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Fund secures $100 Million to benefit climate change initiatives for people of color


Last year, an EPA study found that Indigenous people are far more likely than non-Indigenous people to lose land due to the expectation of future sea level rise. And African Americans are 40% more likely than non-African Americans to live in areas where extreme temperatures could lead to an increase in deaths. That's the kind of evidence that suggests that communities of color are more likely to be affected by environmental conditions than others and to be affected more severely, which is why activists call these matters of environmental justice. But a recent study conducted by The New School and a nonprofit found that only a tiny fraction, just over 1%, of the funds donated by top donors to environmental causes focus on environmental justice.

To help close that funding gap, the Donors of Color Network called on the top philanthropic organizations to pledge 30% of their environmental grants to Black, Indigenous and people of color-led groups. Last month, they announced a significant milestone - that they've secured $100 million in funds to benefit climate-related projects in communities of color. To learn more, we called Isabelle Leighton. She is the interim executive director of the Donors of Color Network. Isabelle Leighton, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

ISABELLE LEIGHTON: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: So I just wanted to establish some data on the argument that communities of color are more affected by climate change for people who aren't familiar with this concept. For example, last year, an EPA study found that African Americans are 40% more likely to live in areas with the highest expected increase in deaths related to extreme temperature. Indigenous people are 48% more likely to live where the highest percentage of land is projected to be lost to sea rise. So if I could just ask, how did you know about this? How did people in your network become aware of these of this kind of information? I'm just not sure that this is something that most people think about.

LEIGHTON: In 2019 - actually, earlier - we realized that a lot of philanthropy was not really telling the stories of how people of color who - many of whom they themselves have experienced racial and ethnic discrimination. Those individuals and those families and those in some cases foundations were actually making a really big difference. And so for us, we wanted to make sure that there was a place for these donors to connect with each other. We found that there are 1.32 million people of color with assets over a million dollars who are in the U.S., and that there's a great opportunity to organize and raise the voices of this work.

And for us, that means we have to take a 360 approach, which not only includes people of color who have wealth, but also making sure that bipoc communities that are doing the work to actually create racial equity and racial justice are at the seat at the table for a lot of the conversations within philanthropy. When we came together and were founded in 2019, we came up with four priorities. And this was from our members. We focused on climate justice, politics and democracy, culture and arts. And we have a new group on regenerative economy and economic justice. And so this Climate Funders Justice Pledge came out of the members who really wanted to organize around climate justice.

MARTIN: So when you approached donors, how did that conversation go? How did they - I mean, to the degree you feel comfortable, I'd just love to know what those conversations were like. Did you - did they understand immediately what you were saying? Did you feel like you had to connect some dots?

LEIGHTON: A lot of the members that we have are people of color themselves, so they have the lived experiences either personally or within their families or within their communities of a lot of these injustices, including what happens when there's some sort of, you know, climate disaster in your community like air quality. You know, for example, I've heard one of our groups, Green Latinos, they often mention that 68% of Latinos in the U.S. live in neighborhoods with air quality that's below the federal standards. So people of color across all wealth spectrum and all income levels are aware of these inequities - right? - and aware of the strategies that communities of color have been putting forth.

But once we started to have these conversations within philanthropy and, you know, mainstream philanthropy - and, of course, it's not surprising that there was a lot of bias when we started these conversations, right? Because of the way that mainstream philanthropy is structured, a lot of the decision-makers are not living very, you know, connected to these communities. They aren't centering people of color in their decision-making, whether that's within their own leadership or with the type of groups that they have relationships with. So, of course, they're not going to have very sophisticated understanding of what these movements are capable of.

MARTIN: So philanthropic organizations aren't the only groups that fund climate change initiatives. I mean, there's corporate money. There's state and federal government funds. I mean, the EPA has an Office of Environmental Justice. Well, why put the focus on philanthropy?

LEIGHTON: We realized that there is actually a lot of work to be done in philanthropy to address the historic white supremacy that exists. And what I mean by that is structurally there are biases that the decision-makers within philanthropy make when they - those biases, if they're not able to have voices of people of color at the decision-making table or have access to some of the great work that we're trying to share with them, they're going to continue to repeat the harms that have happened for decades. And plus, it's not just what we say. It's not just a checkmark for diversity, equity and inclusion. This is actually the way that we will have a more winning strategy, an effective strategy for climate, right?

So for us, we think that this is why philanthropy is important, because first of all, it's our sector. And we feel that we have to be accountable within the sector that we work. Second, that there is a lot of opportunity for philanthropy to move quickly and to really fund these groups. They're doing the long game, you know, in creating different solutions and actually doing policy development. And they just need the resources that these philanthropic institutions have access to.

MARTIN: Isabelle Leighton is the interim executive director of the Donors of Color Network. Isabelle Leighton, thank you so much for talking with us.

LEIGHTON: Thank you.

MARTIN: If you want to hear more of our conversation, plus how activists are trying to connect the fight to save the planet with the fight for racial justice, you can download last week's Consider This podcast from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.