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Better Policies Without the Politics

Localized, humanized information: How regional policy centers can drive change.
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San Diego Downtown, photo from the Equinox Center

Once strongly opposed, the City of San Diego has recently opened its very own recycled water purification facility.

Photo from the Equinox Center

If someone told you that chemicals known as PBDEs are building up in the environment throughout the United States, how urgently would you want to do something about it? What if you heard that 100 percent of nursing mothers studied in your region were found to have breast milk contaminated with toxic flame retardants? Which information would motivate you to immediate, decisive action?

In the Pacific Northwest in late 2004, both of these statements were found to be true. By 2007, the state of Washington had implemented the strongest regulation in the country against use of PBDEs—toxic flame retardants—and several other states had banned their use.

What caused this sea change? Simply put, better data and a finesse for words.

Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based, non-partisan sustainability think tank, was behind the study. Sightline’s strategy was to communicate, in a powerfully human way, the importance of better policies to address pollution in the region. “We felt that testing for contamination in actual human bodies was both more powerful and more meaningful than looking at air, water, or mollusks,” said Clark Williams-Derry, Sightline’s Director of Programs.

Sightline’s founders recognized that crafting a more sustainable future for the region would best be achieved by advancing better locally oriented information, framed through a humanized lens. The organization was also an early promoter of the perspective that a healthy environment and prosperous economy are not in discord, but mutually dependent.

Today, as communities throughout the United States grapple with the dual challenge of economic rebuilding and improved environmental quality in a politically charged atmosphere, one wonders: could this approach be replicable nationwide?

This month, the City of San Diego will mark the grand opening of its first recycled water purification facility, a significant step toward reducing the region’s economically and environmentally unsustainable dependence on imported water from Northern California and the Colorado River. Just three years ago, San Diego’s City Council, mayor, and leading local newspaper editorial board were vociferously opposed to the very notion of recycled drinking water.

Here again, a sea change has occurred. The catalyst? Once again, better data.

Equinox Center, a non-partisan, not-for-profit policy research and communications center, was founded in 2008 in San Diego County. The organization works to advance policy solutions for the San Diego region to achieve a more prosperous economy, healthy environment, and outstanding quality of life for all its residents. Like Sightline, one of Equinox Center’s fundamental tenets is the recognition that a prosperous economy and healthy environment are mutually reinforcing.

At the same time, Equinox Center was shaped by its own community. It was founded by a group of community members united through a shared value: the desire to preserve the region’s exceptional quality of life for future generations. Early on, questions emerged: what comprises quality of life in San Diego? How can it be measured? What levers can be pulled to affect it? With input from local residents, business leaders and community groups, Equinox Center identified growth challenges for the San Diego region: water, transportation, land use, energy, and a clean economy and decided to take an integrated approach, looking across these interrelated topics. Rather than playing the role of activist, Equinox works to drive better decision making by providing objective yet humanized data about these issues.

The approach has resonated. In just two years since its first staff member was hired, Equinox Center’s work has garnered more than 40 TV news segments and media articles, and is financially supported by community members and corporations from across the political spectrum.

Despite their political dissimilarities (San Diego is more centrist than the left-leaning Pacific Northwest), the model for both Equinox Center and Sightline Institute is guided by the same basic principles.

First, a simple truth about human nature: while most people do indeed care about environmental issues, often it isn’t until those issues are humanized and framed through the lens of their local community that the public feels connected and motivated enough to take action. (In contrast, who doesn’t feel paralyzed at times by the sheer scope and complexity of problems facing us on a global scale?)

And while partisan attacks put policy makers on the defensive, verifiable data and usable, balanced solutions are music to their ears. But it doesn’t end there. Just as Sightline learned through its study of pollution in its region, data alone fall flat. Data communicated through local, human stories, however, can be revolutionary.

We achieve much more by listening to other people’s needs, and providing a value-added platform for them to solve problems, than we ever would by simply trying to do everything ourselves.For Equinox Center, that means collaborating with others, gathering great research wherever we can find it, and providing accessible analysis and ideas for others to use in their own efforts—be they policy makers, business leaders, community groups, or engaged citizens. Delivering them better information advances everyone’s objectives for a better future.

It also means thinking truly long-term. As such, Equinox Center has realized that a vital part of its role must be to engage and nurture the next generation of leaders.

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We have also learned that being accepted as unbiased means offering all perspectives a seat at the table. Equinox Center’s board of directors is deliberately and necessarily diverse; every person in the region should be able to say: “yes, my viewpoint is represented there.”

Of course, the ultimate test of both Equinox Center and Sightline Institute’s true impact in their regions will reveal itself over decades, not years. But the beauty is that each organization’s own data will provide the best measure of success.

This “regional policy center” model will surely be fine-tuned over time. And meanwhile, if just a handful of individuals in some other community have the right mix of optimism, resourcefulness, and audacity to believe there is a better path forward for their region, who knows where it might pop up next?


Aaron Contorer author picAaron Contorer is a software executive and chairman of the board of Equinox Center, a San Diego-based not-for-profit, nonpartisan research and policy center founded in 2008 dedicated to helping the San Diego region craft an intelligent future. He previously served for eight years on the board of Sightline Institute. Founder of the Contorer Foundation, he has been actively involved in the sustainability movement on the U.S. West Coast for more than 15 years.

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