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.
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 was authored by Carolyn Link, Executive Director of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation. The Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation exclusively dedicates its assets to improving health in Minnesota, awarding more than $32 million since it was established in 1986. The Foundation’s purpose is to make a healthy difference in people’s lives by improving the conditions that affect the health of children and families in low-income communities.
As a health funder, we field many inquiries about supporting disease-specific work; preventive care, such as children’s immunizations; and lifestyle change, including helping individuals eat better and move more. All are important.
In 2006 Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation introduced Growing Up Healthy: Kids and Communities, a statewide grantmaking initiative to improve the health of Minnesota’s children in low-income communities through a focus on social and environmental determinants of health. At times, we were met with puzzled looks when we explained that there’s a community component to good health beyond the responsibility of the individual — that housing, indeed, has something to do with health. And that early care and learning experiences affect health for life. Even the idea of collaborating across these sectors — creating partnerships and working together on a community condition toward a common goal—was new to some.
The goal of the initiative is to build strong and connected communities where children can thrive and grow up healthy by working at the intersection of health and two or more of the following key health determinants: early childhood development; stable, affordable housing; and the environment. To date, the foundation has invested $4.4 million across 30 grantees and spent $1.1 million on evaluation, convenings and other consulting. Commitments to current grantees extend through 2014 and total $1 million.
The Initiative uses a two-pronged approach to the grantmaking, through planning grants followed by implementation grants. While working in collaboration sounds like a great idea, we all know that it isn’t always easy. And because it takes time to develop relationships, we offer a $25,000, one-year planning grant to one organization to lead community partners in developing place-based projects (neighborhood, town, region) that address health and at least two of the three determinants: early childhood education, housing and the environment.
At the end of the planning period grantees develop a community vision (unique to each community and developed by the community), supported by a written implementation plan for three additional years of funding of up to $150,000.
Heartland Community Action Agency developed the Healthy Foundations Project focusing on children to age five. In a four-county area, one in five preschoolers is expelled from child care settings because of challenging behavior. Instead of looking at this as solely a behavior problem, the project is looking at environmental triggers that may contribute to the behavior. Armed with an XRF scanner provided by Coming Clean, Healthy Foundations is holding events where the public can bring in items to be tested for arsenic, bromine, cadmium, chlorine, lead and mercury. Project staff members also are testing common items found in child care settings, such as vinyl cots, Legos and other items that children frequently touch or even put in their mouths. Additionally, staff members are working with child care providers, creating healthy cleaning kits and providing recipes for healthy cleaning products. The goal is to increase awareness of the potential dangers of common household and child care setting products, reduce their use or replace them with safer alternatives, and ultimately help children be healthier and more successful in their education.
Northwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership at the University of Minnesota received six grants over six years for a three-pronged project aimed at reducing children’s exposures to pesticides. One project in the Red River Valley, a primarily agricultural region, a Photovoice project asked three groups of women to photograph and give voice to actions or activities that they believed could potentially harm their children’s health. An exhibit with these photos and stories traveled the state, including the Minnesota legislature, to foster discussions on the impact of pesticides and how safer practices could be instituted to benefit the health of the area’s children.
The project also developed a curriculum that federal supplemental nutrition program (also referred to as WIC) and public health nurses could use during home visits to help increase parents’ and caregivers’ awareness of potential toxins in the home and child care environments.
A third component involved the White Earth Tribal and Community College and the Anishinaabe Center on the White Earth Reservation. With plants from the Anishinaabe Center greenhouse, the organization developed a garden mentoring project to help residents re-connect with traditional foods by planting their own gardens. In conjunction, a class in foraging for wild edibles was developed at the Tribal College so that young children and teens could learn more about healthy, traditional Native American foods that are an important part of their culture.
The National Center for Healthy Housing (NCHH) conducted a first-of-its-kind study with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation funding on the health impacts of green housing renovation. When a 70-unit low-income apartment complex in Worthington, Minnesota, was renovated, the NCHH conducted a survey to document the health benefits of green renovation.
