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Rapson: Work at the intersection of climate change, health & equity is needed now more than ever

Environment, Health

Kresge Foundation President and CEO Rip Rapson delivered the following comments at the opening of the Climate Change, Health & Equity (CCHE) initiative 2023 convening “Centering Racial Justice and Health Equity: The Power of Communities to Drive Climate Policy and Practice,” on April 17, 2023.

Good evening, and welcome. We are enormously grateful that you could all be here for this important and joyous convening.

It is so tremendously exciting to again be face to face. It seems a lifetime ago that many of you attended the inaugural convening for the CCHE initiative. Although that was February of 2020, it could as well have been 1953. As we gathered at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta to collectively contemplate – and plan the launch of – an unprecedented partnership, we could never have imagined how, just a short month later, the world would be turned on its head.

In that span of three years – of three tumultuous, disruptive, painful years – each of us changed. As family members, as community members, as workers on behalf of social and racial justice.

The profundity of personal loss … the pervasive hardships of economic dislocation … the power of protests in the streets over police violence and the murders of Black Americans … the horrendous spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans … the heightened dehumanization of trans people … the unrelenting destabilization of democratic norms and institutions.

All of this laid bare the deep and intertangled root system of racial inequity and injustice that insidiously feeds and corrodes our systems of health, education, law enforcement, economic opportunity, civic participation and so much else.

It is a privilege to honor how all of you adapted your work during this incomprehensibly challenging span of our history.

  • Many of you tended to the immediate needs of community members who were directly affected by illness, deaths, loss of income and the trauma of racialized violence.
  • Others of you worked closely with public health professionals and with health institutions that were under unprecedented stress.
  • You adjusted your priorities, learned new methods of outreach and organizing, and shifted project goals and timelines.
  • You persevered – and you are here tonight prepared to continue your important work in activating and fortifying the complex interconnecting pathways among climate change, health, and racial justice.

What you do is breathtaking . . . It is inspiring . . . It is courageous . . . And it is vitally, vitally important. Thank you.

The Climate Moment

As you all know, just last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its new synthesis report summarizing the current state of climate science and reasserting the urgency of implementing actions that both mitigate and adapt to climate change.

The report didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. But it was no less important for that. What it said needs to be repeated . . . and repeated . . . and repeated.

If we are to fully realize the imperative of equity that lives on every page of this report, we need your work.

If we are to move the needle on mitigating the public health implications of climate change, we need your work.

If we are to lift up and valorize the transformational potential of holistic and equitable mitigation and adaptation to climate challenges, we need your work.

If we are to bring dignity and safety and vitality to those communities that have struggled against disinvestment, neglect, and marginalization, we need your work.

If we are to bring authentic and abiding community voice into the rooms in which climate solutions are designed, debated and resourced, we need your work.

Did I happen to mention that we need your work? But you knew that already. So, I thank you again for it.

The Federal Funding Moment

The turmoil of the past three years has left us in a new reality – catapulted us into a new reality is probably more apt. And then along comes the Biden Administration. It is an invitation to reimagination, recalibration, reorientation.

ARPA, the Infrastructure Act, the Inflation Reduction Act, new regulatory guidance, new executive orders. There is no aspect of life in this country that will not be touched. It is less a reset moment than an inflection point – at least if we take full advantage. And to do anything less would be unconscionable.

The question is how. It is not simply a question for our elected officials. It has to be a question for the private sector, for nonprofit organizations, for community residents and for philanthropy. We have to individually and collectively understand the highest and best roles of each in influencing priorities . . . shaping new channels of capital distribution . . . building the musculature of implementation.

Each and every one of our communities is bending every effort to ensure that federal funds land in ways that not only remediate the loss of revenue during COVID, but enable communities to meet long-neglected needs. In Detroit, for example, that involves eliminating blight, supporting small business, putting people on paths to living-wage jobs and so much else.

And yet, we need to stretch further. These are once-in-a-lifetime resources. It’s tempting to default to the ways we’ve grown accustomed to moving capital – it’s easy, you can deploy money more quickly, you can rely on systems and networks that are familiar and safe. But, to do that, guarantees that we will pass right on by the communities of color for whom these resources can be most important.

There is a clear and compelling alternative: we can do it the hard way . . . the creative way . . . the transformational way. We can reverse-engineer – figure out the kind of equitable outcomes and systems we want and need and then go to work adapting, reinventing, or creating systems that will deliver into those outcomes.

Back to my earlier refrain: We need your work. Because where will community voice be heard in the realm of climate, health and equity without you? How else will we deconstruct systems that have stood in the way of projects that employ local residents, build local wealth or provide community benefit without you? How will we hold those with the election certificates accountable without you?

We won’t. In every city represented in this room, there needs to be a pathway to ensure that your work is recognized as formative . . . as indispensable . . . as transformative.

Kresge’s Role

But it would also be nice, if I may be so presumptuous, were you to have some help. I assure you that each of our eight program and practice teams at The Kresge Foundation is thinking about how we can, in fact, provide some part of that help.

Let me suggest a handful of roles I believe a private philanthropy like Kresge can play.

Role #1: Setting the Table for Difficult Civic Conversations

There are issues that are just too hot to handle for the public and private sectors – or for which their credibility is simply insufficient to carry the weight. Philanthropy has the advantage of being perceived as a fair broker and able to involve the full spectrum of civic voices necessary to tackle wickedly difficult issues.

We can set the table, for example, for a conversation in Detroit about the inequities of flood mitigation and adaptation. Or for community-based approaches to creating Blue-Green infrastructure. Or for the creation of a cross-disciplinary office of environmental sustainability. We can, and have.

