How can environmental health and justice values and voices have more impact in the democratic process? That question keeps weaving through threads of conversation among HEFN members. It is more often being integrated into their grantmaking. And it led me to attend the spring convening of the Funders Committee on Civic Participation (FCCP) from May 7-9 in San Antonio, Texas. Here are a few of my takeaways for HEFN and its funder community from the convening.
Demography is our friend. I was surprised at how often issues of health, environment, and justice were mentioned by speakers talking about their civic engagement work. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. We know the public generally resonates with the kinds of concerns motivating HEFN members’ grantmaking – like health hazards in people’s everyday surroundings, or the right of communities to have a voice in decisions that affect their health and well-being. And researchers on demographic and electoral trends regularly report that values of health, environmental protection, and equity resonate with the emerging majority electorate that includes voters of color, young people, and women.
Health, environmental, and justice issues are motivating civic engagement. Several presentations at the FCCP convening mentioned HEFN-relevant issues as focal points of civic engagement work. A panel facilitated by Sarah Christiansen (Solidago Foundation) highlighted climate justice organizing in California, New Mexico, and Virginia.
Speakers as varied as a national reproductive rights group and a Texas voter engagement collaborative pointed to strong public interest in accessing health care as a motivation for focusing civic engagement outreach on Affordable Care Act implementation. Several presenters cited neighborhood conditions as the trigger for community action. An Ohio civic engagement organizer said they are responding to the hundred-plus “organically grown” citizen groups concerned about fracking impacts on their local communities.
Powerful numbers isn’t (necessarily) power. One striking issue across several presentations was the disconnects between the apparent interests of the eligible electorate and current political power. Texas, for example, along with NM, CA, AZ and DC, is already majority-minority in population, but voter participation rates are much lower among Texas voters of color. Some of the most inspiring speakers I heard in San Antonio placed these realities, as well as ongoing struggles over issues like voter suppression and immigration reform, in the context of historical civil rights and pro-democracy movements.
Convening speakers also talked about money in politics as a major obstacle to progress on specific issues, as well as to the authentic translation of public will into public policy. Issues related to money in politics are a contemporary concern as well to the HEFN community’s work to address threats from toxics and dirty energy.
Partnership possibilities. I saw a few HEFN members at the FCCP meeting, including from the Groundswell Fund, Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts, Sapelo Foundation, and Solidago Foundation. But the vast majority of participants in San Antonio were new to HEFN and vice versa. FCCP staff including its executive director Deb Ross were very welcoming of my participation.
With so much potential shared interest, we look forward to exploring ways to help funders learn and collaborate across these communities. HEFN members may find in FCCP and its working groups – on state infrastructure and money in politics – a number of useful resources as well as potential funder allies. Likewise, in many cases HEFN members’ grantees already are helping communities and segments of the emerging electorate mobilize in defense of their environmental health and justice interests. Those lively organizing efforts could offer new energy and dynamism for civic engagement work.
Thanks to the FCCP staff and planning committee for a great convening – and congratulations to that funder community as it celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2013. We look forward to more collegial – and civic – engagement!
Lois Gibbs, Executive Director of the Center for Health, Environment & Justice and consultant with the Cross Currents Foundation, authored this post. She looks back at 35 years since the Love Canal neighborhood of Niagara Falls, NY’s fight for state, local and federal recognition and action on health problems caused by toxic chemical leakage from the landfill on which the neighborhood was built and forward to investments in the next grassroots movement on environmental health and justice.
No, I’m not talking about a shot of whiskey. I’m referring to the way change happens.
Thirty-five years ago at Love Canal, in Niagara Falls, NY, my working class community introduced the nation, and to some extent the world, a new understanding of how environmental chemicals adversely impact people’s health. Love Canal is a toxic waste dumpsite containing over 20,000 tons of chemicals, which leaked into the surrounding residential neighborhood where residents developed an alarming number of health problems that they believed were caused by chemicals leaking from the landfill. At the time, state health investigators repeatedly told residents that it was unlikely that their health problems are related to Love Canal since their exposures were much lower than workplace standards.
