Within days of the presidential election, a publication entitledIndivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agendabegan circulating online, eventually drawing attention from The New Yorker, NPR and news organizations across the country. Among its authors is Billy Fleming, a candidate for the PhD in City and Regional Planning who worked in private and public-sector planning and design practices prior to studying at PennDesign. Fleming was also instrumental in a collective effort to backup government environmental data before the Trump transition—a project that was the subject of a recent segment onThe Daily Show.
How did you launch the DataRefuge project at Penn?
Well, I should begin by noting that the heavy lifting on this project has been done by Bethany Wiggin (Penn Program in Environmental Humanities), Laurie Allen (Penn Libraries), Patricia Kim (PPEH), Margaret Janz (Penn Libraries), and Kevin Burke (PPEH). I brought the idea for a data rescue event to the PPEH Lab during a weekly meeting of our fellows. I–and, it turns out, many others–received a series of panicked, post-election emails from colleagues in academia. They were worried that the continued availability of datasets that involved climate change and the environment would disappear after the Inauguration–halting their research and devastating the communities who rely on it to serve vulnerable populations.
As we began making plans of our own, we got connected to broad network of folks in the outgoing administration, at the Internet Archive, and in a consortium of universities across North America–many of which were involved in the “End of Term Harvest.” By the time winter break came around, the idea of a one-off hack-a-thon had grown into a series of coordinated international events. At each one, teams of scientists, software engineers, librarians, academics, and other concerned citizens have been coming together and, in fits and starts, harvesting as much of that sensitive environmental data as possible.
Where will the data be stored, and who will have access?
Penn Libraries is developing a repository with the help of Amazon Web Services, using an open source data catalog known as CKAN. The data we’re focused on harvesting through this project are those that are especially difficult to capture using conventional web-crawling tools–either because they’re hosted through an FTP site or because there are other limits on their accessibility.
Everyone, everywhere, who wants access to this data should and will have it. It’s our information–we paid for its collection and storage and, frankly, it’s appalling that objective, scientific data is being called into question by our new president.
This project exists to ensure that the empirical foundation on which we live our lives is maintained–be it for farmers who rely on meteorological data to plan crop rotations or for climate scientists at the Columbia Earth Institute who use it to model the effects of global climate change.
How did you become involved in publishing Indivisible?
The Indivisible guide was developed by some friends in DC: Ezra Levin (who worked with me at the White House Domestic Policy Council), Leah Greenberg, Angela Padilla, Sarah Dohl, Matt Traldi, and many others who worked as Congressional staffers during the Tea Party revolt of 2010. They all saw, firsthand, how swift and effective their tactics could be. Though the ideas embedded in that ideological revolt were anachronistic and often racist, they provided us with an excellent model for how to resist the President’s agenda–especially this President, who lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million ballots and is historically unpopular.
They pulled me into the project once a draft was ready to circulate and asked me to help get it ready for public consumption. I’m now one of many volunteers helping to manage and support the thousands of chapters that have formed since the guide launched. At its core, the Indivisible Guide exists to demystify Congress and to give folks a set of tools and tactics that, over time, can make their Members of Congress better, more responsive legislators. We hope that it will provide folks with a way to engage in activism and resistance that’s as successful as the Tea Party’s, without any of the vitriol or violence that characterized their movement.
What was your role in the Obama administration?
I worked in the White House Domestic Policy Council’s Office of Urban and Economic Opportunity, which functions as a sort of internal think tank for the administration. Our job involved translating the president’s agenda into policy initiatives. That often required executive action, including helping to write the “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing” rule promulgated by HUD, developing the “America’s Great Outdoors” initiative with the National Park Service, and developing the inter-agency “Sustainable Communities Initiative” and “Promise Zones” program, all of which I worked on during my time there. Other times it involved working with Congress to pass new legislation, including MAP-21, the transportation reauthorization bill passed during the 112th Congress.
I believe wholeheartedly in the power and the necessity of public service, and that we have to find ways to provide a clearer path to that side of the design profession for our students.
How does the Domestic Policy Council impact the places where we live and work?
It plays a critical role in coordinating the efforts of a vast federal bureaucracy around the President’s agenda. Rather than leaving the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Agriculture, and the Treasury to work independent of one another, the DPC’s job is to ensure that they’re all pushing in the same direction: that the EPA’s brownfields remediation program is connected to the Treasury’s low-income housing tax credits, that those are coupled with investments through HUD’s Choice Neighborhoods program to build new affordable housing projects, and that there is room in that development to house a social worker who can help connect residents to HHS and USDA’s TANF, SNAP, and WIC resources. Put another way, it’s the funnel through which all of our nation’s urban development programs must pass.
Do you think Trump’s presidency will spur greater activism around climate change and social equity?
I am hopeful that the backlash against him will inspire a new generation of activists. Many people will suffer unspeakable harm as long as he’s in the Oval Office. The task before all of us now is to figure out how to be a good ally to those the President’s policies will target, and how to sustain what will be a years-long battle to disrupt and dissolve his agenda.
What drew you to landscape and urban design initially?
I grew up in rural Arkansas. I spent my summers outside catching crayfish and getting lost in the woods. Our state motto is literally “The Natural State,” so wilderness and the environment are things that I’ve felt connected to for as long as I can remember. When I started in the landscape program at the University of Arkansas, that quickly grew into a much broader affinity for conservation and ecosystem services – which are at the center of my research interests.
Though my parents both worked full-time, they often struggled to keep their heads above water when I was a kid. What grew into a commitment to justice and progressive values through urban design began by watching my parents – and knowing that no one should ever have to work so hard and struggle so much in this country. Toggling the intersection between landscape and urban design has, thankfully, allowed me to work on both.