles is trying to declare victory, which makes it really challenging if you want to do a good work
AMW: Yeah. What does victory mean? Are you saying that with, a more selfish connotations? Like if you were to successfully, like, implement a program, that's a victory. But is it more of like. I wasn't able to take credit for it.
SM: Okay. That's like, that's, again, this whole, like, spending deadlines and things like that. It's like it's a challenge, real challenge, because things doesn't happen like that on the ground. Right? You can, like, come up with a plan for a huge problem in like a blink Like let's say a community needs a. Like water, safe water, drinking water, and all of a sudden there's money coming from feds and but designing the system to implement that, it takes time. It's not it doesn't happen quickly, but the money may go away. That's how you are doing all of this. So it's kind of like that's that's the challenge. And probably in the same line, there is not enough money actually to plan. General, to plan to ahead and engage people to be part of the thoughtful process. So when the opportunities arises, people can take advantage of that. It's more of like, here's the money to implement. And then to implement what we know the problem but nothing happened between. So that's like a those are things that I always like. I wish we were operating a different governance structure that they were like always money for planning and engaging in and like coming up, like how we can resolve our issues. And then, okay, we are ready for the implementation money. Whenever it comes, we'll be here. Right. But it doesn't kind of like it. It really does it. That's tough. and I guess my first thought there like it aligns with the cycles of oh this governor or this person is leaving office, someone else is coming into office. And so then, okay, we have to spend all this. Is there initiatives or we have to spend money by X date or whatnot? So yeah, I, I get that. And also with that, if we say that to you, the Governor Newsom, on that, that he actually wants to leave legacy is like less bound to that you know times I have seen him the way that he operates like well actually I want to leave a legacy behind wanting longer term versus like during the time that I'm in office. But again, not everybody's like that.
AMW: Yeah, totally. So far. So Saharnaz has discussed how government role is really all about enabling change, whether through spending or through policies. Government represents people, and of course, that simple idea can get messy or chaotic. As a Saharnaz puts it. She describes some of the challenges we face in government, with one being political cycles and spending deadlines. Next, we're going to dove into a really cool program, Transformative Climate Communities. This program, TCC, is one of California's many climate investment programs that funds development and infrastructure projects that achieve major environmental, health and economic benefits in California's most disadvantaged communities. With projects in Fresno, Watts and Ontario, TCC initially focused on investing solely in infrastructure projects aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. However, it later expanded its scope to encompass sustainable infrastructure, such as affordable housing, near transit, investment in bike lanes and parks, urban greening and food waste diversion all contributing to sustainable development. While the primary goal of TCC is sustainability, it has other critical components that the program addresses, such as community engagement, displacement avoidance and workforce development. Let's hear more about how this program was developed and its impacts. I want to talk more about TCC Transformative Climate Communities. I remember when I was interning at OPR like every time I saw you, like I was like, Oh, you're TCC. I think of TCC, I think of Saharnaz as and it was a collaboration. It wasn't only me totally right. It was like I put that out there, I will not accomplish anything without people that contributed to it. Absolutely. I totally agree with you on that. Tell me about it. Tell me about TCC. What is it and what's its impact? What is its purpose and how did you feel, you and your team, putting this together and making it happen for people, for different communities.
