MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We are disproportionately impacted, and we are left without resources.
MARTIN: That’s Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians.
FAWN SHARP: My tribe, the Quinault Nation, is currently under a state of national emergency due to sea level rise. And we’re having to relocate two main villages to higher ground. At a high tide, the ocean will encroach into our village, and it’ll go to our jail facility, our community center, the only store in town.
MARTIN: Sharp’s tribe is being forced to relocate due to the effects of climate change.
SHARP: Regardless of where we are placed, we’re going to continue to survive, and we’re going to continue to be resilient. But it certainly has taken a toll on on all of us.
MARTIN: Last year, an EPA study found that Indigenous people are 48% more likely than non-Indigenous people to lose land due to future sea level rise. And African Americans are 40% more likely than non-African Americans to live in areas where extreme temperatures could lead to an increase in deaths.
MICHAEL REGAN: I talked to moms in Jackson, Miss., whose children have been exposed to lead in drinking water.
MARTIN: That’s EPA administrator Michael Regan. Last November, he traveled across Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas to meet with communities facing extreme pollution.
REGAN: I talked with families in St. James and St. John’s Parish who have been exposed to pollution for decades from refineries and other sources of pollution who are dealing with cancer that spans three generations in one household – a grandparent, a parent and a child.
MARTIN: The evidence is consistent and clear. Communities of color are more likely to be affected by environmental conditions like pollution and climate change than others, and to be affected more severely. That’s why activists have begun to call it a matter of justice. And while the concept of environmental justice is becoming more familiar, key players in this movement say they are often ignored.
AYANA ELIZABETH JOHNSON: There’s this misconception that environmentalists are like – I don’t know – white dudes wearing Patagonia jackets and driving a Prius and, like, standing on top of a mountain, like, looking out at a forest, that, like, that is the environmentalist. That’s just not true.
MARTIN: CONSIDER THIS – the people most affected by climate change haven’t always been included in conversations about how to solve it, but that’s starting to change. That’s coming up. From NPR, I’m Michel Martin. It’s Saturday, April 30.
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MARTIN: It’s CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a marine biologist, policy expert and writer. In the spring of 2020, amid the wave of social justice protests around the country, she found herself making the same argument within the environmental movement – that Black lives matter.
JOHNSON: I would like white people who care about the climate to know that we can’t solve climate change without people of color. It’s just not possible.
MARTIN: She talked to our colleagues at Short Wave about an op-ed she wrote for The Washington Post. She titled the piece “I’m A Black Climate Expert. Racism Derails Our Efforts To Save The Planet.”
JOHNSON: I really didn’t expect as many people to read this op-ed as ended up reading it. It was a piece of writing born out of fury and grief.
MARTIN: Fury and grief and frustration with persuading fellow environmentalists of something communities of color already knew or just absorbed by living it – that social justice and environmental justice go hand in hand.
JOHNSON: And so when I was thinking about this particular moment in American history and how I might be able to participate, I thought, I can help people understand the connections between climate and race in a way that might break through to more people because I’m Black, because I’m a woman, because I’m from New York City. And I grew up in Brooklyn in the ’80s when it was extremely dangerous, and we were all terrified of the police.
MARTIN: And she is also an environmental activist, part of a group she says was too quiet for too long about racism.
JOHNSON: It was something people didn’t want to deal with. Like, climate change is complicated enough as it is, right? We don’t really need to add all these layers of complexity around race and social justice. It would be more convenient to be able to ignore them. But then I realized that I had an opportunity to help environmentalists connect the dots in a way maybe they hadn’t before. People talk about climate justice as the intersection between race and climate because people of color are more strongly affected by the impacts of climate change, whether that’s storms or droughts or heat waves.
But there is another dot we don’t connect, and that’s to why we don’t see more people of color leading the environmental movement. And people are always assuming – there’s this stereotype that people of color don’t care about climate. And I really wanted the opportunity to say we do care and we’re trying. And if you would just stop killing us, we would be able to help a little bit more with this crisis that all of us are facing.
MARTIN: The situation, Ayana Elizabeth Johnson said, reminds her of a quote from Toni Morrison, who said, “the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again your reason for being.”
JOHNSON: At moments like this, you just need to check in on your people. Are your friends OK? Is your family OK? Is your community OK? How can you contribute? How can you look out for each other? In what ways are you going to take a stand? How are we going to engage politically? How are we going to fundraise for the organizations that are, you know, leading these efforts? All of that is time consuming. All of that is time that could be spent doing any number of other things. And so when Toni Morrison says racism is a distraction, that’s what I think of. I just think of all of the minutes that you have to spend reading these horror stories in the news and figuring out how to stop them from happening.
MARTIN: All the work Black Americans have to do for the basic right to simply live. She says it’s time stolen.
JOHNSON: I’m tearing up thinking about it now. I mean, it’s just – it’s such a waste. The brilliance, the opportunity, the art, the climate solutions, the engineering, I mean, the fact that we have so many Americans who can’t follow their dreams because they know that their first responsibility is to protect their communities is just gut-wrenching to me. How can we expect them to do that when faced with racism this dire and dangerous?
