Interview with Jared DeWese, Senior Communications Advisor at Third Way

Interview with Jared DeWese, Senior Communications Advisor at Third Way

With 68% of Americans saying that climate change will play a very or somewhat important role this election, does Joe Biden’s plan sufficiently address environmental injustices? According to Jared DeWese, Senior Communications Advisor for Third Way, Joe Biden’s plan, which commits to invest 40% of clean energy money in historically disadvantaged communities, is “absolutely incredible & a great starting point for addressing these issues…This goes to the third critical takeaway from our black Americans & climate change qualitative research.”

Jared also provides five specific ways that African Americans can become more involved in the clean energy industry, particularly as they are 79% more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where industrial pollution is suspected of posing the greatest health danger.

Listen to our full discussion: Check out the findings from Third Way’s report, ‘Black Americans Care About Climate Change (But It’s Complicated)’:


Catherine: I’m Cathryn McLean founder and CEO of Dylan Green, and today I have with me Jared DeWese, Senior Communications Advisor at the Climate Energy Program at Third Way. Welcome Jared.

Jared: Hi Catherine. Thank you for having me.

Catherine: So you’ve got an impressive background from working on Hillary Clinton’s campaign as an organizer to becoming senior communications advisor for the center left D.C-based think tank Third Way. What do you think was the most significant contributing factor to your career success? The reason why I ask is because I think it’s important for people to know how you’ve had such a successful career, and how they can follow in your footsteps.

Jared: Absolutely, well first of all, thank you again for having me and thank you for saying I have an impressive background. I have a pretty unorthodox journey toward Third Way, but I think part of the reason why I’ve had the success that I’ve had has been a lot of diligence and willingness to ask for help. My undergraduate degree is in theater, and I thought I wanted to be an actor when I was twenty-two years old. I found out that I may have had the talent, but I didn’t really have the ambition to stick around and be an actor-waiter. I had an internship in undergrad for Capitol Hill, capitolville for a blue dog member John Spratt, and I absolutely loved it. I probably should have followed that trail. But I didn’t know a whole lot at the time, and I thought I wanted to be an actor. I found that I didn’t really enjoy that. I found myself really drawn to a lot of communications positions in New York. And then when I moved to D.C. about eight years ago, I found that you really had to know someone in the political space to get into the political space. And I didn’t really know anyone when I first moved here, and so I had to really ask a lot of my friends for help. I also had to take the next step of getting the educational background and the professional experience to really break into the space that I wanted to work in. I went to grad school at American and studied political communications. I talked to my professors a lot, stayed after class, scheduled weekend meetings with folks, a lot of coffees, and just was willing to admit the things that I didn’t know. And willing to ask for help, and I think that’s really a huge part of it for me.

Catherine: I want to talk a little bit about Third Way in their work regarding race and environmental justice. Can you talk about their recent report “Black Americans Care About Climate Change But It’s Complicated”. What other critical takeaways that you have?

Jared: Absolutely. So I led the research effort on that particular project, and we did qualitative research in February of this year prior to the pandemic, and prior to the most recent push for environmental and economic justice. We did three focus groups. Three sets of focus groups: one in Detroit, Michigan; another in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and the last in Greensboro, North Carolina. There were three major takeaways that we found.
The first is something that we all know. That Black Americans care about climate change, and that’s something we’ve seen in quantitative research from Yale as well as from The Environmental Defense Fund. However, in our research, we found that there were other issues that were a bit more salient for Black Americans than climate change. And those were health care, education, racism. However, when we pushed respondents on some of these issues and connected the dots to climate change, they found the connection from climate change to health care. They found the connection from racism to climate change. And we started to kind of form the introduction of the notion of environmental racism. So some of the participants understood that “in my neighborhood I don’t breathe as easy as I do when I go into white wealthier neighborhoods”. And a lot of them lived near petrochemical plants, and started to ask “why is it that I live near a petrochemical plant and white wealthier members of my community don’t?”
The second critical takeaway we found was that no one was talking to them about climate change except during election season. This was in the middle of a heated Democratic primary. So they said, “I’m hearing about it, and people are talking about it, but only right now.” I think that needs to be a lot more organizing and political effort in the off season.
The third major takeaway was that Black Americans don’t feel that clean energy resources are going to reach their communities. Nor do they think they’ll have access to the opportunities in a clean energy transition. And that to me was the most critical one. We talked to a woman in Detroit, and Detroit is known as the auto manufacturing capital of the country, and a lot of Black Americans reached the middle class in the middle of the 20th century through the auto manufacturing industry in that city. However, only one woman in one group drove an electric vehicle, and she only did so because of her job. And she said, “even when I drive this car, I have to go way across town to charge it because there’s no charging infrastructure in my neighborhood”. There was another woman in another group who said, “I work at a university, and I hear about clean energy job training. But I don’t hear about it when I go home to my community, and nor do I think it’ll filter to that community.”
Early this morning, I had breakfast with a fraternity brother of mine, and he works at a federal agency, and he asked me about subsidized housing in D.C. I said, “I know that it exists, but I don’t think it’ll reach the people who really need it.” I sometimes think that’s intentional, and sometimes I think that it’s just that it doesn’t filter to the community. And so there’s a lack of empowerment, and there is active disempowerment of communities in getting that information.

