Black environmental leaders: Here’s how businesses can advance climate justice

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on March 14, 2022.

Green 2.0, a watchdog organization advocating for diversity in the environmental sector, in late February convened a panel of Black environmental justice leaders to discuss what it will take to move the needle on climate justice.

In the absence of significant political progress on environmental justice issues in recent years, the business community has forged ahead with new solutions. The Cooperative Action Fund, launched by REI, and the B Corp Climate Justice Learning Task Force stand out as long-term efforts to support the BIPOC communities hit hardest by environmental issues.

However, missing from these and other endeavors is the decision-making power that frontline communities often lack. The environmental movement has historically excluded the voices of Black leaders, even as proposed policies affect their livelihoods and communities. Today, many are still advocating for an inclusive environmental movement that prioritizes funding, opportunities and justice for Black communities.

Activist Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., who opened the panel, believes that solving the climate crisis requires Black, Indigenous, women of color (BIWOC) leaders at the helm. “This is our lunch counter moment,” he said, referring to the landmark lunch counter sit-ins that turned the tide of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.

The bold action needed to transition to a clean energy economy, improve air quality and restore our lands and waters should be informed by the experience of those most affected. So what should business leaders know as they tackle climate justice? 

Commit to internal progress on JEDI

When panelists were asked about the biggest factors that caused Black employees to leave environmental organizations, the answer was resounding: culture.

Karen Campblin, an urban planner with the Fairfax County NAACP, explained, “Strong compensation and benefits are great, but I also think about how I’m treated, and whether my contributions to the organization are appreciated.” 

I’ve seen so many organizations backpedal on JEDI efforts when they receive blowback from partners or funders invested in the status quo. Unless you’re willing to sacrifice your proximity to power and privilege, you may want to rethink public commitments.

Panelists decried the common expectation that Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) employees volunteer their time for organizational justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (JEDI) efforts — a practice proven to be emotionally taxing and professionally risky for employees of color. 

“I’ve seen so many organizations backpedal on JEDI efforts when they receive blowback from partners or funders invested in the status quo,” said Corina Newsome, a wildlife conservationist with Georgia Audubon. “Unless you’re willing to sacrifice your proximity to power and privilege, you may want to rethink public commitments.” 

For corporations ready to make real investments in climate justice, internal JEDI initiatives are a crucial step. Corporations must understand how power, privilege and history intersect, and bring this knowledge to bear internally and when engaging with frontline communities, the panelists said.

Ensuring that JEDI activities have sustained C-suite support, being honest and transparent about organizational weak spots, and challenging those in charge of JEDI to set clear, measurable goals are worthy places to start, the panelists also observed. Oh, and be prepared to be uncomfortable as internal processes evolve.

Make grantmaking processes more equitable

A 2021 study conducted by InDEEP Initiative found a $2.7 billion funding gap between white-led and BIPOC-led environmental organizations. Researchers found that philanthropic institutions tend to uphold the status quo by investing in white-led organizations that are already well funded. 

“Philanthropic entities talk about supporting racial equity but aren’t willing to change their internal processes,” said LaTresse Snead, executive coach and nonprofit consultant.

Multiple panelists mentioned the barriers to long-term funding they’ve encountered, such as tedious paperwork, lengthy applications and restrictions on how and when funding must be used. Corporations with grantmaking capacity must offer grants with unrestricted, multi-year funding, they suggested.

“When you’re working with marginalized communities, you need flexibility to respond; things can change on a dime. But with highly restrictive funds you don’t have that freedom,” said Newsome.

Making a grantmaking process more equitable must involve continuous review of the entire process: from application to evaluating broader trends in granting. Rooted in Vibrant Communities, a nonprofit based in Seattle, and consultancy, NonprofitAF, partnered to create an equitable grantmaking continuum for organizations looking to improve their funding processes. According to the continuum, even accepting proposals in other languages and formats (video, audio, etc) can make all the difference for BIPOC applicants.

The business community is often more concerned about the story they can tell about climate justice than making a real impact.

Another tip from these leaders: Don’t wait for BIPOC organizations to answer your open call for proposals. Be proactive, and go to them. As Snead said, “Stop sending out RFPs and asking organizations to apply. Go to BIPOC organizations and ask how you as a grantmaker can make it easier for them to access funds.”

BIPOC-led organizations have sustained relationships with their constituents, talented and committed staff, and years of community trust earned by successful campaigns. Businesses with grantmaking power have the opportunity to finally close this funding gap and fund the next decade of climate justice wins.

Partner with frontline communities

Polling by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication shows that Black and brown folks are still the most engaged demographic when it comes to voting on environmental issues and participating in climate justice actions. BIPOC-led organizations have been advocating for stronger environmental legislation and community-first climate initiatives for years, but they often lack the capacity to scale these initiatives. The conventional model of white-led organizations working on behalf of communities of color must end. Businesses wanting to make a difference must view frontline residents as partners and collaborators.

Panelists pointed out the tendency for larger organizations looking to diversify their partnerships to go through white-led institutions for their “diversity fix.” Climate justice organizations working with marginalized populations hold years of hard-won wisdom about what interventions really create change, they said. Engage them directly, listen to their needs and build lasting relationships. 

“The business community is often more concerned about the story they can tell about climate justice than making a real impact,” said Snead. “Take a step back, and ask partners how your work could bring them closer to their mission.”

Once you’ve partnered with an organization, give credit where it’s due; be open about who you’re partnering with and celebrate the contributions of BIPOC-led groups.

Corporations committed to climate justice must be willing to redistribute power back to marginalized communities, otherwise “all of these panels, focus groups and listening sessions do nothing,” Newsome said. “People of color have been saying this for years.”

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