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Earth Day 2021: Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund uses grassroots power building to tackle climate change


Editor’s note: This feature story is part of a series from Kresge’s Environment Program to spotlight equity-focused organizations working to achieve climate justice. Supporting climate justice advocates is a priority for Kresge. While the Environment Program supports some frontline organizations directly, the team has been increasing funding to intermediaries set up explicitly to build relationships with frontline advocates, maintain a deep understanding of the local context in which those advocates are working, and seed larger grant funding into smaller grassroots organizations. Our partners are helping to advance local work while also contributing to the national environmental justice movement on Earth Day, and everyday beyond.

The Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund New Mexico grantees.

The Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund is building a powerful movement to address climate change and create an equitable clean energy future. As an intermediary, the Equity Fund plays a critical role as a strategic advisor to funding partners that are interested in aligning their philanthropic strategies with the urgent needs of the movement for environmental justice and equitable climate and clean energy policy.

The Equity Fund currently partners with organizations in 8 states: Florida, Georgia, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia. In 2021, the Equity Fund is expanding to at least 12 states, beginning with grantmaking in Arizona and Michigan. In New Mexico, the Equity Fund is supporting grassroots work that engages rural Latinx and Indigenous communities to build support for equitable climate and clean energy policies that create sustaining jobs and pathways to workforce development, especially for the state’s residents that have been disproportionately impacted by fossil-fuel industries for too long.

Watch the Equity Fund’s New Mexico Impact Video: “Building Climate Equity in New Mexico.”

“It is deeply painful to know how much Native communities have suffered the brunt of all this environmental injustice,” says Laurie Weahkee, Executive Director of the Native American Voters Alliance, one of several partners featured in the Equity Fund’s New Mexico Impact Video.

“Our communities are disproportionately impacted by environmental pollutants and environmental degradations because we don’t have access to power,” adds Oriana Sandoval, CEO of the Center for Civic Policy.

Philanthropic intermediaries like the Equity Fund can provide unique access to investing and learning from the most effective grassroots strategies for power building including:

  • Investing in the leadership and organizing of diverse communities (people of color, Indigenous people, those most impacted by climate change).
  • Winning equitable climate and clean energy campaigns.
  • Accelerating equitable climate solutions and engaging voters.

“The Equity Fund team has a track record of successfully working with a variety of sectors including social and economic justice, labor, environment and philanthropy,” says Jillian Murphy, Senior Program Officer at the Equity Fund. “We are well connected to networks working at the local, state and national levels at the intersection of climate and energy, politics, social justice, racial justice and civic engagement.”

Roger Kim, executive director of the Equity Fund, is a nationally recognized leader in the environmental justice movement and climate equity. The team’s multiracial staff are all rooted in racial and social justice work in their careers, with a long track record of success in working with and in diverse communities, especially communities of color. The Equity Fund shares this expertise back to its community of funding partners and provides year-round opportunities to learn about the strategies and impact of its grantees and coalitions.

“Intermediaries have the capacity to share unique expertise while motivating greater investment in equitable climate progress,” says Kim. “The Equity Fund is a conduit and strategic partner for foundations and donors to support the frontline organizations that are leading the most effective climate equity strategies around the country. Because of our expertise and deep relationships with community-led groups working at the intersection of climate change, racial justice and economic equity, we can identify and nurture local grantee partners that have large-scale bases of members and track records of winning policy victories in their cities and states. We share lessons learned from our grantee partners so that foundations and donors can better understand the climate-related problems of local communities and then develop and coordinate funding strategies that will have the greatest results.”

In short, the Equity Fund, as an intermediary funder, can move more quickly and take more perceived ‘risks’ than institutional funders. Intermediaries have the skills and capacity to lift effective strategies, work directly with grantee partners toward significant progress and impact, and educate and partner with funders to align and influence their grantmaking priorities.

“Our grantee partners have had an incredible amount of success in a short period of time, showing that the only risk is not funding these groups and the movement at a scale large enough and fast enough to achieve the pace of change we need,” adds Murphy.

