When Nahal Ghoghaie began her career in environmental justice, she advocated for vulnerable communities from the outside as a consultant. Now Ghoghaie elevates their voices from the inside, as the first Environmental Justice Manager for the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), a state agency that regulates shoreline use in the San Francisco Bay.
“This is a step in the right direction for government agency efforts to protect front-line communities,” Ghoghaie says.
The people most vulnerable to sea level rise in the Bay include those of color, very low income, limited English and little formal education. Ghoghaie’s six years of experience with Bay Area community engagement make her a perfect fit for building connections between BCDC and underrepresented people. “There are a lot of trust issues with government in vulnerable communities,” she says.
Likewise, Ghoghaie’s background in environmental studies, including a master’s degree with a focus on watershed management, makes her a natural fit with BCDC. “I’m excited by the work,” she says. “I get to be involved in big planning efforts like nature-based solutions for climate change, which I love.”
She also loves creating BCDC’s environmental justice program. It’s a big job for one person, and she draws inspiration and support from monthly calls with her counterparts at other agencies such as the Coastal Commission and the Ocean Protection Council. “We network and share ideas, updates and resources,” she says.
Ghoghaie is off to an outstanding start. In just two years — which included five months of maternity leave — she has laid the foundation for making social equity as integral to BCDC decision-making as ecological health and water quality. Her first step was recruiting a six-member advisory committee of Bay Area environmental justice leaders. She credits her boss, BCDC planning director Jessica Fain, with greenlighting the program.
That said, Ghoghaie is committed to fair compensation for the time and effort it takes community leaders to advance environmental justice, and BCDC lacked funding to pay advisory committee members. “It’s a barrier to community engagement,” she explains. So, after a year of trying, she secured funding on her own from the Resources Legacy Fund, a Sacramento-based nonprofit devoted to environmental justice and the natural world.
BCDC’s requirements for those seeking permits for shoreline projects include “meaningful community engagement” but, as Ghoghaie points out, that’s on the vague side. Her committee of Environmental Justice (EJ) Advisors is helping the agency formalize this requirement into a set of best practices. This process is more involved than it might sound, and requires patience and dedication on both sides.
Before arriving at best practices for incorporating community engagement into permitting, BCDC’s EJ advisors need to understand how the process works. Ghoghaie is currently developing a workshop where BCDC permit analysts will explain their procedures to the EJ advisors.
With the caveat that the committee has yet to propose best practices for community engagement, Ghoghaie says one possibility is to encourage permit applicants to fairly compensate participating community members for their time and contributions. Another possibility is asking permittees to go beyond outreach to partnering with community-based organizations on projects.
Some project proponents are concerned that incorporating environmental justice into BCDC’s permitting could initially slow an already lengthy process. However, Ghoghaie says, the payoff will be substantial. “The process will be faster as we build relationships, raising awareness of the issues and establishing trust,” she says.
For more information, visit BCDC’s Environmental Justice and Social Equity Bay Plan Amendment Fact Sheet, Community Vulnerability Mapping and Environmental Justice Advisors webpages.