A panel in session at the New Horizons Conference

Left to right: Panelists on “People of Color Shattering the Environmental Glass Ceiling” included Sonia Joshi (moderator), director, U.S. Programs, Institute for Sustainable Communities; Johanna Chao Kreilick, president, Union of Concerned Scientists; Jamesa Johnson Greer, executive director, Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition; and Adrian Benepe, president and CEO, Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

New Horizons in Conservation Conference Highlights Progress, Challenges in Environmental Justice

From the practical implications of the Biden-Harris Administration’s Justice40 initiative to inequities in grant funding and salaries at environmental organizations, the 2023 New Horizons in Conservation Conference was both a barometer of the progress achieved and of the still-significant challenges facing communities of color, and all underrepresented communities, in the environmental space.

Dorceta Taylor speaking at the podium
Dr. Dorceta Taylor ’85 MFS, ’91 PhD, JEDSI director and YSE professor of environmental justice

Hosted by the Justice, Equity, Diversity and Sustainability Initiative (JEDSI) at the Yale School of the Environment and held online and in New Haven, Connecticut, at the Omni Hotel May 10-13, the conference drew 320 in-person registrations and 166 virtual registrations from across the U.S. and the world. Speakers and panel discussion moderators came from both the private and the public sectors and included thought leaders from academia, the arts, business, government, and the nonprofit sector.

At a keynote session, Dr. Dorceta Taylor ’85 MFS, ’91 PhD, JEDSI director and professor of environmental justice at YSE, highlighted inequities in grant funding for environmental organizations. Her recently released study examining nearly $5 billion in grants awarded by 220 foundations found that several of the largest mainstream environmental organizations received more funding individually than did all the environmental justice organizations combined. Although more than half of the foundations surveyed, 56%, funded organizations primarily focusing on people of color, less than 10% of the grants and grant dollars were awarded to these organizations.

“I urge all of you to look into money and how it is tied to race and gender,” she said. “I didn’t expect to see such a strong correlation, but it’s something we have to do something about because it matters to these organizations.”

Here are nine key takeaways from the conference:

Frontline EJ communities are leading the way.

Access to clean, safe water, drinking and otherwise, is simply not equal. But frontline communities have been and are continuing to throw off environmental injustices. “They are leading the way, claiming the right to clean water, clean air, a healthy environment, and a livable planet. We find this every day in our work,” Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, told the audience at the Justice, Equity, and Public Health panel. To illustrate her point, Carluccio outlined the case in which environmental justice communities in southern New Jersey fought chemical company Solvay over widespread PFAS (known as “forever chemicals”) pollution from its West Deptford plant.

Water justice = access, affordability, and quality for all.

Concerns about the quality of the U.S. public drinking water supply have primarily focused on lead pipes, aging infrastructure, and workforce recruitment and retention, Yolanda McDonald, assistant professor at Vanderbilt University told conference attendees. However, what is not yet clear, is the impact of unsafe water on public health. There is a need for more robust geospatial and non-spatial datasets to assess water accessibility, quality, and affordability, and health outcomes at the community level. This vital information will provide evidence of water injustice to facilitate public health programs to assess adverse health outcomes associated with drinking water injustice.

“While the United States overall does have a safe drinking water system, with 90% of the population served by a public water system, the question is does everyone have access to the same quality (of water) and does everyone and have water justice,” McDonald said, noting that in 2022 a little under 8% of the U.S. population was served by a community water system that had received a violation under safe drinking water standards, which translates to 24 million people.

Wind and solar power generated one-tenth of global electricity for the first time in 2021.

While this figure represents progress, it suggests a pace of transition too tepid to meet the 1.5-degree target outlined in the Paris agreement, Dr. Brandy Brown, chief innovation officer, Walker-Miller Energy Services and environmental justice faculty member, University of Michigan SEAS, said at the Energy Justice and Energy Transitions panel. “One of the things that is holding us back from advancing is only thinking about market mechanisms…. We need to throw that out that entire theory of change if we’re going to address both climate change and what people need in environmental justice communities,” Brown said. “To decarbonize and reach a sustainable pathway, we need to think about people and how we are in relationship with the land.”

A true transition = energy equity + energy justice.

“It is my strong belief that we need both principles when it comes to an energy transition, but the two are not the same,” said Camille Moore, senior vice president, external affairs, American Association of Blacks in Energy. “Energy justice means going into the energy sector as it is today and dismantling all the systems of oppression that exist within that structure. Energy equity is about accessing that same system as it is. We need both things…to expedite the type of capacity-building that we need for mid-century goals and the type of serious sustainable development that we need to be doing, both to build resilience and to be able to keep up with competitors on a global scale.”

The JUSTICE40 Initiative is a big deal.

