Women of color lead climate justice work

They are also struggling to find funding.

Originally posted by The 19th

When winter storm Uri hit Houston last February, widespread power outages left residents without heat or power for days. Nearly half of Texans have lost access to drinking water.

In the Pleasantville neighborhood, that meant families needed bottled water – and lots of it.

“Because we’re in an older community, a lot of people, myself included, have suffered pipe damage,” said Bridgette Murray, a community advocate. “Some had to turn off the water in their homes.”

Murray’s organization, Achieving Community Tasks Successfully (ACTS), purchased a water truck to distribute in his neighborhood and surrounding communities in the days following the storm.

Pleasantville, where Murray lives, has a long and proud history of community organizing. In the 1950s, it was one of the few places black Americans were allowed to buy homes in the city. Like many other communities of color, it has also become the place where policy makers have authorized the permitting of a disproportionate number of industrial uses, including chemical storage facilities.

In an effort to understand how these acts of environmental racism affect residents’ health, ACTS has facilitated a community-led air monitoring program for the past three years to measure the amount of hazardous pollutants in the neighborhood.

Murray’s work is directly related to climate justice – an essential element in addressing the disproportionate impacts of climate change on communities of color. But it can be difficult for organizations like his to secure grants through traditional foundations. In recent years, some organizations have pledged to fund this climate work on the ground, specifically centering groups led by women of color.

In a 2021 report by Green 2.0, a nonprofit that tracks diversity in the environmental movement, foundations that responded to the report funded white-led environmental organizations at nearly double the rate of those led by people of color. And, in an analysis by The New School, of the $1.34 billion distributed by domestic environmental funders between 2016 and 2017, only 1.3% went to environmental justice organizations. The disparity is also linked to gender: between 70 and 80% of philanthropic funding goes to organizations led by men.

In recent years, grant-making organizations such as The Solutions Project and The Hive Fund for Climate & Gender Justice have worked to direct philanthropic funds to grassroots action led specifically by women of color. As the climate crisis deepens and funding for climate action increases, they believe that addressing both gender and climate justice will strengthen the solutions implemented on the ground by those who find themselves already in frontline communities.

“Women of color are super underfunded, but do so much of this work. Let’s commit to them,” said Sekita Grant, Vice President of Programs at The Solutions Project.

The work funded by the Solutions Project is broad, focusing on community-led renewable energy projects, regenerative land works, and addressing long-standing environmental injustices like polluted air and tainted water. Grant said the decision to focus on women’s leadership was made after realizing that, by the nature of their positions in their communities, they were already leading many of these grassroots efforts. “(When the) Solutions Project pivoted, to be more connected and collaborative with grassroots organizing and the climate justice movement, there were a lot of looks around like, ‘Wow, like this was really led and driven by women of color,” Grant said.

The reasons for the current funding shortfall are manifold. From the perspective of organizers like Murray, simply gaining access to grant writers or developing a grant writing skill set is expensive. The applications themselves are complicated, time-consuming, and time-consuming to complete for private and federal grants. During a February watchdog hearing by the House Natural Resources Committee on equity and diversity inclusion in grantmaking and the environmental movement, Keya Chatterjee, executive director of US Climate Action Network, provided written testimony outlining the process for obtaining a federal grant. as “demoralizing and characterized by a long application process (100 pages in one case) with very technical jargon that is difficult to understand”.

On the philanthropy side, there is also an inherent bias in which projects or organizations foundations deem worthy of funding.

“There’s a lack of understanding in philanthropy about what change and transformation really look like,” Grant said. “There’s a very narrow sense, in my opinion, that recreates the same mess that got us into these problems, where you have this very technical top-down approach.”

For these reasons, it’s also difficult to secure funding for advocacy work, said Zelalem Adefris, who works with two Miami-based organizations that have received Solutions Project grants. Since 1997, one of the nonprofits it works with has sent community members to Tallahassee, Florida’s capital, to advocate their position on various pieces of legislation. Over the years they have been able to gather donations from the community for bus rides, but it wasn’t until 2020 that they were able to get a grant for the work. This year, they testified in favor of the creation of an energy equity task force and against a law that would discourage rooftop solar panels.

“When it comes to transforming systems and the long, hard work it takes to change policy and change culture, it’s a challenge to get everyone in philanthropy to understand and support that,” Adefris said.

There are ways to make grantmaking fairer. The Solutions Project – which acts as an intermediary between large funders and grassroots organizations – has a simple application process, few reporting requirements and is committed to investing 95% of its resources in leaders of color, with at least 80% in organizations led by women.

They also distribute multi-year operating grants, allowing local leaders to be more responsive to the needs of their communities and plan for growth within their organization.

“Not having to worry about funding, as is often the case, definitely creates an environment where organizations can really focus on the job and less on keeping doors open,” said Adriane Alicea, deputy director of Green 2.0.

When Murray received a multi-year Hive Fund grant, she was able to secure office space and plans to nearly double her small staff. “In general, grants should be very targeted to different programs and projects. So it becomes a big help for organizations like ours to be able to have some flexibility in how those dollars are used,” Murray said.

But there is a huge disparity in who receives these grants. According to the Green 2.0 transparency bulletin, on average, organizations led by people of color received less than 1% of multi-year operating budget grants distributed in 2021.

Grant hopes foundations will understand that funding grassroots organization is critical to fighting climate change.

“You’re going to get very rich, high-quality solutions from individuals who are historically, currently, and in the future engaged in this community,” she said. “We can really see the great value and effectiveness of this climate justice work.”

Back in Pleasantville, Murray is already working on his next round of grant applications. This year, she hopes to buy air monitors that can better detect cancer-causing pollutants, which are used by local government in other parts of the county.

“When you’re a small organization, you use these low-cost sensors, and that data has to be matched by a regulated monitor so it can be actionable,” Murray said. “When we all work with the same type of equipment, it strengthens that working relationship [with officials] and gives our program a bigger voice.

Disclosure: The Hive Fund for Climate & Gender Justice financially supported The 19th.

Jessica Kutz is The 19th’s gender, climate and sustainability reporter. Prior to joining The 19th, she was an editor and reporter at High Country News, a regional nonprofit that covers the western United States. Her work has been republished in numerous outlets including The Guardian, Slate, Mother Jones and The Atlantic. She is based in Tucson, Arizona.

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