Role #2: Fortifying Community Capacity

The new federal dollar flows place a premium on the ability of community organizations to absorb and deploy capital at ground-level. Fortifying those capacities is core to philanthropy’s mission.

Taking advantage of the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, the $27 billion commitment from the Environmental Protection Agency, is a perfect example. It has become clear to us that the primary barriers to the deployment of solar, wind and other forms of alternative energy projects in communities of color and low-wealth communities is less the absence of capital than the absence of robust project pipelines that can draw down the funding.

That strongly suggests, in turn, that we need to bolster availability of trusted technical assistance providers, predevelopment capital, project equity and other resources to ensure that projects are “shovel ready.” We’ve strongly urged the EPA to take that into account as they begin to allocate dollars from the Fund.

Role #3: Peeling Away the first Layers of Risk

One of philanthropy’s most valuable roles is to serve as social venture capital – stepping in to assume the first level of risk in ways that encourage private dollars to flow more readily into projects that might otherwise not pencil out.

For example, Kresge has provided loan guarantees to Collective Energy and RE-volv, to enable them to extend credit to federally-qualified health centers and houses of worship for the installation of solar and solar storage units – Kresge will make Collective Energy and RE-volv whole if the recipients are unable to repay.

Similarly, we provided a $2.5 million sub-market-rate loan to Michigan Saves – a green bank – to enable nonprofit organizations and low- and moderate-income Detroiters obtain financing to update buildings and electrical systems to greener, cleaner and more cost-effective technologies.

Role #4: Acting as a sherpa

Philanthropy is well-suited to help connect communities with external resources – whether capital, technical assistance or connections to networks engaged in similar work.

A first example of this bridging role is Kresge’s investment in the Justice40 Accelerator. The Accelerator is a collaboration between Partnership for Southern Equity and four core partners that helps position community-based organizations to be more competitive in accessing federal, state, local and philanthropic funding. It has already helped community-based organizations secure more than $15 million in funding.

A second, similar, example, is our investment in Frontline 360°, a multi-partner collaboration that has channeled more than $40 million in funding and technical assistance to community-based climate and environmental justice communities.

A third example is our support for the US Water Alliance. The Alliance is helping community-based organizations draw down federal funding for equity-centric stormwater, wastewater and drinking-water infrastructure projects.

Role #5: Serving as a Long-Term Partner

There is no substitute for philanthropy taking a long-term view. Too often we in philanthropy touch down briefly and then make a relatively quick exit. It is one thing to provide essential immediate assistance in the aftermath of a community disaster, but quite another to remain with a challenge, an opportunity or a community in ways that are commensurate with the nature and magnitude of the situation.

Our experiences with the Climate Resilience and Urban Opportunity initiative, which Kresge launched in 2014, is, I hope, illustrative. We began with multi-year capacity building grants that helped community-based organizations in nine states strengthen their muscle in influencing more equity-focused, community-based climate policies at the local and regional level.

At the expiration of those multi-year grants, our Environment team concluded that the work had been so impactful that it needed to be continued in some form. That was when we launched CCHE, whose fifteen community-based grantees included six organizations that had previously been awarded CRUO grants.

Let me make a quick stop with one of those: Catalyst Miami. Catalyst Miami was founded more than twenty years ago by Daniella Levine Cava as the Miami Dade Human Services Coalition to provide essential supports to families with low wealth and to advance family economic mobility. Under Daniella’s visionary leadership, the Coalition – renamed Catalyst – was one of the first in the human services field to embrace the close interconnections between family economic welfare and environmental justice. That mantel was picked up by her successor Gretchen Beesing.

As part of their work under the CRUO grant, Catalyst increasingly focused on how to ensure that public policy and public capital supported low-income and low-wealth neighborhoods in preparing for and recovering from increasingly frequent and severe tropical storms and increased flooding caused by sea level rise.

Largely through Catalyst’s efforts, the city became a national leader in interweaving the imperatives of social, environmental and economic justice. Catalyst helped spearhead the establishment of an Office of Resilience in Miami-Dade County. They broke new ground in addressing the effects of extreme heat on health, including securing the appointment of the nation’s first chief heat officer. And – although this was not part of their formal workplan – they catapulted Daniella Levine Cava first onto the Miami-Dade County Commission and then, two years ago, into the office of Mayor.

I think it is safe to say that there is no mayor in America – and perhaps no county in America – more deeply committed to exactly the agenda we all gather here to discuss, celebrate and advance.


So, where does this leave us?

The bad news: the climate-action clock continues its inexorable ticking.

The good news: the convergence of extraordinary practitioners at the community level and a powerfully enlightened – even if deeply complex – suite of federal policy tools to make momentous, abiding progress.

The imperative is accordingly clear. We have the tools to take advantage of the moment. We must ask the question of every public policy and every community practice how it accelerates, deepens and renders more equitable the battle to mitigate and adapt to climate change. We must weave the threads of public health, community organizing and climate activism into a single tapestry of equity, opportunity and justice.

And the “we” is in this room. You have illuminated the path we need to follow. Clearly, creatively, effectively.

And so clearly, creatively and effectively that we at Kresge propose to extend the life of our grant commitments through the end of 2024. Our staff looks forward to talking with you about the details – but there won’t be many. We’ll use the next year and a half to determine what comes next. In the meantime, carry on, keep on with the fight.

Thank you for listening. And thank you for your courageous and powerful leadership at a time when we need it most. You are setting an example in communities across the country of what our nation needs to seize the moment.

Thanks again.