Sam Allard / Scene
Ayat Amin at Phoenix Coffee in Ohio City, (7/8/21).
When Ayat Amin moved to Cleveland in 2019 as part of the Venture for America program, she immediately scoured the region for climate activism organizations where she could lend her passion and expertise.
A data scientist who'd previously worked for three years in California, Amin, 27, got involved with both Clevelanders for Public Transit and Black Environmental Leaders, an organization that works to improve diversity and equity in the environmental movement.
Her work in those organizations demonstrated the striking gap, in Cleveland, between the strong policy work at the grassroots level and the weak advocacy from elected leaders.
"There was never city support for the work [these organizations] are doing unless they could suddenly get credit for it," Amin said.
Now, she's running for Cleveland City Council in Ward 3
. And she's doing so specifically to shine a light on the urgent need for bolder and more comprehensive environmental policy at the city level.
"I was hoping someone in this election cycle would run and bring up these issues," she said, "but it just wasn't happening."
Amin called incumbent Kerry McCormack a "great guy" and acknowledged his popularity in the Ward, which includes most of downtown Cleveland and the near west side neighborhoods of Ohio City and Tremont. She said she gave him credit for his responsiveness to constituent needs during the pandemic.
"But here's what I tell people," she said. "I live in Ohio City, and I'm running on environmental issues. No one on council, including Kerry, is bringing these issues up. If I was living in another incumbent's ward, I'd be running against them as well."
Amin works for the Opportunity Exchange, where she also worked as a Venture for America fellow. In her role there, she has helped communities across the country with their economic development goals. (The Opportunity Exchange was founded in Cleveland and transitioned in 2020 from an organization focused exclusively on Opportunity Zones to one focused on economic development more broadly.)
She said that her experience there has given her valuable experience in working with communities on economic development, particularly in terms of making equity a priority. She said she believes that experience would be vital in Ward 3, where much of the city's most visible residential development has been concentrated in recent years.
"Development in the ward is very polarizing," she said. "I wish there were more opportunities for development that met the community's needs, and more affordable development, and more that incorporated renewable energy or public spaces, and more that utilized community benefit agreements and local labor."
She said she's generally in support of the big residential development projects that have taken place to date, including those that are currently under construction, but said that there should be caution moving forward. She cited a recent Cleveland tax abatement study
. Among other things, it found only limited evidence of displacement, which many residents fear.
"But the areas where displacement is happening are in Ward 3," she said. "We're getting to a tipping point where increased development in this area could exacerbate income inequality."
As part of her campaign, Amin intends to launch a "Cleveland Green Deal" platform with 10 policy proposals in the areas of water technology, energy generation, buildings and infrastructure, parks and trees, and public transit. All these policies, she said, could be implemented in the next four years — on a much more rapid timeline than Cleveland's current Climate Action Plan — and many of them would come at limited cost to the city.
"Half of these don't involve local funding," she said. "The biggest thing is bringing the right people to the table and then getting out of our own way."
She said that in the world of sustainability and climate science, the technology largely exists. But in Cleveland, just as in other cities, the biggest challenge is finding the political will to pursue climate policy. She thinks Cleveland has an opportunity to be a national leader in climate equity, as highlighted by recent NPR coverage.
While out canvassing, Amin said she has heard a number of themes from residents, from the need for green space and dog parks downtown, to concerns about the city recycling program and the rising costs of utilities, to complaints about potholes.
On council, Amin said local representatives have a responsibility to both respond to constituent needs and
to think about policies that will improve the whole city. And for her, that means applying an environmental lens to virtually everything.
"Every time you're filling potholes and fixing streets, you're making a decision about what that street looks like for the next 10 years," she said. "Constituent service is a big part of the job, but I think that, especially with environmental issues, there's a lot that Cleveland could be doing. And no one's talking about it."
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