Valerie Sanchez Covaleda: My Summer with the City of Providence Office of Sustainability

By Valerie Sanchez Covaleda (CAS/CGS ’24). Valerie was the Initiative on Cities’ 2022 Providence, RI Justice Fellowship with the Office of Sustainability.

The Providence Justice Fellowship through the BU Initiative on Cities (IOC) was a really informative experience that I am grateful to have had the opportunity to complete. As a junior pursuing law as my eventual career, this aspect of justice drew me in when I saw the fellowship posted. Although I am not an environmental studies major, the topic of environmental justice is one that had come up in a few classes I’ve taken at BU, — and was one I became interested in — so I wanted to learn more about it. Being from Chicago, I’ve seen firsthand how apparent the need for environmental justice is in urban cities.

Valerie Sanchez Covaleda (‘24), Undergraduate, International Relations, Pardee School of Global Studies (CAS and CGS)

I was also excited about the idea of learning how change occurs on the local government level and seeing each step and carrying out the logistical process in order to get things done. Another part of the fellowship that drew me to apply was the mention of working with a Spanish-speaking community. Coming from a Spanish-speaking household and immigrant background, I looked forward to potentially working with a Latinx community in the area.

In my interview with Emily and Elder (Director of the Office of Sustainability and Climate Justice Policy Associate, respectively), they were passionate and inspired by the work they do, and they explained a little bit more about Providence’s Climate Justice Plan. I was impressed with Providence’s dedication to equity and sustainability, and the plan touched on so many aspects that I was touched by personally, such as the data on what demographics and communities were most vulnerable to health issues as a result of environmental injustice. I was overjoyed and excited to find out that after the final round of applying, I had been chosen as the recipient of the Fellowship.

My job was partially in person at Providence City Hall, so I commuted from Boston and got to explore and familiarize myself with Providence, RI. In the office, I was able to meet the entire team that worked in the Office of Sustainability, who all welcomed me and helped me learn more about their work and that of other departments nearby. My main assignment for the summer was to work with the Youth Climate Program awardees. These awardees were high school students in Providence who had applied and won a grant to create a plan to address solve an environmental justice issue and present it at a Youth Climate Summit. My job was to help the team of students brainstorm a project and help them execute it by managing the project budgets and contacting the relevant city departments, as well as external nonprofits and organizations, for their support and potential resources.

The students all came together to plan a project to spread awareness about zoning and environmental racism, and the goal was to make that information easily accessible and comprehensive for all communities in Providence. Throughout the summer, I learned so much about zoning and the impacts that unjust and outdated zoning can have on specific communities. Like many cities, Providence’s zoning effects primarily impacted vulnerable communities of color and low-income communities. The plan was to give community members a resource and a tool that they could use to learn more about how they are impacted by zoning in Providence, as well as what they could do to support the Climate Justice Plan and advocate for change in their neighborhoods. We ended up deciding that the most effective way to do this was through a story map website.

I learned how to use a program called ArcGIS to build an informative and interactive website from the ground up. I worked with the planning department and the ArcGIS manager of Providence in creating a website, as well as interactive maps that would display a variety of information. The goal of these maps was for residents to put in their address to view their neighborhood on an interactive map. On this map, they would be shown their neighborhood, the zoning code for their neighborhood, and information about the environmental and health impacts of living in the area. For example, some residents live next to an industrial zone, where factories and certain buildings emit harmful smoke and waste to nearby areas. Displayed impacts would include asthma, pulmonary disease, increased risk of cancer, etc. They would then be given information on what the city is doing to address these issues, as well as who they can contact to have their voices heard.

I developed several skills, specifically project management skills and I improved my communication skills when contacting so many different people. I gained a lot of new knowledge about environmental issues, as well as about how justice and inequality tie into that. I feel empowered learning about how change truly comes about, and I look forward to seeing how the tool we created continues to grow and develop, as well as how the Providence Climate Justice Plan continues to be implemented and put into action.

Overall, this was an incredibly valuable experience, and I’d like to once again thank the Providence Office of Sustainability and BU’s Initiative on Cities for this experience.