Prioritizing climate and equity: Can Bibb’s new sustainability director get it done?

Sarah O’Keeffe, Cleveland’s new Director of Sustainability and Climate Justice has a long list of environmental priorities to tackle, including removing lead pipes that supply water throughout the city, and transitioning the city government to 100% renewable energy by 2030.
This new electric vehicle is part of the city’s growing EV fleet. (Courtesy City of Cleveland)

In September, Sarah O’Keeffe was installed by Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb as the Director of Sustainability and Climate Justice. While six months passed between the date he took office and the announcement, causing the city’s annual Sustainability Summit to be pushed off to 2023, Bibb’s addition of “Climate Justice” to the 13-year-old cabinet position signals the administration’s ambitions to make environment, social equity, and economic opportunity a priority. 

O’Keeffe, who comes from stints leading sustainability departments at University Hospitals and MetroHealth, where she steered the “green” aspects of the $1.5 billion campus rebuild taking shape on West 25th Street, has a long list of responsibilities in her new position. Her central task is figuring out how to translate Bibb’s sustainability priorities into specific programs that meet environmental goals, and to build on accomplishments like the LEED for Cities Silver designation, a win for her predecessor.

Bibb’s goals include the big and audacious, such as a call to transition the city’s energy supply to 100% renewable sources (wind and solar) by 2030 and establishing a $100 million fund to remove lead pipes that supply water throughout the city. Others seem to be placeholders, like Sustainable Transportation, The Built Environment, Nature Based Solutions, and Stormwater Management. 

At the same time, Jackson handed Bibb specific plans like the Circular Economy Roadmap, and though city council has yet to endorse it, O’Keeffe anticipates naming a full-time staff person to lead the charge on the ideas to build a new economy of recycling, repair, and reuse activities. Advocates also cheered the mayor’s decision to establish an urban forestry commission – tree commissions have helped some communities, like Lakewood, establish a process to inspect trees before they are removed – while also waiting to see how the initiative plays out, as the region is still losing trees faster than it is replacing them. 

In September, Sarah O’Keeffe was installed as Mayor Bibb’s Director of Sustainability and Climate Justice. (Courtesy City of Cleveland)

Environmental advocates hope for equitable action

After more than a decade of Frank Jackson’s leadership, Bibb has an opportunity to redefine sustainability as a means to achieve greater social equity. “We have a lot of plans that have been vigorously created with community members,” O’Keeffe said of the administration’s focus on climate justice. “How do we take all of that and put it under the umbrella of climate and make it a just transition?” 

Crystal Davis, vice president of policy and strategic engagement at the Alliance for the Great Lakes, an environmental nonprofit group, cites the Sustainable Cleveland summits and Climate Action Plan under Mayor Frank Jackson as starting points. “It’s now time to move beyond talks and get to action,” she said. 

The Alliance teamed up with other organizations, like the Ohio Environmental Council and Black Environmental Leaders, to publish a policy paper on the environmental community’s priorities. Davis said everyday concerns like water affordability and removing hundreds of miles of lead pipes buried under the streets in the city are “prevalent” issues, ones that the mayor indicated he supports.

“(Bibb) appointed a ‘lead czar’ which is great, something we need in order to coordinate the interagency conversations about lead that occurs in water, paint, and soil and to move forward,” said Davis. A water affordability program and a mass mobilization effort to enroll low-income Cleveland residents, Davis says, are other examples of what activists are calling for: environmental justice.

Davis credits Bibb for having small-group conversations with business leaders and community activists during his transition from candidate to mayor to come up with his list of environmental priorities. She urged the city to create more conversations with residents about what they see as their priorities. 

As part of Circular Cleveland, the Sears think[box] (4th Mondays) and the Cuyahoga County Solid Waste District (2nd Saturdays) are hosting Fix-it CLE Repair Workshops each month. The women from Oh Sew Powerful (Paula Coggins, NaDine Matlock, and Suszanne Hawthorne-Clay; Circular Cleveland grant recipients) show up at each workshop with their sewing machines and supplies and teach participants how to sew. (Courtesy City of Cleveland)

Balancing priorities 

Bibb has joined a chorus of Democrats nationally who expect the influx of economic activity to address the harm done to marginalized communities. Recently, the Biden administration and Congress opened up federal coffers with the Inflation Reduction Act (I.R.A.), which is set to offer billions of dollars in tax incentives to develop renewable energy. Under the administration, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is also launching an Environmental Justice Office. 

O’Keeffe, a Cleveland Heights resident who once aspired to be a commercial airline pilot and taught English in Japan before returning to Cleveland, is aware of the call from activists to focus simultaneously on low-income households and big commitments like the new administration’s goal to transition Cleveland to 100% renewable energy by 2030. That goal, which won’t be ratified until the city updates its climate action plan in 2023, according to O’Keeffe, would be more aggressive than nearby cities of Euclid, Cleveland Heights, and Shaker Heights, which have each set their sights on 30% renewable energy by 2030. 

“Our role is to help figure out how to make that happen, working in partnership with leaders in Cleveland,” she said.  O’Keeffe plans to build from the momentum the city already has. For example, she points to a $100,000 grant program for low-to-moderate income Cleveland residents that will subsidize the cost of solar panel installation – a program that marries the twin concerns of renewable energy and meeting community needs.