Catherine: I want to talk on the same thread about environmental justice in DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion). So an Associated Press analysis shows that Black Americans are 79% more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where industrial pollution is suspected of posing the greatest health dangers, as you were discussing. Additionally, Yale found that Hispanics and Latinos are 69% and African Americans 57% more likely to be alarmed or concerned about global warming than are whites at 49%. What do you think are some ways that African Americans can become more involved in the clean energy industry, particularly in light of these facts?

Jared: Absolutely, that’s a great question. I think there are five opportunities. I think the first is to become more educated about the environmental impacts in your own community, and I think that’s for all Americans. If you live in a white, predominantly white enclave find out what’s happening in the black community next to you, and how you can be a part of the solution as opposed to a part of the problem. But for Black Americans, I think it’s incumbent upon us to find out what’s happening in our communities. Find out why your air is dirtier than the white community a few streets down. Find out what’s going on that petrochemical plant down the street from you. Find out why it’s zoned in your neighborhood. Find out reasons why highways are built through your neighborhood, and not other neighborhoods. I think that’s especially critical.
I think the second thing would be organizing, and that goes back into becoming educated about what’s happening in your community. Organize with a local environmental justice group in your neighborhood, and if there isn’t one, create one on your own.
I think the third thing is to seek employment in a climate and clean energy policy space, or even in a clean energy business. There are so few of us who work in the climate and clean energy policy space, and there are even fewer who work in the clean energy industry. So seek out that employment and seek out that training to get into those industries.
I think the fourth thing is running for office. I think that if there’s no one that looks like you, that represents you, then maybe you should be that person. It reminds me of Jim Clyburn who’s the Majority Whip for the House of Representatives. I’m from South Carolina originally, and I remember one of his early ads when I was a kid. In the ad, he said he was riding down the street with his grandmother and there was a tree in the middle of the road, and he said, “somebody ought to go remove that tree out of the middle of the road”. And his grandmother said, “You’re somebody. You do it.” My grandmother looked at me, and she said, “You’re somebody, you do it.” And so I think that’s really important that more people of color, especially women run for office.
And the fifth thing is, and this is a more partisan thing. I think we have to vote for Democrats. Right now the unfortunate thing is that there’s only one party that is pushing for addressing the climate crisis, and also addressing environmental injustice and environmental racism, and that’s the Democratic party. The more Democrats that we vote for, the more likely that we are going to see those policies in place.

Catherine: One thing I’m curious about that we haven’t mentioned is schools. Not just schools like high schools, like career counselors knowing about clean energy as an opportunity for students to go into that field. But also what about continuous job training so vo-tech type of institutions. What are your thoughts on that?

Jared: I think that’s incredibly important. I think there needs to be more investment in that. I think the key to that is making sure that we have more people of color who are mentoring people into those industries, and who are aware. So there’s education at all levels. I think there is an absence of black guidance counselors in high school, and an absence of black career counselors broadly. And so if there are more people, and I mean this goes really to Black people in positions of authority and Hispanic folks in positions of authority. If I know my community, and I know that there are people that I can get into these industries, and I’m gonna reach out a hand and pull them in. I think that’s the opportunity.

