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.
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.
Ramtin Arablouei, HEFN’s Program Manager, authored this post. Ramtin joined HEFN in 2007 and staffs HEFN’s working group on fracking. You can read more of his writing here.
The word “fracking” has been all over the media over the last few years. Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, is the technical shorthand for the process that extracts natural gas and oil from deep inside the earth. Fracking* has facilitated a boom in natural gas drilling, but it also comes with many risks and disadvantages. These risks have caused concern among many foundations that now are funding efforts to regulate or ban fracking. Why should you pay attention?
1) It’s coming to a town near you. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration there are currently 36 states with “shale plays” that are being fracked or explored for possible fracking. Most states are not on the sidelines of this serious industrial activity. Is your state in the mix?
2) Fracking is making people sick. While research has focused on the environmental impacts, it’s clear that there are public health impacts as well. The pollution of air and water in communities near fracking sites has been documented in both anecdotal stories and studies. What’s happening? Disproportionate levels of asthma, cancers, frequent headaches, and nosebleeds have been reported in fracking communities. Why? For starters, fracking is excluded from portions of the Federal Clean Air and Water Acts and host of other federal and state regulations. In the past, inadequate oversight of energy industries has not gone well (see Exxon Valdez Oil Spill and Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill). And as one public health expert writes, “there is no fence line community when it comes to fracking.” This industrial activity is occurring in residential areas without significant buffers to protect families from pollution.
3) It’s making communities sick too. There is growing evidence about the health and environmental impacts of fracking, but not enough people are talking about the other social impacts. With a sudden increase in drilling comes an influx of itinerant workers. Often, these workers live in small enclaves which locals call “man camps.” Many localities are seeing dramatic increases in violence, drunk driving, drug use, theft, housing shortages, and prostitution in, and near, towns with active fracking. Outrageous? Read about what happened in Williston, North Dakota after fracking began there.
4) Fracking is eroding town rights. The state legislature of Pennsylvania usurped the power of local municipalities to set the laws to regulate drilling when they passed Act 13. The law, which takes away the power of local townships to regulate or tax fracking, is currently being challenged in the State Supreme Court. Some Republicans and Democrats believe that these provisions violate the Pennsylvania constitution. And similar laws have been proposed in New York. To learn more about the specifics of the law read this summary by the National Resources Defense Council.
5) It’s eroding homeowner’s rights too. In order to gain access to shale from landowners not interested in leasing their property, gas companies have taken advantage of “split estate” laws which allows companies to purchase the mineral rights to land and drill without the homeowner’s permission. Split estate laws were mostly passed during the industrial boom of the late 19th century, but they are being used now in many states to facilitate gas drilling. (Sound unbelievable? Read the story of Vince and Jeanne Rhea in this recent Reuters article.)
6) Fracking could be worse for climate change than coal. Many environmentalists have supported the expansion of hydraulic fracturing based on the assumption that gas is a lower-carbon alternative to coal or oil. While burning natural gas as a fuel does produce less carbon dioxide than coal and oil, it also emits large amounts of methane. There is scientific consensus that methane is a more destructive greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. A recent Cornell University study concludes that methane leakage from fracking sites has the potential to be twice as damaging as greenhouse gas emissions from coal. There is more research to be done on this topic but we know one thing for sure: calling natural gas clean is an overstatement.
7) Fracking could be what’s for dinner. Many of the fracking wells in states like Pennsylvania are located in rural areas that are dotted with farms producing fruits, vegetables, dairy products, and meat for the surrounding areas. Contamination of local water sources have been a major problem in gas-rich areas like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Alberta, Canada. A 2012 Cornell University study linked fracking wastewater with mortality in farm animals. Many cases of cattle death in farms near fracking sites have been reported in Pennsylvania. One of the largest food co-ops in the country, located in Brooklyn, NYC, has publicly stated they will not order food products from New York farms that are near fracking sites, expressing great fear of contaminated products.
Funders who are concerned about the impacts of fracking on health, environments and communities are working together at the Health & Environmental Funders Network Hydrofracking Working Group. To learn more, contact Ramtin Arablouei. To learn more about fracking, check out HEFN’s briefing, Drilling Deeper.
*Advocates have adopted the term “fracking” to refer to the entire process of unconventional gas extraction from exploration to processing. We are similarly adopting the term for this article.