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14 climate justice organizations are receiving federal funds after a year of "setbacks"

Protestor holding a sign reading "We need a change" at a climate protest
Image Credit: Wix

“Imagine this: a world where everyone enjoys clean air, toxic-free communities, access to trusted transportation, and healthy food.”

That’s the mission of Green Door Initiative, a Detroit-based group engaged in environmental workforce development.

Green Door Initiative and 13 other climate and environmental justice groups will begin to see funds from Justice40 -- a funding mechanism for organizations launched by the Biden Administration.

The Justice40 Intiative is intended to advance environmental justice in tandem with economic opportunity in disadvantaged communities, specifically through investments in climate and clean energy via funding by Federal agencies into businesses and grassroots efforts.

The business accelerator’s achievement was announced late last month, and is a part of the administration’s pledge to improve the environment in disadvantaged communities and help them prepare for climate change, the Associated Press reports.

A year ago, 52 community-rooted climate justice groups from across the country formed the Justice40 Accelerator's first cohort.

The Justice40 Accelerator is independent of the federal government. Formed in partnership with the People’s Climate Innovation Center, the Justice40 Accelerator helps community-based organizations apply for funding flowing from the administration’s Justice40 Initiative, due to the complexities presented when applying for federal grants.

From education about federal grants to philanthropic grants to project pre-development workshops, partnership opportunities, and technical expertise, the technical support provided by the Justice40 Accelerator has aided participants in successfully applying for millions of dollars in federal funding.

So far, fourteen organizations from the cohort have received $3 million in federal Justice40 Initiative funding and in-kind technical assistance.

These groups range from organizations like Green Door Initiative, which is working to mitigate energy insecurity through solar training in Detroit; to West Georgia Farmer's Cooperative, which aims to establish a community market where farmers can sell their produce; to Blacks in Green -- an organization working to make water in Chicago lead-free.

Community member from the organization Blacks In Green. Image Credit: Blacks in Green
Community member from the organization Blacks In Green. Image Credit: Blacks in Green

The accelerator operates under the sentiment that going local and granting grassroots organizations in underserved communities is paramount in ensuring a ‘just’ energy transition. This sentiment is explained in an editorial by Nathanial Smith, founder and Chief Equity Officer of the Partnership for Southern Equity.

“When people see their own neighbors creating positive change, bringing in new technology, and creating jobs, they have tangible reasons to hope,” Smith writes. Partnership for Southern Equity co-founded the Accelerator together with a coalition of environmental and climate nonprofits: The Solutions Project, Elevate Groundswell, and The Hummingbird Firm.

“The achievements won by the organizations in the Justice40 Accelerator’s first cohort prove that the right partners providing the right technical assistance to move the needle in achieving systematic and real community solutions to the climate crisis works, and works well,” Smith said in a statement. “To achieve a true and just transition to a clean-energy economy, we must repair the damage done to communities by dirty energy and climate change; we must invest in their future. This includes leveling the playing field so that more organizations with innovative climate solutions can apply for federal funding. The Justice40 Accelerator represents a prime example of jump-starting a just transition to a more sustainable, more equitable, more prosperous nation.”

The Justice40 Initiative promises to funnel 40 percent of all investments in climate and environment to communities bearing the brunt of environmental burdens like diesel soot, lead water pipes, and lack of access to green spaces to name a few.

“It lets us know that our work is not in vain,” Eric Simpson told AP. Simpson is a farmer, and owner of New Eden Ecosystem in West Point, Georgia. Simpson is a leading member at West Georgia Farmer’s Cooperative, a grassroots agricultural collective dedicated to building infrastructure to support local businesses and the production of affordable food. The organization aims to build a community hub where farmers can sell their crops and concomitant products.

In many communities the Justice40 Initiative targets, there are groups that have worked for years to ameliorate environmental conditions, usually on flimsy budgets.

“[Money has been] kind of elusive, so to be able to tap into it is helpful,” Donele Wilkins, founder and executive director of the Green Door Initiative told AP.

Green Door Initiative 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 the Department of Energy Wilkins told AP. Green Door Intiative is one of 18 organizations awarded the sum via DOE’s Inclusive Energy and Innovation Prize.

