By Arturo Garcia-Costas and Michele Kumi Baer
Climate change and pollution affects us all, but some more than others. The poor, the infirm, and the elderly are particularly vulnerable to temperature extremes and violent storms. Low-income communities of color often bear the brunt of our civilization’s legacy of pollution: from the noxious facilities in their neighborhoods to lead in their drinking water. They are on the “frontlines” of these growing environmental challenges.
A key strategy is to help communities already coping with climate change and other environmental burdens lead the way toward a more just, sustainable future. They have the drive, evidence, and moral authority to help steer us in the right direction. Now they just need the resources to do so.
The good news is that charitable giving can help create a cleaner, healthier environment. It has before.
In the years before and after the first Earth Day in 1970, average Americans opened their wallets and the United States saw a surge in charitable giving to new and old environmental organizations. Philanthropy soon followed suit, sparking an unprecedented shift in environmental activism and provoking policy change worldwide. But the scientists, lawyers, and others who launched the modern environmental movement in the 1970s failed to act upon the ideals of the overlapping Civil Rights era.
As a result, the newly minted environmental organizations of the time ushered in a modern environmental movement that was overwhelmingly white and male. This exclusionary dynamic helped set the stage for the emergence in the 1980s of a separate and distinct environmental justice movement led by people of color.
Twenty-five years later, these parallel but linked movements are facing an environmental crisis like no other: Climate change is already happening, but we face an unprecedented assault on federal funding and programs to address it.
To advance a more inclusive, and therefore effective movement, we must patiently build up the national and regional environmental justice networks that frontline communities have created over the past decade.
Over the past 20 years, The New York Community Trust’s environmental grantmaking has supported the emergence and strengthening of such networks. Separately, most community organizations might struggle to carry out large-scale advocacy campaigns at a citywide, statewide, or national level. When they come together, however, they have proven time and again that they can strategically pool their knowledge and resources to make things happen.
These emergent networks act as intermediaries between frontline communities and government, foundations, and mainstream environmental groups. Key examples include the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, which is made up of nine community organizations from Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx; the Environmental Justice Leadership Forum on Climate Change, which was established by the New York-based WE ACT for Environmental Justice and includes 42 grassroots organizations from 19 states; and the Midwest Environmental Justice Network, which is made up of 12 groups from 4 states.
Three years ago, these environmental justice networks helped mobilize the People’s Climate March, which brought more than 400,000 people onto the streets of New York to demand that heads of state take action to confront human-driven climate change. A year later, they did just that, signing a historic agreement in Paris. Now that agreement is in jeopardy. That is why over 200,000 Americans, once again led by people of color, marched through the streets of Washington, D.C. this past Saturday in a new People’s Climate March.
In the ’60s and ’70s, foundations provided steady, flexible support to new and old environmental organizations to great effect. Our air and water is cleaner, and many species were brought back from the brink of extinction, including the Florida manatee, the California condor, and the American alligator.
Today, by patiently supporting environmental justice networks, from the regional to the global, we can help create the broad, inclusive environmental movement we need for the 21st century.