The renovations to the three apartment buildings in southwest Minnesota yielded improved housing conditions. Fewer moisture and dampness issues, little or no pest problems, and less use of devices (e.g., incense, cigarettes) that cause smoke indoors made homes easier to clean, more comfortable, and safer both inside the apartment and outside in the community. These housing improvements yielded better health outcomes for residents, particularly adults, whose overall health significantly improved over the course of the study. A few health problems showed a large improvement, such as fewer children reported to have respiratory allergies and ear infections, and significantly fewer adults reported to have illnesses such as chronic bronchitis, hay fever, sinusitis, asthma, and hypertension.
This study has been used to help pave the way for other green renovations, including a senior housing complex in Mankato. Awareness of the benefits of green renovation led Minnesota to become the first state to require that green principles be used in all renovation of low-income housing in the state.
The initiative was designed to roll out in three phases. The first phase is complete, with a summary report available including lessons learned (see Growing Up Healthy results). In the second phase of the initiative we added a collaborative leadership training program to assist grantees with skills and tools to develop and implement action plans that are grounded in the needs of the community, have broad-based support and can lead to sustainable change for children. This included grantee site visits, three two-day residential retreats and individual technical assistance through face-to-face visits at grantee sites and by telephone and email. A progress report on the second phase also is available (see Growing Up Healthy phase II report). Currently we are reviewing the lessons learned during the first two phases. We’ve been encouraged by the progress of these projects and are planning for 2014 and beyond.
Interested in seeing more of BCBS’ work in Minnesota? Check out Twin Cities Public Television’s program on Growing Up Healthy here.
Grantmakers In Health (GIH) just held its 2013 annual meeting, drawing about 550 participants to San Francisco for a three-day convening of health philanthropy. Lauren Linville and I from the HEFN staff, as well as a number of HEFN members, attended to learn, share, and network. Here’s a report of some highlights, insights, and observations we picked up along the way:
One happy moment for us was watching Faith Mitchell, long-time GIH colleague and friend, open the meeting in her new role as GIH’s President and CEO. It also was great to see other affinity group colleagues, like Virginia Clarke with the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Funders.
HEFN staff and members hosted a workshop on grantmaking to “Assess and Address: Protecting Health Where We Live, Work, and Play.” I kicked off this workshop by sharing a new presentation and toolkit for funders interested in improving environmental conditions in communities. Three HEFN members then shared great stories from their own grantmaking. Michele Prichard (Liberty Hill Foundation) described a multi-phased effort to identify and remediate hazards in Los Angeles neighborhoods. Earl Lui (California Wellness Foundation) talked about an environmental monitoring project that successfully tracked and resolved community hazards in Imperial Valley and about the spread of this model to other California counties. David Fukuzawa (Kresge Foundation) explained why and how he has focused on improving low-income housing conditions, in the Detroit area and nationally, as a way of advancing better health outcomes for children.
At a panel on Health Impact Assessments (HIAs) hosted by the California Endowment, I heard Beatriz Soliz describe the Endowment’s support of HIAs as ways of engaging and empowering community voices for health in local decisions. On a site visit organized by the Health and Housing Funders Forum, we toured a West Oakland project renovating buildings to create healthier affordable indoor environments for families, as well as the Fishbone Project, an EPA program reducing lead exposures on residential properties in South Prescott.
As Faith Mitchell wrote in an essay for the GIH meeting, health philanthropy is striving to improve health and health care amidst great changes and uncertainties. The recent passage of the Affordable Care Act lent a backdrop of buzz to this year’s gathering, creating a sense of major movement towards more universal US health care coverage and lively discussion of what comes next.
Having attended GIH meetings since 2000 (!), I was struck at the 2013 event by how much more attention and investment health philanthropy is devoting to social determinants of health – the economic, social, environmental and other factors in everyday life that have major impacts on health outcomes. I also heard some interesting shifts in language from earlier emphases on “disparities in health” towards more talk of health equity. We’d like to learn more about this apparent move to integrate equity concerns within a positive, inclusive commitment to “health for all”.
And on a purely touristy note, one evening’s reception in the Ferry Building offered spectacular views of the Bay Lights, a new installation on the Bay Bridge representing the world’s largest LED light sculpture. Talk about “high lights”! If you have occasion to get to San Francisco, it is well worth a trip to the waterfront at night.