Members of the West Georgia Farmers Coop at work

When Biden first pledged to support environmental justice causes in his 2021 executive order, through the Justice40 plan, some community leaders said they were cautiously optimistic, while others were skeptical.

Criticism arose from its 40 percent funding ceiling to its persistence in remaining “race-neutral” when identifying disadvantaged communities, despite voluminous research supporting strong correlations between pollution and non-white communities. (A recent article in Grist answers questions about the tools to address cumulative burdens the initiative will use instead.)

Amidst initial critiques of the federal program, founding members of the Justice40 Accelerator saw an area it could help: technical training. Many community leaders lacked experience applying for federal funds, and had even less luck being selected for funds when they did apply. Thus, the Justice40 Accelerator aims to help smaller community organizations navigate the federal funding process.

“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?”

Justice40 Accelerator answers that question by working to raise groups’ awareness of resources available to them from federal agencies and prepare them to apply for grants.

“The process of applying for government funding is time-consuming and complex,” said Anne Evens said in a statement. Evens is the CEO of one of the accelerator’s co-founders, Chicago-based nonprofit Elevate. “Trusted community organizations with great ideas are places people turn to now more than ever, and they are at capacity. We knew there had to be a better way to help them submit successful proposals to meet the needs of the people they serve. The Justice40 Initiative is that better way to prioritize funding. The Justice40 Accelerator is here to dramatically increase access.”

Wilkins expressed that the training helped Green Door Initiative. “We were able to engage a consultant who gave us much-needed feedback at every iteration of the process, including things that we hadn't thought of or didn't know, like phrasing our proposal in a way that would resonate with a reviewer,” Wilkins said in a statement. “The technical assistance allowed us to think through what we needed in order to move through the entire federal process and succeed. And the Accelerator's collegiality and community connections were warm and wonderful. We'll be reaching out for support from the accelerator and our community as we implement our award because the real work of justice marches on.”

Even without federal funding, the training received from the Accelerator was an indirect benefit to Shelterwood Collective, an LGBTQ-led environmental group in Oakland, California, reports AP. Shelterwood Collective was awarded 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.

But the work from the Accelerator’s first go at this project is far from finished. According to Jaimie Lewis, a grant writing expert, six more groups are still waiting to hear if they were awarded funds in this first round.

As AP reports, just under half of the groups that utilized technical support won $8 million in total, whether from federal, state, local or philanthropic sources.

Nonetheless, these funds pale in comparison to what the Biden administration claims it has invested toward its Justice40 goals. In May, it called its investments “historic” and “long overdue,” totaling billions of dollars to be funneled into disadvantaged communities to improve their environments and prepare their neighborhoods for the effects of climate change.

Participants say that the initiative could have been so much more. Sarah Shanley Hope, vice president of narrative strategies with The Solutions Project, told AP 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.”

Still, the Accelerator continues. As of May, the administration said it requested $45 billion in discretionary climate and environmental justice spending for the fiscal year 2023 budget. As more organizations are hopeful for those funds, the Accelerator program announced that 49 new community-centric groups have been accepted into its second cohort, as of June 29. The cohort kicks off work this month.

Like the 2021 inaugural cohort, the 2022 division includes groups from Black, Indigenous, Latino, and Asian and Pacific Islander communities — rural, tribal, urban, and suburban — from across the United States. According to the Accelerator’s news release, the resources and support that come with the program, are topped off with $25,000 awarded to each organization in unrestricted grant money.

For each cohort, the Accelerator lasts as a 12-month program. After it finishes, they can continue to receive support from its network of alumni. Some groups like Green Door Initiative provide this support through mentorship. “I’m always interested in being a mentor, supporting people and helping them,” Wilkins told AP. “I can’t keep it all to myself. My deal is, if you don’t share it, there’s not going to be impact.”

“Historically, Washington hasn't made big investments in grassroots organizations that have so much skin in the game,” Gloria Walton, CEO and President of The Solutions Project said in a statement. “The work of environmental justice organizations inspired this administration's Justice40 commitment. Now frontline communities are excited to influence and decide where the dollars go, recognizing that 40 percent is just the beginning.”

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