SM: So the idea came from the stakeholders working together and putting it into the legislation and proposing it to be at the Strategic Growth Council. The legislation that enabled to see is really short for sentences like BLEEP. And actually that was a blessing because there wasn't that much mandate coming with it and it was like just putting the trust that SGC will do their due diligence to put a program that is effective. And we took that very seriously. And the first version of guidelines for the program that was created and developed that in close collaboration with the stakeholders and mainly environmental justice groups, was before my time there. So when I got the first version of guidelines was developed and when I was hired they were just like awarded the first round of the grants But in reflection I looking back at the early days. Had a lot of good ideas, like the bones of it. Right? The bones of it were like like, we want this type of project. We want we need to think about community engagement. We need to think about displacement avoidance. We need workforce to look all those pieces. were They're like the bones of the program. But what was missing was. Nobody knew how this will actually be implemented. So that stuff, they were like, okay, we got this big picture thing, we know what we want, but the actual mechanics of how this will happen. Like it was a big question mark and that's where the team was like really instrumental in bringing something to light that was beyond just an idea. It was actually if you want to truly have a transformative program or some investment in a community. This is how it should be done and they should be done was like a lot of things, like we kind of like try to incorporate that into the next versions of the guidelines to the grant agreement that we had with the committees and also setting up the program in a way that it's not just like we're giving you money or the youth, we'll see you in four years. But there was like accountability built into it, like we are not giving you money without requiring you to be accountable to residents of your area. So building it into the process of like the accountability between us and the grantee, we were like, okay, if we are investing you definitely don't want to displace the people that you were thinking that they should be like benefit from this investment. So how accountability to that. Could materialize was a big part of the process when we were thinking about implementation and all of these things like integrated, like infrastructure. It's easy to talk about it, but you actually you need to put thinking like, what does it exactly means? Like are we talking about like only the concept of digging once? Is it the concept of like adding value to, to like multiple infrastructure at the same time? What are we looking for in. Also like being humble to say, we've got it wrong here. Let's rethink it. Let's have another conversation. And I think it was a really good exercise between us and the communities We it took us a long time, the first time, but then we got it. I think we got it. And it worked. And I hope it will continue to work. So that's the story. I love it.
AMW: So just I want to make sure I understand too. With TCC, essentially you had grant money and you were providing it to communities that provided like a plan and you ensured that those plans were, you know, accountability throughout that plan. And then you provided that to them and then they use that money to execute that plan, essentially, right?
SM: Yes. But the program had intentions in that. It was laid out in that couple sentence in the legislation that money should be used for sustainable infrastructure. And also economic development and. that money should be invested in the most disadvantaged communities of California. So it intended from the beginning that this will go to areas that have seen the highest impact of the climate change. and has the highest economic burden. And those are the tough areas of California. Those are the areas that has hasn't seen investment in a really long time. Areas that the trust between the government and the community doesn't exist. It's the area that it has seen like literally harm from the government, through the policing, through disinvestment, to intentional moving of like resources and all of that. And. It's not an easy task to go there and say like, Hey, I'm here to help you. It's like, Who are you? Why should we be in one of the others? We have heard this for generations. And it took us time to say like, no, we really want to help. Tell us how. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. A couple more points on this, how do you build trust? What does it mean to build trust with a community, especially a community disadvantaged community that has been. Over time. It's not just once. Over time, there's mistrust as it developed or they've been left alone to fend for themselves or oppressed. And not even just, like, left alone, like, in some cases have just been oppressed. Like, how do you build trust? It's not easy. It requires patience and also a lot of active listening and basically a willingness to. Provide information and being available and being honest with your limitations. It's a so I think one of the most challenging places that we worked was Fresno. And when they were awarded the grant, they basically didn't meet many of the requirements of the guidelines. And this long story, they were like in the first round the council took action just to set aside for Fresno and they decided to submit one application, but that one application didn't meet the requirements and there was a conditions on the award that they need to work towards, like meeting those conditions. And it took us like one year to be able to like kind of like have a out work with the city, the community and the project, like to figure out where to go. And there was like one meeting that Leadership Council for Justice and Accountability hosted in one of the neighborhoods. Go to and answer some questions for the community. And I remember when we got there, there