Money for justice to grassroots groups, not big nonprofits


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Don’t let large organizations with professional staff suck up all the funding that would be better used by local groups.


Environmental and climate justice are increasingly mainstream ideas, from work like mine in academia to executive orders issued by President Joe Biden. There are more opportunities than ever for large organizations to support environmental justice work and collaborate with grassroots communities focused on environmental justice, including here in Kansas City.

But there is a dark side: these new opportunities, if not approached with fairness and responsibility, can allow organizations, academics and government institutions to become extractive – for money, attention and professional gain. – while failing to center members of the communities most harmed by environmental injustice.

Over the past year, the White House has launched Justice40, an initiative to provide 40% of federal investments in climate, clean energy, affordable housing, clean water and other areas of concern for Canadians. marginalized communities. The federal government has touted millions of dollars in grants to support this work, attracting the attention of nonprofits and private institutions.

This work is not new. My colleagues and fellow activists have worked tirelessly for environmental justice for decades. Some of these hard-working local organizers have been able to harness the momentum of Justice40 to access greater funding for their vital work; others are still neglected – struggling for investments in their communities while having to contend with the advances of larger organizations that want attention and credit for belated investments in grassroots justice-focused work.

Environmental justice movements work from the grassroots. This means that they start with the community. Community movements have been most effective in addressing environmental injustices, whether due to historical contamination or ongoing industrial emissions. The National Academy of Sciences agrees. His research has demonstrated that community-based interventions have greater impact and are more sustainable than those prescribed by regional non-profit organizations or academic institutions. Community participation and leadership are essential.

It’s a good thing that federal funds are available to fund environmental justice work. It would be better if funding was available to grassroots groups who have been doing this work for years. Instead, we see these community groups being crowded out by larger, more established organizations that can afford professional grant writers and media ties. Locally, environmental justice funding that should go to frontline communities supports the salaries of part-time, privileged and suburban soccer moms.

Local non-profit organizations ask local organizers to sign letters of commitment, to accept collaborations or partnerships that are not fair, for projects that local organizers have had little or no say in the matter. say in design. Well-meaning nonprofits, including in Kansas City, are intentionally embarking on grassroots efforts to mine community knowledge for fundraising. This is not a solid foundation for a relationship of trust between a large nonprofit organization and a grassroots community organization.

It is high time to be accountable. Black people are not responsible for teaching white people to be careful of their privilege. We white people have to do the work on ourselves, over and over. Likewise, environmental justice organizers and overburdened communities shouldn’t have to teach academics, nonprofits, and foundations to care about their privilege. On the contrary, we should support their work – on their terms.

I have a challenge for government offices that provide funds, and similarly for large foundations that claim to be interested in supporting environmental and climate justice movements, with a seemingly limited understanding of what is happening on the ground. The Government Accountability Office made several recommendations in 2019 to ensure environmental justice efforts are successful and effective. What implementation still lacks is the accountability of those who claim and aim to serve but come from a privileged place – be it academia, industry or government.

Currently, federal grants are made available to target groups equally, but not equitably. An equitable approach to funding would give those with fewer resources but stronger ties to their community a better chance of getting the financial support they deserve, with less red tape so they can actually achieve their goals: elevate and empower communities that have been historically marginalized. and ignored. This approach would also force funders to a different standard – one that genuinely supports equity and resilience.

It is time to ensure that our results and our intentions to support justice movements are aligned. We can do it.

Elizabeth Friedman works as an environmental medicine and primary care scholar in Kansas City.

This story was originally published July 31, 2022 5:00 a.m.

Elna M. Lemons