Georgia WAND: A success story

Residents of communities like Burke County, Georgia, are experiencing firsthand the impacts of climate change: hotter temperatures, flooding and increased flood-related insurance costs. They also live in the shadow of one of the state’s largest nuclear power plants, which is the economic center of the area, but also an environmental and health hazard.

Janie Scott, Nuclear Harm Reduction and Climate Justice Manager with Georgia WAND (Women’s Action for New Directions), is educating area residents about the long-term environmental and health consequences of the fossil and nuclear energy industries.

To counter the false “economy v. environment” narrative promoted by the energy sector, she provides information about alternatives to jobs in the nuclear sector. This knowledge is essential so residents can advocate for clean and equitable energy alternatives, and elect leaders who will legislate clean energy policies that lift communities economically. In the high-stakes election year of 2020, Georgia WAND members faced voter intimidation.

Scott recently joined a panel conversation in October 2020 to talk about the community listening strategies that are working to engage Georgians on climate justice.

Listen to the conversation from The Forge: Rural Climate Justice Organizing. 

Scott shares the ways her colleagues stepped up to ensure safe voting for rural and first-time voters, including partnering with the statewide civic engagement table, ProGeorgia, to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) and educating voters about how to vote from home safely. The Rural Climate Justice Organizing panel featured speakers from Georgia WAND, The Center for Coalfield Justice, and NM CAFé and was moderated by Lydia Avila, Program Officer with the Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund.

Scott says there is sometimes a stigma around residents not being engaged in the environmental justice movement in Georgia.

“There are people here who are very invested in climate change,” says Scott of Burke County residents, where roughly half of the population is Black or African American. “They might not speak (about) it in the same terms, but they know it’s hotter. They know it floods more here. They’re concerned about flooding issues flood insurance and sheltering in place near a nuclear facility… We do have people who are very excited about climate change and getting out there to do the work. They want to do something about it, and they’re already doing something about it. It’s more about bringing resources to the areas in need.”  

Diversity matters

Considering that communities of color and low-income communities are often hardest hit by climate change, the Equity Fund places a high priority on hiring staff of diverse racial backgrounds. Out of 10 current staff members, 30% are Asian, 20% are Black or African American, 30% are Latinx or Hispanic, and 20% are white.

“We view equity and racial diversity as critical to meeting the Equity Fund’s goals,” says Kim. “Many of our staff bring a wealth of experience directly organizing in communities of color. We will maintain our commitment to diversity as we plan to grow our team in 2021, and our commitment also extends to our hiring of consultants and contractors.”

The Equity Fund’s Advisory Board is made up of representatives from its initial funders and reflects the lack of diversity within climate philanthropy. Of its seven advisory board members, five are women, and two are people of color. Kim and Murphy agree that the work of educating and supporting advisory board members to impact grantmaking practices within their institutions to support equity and justice is a key part of the Equity Fund’s work, and they’ve seen some important success under this model.

“In 2021, it is a priority for us to revisit the roles and make-up of our board,” Kim says. “While we want to continue to keep representatives of large philanthropic institutions on our advisory board to advance equity at their institutions, we will also explore additional seats on the advisory board to increase diversity and non-funder representation. Investing in our advisory board is also about strengthening the skillsets, engagement and networks that members bring to their partnership with the Equity Fund. We know that greater Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color representation on our board will increase diversity and will build on these skills and assets that our Fund needs in the years ahead to build power for climate equity.” 

Kresge’s support of the Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund aligns with our commitment to the Donors of Color Network Climate Funders Justice Pledge. Through this new effort, we are vowing to invest at least 30% of our climate change funding in Black, Indigenous, Latinx and people of color-led climate justice organizations and committing to even greater transparency in our overall funding. The Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund collaborates with other equity-focused regranting intermediaries, including The Hive Fund for Climate and Gender Justice, another Environment Program grantee partner. Several additional organizations including the Climate Justice Alliance, the Solutions Project, NDN Collective, the Fund to Build Grassroots Power, the BEA Initiative and others are using similar models to regrant funds from large foundations to grassroots organizations led by Black, Indigenous and other people of color. Over the coming months, we will spotlight the work of several grantee partners working in this space on