were like a big room with a lot of, like, unhappy people. Like, the State give us this money a year ago. Where's the money? And then we went to like and the city was really nervous about the meeting. Like they had like this contentious relationship with the community. They were trying hard, but the can we didn't believe it that they're trying to do their best and then. Which again, as a caveat, I'm not sure How far they pushed at the time. community might have a point that they were not trying to pass of, not saying that they were wrong. But we were at this meeting and then we had to go through the projects one by one, explain one by one what happened, where we are, why we are there, everything. And then people looks in and they like, Oh, actually, these people really know what's going on and they really like there was a thought process behind it. And then like there are next steps and they're like that. There were people from the Oversight Committee of that project that were in the room like, Look, we go, we go. Where does this come from? Like, when do you think that they will be done? So is this kind of a turning point in that process? Like because we are not just holding the money for no reason and this that these there are reasons for that. And but when they go to the grant agreement, the actual money for like people are comfortable, but the process there is still like points that we couldn't hash out, like the displacement avoidance plan, that there wasn't agreement with the community and the city and we had to hire a consultant to support the process. But like on other things, they would a place that we could actually move forward with the project. And discuss like further down the road how to find the details on all of it then. Literally trying to resolve the issues we have. These are the reason that this whole process didn't work. Yeah. That's awesome. Thank you for sharing. Again, back to the earlier point about government, sometimes seeming chaotic and it takes care to, you know, and you have to be willing to work with. I mean, you could have very easily have just said, like Fresno, like I said, doesn't meet our requirements beds, said like next like and move on. But it does take effort and care to, go through and spend a year working with the city to improve things, to get it to a place where there's people that have expectations to, you know, they they're asking for the investment, for whatever, you know, they need it for.
AMW: As we wrap up, I used the last few minutes to ask for advice, asking the role we can all play in building a better future regardless of our profession or age. Let's hear what the Saharnaz has to say.
SM: First of all, you use your voice and your power to vote. That's very important. And I would just share one thing, personal story. I was like a couple of years ago, I was really getting obsessed with not using plastic and how it can reduce my plastic footprint, blah, blah. And I went through like, whoops, like everything that I could do. At the end of the day, it wasn't working because it was everywhere, everywhere. And I was like, I can't change this until the entire industry decides that they'd have a replacement for plastic. Otherwise, I'm just, like, torturing myself. But how can I do that? By regulation. Right. But choosing the people that we care about. Leading and regulating the industry to come up with a different solution that I, I don't have to depend on plastic and feel so guilty about it. That's number one as a person, just like who lives in the society. The other thing is just be cautious and conscious at the same time about your footprint, how you can be someone that is more and lives in harmony with the nature. And like, take what you really need, not more. It's just a mentality of that like of just like thinking about someone that lived in a different society and now in America. Like, I'm always blown away, but by the amount of consumption here and how easily use things and it becomes a habit very easily becomes a habit. Like it's not that you shouldn't like buy things for your needs and all of that, but in many cases you're actually over consuming without them fulfilling any needs. So. You probably. Those are the things that as a people we can do. And also just remember when we were talking about like, oh, try to use like. This score or all of that is nevertheless sustained. But the professional are talking about it in many cases can be challenging if you don't have a transit option, if you have kids and all of that. And I totally get it. So don't feel bad about it. But if you can bike, bike, it's good for your health for you as a person. But if you can't, you can't. That's it. That's it. I love it.
AMW: And in one or two sentences, what would a sustainable future look like?
SM: Hopefully transitioning from fossil fuel in larger scale and then an environment that we don't have to destroy the nature to be able to work like that, where we can preserve the beauties around us but live in harmony with it itself, fulfill our needs and live our lives the way that we want. But don't. Just, like. Kind of. Push other type of, you know, species and all of that to be distinct. What we are trying to live our life and all of it like kind of like how we can better be better neighbors. to other creatures on the Earth I love it.
AMW: I love it very much. Saharnaz thank you very much for your time and for your patience and for joining me on this podcast.
SM: Thank you so much for inviting me Awoe
AMW: Okay, folks, that's it for this episode of Fostering Our Earth. I really hope you enjoy it and learn something new about what sustainable urban and community development looks like from the government perspective. For more, subscribe to the bi weekly newsletter where I continue our exploration of the various components of what this future can look like. You can also find Fostering Our Earth on Instagram. Don't forget to rate and review us wherever you're listening and feel free to hit me up if you have any thoughts. Until next time, keep fostering your today for a better future tomorrow.