Pledge drive urges funding for racially diverse climate efforts

Smoke billows from a refinery near homes.
Smoke billows from a Marathon Petroleum refinery near a neighborhood in southwest Detroit.
(Romain Blanquart / Detroit Free Press)

Ashindi Maxton was distraught as she toured neighborhoods in Detroit’s 48217 ZIP Code and met residents who live in one of the most polluted communities in Michigan.

They live against the backdrop of heavy industrial sites that have long been a major concern in the nation’s largest Black-majority city, which has some of the country’s highest asthma rates among children and a lengthy history of environmental concerns.

Residents shared stories of loved ones who grew sick after living near the industrial sites and noted that it’s often hard to breathe because of a thick chemical stench that is most profound in the summer.


It was a defining moment for Maxton, co-founder of the Donors of Color Network, a philanthropic group dedicated to racial equity and funding environmental projects and other racial justice movements nationwide.

“Most of the people I know have more than one illness,” said 68-year-old Emma Lockridge, who has lived near an oil refinery for more than three decades and has a rare blood cancer. Her brother, sister, mother and father died of cancers or disease they blame on environmental toxins.

“It just makes me want to cry. The environmental impact on our lives — no one should be living like this. We’ve got to figure out a better way,” Lockridge told the Associated Press.

It’s because of tragedies like this that the Donors of Color Network launched a Climate Funders Justice Pledge on Feb. 4, challenging the nation’s climate philanthropists to shift 30% of their donations toward environmental efforts led by Black, Indigenous, Latino and other people of color.

“People say we have 10 years to solve the climate crisis, but people of color are living it right now,” Maxton said. “Organizations led by people of color are chronically underfunded and there is a … vibrant set of leaders and organizations that people can fund.”

While the fight against climate change and for environmental justice has benefited in recent years from a growing push by politicians and activists, research shows funding isn’t spread equitably to communities of color, which are often hit hardest.


A study last year by the Tishman Environment and Design Center at the New School found that from 2016 to 2017, 12 national environmental grant makers awarded $1.34 billion to organizations in the Gulf and Midwest regions, but of that, just $18 million — 1.3% — was awarded to groups dedicated to environmental justice.

“What we’re asking for is everyone to collectively acknowledge that 1.3% is a systemic failure,” Maxton said. “We haven’t met anyone … who thinks that is a sign of a healthy or winning climate movement.”

By setting a 30% goal, “you have a metric to strive for,” Maxton added. “We felt it was really important for people to set a baseline of what racial equity should look like when it lands in a budget. It should show that you are investing in the communities that are most impacted by the climate crisis.”

But there are barriers. New School professor Ana Baptista, who led the Tishman study, said several foundations told her they were concerned smaller organizations led by people of color didn’t have the infrastructure to handle a large donation.

But Baptista also found that other groups openly acknowledged long-standing structural racism and bias within the philanthropy sector that has led to environmental groups led by people of color being underresourced and underrepresented in decision-making, with most funding going toward white-led efforts.

“I think there’s definitely a great opportunity right now, with the increased awareness and re-centering of racial equity and racial justice within philanthropy, and an important moment of reckoning that we should use to hold these foundations accountable,” Baptista said.


“Now is where the rubber meets the road and it’s a moment to put your money where your mouth is.”

The centerpiece of the pledge drive is to increase the share of funding to 30% over the next two years to groups with boards and senior staff that are at least half people of color, and whose work is focused on the most environmentally impacted communities.

As a starting point, funders who take the pledge commit to disclosing within one month the percentage of their climate giving that is currently directed to such groups.

The pledge drive is being supported by some of the nation’s top environmental groups led by people of color and six top funders, including the Kresge Foundation, which has already committed to the 30% goal.

Kresge’s pledge comes after a $30-million grant announced last year to support nearly 60 racial justice and community-led efforts across the nation. Separately, it has increased funding to climate justice groups led by people of color from about 5% to 7% in 2012 to more than 30% in 2019 and 2020.

“Equity is obviously a central concern for us because of how structural racism is a barrier of opportunity,” said Lois DeBacker, managing director of the Kresge Foundation’s Environment Program. “If we’re going to win on climate change in this country, the climate movement needs to look like all of the country. It does, but it hasn’t been equally funded.”


The pledge drive comes at an opportune time. President Biden signed sweeping executive orders last month to transform the nation’s heavily fossil fuel-powered economy into a clean-burning one, while also pledging to make environmental justice central to the White House’s efforts to fight climate change. He signed an order to establish an environmental justice council and directed the government to spend 40% of clean energy efforts in disadvantaged communities that bear the brunt of pollution.

It also comes on the heels of proposed legislation by Democratic lawmakers Rep. Cori Bush and Sens. Edward J. Markey and Tammy Duckworth that would create a federal system to comprehensively identify the demographic factors, environmental burdens, socioeconomic conditions and public health concerns that are related to environmental justice.

Dallas Goldtooth, an organizer with Keep It in the Ground, a campaign dedicated to keeping the world’s remaining fossil fuels underground, and a member of the Indigenous Environmental Network, said the pledge drive is crucial.

“It is no surprise and it has been no surprise for generations that the communities that are dealing with the highest instances of disease and sickness associated with toxic pollution are communities of color,” Goldtooth said.

“It’s not about a short-term investment to address immediate concerns, it’s about shifting the entire landscape to address the generations of destruction and address the ways in which Black, brown and Indigenous communities have carried America’s addiction to fossil fuels and toxic pollution,” he said.

The NAACP launched its own Environmental and Climate Justice Program in 2009 after it became clear Black communities were being impacted hard, and it is supporting the climate pledge drive.


“It’s horrific the number of ways that we are disproportionately impacted,” said the program’s director, Jacqui Patterson, noting in particular Hurricane Katrina, which killed more than 1,800 people in and around New Orleans. “We are supporting it because we are on the front lines of these challenges.”

For Mark Magaña, founding president and chief executive of GreenLatinos, the fight is personal. His organization has worked for years to spread awareness and shed light on how Latino communities have been hurt by climate change and environmental issues.

Magaña said many Latino Americans live in areas devastated by natural disasters made more extreme because of climate change, including wildfires in California, hurricanes in Texas and Puerto Rico, and flooding in Florida.

“The front-line communities need to be able to be heard,” Magaña said. “When you’re working on pennies on the dollar relative to what mainstream environmental leaders get … it is unbelievable and unacceptable.”

“That’s why this pledge is important,” he said. “It puts the number where it needs to be as a floor to start with so we can really move toward equity and justice.”