Catherine: My next question is around Third Ways work in advanced nuclear. So I wasn’t actually, when we had our intro call, aware of advanced nuclear. I have to admit, you were educating me a bit on it. So it’d be interesting to hear more about why you have decided to focus on that, and what it is for people that may not know.
Jared: Third Way started in 2005. Our climate and energy program started in 2009, and when we started the entire climate crisis conversation was about 100% renewables. But the problem around a 100% renewable strategy is that we haven’t scaled up the renewables enough to get to zero emissions in this country. There were a few organizations that were focused on other zero-carbon technologies. So we decided to focus on those other technologies to work on advanced nuclear. Advanced nuclear solves many of the problems of the previous generation of nuclear, particularly around waste and security. Our previous generation of nuclear is over fifty years old? Can you imagine if there was any technology around, if your cell phone was over fifty years old. Would you still use that? And while it’s still important to advocate for the existing fleet because it’s 20% of our existing carbon-free technology power in this country. Without it, we wouldn’t have very much carbon-free power in this country. It’s important that we keep what we can online. But when those plants are being decommissioned or coming offline, we’re seeing a lot of them replaced by natural gas and a lot of them being replaced by coal-fired power. That’s a problem, because emissions will go up. We advocate for advanced nuclear because it’s carbon-free, it solves a lot of problems of the previous generation, and it can be a replacement for decommissioned plants as opposed to fossil fuels.

Catherine: What is advanced nuclear?

Jared: They’re smaller reactors. They provide a lot more power than our previous fleet, so it’s essentially nuclear. The waste is more self-contained than the previous generation, and it solves a problem of security that the previous generation has experienced before.

Catherine: That’s what I found really interesting when we were speaking is that when people think of nuclear it’s all doom and gloom. So I like that part of it where it was a lot safer from what you were saying.

Jared: A whole lot safer. We’re seeing a lot more projects than we started. When we started tracking the industry in 2015, there were only about forty-some odd projects in North America. Now there’s over 80. And around the globe, it’s really important that we get to commercialization because Russia and China are really racing to get theirs to commercialization, and we really want to be ahead of that game. We’re seeing a lot of projects in West Africa which is great because there’s a lot of energy poverty in West Africa. And advanced nuclear really helps in communities like that.

Catherine: The last question I have is around the presidential campaign. So polls have shown that climate is increasingly important in the upcoming presidential campaign. Do you think this could be the topic that tipped the scales in the election in favor of Biden, and do you think Biden’s environmental justice platform is sufficient?

Jared: That’s a great question. I think that there are a lot of young folks that this is going to tip the scales for. We’re seeing polling in young people that this is a single issue for them. Even young Republicans are moving, trying to move the Republican party on this issue. I think that there is a significant portion of the electorate that it could push for. Obviously, we’re living in the middle of a pandemic where that is the major issue, so we can’t discount that. But I do think a second issue is climate. The first presidential debate of this general election cycle was the first time we heard a question about climate since 2008. And that was only one question in the first debate between Barack Obama and John McCain. In the two competing town halls, we saw questions around climate change, and in this last debate was the first time that environmental racism was brought up in a debate, period. So I do think Joe Biden’s environmental justice plan is awesome. It’s absolutely incredible, and it is a great starting point for addressing these issues. Is it going to be complete? We don’t know yet, but I do know that they’re going to be a lot of environmental justice and climate advocates in, I hope, in the Biden administration who are going to keep pushing the needle on this issue.
There are three really great components to the Biden plan that I think people should really know about. The first is there’s mandatory monitoring in frontline and fenceline communities, and we heard the former vice president talk about this in the last debate. It was the first time that fence line communities have been brought up in the election cycle, and so people were googling it. and I know people in the environmental justice community were so excited about hearing that. because that’s going to push the needle as more and more people learn about these issues.
The second one was tackling water pollution, and we know this has been a huge issue since even in the Obama administration. It’s in Joe Biden’s plan.
The third thing is providing low income and communities of color preference in competitive grant programs, and it commits to 40% investment in clean energy and disadvantaged communities. And this goes to kind of the third critical takeaway from our Black Americans and climate change qualitative research is that no one is seeing these resources in their communities, and here’s Joe Biden’s plan committing to a 40% investment in those communities. That’s huge.

Catherine: Well fingers crossed. By the time this airs, it will be in the midst of the election pandemonium. I can only imagine what we have in store, but we’ll wait and see.

Jared: A lot of sleepless nights until then.

Catherine: Exactly. Well, thank you so much for joining me, Jared. It was great speaking with you and learning about your work at Third Way.

Jared: Thank you so much, Catherine.