Yet the evidence was strong. One study found that 56% of the neighborhood children born in one stretch had birth defects. Not willing to accept that environmental chemicals were responsible, investigators concluded the birth defects were more likely caused by a “random clustering of genetically defected people.” Leaders at Love Canal refused to accept this explanation and organized protests, forums and accountability hearings, some targeting the Governor and even President Carter’s re-election campaign. Eventually, health investigators were forced to accept that chemicals from the leaking dumpsite did cause serious public health problems. In the wake of Love Canal came other communities like Woburn, MA where 28 children developed leukemia from drinking contaminated water. Ann Anderson, a mom with a sick child, knocked on doors, circulated a petition and followed the blue print of Love Canal until authorities acknowledged the connection between the well water and the childhood cancers.
Grassroots leaders and workers have amplified awareness of the impact of environmental chemicals on health. You see this clearly today with consumers demanding information on chemicals in products such as biphenol-A in baby products or PVC in children’s toys as workers did years earlier when they won the right-to-know.
Love Canal, Woburn and workers have all helped set the stage for new chemical policy and labeling reforms that are now moving at various levels of government. Those directly affected have always inspired, energized and led a broad range of supporters in successful movements throughout history, such as anti-slavery, women’s suffrage, labor rights and civil rights. A foundation I work with, CrossCurrents Foundation, has joined a number of other funders including members of HEFN that invests heavily in non-partisan civic participation knowing that change begins at the bottom where alliances are built.
Still the front line groups are the very groups within the health and environmental movement that are starved for resources. In a report last year, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy detailed how many environmental funders mainly support large, professionalized environmental organizations instead of grassroots, community-based groups heavily affected by environmental harm (Also see this recent blog post). Organizations with annual budgets greater than $5 million make up only 2% of all environmental groups, yet they receive more than 50% of all grants and donations. The report makes a profound argument that the current funding strategy is not working and that, without targeting philanthropy at the community level, the movement will not succeed.
Investing in building capacity at the local and state level can lead to the significant change needed to protect public health, the environment and our democracy. The time to make this investment is now.
HEFN Program Manager Ramtin Arablouei authored this post about the Climate and Energy Funders Meeting and Coal and Oil Funders Forum in San Francisco on April 23-25, 2013.
I will not mince words. Climate change can be quite a depressing issue. It is easy to get down after hearing the latest news, as I did at the recent Climate and Energy Funders Group Meeting and Coal and Oil Funders Forum in San Francisco. They were phenomenal meetings that provided participants with a survey of all the great work happening to reduce the impacts of climate change and move to a clean energy future.
However, presenters also reminded the audience that, despite incredible progress, the Earth’s climate is still rapidly changing and there is very little political will in the United States to do something about it. After all, we are a nation dependent on the fossil fuel energy industry for our economic and technological growth. An industry that does not calculate into its ledgers the costs it exacts on society through the pollution of the environment and human health. Whether it is coal, oil, or gas, this well-coordinated industry communicates and strategically maneuvers past challenges. The keyword here is coordinated. Fossil fuel companies have a singular focus on their shared bottom line: profits.
As I sat in the meeting, I began to wonder: what is the bottom line for grantmakers concerned about climate change?
I believe that all of the grantmakers that attended these meetings have the same ultimate goal: a clean energy future where the health of the environment and people are protected. My certainty comes from the successes we’ve seen in the field from organizations that many funders support. Organizations focused on coal have managed to reduce demand and close down dozens of power plants. A powerful grassroots movement against fracking has developed in the face of a massive rush by industry to extract shale gas and oil. Strategic campaigns have turned oil into a dirty word. From blocking pipelines to strengthening regulations on mercury, advocates are taking on different dirty energy sources and winning. Across the country and world, from grassroots to grasstops, these organizations are working towards the same bottom line.
But the question remains: are these individual victories enough to achieve the bottom line?
