Lynda Deschambault

photo of Lynda Deschambault

“When you go to city council meetings, you can invoke change. Whether it’s a carpool policy which alleviates traffic in your community, or a plastic bag ban which ends up changing the state, it’s empowering.”

Bio/Background

Lynda Deschambault is an environmental activist based in Contra Costa County, CA. A self-described “rabble-rouser,” Deschambault is the sitting executive director of Contra Costa County Climate Leaders (4CL), an organization which promotes sustainability and environmentally-friendly policies throughout the surrounding region. She previously worked for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and spent four years as an elected official in the Town of Muraga. She earned a dual undergraduate degree from the University of New Hampshire in Soil Science and Chemistry, and graduated with an MBA from California State University, Long Beach.

Understand the Scheduling Constraints of Local Elected Officials

Deschambault’s ability to communicate effectively with elected officials about environmental issues was strengthened enormously by her time as mayor of Muraga. Her tenure in government left her with realistic expectations about the amount of time and attention available to city leaders committed to sustainable policymaking.

“What people don’t realize is that most mayoral and city council positions are volunteer work: they’re not full-time jobs. When I was mayor of Muraga, I was working full-time at the EPA as an environmental scientist. I was managing a superfund site during the day and then at night I’d go to city council meetings and work on local policy. And, obviously, Muraga’s city council couldn’t focus solely on environmental issues. It also had to deal with policies related to the police force, fire department, and so forth.”

The Importance of Leadership

Deschambault underscores the need for strong, environmentally-friendly leadership, particularly in locations where sustainable policies have a history of being opposed. Indeed, opposition may mean that leadership turns over with greater frequency.

“Every city’s leaders are different. Sometimes the person in charge of environmental concerns is the mayor; in other places, it’s a city planner or a sustainability director.

“But there are also places in Contra Costa County where hardly anyone is interested in environmental policy. A good example of that is Danville. For a long time, the only people advocating for pro-environment change there were members of this group called Sustainable Danville. Unfortunately, the woman who started Sustainable Danville got burnt out because they actually started getting attacked by the Tea Party. The Tea Party would show up at city council meetings, and they were so vocal that Danville was only able to pass a voluntary climate action plan. It was very weak. And now, unfortunately, Danville really doesn’t have anybody serving as a leader on sustainability issues.”

Motivate Laggards with Examples

Yet even where activists encounter significant roadblocks, Deschambault believes that progress is possible. Once people see more examples of the positive outcomes experienced by places with sustainable policy portfolios, they are often more willing to re-consider their resistance to change.

“West Contra Costa County was starting to embrace climate action planning; we had some great success stories there. But the eastern part of the county didn’t even know what the terminology meant, much less what a greenhouse gas inventory was. I had to do a great deal of educational outreach to the city [of Danville], and show it examples of what other cities were doing to lead the way.”

Scale Up

Deschambault also stresses the importance of “thinking big”—forming regional alliances dedicated to the pursuit of an environmentally-friendly agenda. In fact, she points out that if enough cities join together to support a particular policy, it is possible that it will be enacted at the state and national levels, too.

“We ran a very successful campaign to ban plastic bags. I think we got nine of the cities in Contra Costa County to ban them. This was an important victory, because it meant that we joined 400 other cities in California with the same ban. They, in turn, collectively drove regulation to pass a statewide plastic bag ban.

“What you do at the local level has a good chance of becoming state law. And there’s a reason we have the saying, ‘So goes California, so goes the nation:’ California really can lead the nation in many ways.

“I feel very strongly that if you can take these conservative-leaning ‘red’ cities in Contra Costa County, and get them on-board with some of the more progressive cities in the Bay Area, then you have a great chance of helping pro-environment policies spread.”

Persistence Pays Off

Deschambault specifically identifies patience and persistence as important qualities for pro-environment activists to inculcate.

“We kept trying to pass an Integrated Pesticide Management (IPM) policy in Muraga. Our goal was to do away with the automatic spaying of Roundup on school grounds, and on the golf course.
“At the time of this campaign, I was the sitting mayor. And my friends—the IPM supporters—were going to the public comment hearings [at our city council meetings] to try and get this issue on the agenda. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get any movement on it from my fellow councilmembers. It was being ignored.

“So, I told the IPM supporters to bring a Power Point presentation with supporting ‘facts and figures’ the next time they came to a hearing. They did that about five times, and finally they got it on the agenda. This means that the sixth time they showed up, the IPM was actually on the agenda: we could now spend a good hour or so talking about it.

“Then, about halfway through the presentation, one of the councilmembers—who was a Chevron executive, and was someone who believes firmly in the need for pesticides—said, ‘I am so tired of hearing about your facts and figures and this IPM plan, I propose we just pass it tonight and move on because I don’t want to hear about it anymore.’ And he, personally, moved to approve it.

“I was dumbfounded. He was the councilmember most vehemently opposed to it. But this strategy of patient persistence, this commitment not to go away, meant that our IPM plan would not only be passed, but also go on to win a national award. Literally, thousands and thousands of gallons of roundup aren’t sprayed in Muraga anymore because of that plan.”

Speak Up

Because of experiences like this, Deschambault firmly believes in the average person’s ability to make a substantive difference in their community. On this note, she encourages all concerned citizens to attend city council meetings, ensuring that their voices are heard on matters of local legislation, and that their views are represented in the conversation.

“The most important thing people can do is go to their city council meeting, because every city council meeting begins with a public comment period. And you can bring up the same issue to your councilmembers repeatedly, during this period—as many times as you need to in order to get something done about it. Our team at 4CL goes to city council meetings every month or two. We go and we speak, we ask to be put on the agenda, and we bring up topics: we mix it up.

“When you go to city council meetings, you can invoke change. Whether it’s a carpool policy which alleviates traffic in your community, or a plastic bag ban which ends up changing the state, it’s empowering. Pick a topic; go back in three months. If you have to, go back in six months.”

Cities Matter

Finally, Deschambault cautions against underestimating the potential of city politics to create a positive “ripple effect” on the environment. In fact, she points out, many federal and state leaders began their career in sustainable policymaking by becoming involved in local affairs.

“People need to understand how important city politics are. I don’t think people realize how much begins at the city level—they think it’s boring. But that’s not how it is. Just think of Congressman Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA): he was the mayor of Concord when I was the mayor of Muraga, and now he’s making a difference at the national level.”