Meet Sonrisa Cooper, a relatively new addition to BPS’s Climate Team. Cooper is blazing a new trail of work for BPS and the City of Portland, standing up a program to advance clean industry. Inspired by other cities and countries around the world, she envisions a Portland with a robust manufacturing sector that operates without sending carbon into the air or land, while offering well-paying jobs for people without a college degree.
Almost from the jump, she helped advance a “knowledge exchange” between Danish business representatives and Portland’s manufacturing and community leaders. Those visits to Denmark by the Portland cohort and the Danes to Portland are already bearing fruit, as we learn how one country and many communities within it aspired to and achieved a sustainable business model, what’s called a “circular economy,” through collaboration.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines a circular economy as one that “keeps materials, products, and services in circulation for as long possible.” A circular economy requires eliminating waste and pollution, circulating products and materials, and the regeneration of nature.
Focusing on industry
“Until recently, BPS has mostly focused on decarbonizing buildings and energy, but the industrial sector contributes 13% of our carbon emissions in Portland,” says Cooper, whose role is to support the industrial sector as it works to reduce emissions and waste. “But many of the processes industry uses are hard to abate.” For instance, the heat that it takes to melt metal or glass can’t yet be achieved by electrification, and equipment can be expensive to replace.
But if collaboration is key to a sustainable future, Portland has already started on that path. In 2021, after the Healthy Climate and Clean Air Fee proposal met resistance from industry, Commissioner Rubio convened a listening session with industrial businesses and asked business leaders to help with the transition to a clean industry future.
The first step is a “Clean Industry Assessment,” which will provide a snapshot of Portland’s industrial sector and identify opportunities to reduce emissions and waste. BPS has contracted with a team of consultants to evaluate the industrial sector in Portland, learn from international clean industry examples, and propose policy and finance models to accelerate an equitable transition for industry. Expected to be completed this summer, the assessment will help us develop a roadmap for a clean, circular, decarbonized and inclusive future for the industrial sector.
Portland’s new Clean Industry Initiative creates an opportunity to center and collaborate with our community members. BIPOC and other under-represented communities benefit through workforce development and entrepreneurship, and neighbors who live close to industrial facilities benefit from cleaner air.
“Helping industrial businesses is at the core of this work, but I also see this as a way to create economic opportunities for communities that historically haven’t been centered in the climate movement,” says Cooper. “The manufacturing sector in Portland has a long history of reliable middle-wage jobs, so it’s important to help industry transition to the clean economy and build a community of practice.”
Clean industry is a relatively new field, so Cooper and her team want to make sure Portland is prepared for the industrial transition. While the assessment is going on in the background, she is making connections.
“I’m focused on relationships, and it seems natural to me to collaborate,” she says. “How can we bring business and frontline communities and political leaders together? I’m here for Portland and our climate future. I grew up here and know what the industrial sector means to our city.”
Cooper, a mixed-race Filipina, identifies strongly with her cultural identity and her hometown, driving what she does professionally. She grew up in SE Portland and joined BPS as a way to enact change for her community.
“My goal has always been to serve my community, especially the people I identify with,” she states. So she moved to the Bay Area to get a master’s in city planning from UC Berkeley, hoping she would learn something she could bring back to Portland.
“I realized that I wanted to work on issues facing low-income communities of color,” she said. So she got a job at The Greenlining Institute, where she developed an equity-based approach to community investment projects. From 2019-22, she also led policy development for the California Green New Deal Coalition, which advances climate justice solutions in the state.
“The work was more broad and less technical than the work I’m doing now,” she said. “But I like working in big coalitions to solve problems together, and now I get to do that with clean industry.”
Hope for the future
As a city planner, policy professional, and passionate advocate for marginalized communities, Cooper is an optimist who believes it's possible to reimagine our economic system as one where low-income communities of color are resilient to climate change, can live healthy lives with dignity, and have access to economic opportunity.
“We have leverage at the local level for policymaking, such as the Climate Emergency Workplan (CEW) and 100% renewable energy policy,” she said. “But it’s up to staff and City leaders to co-create with and center community.”
The bureau has more climate policies to advance in the next couple of years: the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) was adopted by City Council on Dec. 2, 2022, and is now in the administrative rule-writing phase. The EV Ready Code Project not only makes EV charging more accessible to lower income Portlanders, it creates business development opportunities as well. And the PCEF Climate Investment Plan will shape our climate action work for years to come.
Ultimately, Cooper would love to see the industrial sector leading the clean economy.
“Manufacturing is the backbone of our economy, and it will be so important as we invest in clean energy and new technologies that will get us away from fossil fuels. I would love to see Portland become the model for clean industry,” she says. “I want to see that happen in a way that people of all backgrounds can see themselves in the climate movement and thrive here.”
Profile by Eden Dabbs, Senior Communications Strategist, Bureau of Planning and Sustainability