I don’t think so. In order to win the battle for a future with a healthy planet and people, a broad and holistic approach is necessary. We need a bigger conversation. Just like the energy industry, funders and organizations need a space to share resources, coordinate messaging, and align strategies across dirty energy sources and clean alternatives. It is time to organize around the bottom line.
During the discussion portion of one panel I heard a quote from a speaker that has stuck with me, “Industry decided long ago to coordinate their efforts in order to achieve their bottom line: profits. We must also coordinate our efforts to achieve our bottom line: clean environments and healthy people. If not now, then when?”
Are you interested in joining a conversation about coordinating efforts across energy sources?
This post was authored by Lauren Linville, HEFN’s Communications Associate.
It seems much longer than six months ago that Hurricane Sandy turned into Superstorm Sandy and devastated parts of New York and New Jersey. In the aftermath of the storm, philanthropy responded with millions of dollars for relief, recovery, and rebuilding.
Not surprisingly, funders based in New Jersey and New York have invested heavily in these efforts. The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation in partnership with the Community Foundation of New Jersey quickly established a New Jersey Recovery Fund to address intermediate and long-range impacts from Sandy (See Margaret Waldock of the Dodge Foundation’s guest post). Within two weeks of the storm, the New York Community Trust made $500,000 in grants to disaster relief and has made $965,000 in grants since then for ongoing recovery and resiliency planning.
As philanthropy looks back at the last six months, and forward to what’s next for impacted communities, NGOs and experts have been sharing their lessons learned from Sandy. Here are some highlights of challenges, opportunities, and advice offered by groups in the field on recent calls hosted by the Center for Disaster Philanthropy and the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers.
Mold. Public officials have warned that mold in houses flooded by Sandy’s storm surge is a growing threat to public health, especially as temperatures rise this spring. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) has provided advanced training for responders and is working with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to evaluate exposure patterns since the storm. However, groups like the New Jersey Work Environment Council have requested funding for additional intensive trainings from the NIEHS for volunteers, workers, and homeowners.
Toxic exposures. Residents near some of New Jersey’s most contaminated places have expressed concern about toxic chemicals in storm water that flooded homes and parks. In Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood, community members worry that flood water laced with toxic sediment from the Passaic River Superfund site and chemicals from industrial zones could pose long-term health hazards.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tested soil in Riverside Park, next to the Passaic River, for dioxin, mercury and PCBs. The agency concluded the soil had been contaminated during flooding, but that levels were not high enough to be considered a public health threat. The EPA plans to move forward with the Superfund site cleanup in beginning July 1, yet residents are concerned the plan will not prevent future contamination.
Permit waivers. Environmental and public health advocates in New Jersey are raising red flags about changes to the state’s permitting process. A new waiver allows homeowners and business owners planning to rebuild on waterfront or shoreline properties to skip a step of the permitting process requiring plan approval by state regulators. Opponents say the ruling reduces oversight and encourages development in flood- and storm surge-prone areas.
Flood maps and buyouts. For some homeowners and businesses, recovery and rebuilding have been put on hold as policymakers evaluate plans for updated flood maps and buyouts. New Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood maps, which hadn’t been updated since the 1980s, will be used to set flood insurance requirements that will likely mean many homes in New Jersey will have to be elevated, with costs depending on the zone in which the house is located. Some residents have suspended rebuilding efforts until the new maps are finalized. Others are lobbying FEMA to re-zone their properties to avoid costly elevation projects. Conversely, New York Governor Cuomo is offering incentives for homeowners to accept buyout offers from the state rather than wait for revised flood maps or insurance claims. In New Jersey, homeowners are still waiting for more details about buyout offers.
Strengthening overburdened populations. Many families on the road to recovery were some of the most overburdened populations before the storm. As funders help communities rebuild, Ana Baptista of the Ironbound Community Corporation in Newark notes it’s important to not exacerbate existing vulnerabilities. In the short-term, Ironbound and community groups are helping impacted residents get back on their feet with case management support to help families apply for FEMA assistance, weigh buyout options, and process insurance claims. Over the long-term, NGOs are advocating for these communities to be included in crafting climate change adaptation plans.
