The View From Detroit: Fmr. White House Adviser Kerry C. Duggan on Local Capacity Building

Kerry C. Duggan

As Congress negotiates the size and scope of a federal infrastructure package, VX News interviews Kerry C. Duggan, former Obama White House official and energy, environment, climate, and distressed communities adviser to then Vice President Biden. Duggan, who spent 6.5 years embedded into Detroit City Hall to provide technical assistance to the city during and after its municipal bankruptcy in 2013, shares her insights into the importance of local capacity building and place-based policymaking in order to Build Back Better. Appointed by Governor Whitmer to Michigan’s Council on Climate Solutions, Duggan elaborates on how the climate crisis is impacting the Great Lakes and Michigan's role as a leader state in the fight against climate change.

Kerry, by way of beginning, there’s a wonderful article titled From Detroit to DC: Joe Biden’s Sustainability Coach at Work which chronicles your time as Deputy Director of Policy for then Vice-President Biden.  Given your present work and that you keynoted the USGBC-LA Municipal Green Building Conference & Expo on The Time is Now, what is different about NOW?

Kerry Duggan: What's different? There's been a huge shift in the landscape. We're still in a global pandemic, and the president views that as one part of a four-part crisis—from the events of last summer with the murder of George Floyd to the billion dollar disasters or impacts of climate change, and to something that I quite frankly think he's obsessed about: our aging national infrastructure. Fast forward to present day, and he's thankfully the president for the moment.

Biden is somebody who really has a command of the intersectionality of the issues of systemic and historic structural racism. I'm just thrilled to see the leadership in place to actually work on these issues because there's a lot going on between COVID, the economy, climate change, and systemic and structural racism.

This is our unique space and time to slingshot communities forward with the right leadership in place at the federal level and with great partners at the state and local level. The President's expertise at international diplomacy can be applied domestically as well; learning how to work together in true partnership is the work of the day.

Elaborate on your tenure with the Obama-Biden Administration and how that experience informs your current work in Detroit.

Some people call me crazy, but I had the distinct benefit of having two hats when I worked in the White House. I was the energy, environment, climate, and distressed communities’ adviser to then-Vice President Biden, and I was also part of a secondment in Detroit for 6.5 years. That was something I started when I was at the Department of Energy, which was really born out of President Obama's origin story as a community activist.

What he understood, and the hypothesis was, that if you embed your subject matter experts and embed capacity into places that are struggling, you might realize some really positive outcomes. The other way I like to say it is that not all good policy can be created in a vacuum in Washington, DC.

I think you'll see that reflected in this current administration's whole of government approach to dealing with climate. In particular, I'll point you to the commitment that they've made around Justice40, which is that 40 percent of the spend on climate must go to communities of color, low income, and environmental justice communities. While there's a lot of really fun and interesting climate tech stuff that gets a lot of the attention, what I try to talk about is how Justice40 is central and how build back better is really economic development through a lens of jobs and justice. And that's my perspective on what this leadership team is doing. It all goes right up to the top.  This is really who the president is, and this is the stuff he cares about.

Historically, infrastructure has been bipartisan, and while it doesn’t look to be the case this time around, as you suggested, we have a President who fully understands these issues from decades of experience. What then needs to happen to use the money that comes from Washington wisely based on all the mistakes we've made in the past in order to fully realize the potential of collaboration between federal and local communities?

Starting with bipartisanship, the President is known for being able to work across the aisle, and these are incredible times from a partisanship standpoint. He's got a good friend here in Congresswoman Debbie Dingell. I've always loved what she says, ‘there aren't Republican potholes and Democratic potholes, they're just potholes.’ She has partnered with Representative Upton to do more of this bipartisan work.  I really do applaud them because it's going to take leadership to get us back into conversation and in diplomacy with one another.

 I hope I'm not talking out of school here, but when I worked for President Biden, he would often say, ‘give me the best policy and let me handle the politics.’ As a policy advisor, your job is to get the policy right and do the best job you can, but remember he's been at this for some time; he’s seasoned.

I'm thinking about some of the partners who I've worked with in the last year, who have been having this conversation around new federalism. I'll point you to an article that was in Bloomberg by Rip Rapson, head of the Kresge Foundation, which was a key partner in that secondment program that I mentioned, where we had the federal government, philanthropy, business leaders, and municipal leaders coming together to really try make the resources flow to the places that are most needed in the most efficient manner. I think it's a real blessing to have folks like Gina McCarthy in the position she's in because not only is she going to be concerned with efficiency, in all of its meanings, but she's going to be keeping an eye on making sure that the communities that have typically been left out and locked out of these opportunities get to participate—again back to that Justice40 policy.

Regarding the need for local capacity building and place-based policymaking, are those left out and locked out communities presently up to the challenge?

In order to have that local/federal partnership, you have to build capacity. Let me tell you what I learned from the Detroit engagement and being embedded inside of City Hall before, during, and after that infamous municipal bankruptcy. I learned as a good federal policy person that you actually have to listen first and then provide capacity, technical assistance and subject matter expertise, in that order.

For example, there was one time I was in a meeting while the Secretary of Energy was in town with a bunch of municipal leaders from around the country trying to inform city leadership about the merits LED streetlights. At that meeting, the Chief Operating Officer of the city during the bankruptcy pulled me aside to say, ‘your technical assistance is more important to us than your money.’ That was a moment I will never forget.

There are other groups that are thinking through capacity building including the World Resources Institute and frankly some of the people going into the administration really do get this. And of course, leader cities like Los Angeles and leader states that have been part of keeping the torch lit during those dark years on climate leadership when we were out of the Paris Climate Agreement. So, a big hat tip to states and locals.

To best meet the local challenges of climate infrastructure and truly build back better, address the role of community-based foundations.