Similarly, reducing the city’s reliance on fossil fuels can also advance the move towards renewable energy. Cleveland air quality has historically failed to meet U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, the city is ranked as the #2 asthma capital because of its higher-than-average asthma rates and complications. Starting small, the Office of Sustainability will look at reducing the energy consumed by city operations before tackling the mayor’s goal of eliminating fossil fuels entirely from their supply, says O’Keeffe, who adds that it is her job to pursue federal grants to continue funding projects that reduce energy use in city buildings and clean the air, such as a piece of the $1.5 Billion urban forest replanting program in the I.R.A.

O’Keeffe’s office will also coordinate with federal moves towards climate equity. 

“We are tying into what the U.S. Department of Energy does with its Justice 40 program and our racial equity tool to look at those who have worked in carbon heavy industries and experienced trauma around lead and transportation systems and energy,” she said, referring to the White House’s commitment to ensuring that disadvantaged communities receive the benefits of federal investments in environmental programs. “We need to be able to understand what happened to them and have a workforce development (program) that provides a job and health benefits.”

When pressed for specifics on how the city will focus its resources to generate jobs in the environment, O’Keeffe says that Bibb is “very interested in working on how (city owned utility, Cleveland Public Power) can be a driver of the green economy.” Local food and increasing access to vacant land is another example O’Keeffe cites could be a driver of economic activity. Likewise, the city has thousands of vacant properties on its tax roll, which is why Cleveland applied for and won a spot in an economic development program led by the Sorenson Impact Center called Putting Assets to Work. O’Keeffe says the city will use the opportunity to focus on “tying the circular economy into the reuse of buildings. We’re (also) assessing vacant land.” 

Cathi Lehn, Sustainable Cleveland Manager for the city, participated as a partner of the Rainey Institute’s Civic Circles this summer. She worked with 4th graders for five weeks around the topic of reducing plastic waste. (Courtesy City of Cleveland)

Revving up the circular economy

A combination of dreaming big and persistence served O’Keeffe well at MetroHealth as the hospital spent the better part of a year finding takers for used furniture and medical equipment and recycling structural material instead of sending it to the landfill. It earned the hospital recognition and, in a roundabout way, O’Keeffe hints that it could serve as an example to another of the Bibb Administration’s priorities – reducing the environmental impact of the built environment, a key tenet of the Circular Cleveland project.

“Wouldn’t it be great if you could plan right from the beginning and accomplish what we did to a certain degree,” she said about MetroHealth starting a year in advance of construction to find a new home for 60,000 pounds of furniture and equipment and recycling 11,181 pounds of concrete and steel when it took down a building at the site of its new visitor garage and outpatient center. O’Keeffe hints that the Circular Economy project could stimulate a market for what is deconstructed. “We can’t just deconstruct and put it in warehouses. In a circular economy, we shorten the cycle between deconstruction (and reuse).”

Meanwhile, in another waste-reduction move, Bibb’s recent announcement of the formation of a nonprofit organization to run the West Side Market provided an opening for those heading up Circular Cleveland and members of his transition team to follow through on a commitment from the Jackson Administration – a pilot composting program at the Market. 

“It will show us at the city what a large-scale public program looks like,” O’Keeffe says, adding that the contract for composting vendor, Rust Belt Riders, is scheduled to be voted on by City Council on November 7th. “A lot of organizations have composting. This will be much more in the public eye.” 

How it all ties together and has influence at City Hall may depend on O’Keeffe demanding a seat at many tables, the Alliance’s Davis says. 

“I definitely think the Office of Sustainability can’t stay in a silo,” she said. “It has to be a transformational office that works with other offices to put forth sustainability. Also, what are the cities like us doing? What hasn’t worked, so we can avoid those roads. We have to have conversations with other partners, to work collaboratively and be innovative.” 

In a nod to removing sustainability from its silo, the Office moved from a storefront in Tower City to Erieview Plaza. While Sustainability reports directly to the mayor, it is co-located with the city’s Department of Public Health, Urban Analytics, and Prevention/Intervention office. A move that was initiated by Jackson, O’Keeffe is discussing the crossover potential with the Division of Air Quality of a project to plant clover instead of bentgrass on vacant lots, which, she says, would mean less gas-powered mowing by city crews. Their offices are interested in how the built environment affects health, O’Keeffe says, citing the heat vulnerability map from the 2018 climate action plan. They are interested in building on the data of who will be most affected by increasing heat waves and devise a way to reduce what are known as the heat island effect of urbanized areas.

O’Keeffe said she has a great respect and love for what the Sustainability Summits have accomplished, and how they brought together an inclusive cross-section of nonprofit and business leaders, funders, youth, and schools. Though the city decided to not hold a summit this year, breaking a streak that lasted 13 years, O’Keeffe anticipates an announcement for the date of a 2023 summit to come before the end of 2022. The Summit is only the beginning of creating a new direction for Cleveland.

“The opportunity for us right now is to turn that lens internally on the city,” she said, “and to refine plans to the North Star of what Mayor Bibb is trying to accomplish in making Cleveland a leader in climate.”

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article misstated the date Sarah O’Keeffe was installed and the timing of the Sustainability Office’s move to Erieview Plaza.

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