Surdna’s Unwavering Commitment to Advancing Racial Justice in America’s Communities

The Surdna Foundation is extremely disappointed in the Supreme Court’s ruling today on affirmative action, which will prevent colleges and universities from considering race in admissions. We wish tools like affirmative action were not necessary to ensure that all people can gain access to opportunities on an equal footing. But many aspects of our society–including access to higher education–exhibit glaring racial disparities, largely because of the U.S.’s long history of discrimination against people of color, especially anti-Black racism. This legacy of exclusion demands that we continue to use effective tools to create more opportunity, rather than allow racial exclusion to persist.

Though the Supreme Court has curtailed the use of affirmative action in college admissions, we are encouraged to see exceptional leaders developing and implementing ways to prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion in their institutions and communities. Ample evidence shows that a variety of institutions, such as schools, workplaces, and government agencies, are more effective and generate better outcomes when they include a variety of people–including those from diverse racial backgrounds—who come with different points of view, schools of thought, and lived experiences. By extension, we believe that our communities and society will also reap a diversity dividend if racial disparities are eliminated.

As a longtime social justice funder, the Surdna Foundation in 2018 decided to place racial justice at the center of our mission to more effectively diagnose and address longstanding priorities, including:

We remain absolutely steadfast in our commitment to advancing racial justice in America’s communities. A better future depends on all of us having an equal chance to provide for our families and have opportunities to shine. We will continue to support efforts to affirmatively further racial diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice in all that we do.

Read More
Joint Statement from 40+ Foundations

Toward climate justice—A 10+ year evolution

What is climate justice? How are foundations incorporating it into their work and making a positive impact? Author Seema Shah, Ph.D. explores these questions in “Centering equity and justice in climate philanthropy.” Commissioned by Ariadne and Candid, this field guide identifies common barriers to supporting climate justice, describes ways to overcome them, and shares insights and case studies from experienced funders, including Alison Corwin, Surdna’s Director for Sustainable Environments

Read on for a chapter exploring Surdna’s journey to climate justice—reposted with permission from Candid under Creative Commons license.

Text: Candid Learning and Ariadne A photo of a Black man looking up and holding an illustrated flag with the world on it.
Read the full report >

Toward climate justice—A 10+ year evolution

The Surdna Foundation’s Sustainable Environments program is grounded in the belief that investing in the capacity of frontline and grassroots climate justice movements will lead to real climate solutions and more equitable environmental outcomes. The program is made up of two areas of focus—Environmental and Climate Justice and Land Use Through Community Power. Both focus areas are centered in racial justice and the lived experience of low-wealth communities and communities of color. However, this was not always the case.

A traditional approach to environmental funding.

As the longest-standing program at Surdna, the Sustainable Environments program has evolved over the years. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the program invested in initiatives that were part of the smart growth movement, which focused on a range of development and conservation strategies to protect and improve the environment by creating more liveable, diverse, sustainable, and economically strong communities. Alison Corwin, program director of the Sustainable Environments portfolio at Surdna, shares that although their strategy was well-intentioned, it did not have a strong analysis around power and race. As a result, the work had unintended consequences, including displacement and gentrification, that caused harm to communities of color.

Shifting focus.

In 2012, Surdna underwent a strategy refresh that shifted its grantmaking from a smart growth frame to an infrastructure frame. At the same time, it also made new hires, beefing up staff capacity in recognition that building and deepening relationships with field leaders was a critical component of the work. Within this new infrastructure frame, Surdna focused on four specific lines of work (urban stormwater management; energy efficiency; transportation and equitable land use development; and regional food systems). Through the leadership of Helen Chin, former director of the Sustainable Environments portfolio, and other women of color on the team, including senior program officer Kellie Terry, the Foundation sought to recognize and remedy past harms and to listen and learn from partners on the ground. Surdna ultimately acknowledged that, although the infrastructure frame was a step in the right direction, a grantmaking portfolio focused on specific lines of work did not reflect, in Corwin’s words, “how anyone in the real world is organizing or thinking of the work.”

As Surdna engaged in its own learning and reflection, the Sustainable Environments program shifted again in 2018. Ever since, the Foundation organizes its portfolio under two inextricably linked but distinct buckets—environmental and climate justice and land use through community power, both in the service of racial justice. The current portfolio represents a shift from focusing on the outcome of infrastructure investments to centering the role of race and power. Examples of resulting changes include supporting BIPOC organizers and movement leaders to advance visions and solutions that change who has the power to decide and who benefits from climate and economic policies, land control, ownership and stewardship, and investment in communities. In this spirit, the portfolio includes grants for Black land and food justice work as well as investments that support a just transition, such as energy democracy.

Lessons learned.

Corwin acknowledges the evolutions and shifts have been “slower moving than any of us would’ve liked,” and that the process was hard, requiring difficult conversations and personal sacrifices. Indeed, the evolution has been 10 years in the making, with many lessons learned along the way.

Breaking down issue-area silos

There is increasing recognition that regardless of a foundation’s areas of focus, a climate or climate justice connection to the work is sure to exist. At the same time, many of those we interviewed reflected on the often-siloed nature of foundation portfolios and lamented how such artificial silos result in missed opportunities to achieve bigger and more sustainable impacts. Take the field of education.

In a February 2022 op-ed in the Chronicle of Philanthropy entitled “Education and Climate Donors Should Join Forces,” authors Jonathan Klein, Jennifer Moses, and Sara Moss of Undaunted K12 note that millions of students in the United States have been forced to miss school in the past year due to climate-induced disasters such as wildfires and flooding, and that the negative impacts of missing school fall disproportionately on students of color and students in low-income communities. The authors provide a host of suggestions for how funders can invest at the intersection of climate and education—ranging from building climate-resilient schools to integrating education about the climate crisis into elementary and secondary schools. They write, “Education grantmakers who ignore climate change risk seeing their work undermined by increased climate-related educational inequities.”

Likewise, for funders working on issues related to workforce and economic development, the impact of the climate crisis cannot be ignored. As Peter Kostishack of Global Greengrants states, “Whole economies are going to reorganize around the climate crisis. It’s not just energy that will be impacted. It’ll be all sorts of other industries and professions and sectors that will be adapting too.” At the intersection of the economy and the climate, many climate justice leaders have focused on advocating for a just transition, or as some climate leaders describe it, “fighting the bad” and “building the new.” Originally developed by labor unions and environmental justice groups and led by low-income communities of color, just transition refers to a set of principles, processes, and practices that seek to shift practices associated with an extractive economy to practices that represent a living, regenerative economy. For example, recognizing that polluting industries are actively harming workers and the environment, a just transition emphasizes the importance of creating an equitable transition to alternate jobs for frontline workers who are doubly harmed by an extractive economy and the climate crisis it has caused. The driving principle of just transition is that a healthy economy and environment can co-exist and that it should not come at the cost of workers’ and communities’ physical, economic, or social well-being. A central tenet of a just transition framework is uplifting democracy and putting power in the hands of frontline workers and communities.

The Dutch-based Porticus Foundation, for example, has a portfolio focused on a fair rural transition to help the agricultural sector move from extractive practices to regenerative ones that benefit both the people and the planet. The Porticus Foundation does so through a two-pronged strategy that supports grassroots movements for bottom-up change as well as top-down advocacy efforts that seek to influence funding streams and policy change. Education and the economy are just two examples of how the climate crisis is exacerbating inequities across a range of sectors.

Read the full report