Convening and research. Ronna Brown, President of Philanthropy NY, and Nina Stack, President of the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers, agree that the philanthropic and NGO communities could play a key role in conversations around rebuilding. Brown suggested funders could act either as the convener or as a supporter of a convening, and she reported that some funders are supporting research into innovative ways to support communities in recovery and rebuilding.
Resist urge to get money out the door as quickly as possible. After a disaster there is usually an influx of funding and support that floods into foundations and organizations. Some groups working with Sandy funders are advising groups to think strategically about timing their support as recovery and rebuilding efforts may take years. They encourage foundations to take a measured approach to post-disaster giving to better identify gaps in support that might otherwise have gone unnoticed or addressed.
Invest in communication infrastructure. Funder affinity groups in New York and New Jersey cite existing regional networks of NGOs and foundations as key to communicating in the storm’s aftermath. They credit this type of infrastructure with making it possible for funders to set up conference calls quickly to coordinate relief efforts and share information. Groups also advise funders and NGOs to build connections with community members before a natural disaster or event happens.
Discuss disaster planning with your board. Does your board know what it would do if your community or region was struck by tragedy? Groups suggest funders discuss with their boards about disaster planning and response. Some questions they suggest for board consideration are: How would the foundation respond operationally? At what level (geographically and financially) would the foundation support relief efforts? What will happen to groups the foundation has supported for a long time, especially if they are not involved in disaster-related work? Funder affinity groups have also recommended that foundations not plan too much in advance of a disaster as conditions and needs evolve quickly.
The last time we saw Kim Wasserman Nieto was in Chicago at HEFN’s 2012 annual meeting. Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), described her journey from new mother concerned about her infant son’s asthma into a life of community organizing for cleaner air, climate justice, and neighborhood open space.
Funders in the HEFN audience were impressed not only by LVEJO’s victories but also by Wasserman’s stories about how LVEJO negotiated a memorandum of understanding to improve relationships with its national partners.
This month we applauded Kim Wasserman for being one of 6 grassroots leaders to win a 2013 Goldman Environmental Prize, the world’s biggest award for grassroots environmental heroes. Several HEFN members and staff attended Goldman Prize events in Washington, DC, including Millie Buchanan of the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation, a long-time funder of LVEJO.
Along with Wasserman, other 2013 Goldman winners also were recognized for groundbreaking work tackling interconnected problems of environmental degradation, community health concerns, and social injustice.
South African writer and environmental campaigner Jonathan Deal won the African prize for organizing to protect the Karoo — its lands, water and people — from gas development through hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”
Civil engineer Azzam Alwash won the Asia prize for restoration of conflict-devastated Iraqi marshes Alwash describes as the “life source for indigenous communities.”
Italian elementary school teacher Rossano Ercolini won the Europe prize for catalyzing a national movement against incineration and towards Zero Waste.
Aleta Baun, an indigenous Mollo, won the Islands and Island Nations prize for leading hundreds of West Timor villagers in successfully blocking marble mining of mountains from which the villagers derived food, medicine, dye and spiritual connection.
Colombian waste picker Nohra Padilla won the South & Central America prize for organizing to promote informal recyclers’ rights, safety, and recognition as valued parts of a national sustainable waste management system.
In these days when so much in the news is grim, the Goldman Prize’s videos about this year’s winners are an especially inspiring reminder of everyday heroes working around the world for a healthier, fairer future.
This post comes from Caitlin Johnson, 2011-2013 Fellow at the George Gund Foundation in Ohio. There she has worked across program areas and with HEFN members on the issue of fracking. She will end her fellowship and enter world of advocacy and organizing in summer 2013.