They can be a great resource to actually source the information about what's really happening on the ground. Second is building out the capacity, and that's what I'm seeing as a true need. Some parts of the country where the dogcatcher is also the mayor, they need some help, and it's not because they're not smart; it's because there's a lack of capacity. Where philanthropy can be helpful is encouraging and funding municipal capacity and helping to restore it in the places that need restoration. 

I think you'll find a willingness in this administration to really listen to what's going on. Secretary Granholm, whom I worked with not just when she was governor but since then, is really keen on building things, which you have to be when you're talking about reconstituting the energy grid. It is not something you can do out of Washington; you really have to know what's going on in different regions of the country.

Elaborate on how you're using ESG metrics to guide the decision making of both the public and private sectors.

ESG metrics are fascinating. I do a little bit of work—less on the administration side and more in the private sector—on ESG in a couple of ways. The age of transparency is here, and there's no getting away from it. There was a lot of groundwork done, even during those dark years, to really start embedding climate into government with anybody that had regulatory authority or otherwise and you're seeing the fruits of that play out right now.

What's changed between then and now in the private sector is that it's nonstop, 24/7 environment where a tweet can take you down, which is really a different time and place from when I was coming up. The green paint is being scraped off at a lot of companies and I think it's really exciting as a relatively young woman in this space, watching my colleagues have opportunities that they were locked out of. Companies really should concern themselves with transparency when they're going through their scope 1, scope 2, scope 3, thinking through their supply chains and who they partner with because there's room for scrutiny everywhere.

When General Motors first came out, more than a decade ago, with their electric car, there was pushback by the Republicans as to whether that was a dangerous precedent. Today, you have a Biden executive order mandating federal fleet electrification. Share what you've seen change in Michigan in terms of the auto industry and its commitment to electrification. What's new and different that we all should appreciate?

Leadership matters in making these key decisions. The current president, when he was the vice president, came to our famous Detroit Auto Show in 2017, and he actually had an electric vehicle in his motorcade. I had done the research with your outstanding colleague, Christine Harada, to find out that there hadn't been an electric car in a motorcade, at least publicly known, since 1902. The conversation back then was about range anxiety, so we decided it would be great if you can make a statement by putting an EV in a motorcade. Those little symbols, as I mentioned before, do actually make a difference.  The boss got it then, he gets it now. 

Culturally and trend-wise, it's not just about what's happening in Detroit, you have to look at what's happening globally. Having been back in Michigan a couple years now, I've been watching these conversations unfold. This is nothing new, but I think having leadership committed not only to the industry, the people, and the jobs, but also the place. We still have plenty of work to do to maintain our leadership posture, and I know that the President will be coming here to shine a spotlight on us.

What are the issues that dominate the climate agenda of Michigan and Detroit?

So, if we were on camera, I'd be holding up my hand—because that's what every Michigander does—and I'd be pointing to our coasts. We've had the highest lake water levels in the Great Lakes states historically, and the latest news is don't expect them to be going down. So, we have a lot of coastal erosion, we have flooding in folks’ basements, and it's pervasive statewide.

So those are some of the climate impacts, but then you also have to remember there's plenty of man-made presence too. You mentioned Flint, and last I checked, we're still number one in PFAS contamination in the U.S.

Then you go to the southeast and my dear friend, Catherine Flowers, who I worked with on the Unity Task Force last summer, she just put out a book called, Waste, uncovering what's going on in terms of really basic infrastructure that's absent in many parts of the country. If you go around the country, you can see the vulnerability and again, tying all four of these crises back together, COVID has exposed the public health side of things but also labor, the economy, and the lack of access to broadband in rural communities. It's just a once in a generation opportunity to get things right across a variety of key areas in our society.

Michigan borders Canada and an auto industry in Ontario with very close ties to the industries of Michigan. Has that relationship been altered by the pandemic and the barriers that have been put in place? And, what's that relationship likely to be going forward?

It is a major important trade route. I'm looking out from Detroit at the world, and we're doing a ton of work here on our river. They just cut the ribbon on the last bit of boardwalk that's going to go between the Ambassador Bridge— the one that leads to Canada— and our Belle Isle bridge, which goes to our park in the middle of the Detroit River. 

There's a very special time happening here in the Great Lakes where people are actually recognizing that we sit on 20 percent of the world's fresh surface water. We have a deep seeded history; all roads lead back to Detroit. Given what I said at the beginning of the interview here, the intersection of environmental justice and the spend on ‘build back better’ is all going to come together and help celebrate that rich history here in Michigan. 

Kerry—a quick Rorschach test: “California!”  How are California climate policies and investment priorities perceived in Michigan?

Clearly, California is a leader state, but so is Michigan, so I would point you to the US Climate Alliance and the states leading there. I have great colleagues like Kate Gordon, who's in a really important role there. We're all good friends, and we're all on the same boat called 'Earth'. You've got great policy leaders, past and present, but I will just tell you, California, that we're the North Coast, and we have nice sunsets too.

Lastly, elaborate on your current work and the firm you’ve built, SustainabiliD.

I'm a policy wonk originally, so when I left the White House, I hung my own shingle at the advice of some really smart people. I'm loud and proud about  Detroit and Michigan as they are central to the story of the country from the Arsenal of Democracy to Motown. So, I'm very excited to be back here and really digging in.

My firm is a sustainability and strategy practice, and since I've been back I've had the distinct honor of being named to Governor Whitmer’s Council on Climate Solutions, so it’s really a continuation of my public service while I also am active in the private sector.


"What [President Obama] understood, and the hypothesis was, that if you embed your subject matter experts and embed capacity into places that are struggling, you might realize some really positive outcomes.
“Not all good policy can be created in a vacuum in Washington, DC, [and] I think you'll see that reflected in this current administration's whole of government approach to dealing with climate.”