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.
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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.

  • It’s all about relationships. Surdna came to understand that authentic, trusting relationships with partners on the ground are essential. Indeed, its strategy evolved through deep conversations with frontline partners and efforts to bring new grantee partners into the fold, who brought fresh perspectives, analyses, and approaches. As these relationships grew, the team was better able to make the case internally for a more justice- and equity-centered approach.
  • Prioritize reflection and accountability. As issues of racial justice have come increasingly to the fore, Surdna carved out space internally to deepen its own articulation and analysis of social and racial justice and to reflect critically on how its past approaches and practices have caused harm. This process of individual and organizational self-reflection ultimately helped inform the design and orientation of the foundation’s climate portfolio.
  • Account for different perspectives and levels of knowledge. In hindsight, one of the things Surdna wishes it had done differently was better adapt its learning journey design for the organization and board based on the nuance of people’s learning styles and the varying levels of knowledge and lived experiences people brought to the table.
  • Follow the frontlines. In the end, Corwin says, “It’s not the role of a funder to sit in a room with other funders and come up with what that funding strategy should be. … our role is to be in deep relationship with folks most impacted by the issues we’re working on who already have the strategy and know how to implement the solutions. Our job is to reflect that and mobilize the resources in service of what they are doing.” To that end, Corwin says she spends more of her time these days fundraising and organizing to ensure that new funding for the climate crisis includes justice-centered approaches.
  • Question your questions. Corwin encourages funders to shift the set of questions they’re asking and to reflect on how change happens and, in doing so, to value lived experience and the importance of ensuring that those directly impacted are in positions of decision-making power. “Part of that is the beauty of the solutions that you would have never imagined come out of this”—solutions that solve for the climate crisis at the same time they create more equitable outcomes, such as safe and affordable housing, land reparations, and public governance over community investments.

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.

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