MARTIN: Climate change disproportionately affects Black and brown people. The evidence suggests that members of these groups know it and they care. 2019 data suggests that Black and Latino Americans are more concerned and alarmed than white Americans about the climate crisis.
JOHNSON: And so if we want to succeed at addressing this crisis, we should be certainly engaging the people who already care. And wouldn’t it be great if they could be more involved in the solutions in leading their communities towards the radical changes that we need to see in our energy and our transportation and our food systems in our buildings? There’s a lot of work to do. And I would love to see more people be able to focus on that, because if we don’t create the societal shifts we need towards equality, towards eliminating racism, then we simply won’t have enough people working on climate to actually win. I mean, and this is a fight we need to win.
MARTIN: Coming up, one group is calling on donors to step up and support the work of climate activists of color.
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MARTIN: In the U.S., philanthropic organizations spend tens of millions of dollars a year funding projects and programs on everything from renewable energy to developing sustainable agriculture. But a recent study conducted by The NEW School and a group called Building Equity and Alignment found that little of that money went to groups focused on those most affected by climate change. They found that between 2016 and 2017, a dozen environmental funders donated more than a billion dollars, but just over 1% went to organizations focused on environmental justice for communities of color. Enter the Donors of Color Network.
ISABELLE LEIGHTON: Donors of Color Network was founded on the premise that the work that people of color, and particularly Black and Indigenous people of color, are not highlighted. Those stories are not told.
MARTIN: That’s interim executive director Isabelle Leighton.
LEIGHTON: Philanthropy is an ecosystem, right? So some of us are in the business of grantmaking. Some of us are in the business of research. Some of us are in the business of what we like to call advocacy or philanthropic advocacy.
MARTIN: Philanthropic advocacy is what the Donors of Color Network was founded to do. When the organization was founded in 2019, they wanted to highlight the impact philanthropists of color were having in the grantmaking world and on climate-related initiatives.
LEIGHTON: Those individuals and those families and those in some cases foundations were actually making a really big difference. And so for us, we wanted to make sure that there was a place for these donors to connect with each other. We found that there are 1.32 million people of color with assets over a million dollars who are in the U.S., and that there’s a great opportunity to organize and raise the voices of this work. And for us, that means we have to take a 360 approach, which not only includes people of color who have wealth, but also making sure that BIPOC communities that are doing the work to actually create racial equity and racial justice are at the seat at the table for a lot of the conversations within philanthropy.
MARTIN: From the beginning, the group took as a core principle that social justice and environmental justice are linked.
LEIGHTON: When we came together and were founded in 2019, we came up with four priorities. We focused on climate, justice, politics and democracy, culture and arts. And we have a new group on regenerative economy and economic justice.
MARTIN: The Donors of Color Network called on the top philanthropic organizations to pledge 30% of their environmental grants to Black, Indigenous and people of color led initiatives. And they asked grant makers to be transparent about which environmental groups they were funding. Tough questions. I asked Isabelle Leighton about how that went down.
So when you approached donors, how did that conversation go? I mean, to the degree you feel comfortable. I’d just love to know what those conversations were like. Did you – did they understand immediately what you’re saying? Did you feel like you had to connect some dots?
LEIGHTON: So that’s a really wonderful question. A lot of the members that we have are people of color themselves. So they have the lived experiences either personally or within their families or within their communities of a lot of these injustices. For example, I’ve heard one of our groups, Green Latinos, they often mention that 68% of Latinos in the U.S. live in neighborhoods with air quality that’s below the federal standards. So people of color across all wealth spectrum and all income levels are aware of these inequities. But once we started to have these conversations within philanthropy and, you know, mainstream philanthropy and, of course, it’s not surprising that there was a lot of bias because of the way that mainstream philanthropy is structured. A lot of the decision-makers are not, you know, connected to these communities. They aren’t centering people of color in their decision-making, whether that’s within their own leadership or with the type of groups that they have relationships with. So, of course, they’re not going to have very sophisticated understanding of what these movements are capable of.
MARTIN: Earlier this month, the Donors of Color Network announced that they’ve secured $100 million in climate-related funds, which will go to people of color-led climate initiatives and projects. It’s a big milestone, but I wanted to know, why philanthropy?
So philanthropic organizations aren’t the only groups that fund climate change initiative. I mean, there’s corporate money. There’s state and federal government funds. I mean, the EPA has an Office of Environmental Justice. Why put the focus on philanthropy?
LEIGHTON: Yeah. There’s a whole, like I said, ecosystem of resources. And we realized that there is actually a lot of work to be done in philanthropy to address the historic white supremacy that exists. And what I mean by that is structurally there are biases that the decision-makers within philanthropy make. If they’re not able to have voices of people of color at the decision-making table, they’re going to continue to repeat the harms that have happened for four decades. Plus, it’s not just a checkmark for diversity, equity and inclusion. This is actually the way that we will have a winning strategy, an effective strategy for climate, right?
So for us, we think that this is why philanthropy is important, because there is a lot of opportunity for philanthropy to move quickly and to really fund these groups. They’re doing the long game, you know, in creating different solutions and actually doing policy development. And they just need the resources that these philanthropic institutions have access to.
MARTIN: That was Isabelle Leighton. She is the interim executive director of the Donors of Color Network. It’s CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I’m Michel Martin.
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