Why Kresge's Helping Low-Income Communities Lead on Climate Change

The Kresge Foundation’s environment program is uniquely focused on cities and poverty. Its latest round of $1.7 million in grants kicks off a sizable initiative to help low-income community groups drive decisions on climate change resilience.

Kresge, along with the Rockefeller Foundation, has been a leader in the climate resilience movement, which is as much about prepping for inevitable consequences as it is about reducing greenhouse gas emissions. While the Michigan-based funder has a longstanding environment program, it’s always been more about building efficiency than, say, wildlife preserves. And earlier this year, the funder bolstered its commitment to climate resilience by further refining that program’s strategy. 

Related: Kresge’s Refined Approach to Climate Change Seeks City Resilience

With that new strategy comes its first big project, the multi-year, multi-million-dollar Climate Resilience and Urban Opportunity Initiative. And it’s all about engaging low-income community groups in the business of climate resilience. Kresge’s always been about vulnerable populations, but this program is skipping the typical green groups and going straight to those populations to lead this charge. 

The initiative works in multiple phases. Grants for the first phase were just awarded at the end of last month, giving $1.7 million across $100,000 planning grants to 16 community groups (it planned to max out at 20) in 10 states. At the end of the planning period, up to 15 groups will be invited to apply for multi-year support to carry out their plans. 

The grants will fund the groups’ efforts to advance priorities of low-income people as they relate to climate change and resilience to climate change. 

Related: Resilience is Hot Among Climate Funders. Here's Who Is Out Front Prepping for Doom

Kresge’s rationale for backing low-income community groups is that, for a few reasons, such communities will be disproportionately impacted by climate change (lower 9th Ward during Katrina, for example) and that, overall, climate change "will worsen socioeconomic disparities." 

But the thinking here is also that that universally effective and equitable policies won’t happen unless such communities are at the forefront:

The systematic engagement of leaders and advocates who authentically represent the concerns of low-income community members in climate-resilience efforts will generate publicly endorsed plans and policies that are more attendant to equity concerns and carry more public support. 

In other words, efforts from the bottom up will be fairer and better received. 

And looking at the first round of grantees, authenticity certainly seems to be there. There are some environmental justice groups, but most of them are well-established nonprofits working on social justice, housing, social services, etc.

You’ve got the Southwest Workers Union in Texas, the Native American Youth and Family Center in Portland, Neighborhood of Affordable Housing in East Boston. The initiative’s funding will strengthen capacity for these groups and help them enter the field of climate resilience if they are not already.

That’s the interesting thing about this initiative, that grants are not going to your typical green groups, with the pretty uniform perspectives they carry. One criticism of climate change funding and advocacy is that it clings to the sort of populist messaging of environmentalism, not accepting that it’s a progressive or social justice issue. Kresge is very deliberately approaching climate change through the lens of poverty, and if the effort works, it could bring broader perspectives to the struggling climate fight.  

Related - Kresge Foundation: Grants for Climate Change