Two years ago, I would have thought “fracking” was some sort of new curse word, or that maybe it had something to do with the Fraggles (yes, I am a child of the ‘80s). I never would have fathomed that my fellowship with the George Gund Foundation would lead to a new passion and professional focus. When people ask me what I do, I try to explain that I work for a foundation where we give money away to important causes – like how to help make fracking safer and more transparent. First, people usually want to know if I can give them money (I cannot). Then they ask why I am so concerned and passionate about fracking and why exactly does it matter to the Gund Foundation. Here is how I respond.
The George Gund Foundation is a place-based funder that focuses mostly on Greater Cleveland and Northeast Ohio. We have five program areas: education, the arts, economic and community development, the environment and health and human services. A considerable portion of our funding supports state policy work, especially regarding the environment and health and human services. Our economic development grant making is based in the 16 county region of Northeast Ohio, containing Cleveland, Youngstown, Akron and Canton. Because of its transformative effect on communities and its potential to impact the natural environment and human health, we see fracking as an issue that cuts across the latter three program areas.
In many ways, the natural gas boom seems like déjà vu all over again. Ohio funders can merely look to our neighbor West Virginia to see that an economy based around an extractive resource – coal mining in that state’s case – is not a pretty thing once the boom is over. In Ohio, too, we have pockets of rural poverty in former coal mining communities. It seems to me that natural resource extraction is more of a curse than a blessing in the long run. Many economists agree.
Most economic development experts eschew the practice of “smokestack chasing,” or pursuing big industries through tax breaks in favor of investments in human capital and innovation. Despite this, Ohio has some of the nation’s lowest oil and gas severance tax rates. The industry says Ohio cannot raise taxes or else they will drill elsewhere. Although the governor proposes an increase in the severance tax rate, he plans to return that revenue to all Ohioans through an income tax cut.
As the largest funder of the Fund for our Economic Future, a collaboration of funders throughout Northeast Ohio, the Gund Foundation is deeply committed to responding to our region’s deindustrialization and the economic havoc it wrought. The Fund invests in organizations that assist innovative startups, strengthens the region’s cluster of technologies, and promote our robust manufacturing sector. While the foundation understands fracking may create jobs, we also worry that a lack of planning and adequate taxation could produce a boom-bust cycle, and ultimately leave Northeast Ohio in a weaker position economically.
Secondly, the foundation worries that Ohioans do not have a say in this matter. A 2004 law stripped municipalities of local control over oil and gas drilling. Ohio also allows “mandatory pooling,” which allows drilling companies to go through a landowner’s property to drill if a landowner refuses to sign a gas lease, but most of his neighbors have. There are also provisions in Ohio law, which prohibits citizens from appealing the issuance of a drilling permit. Meanwhile, a gas company denied a permit is able to appeal. Moreover, under Ohio law, gas companies are not required to disclose all the chemicals used in fracking fluid—the mixture of water, sand and chemicals injected deep underground to open natural gas deposits—despite the disastrous potential for contamination when the fluid is being transported.
In order to promote transparency and engagement, the Gund Foundation has made grants to FracTracker to expand public access to fracking-related data and maps in Ohio, as well as to the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, which empowers the myriad of citizens groups that have responded to the issue. We have also enlisted environmental public interest law firms Earthjustice and Natural Resource Defense Council to survey Ohio’s existing regulatory structure and determine what, if any, legal avenues might be pursued.
Many people in Ohio want to see fracking stopped completely. Many others say the economic possibilities are too good to miss. We at the Gund Foundation believe a balance can be struck through sensible regulations and improved disclosure. Despite its many downsides, fracking presents a great opportunity for environmental funders. Citizens of all stripes are concerned about the issue. Some worry about private property rights protection, or about the lack of local control. Others fear contamination of local water supplies or that jobs will not go to Ohioans.
Fracking touches everything – and everyone. If funders want to build a robust coalition around environmental issues, fracking can show us the way. This is an opportunity to change how we frame environmentalism as a movement for health equity, democracy and social and economic justice versus just hippy tree huggers out there fighting for polar bears. As I prepare to leave my fellowship at Gund and enter the world of advocacy and organizing, I hope all of us are able to seize the moment.