Created, under the Biden-Harris Administration, the Justice40 Initiative establishes the goal that 40% of the overall benefits of certain federal investments flow to disadvantaged communities.

Within the first year, the Department of Energy went through all its programs and identified 23 program offices and 144 programs that are Justice40 eligible. “So, a pretty powerful list of offices that engage in a wide variety of spaces ranging from solar to nuclear remediation to legacy pollution to a demonstration of clean energy projects that were done on a smaller scale and are now just commercializing,” said Simon Bunyon ’22 MEM, energy justice management and program analyst in the DOE’s Office of Economic Impact and Diversity, which is tasked with implementing the Justice40 Initiative at the DOE.

The focus on Justice40 represents a profound shift for the DOE, which for the past 45 years has primarily focused on R&D and emerging technologies, Bunyon noted.

Prioritizing community benefit is critical.

Guiding policy priorities for Justice40 benefits include decreased energy burden in disadvantaged communities; decreased environmental burden and exposure for disadvantaged communities; increased parity in clean energy access and adoption; increased access to low-cost capital; increased clean energy enterprise creation and contracting; increased clean energy jobs, jobs pipeline, and jobs training; increased energy resilience; and increased energy democracy.

If we’re not being really conscious of how these technologies are being implemented, and if they’re truly benefiting these communities, we’re just going to replicate our current energy systems that exist today and the current disparities that exist today.”

Simon Bunyon ’22 MEM — Program Analyst, Office of Economic Impact and Diversity, DOE

“So, take the first one, decreased energy burden in disadvantaged communities,” Bunyon said. “If that is one of our priorities, the metric would be reduction in energy costs due to some type of technology adoption, and then it would be measured by dollars saved in energy expenditures due to that tech.

“We really want to avoid a technocratic approach where we’re just investing in technologies. If we’re not being really conscious of how these technologies are being implemented, and if they’re truly benefiting these communities, we’re just going to replicate our current energy systems that exist today and the current disparities that exist today.”

Not everyone has equal access to nature.

Speaking at the “People of Color in the Outdoors” panel, Ronda Lee Chapman, equity director for the Trust for Public Land, recounted her experiences in Utah while in college. She talked about feeling unsafe traveling to ski areas in a state that is mostly white.

“I would stay in the car because it didn’t feel safe to grab a sandwich or cup of coffee. But I persisted because I was in love with nature, and no one was getting in the way of my relationship with nature. When people can spend time outdoors, their health improves, their minds clear, and their soul can find peace and it our job at the Trust for Public Land to make sure that is a given for everyone.”

Dudley Edmondson, photographer, author, filmmaker, noted that cities aren’t given the same value in conservation as “spaces devoid of people. “Are redwood trees more important than a tree in a Compton backyard?” he asked. “The more urban green space we lose, the more we disconnect people from nature.”

Brittany Leavitt, co-founder and CEO of Brown Girls Climb, said that more attention needs to be paid to all issues threatening access to nature. “What is a park if the journey to the park isn’t a safe one?”

New approaches are needed to fund environmental organizations run by people of color.

The grantmaking process can led to barriers for environmental organizations seeking funding, panelists at the “Increasing Funding for Work in Communities of Color” session said.

The grant system as it currently operates is inherently biased and exists on Western styles of communications and resource allocations.”

Mikayla Spencer Senior Manager of Equitable Communities, at the Ocean Conservancy

“The grant system as it currently operates is inherently biased and exists on Western styles of communications and resource allocations,” Mikayla Spencer, senior manager of equitable ocean communities at the Ocean Conservancy, noted in her presentation.

To change this, funders should streamline grantmaking processes, seek to build relationships with non-traditional organizations, provide direct grant support and operational and programmatic funding, and offer different ways of applying for grants, such as video applications instead of traditional forms.

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“The basic takeaway of this is that agencies should simplify the process, provide shorter applications, easier reporting, and technical assistance for navigating the process,” said Melanie Moore, associate program office for environment at the Mott Foundation.

The U.S. needs to invest more funding in plant-based food to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

During a panel discussion on the corporate role of enhancing sustainability, Elysabeth Alfano, CEO of VegTech Invest, noted that to feed the world’s population in a sustainable manner, “we must create more food in a shorter amount of time using fewer resources.”

The panelists also noted that communities must have sovereignty over land use and growing their own food.

Animal agriculture is responsible for 41% of tropical deforestation. About 45% of land and 25% of freshwater is used to produce meat. Shifting to a more plant-based diet could sequester 332-547 Gt of carbon dioxide, Arjun Hausner, impact strategy and sustainability manager at Impossible Foods pointed out in a presentation.

“We could put a pause in global warming,” he said.

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