By Année Tousseau, May 2017
SSV’s Net Positive Bay Area 2050 energy goal is to produce more energy than we consume. One way we’re making strides toward that goal is through our Energy and Water Check-Up Program in East Palo Alto—a community that hasn’t been able to share in the same prosperity that much of Silicon Valley enjoys.
About a fifth of East Palo Alto residents live below the poverty line, according to the 2015 Census. The median household income in EPA was $52,012; its more affluent neighbors, Palo Alto and Menlo Park, had median incomes of $136,519 and $121,816. East Palo Alto is also a majority Latino community; 65% of residents identify as Latino.
SSV’s home energy and water check-ups are free for EPA residents. Families schedule a time for our small team to visit their home and check appliances, light bulbs, faucets, doors, and windows, to estimate the energy and water use. The team also reviews energy and water bills, if available.
At the end, each family gets a comprehensive picture of how much energy and water they use, and how they can reduce that to save money on bills.
Small fixes—like switching out old light bulbs for more efficient LEDs—are taken care of, and SSV can connect the family with other community resources if bigger repairs are needed. Families also receive a free gift bag with LED light bulbs, a $25 gift card to Home Depot, and more information on water and energy conservation.
Funding for the check-ups comes from a grant from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD). So far, SSV has completed checks on 30 homes, and more are scheduled.
Along with the other members of the team, community outreach coordinator Andrea Fuchilieri is one of the linchpins in SSV’s Energy and Water Check-Up Program. Her native Spanish language skills, organizational abilities, and overall enthusiasm make her a huge asset for the team. We spoke with Andrea to see how she approaches her work and the lessons she’s learned. (Her responses have been edited for clarity and length.)
Can you describe your role in the home checkups?
I am the program outreach coordinator and my role is to bridge the work SSV is doing with energy and water, to the community in East Palo Alto. I get people interested – we work with St Francis of Assisi church and EHP (Ecumenical Hunger Program). We’ve made announcements at mass to explain what we’re doing (a completely-free of-charge energy and water checkup) and had a booth outside. All this was in Spanish.
The first step is to get people to sign up, then follow-up with phone conversations where I ask about the house or apartment, get basic information about it, and schedule the checkup. I continue the conversation, explain the program and what it’s about.
How does speaking Spanish help?
It helped open people up—because they have to deal with us for 45 minutes to 1 hour. The way I treated them also helped—I go straight for the person. It’s not so much about what we’re doing or the information we might need to do the checkup. It’s about making a connection on a person to person, human to human, spirit to spirit level.
I like to point out things we have in common: “You have chickens, I do too!” You have to find something to connect with: “Oh, you’re making this dish, how do you it?”
I have a family, I am an artist, and I have children, so I try to connect with the kids. If I see a guitar or instrument, I tell people I’m a musician. It’s about making a human connection.
One family was about to celebrate a quinceañera, so I talked about my quinceañera too. I also made connections over tango dancing—there’s lots of interest in this in the Latin world. People seemed excited to learn that I’m a tango dancer.
Speaking the same language is also important because you have to understand idioms in Spanish.
What were people interested in during the checkups?
People were interested in learning how to save energy. When I sit down with them and show them the bag of goodies, they show genuine interest. They were excited about the gift card. Many said they would use it to purchase bulbs. There’s genuine interest in learning about conservation and what they can do. It’s remarkable because some folks pay little for their energy bill—but they’re still interested in learning how to conserve.
What were the challenges you encountered?
The main challenge initially was that we were taking a little too long. With three people going into every room [to check the fixtures and appliances], it was a little overwhelming. Each checkup was running 2-3 hours. A lot of the issue was getting organized—having a better use of time and improving the way we took measurements. We brought that down to 40 minutes to an hour.
It’s also very challenging to tell people to save water when we flush our toilets with clean water!
What lessons did you learn?
We’re really just starting out with our outreach. We’re laying the groundwork for a real relationship.
For me, internally, what I had to learn to manage was working with the clients as well as the other members of the team. I’m talking with the clients and also sharing with the other [non-Spanish-speaking] team members what is going on. It’s like a blind date, really.
You have to be respectful and not cross any boundaries. It’s important to read people’s emotions, to know when it’s time to go. We also laid the groundwork beforehand—we’re not coming into the house uninvited. People are willing to let us in to their homes.
And sometimes, you have to let things go. Like on the initial phone call, they say they have their electricity bill [with their energy usage information], but they can’t find the bill when you get there. You have to let that go sometimes.
Sometimes it gets emotional, because you can only help people as far as they want to be helped. It’s a challenge when you have empathy and you see people struggle, and you wish you can help with more—but you have to remember what you’re there for and what your goal is.
Entering each home is like entering a new universe. You have to have that sense of wonder.
What advice would you give to other groups doing similar outreach?
The first thing is to build a relationship—the most effective outreach is a long-lasting relationship. It’s like we lay down the tablecloth and invite people to dinner; there’s back and forth and a symbiotic relationship. It’s not just a one-way thing where it’s us coming in to teach them; it’s not political.
You have to be there for the community and learn from them as well. It’s not an attitude of us teaching them. It’s more about what are we going to learn from them—what the city, the water district, others need to realize.
Conservation spans different cultures and levels of education. We went to poor houses where everyone works, but people still had high awareness of conservation. Even in very poor families, they were still using water conservation techniques—like using buckets in the shower to collect water to water their garden.