Funds for climate justice flow to groups around the U.S.

·4 min read

Fourteen environmental justice organizations from around the United States have begun to receive money under the Justice40 initiative, a business accelerator announced Wednesday. The Justice40 Accelerator said the groups will receive some $3 million for work ranging from solar training in Detroit, to renovating homes to better withstand extreme weather, to a community market where farmers can sell their produce.

The Justice40 initiative is a Biden administration pledge to improve the environment in disadvantaged communities and help them prepare for climate change. It promises to funnel 40% of all investments in climate and environment to communities that live with the highest environmental burdens — diesel soot, lead water pipes, lack of access to green spaces to name a few.

In many such communities, there are groups that have worked for years to remedy conditions, usually on shoestring budgets.

“It lets us know that our work is not in vain,” said Eric Simpson, a farmer and owner of New Eden Ecosystem in West Point, Georgia. The West Georgia Farmers Cooperative will build a community hub where farmers can sell their crops and products they make from them.

“It’s rewarding,” said Donele Wilkins, founder and executive director of the Green Door Initiative, a Detroit-based group that does environmental workforce development. Money, she said has been "kind of elusive, so to be able to tap into it is helpful.”

Wilkins said her group plans to keep working to increase access to solar energy in affordable housing and create jobs installing and maintaining solar panels with the $200,000 they were awarded from Department of Energy.

Both groups wrangled the funding with help from the Justice40 Accelerator, created by a coalition of environmental and climate nonprofits led by The Solutions Project to help smaller community organizations navigate the federal funding process.

Some said they were cautiously optimistic at the Biden administration's pledge to support their causes, but most lacked experience applying for federal funds. And they had even less luck being selected for funds when they did apply.

“There's an expectation that some communities get resources and some communities don't,” Sekita Grant, vice president of programs at The Solutions Project, told the AP when the groups first entered the program. “So how do we help to prevent those inequities from happening?”

The accelerator worked to raise the groups' awareness of resources available to them from federal agencies and prepare them to apply for grants.

Six more groups are still waiting to hear if they were awarded funds in this first round, according to Jaimie Lewis, a grant writing expert.

For some of the groups, there's been an indirect benefit from the technical training. The Shelterwood Collective, an LGBTQ-led environmental group in Oakland, hasn't received federal funding, Lewis said, but did get a $4.5 million grant from CalFire for a forest restoration project in nearby Sonoma County using application materials they created while participating in the accelerator.

Just under half of the groups that got the technical support received funding of some kind, whether from federal, state, local or philanthropic sources, and winning $8 million in total.

Still, all of this is a drop in the bucket compared to what the Biden administration claims it has invested toward its Justice40 goals. In May, it said federal agencies have invested billions of dollars to help disadvantaged communities improve their environments and prepare for climate change.

Participants rued the fact that there could have been so much more. Sarah Shanley Hope, vice president of narrative strategies with The Solutions Project, said the failure to win environmental justice funding in the Biden administration's Build Back Better bill, which could not pass the Senate late last year, was a “setback” and made the Justice40 promise “confusing."

The administration also said in May that it had requested $45 billion in discretionary climate and environmental justice spending for the fiscal year 2023 budget. There will be more environmental and climate justice groups vying for those funds: The accelerator announced today that 49 new groups have been accepted into its second cohort.

Some of the participants in the first class plan to mentor the next crop of groups to come through the program.

“I’m always interested in being a mentor, supporting people and helping them,” Wilkins said. “I can't keep it all to myself. My deal is, if you don't share it, there's not going to be impact.”

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Follow Drew Costley on Twitter: @drewcostley.

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