“We Need to Build Power to Win.” A Fund for Climate Justice is Gaining Momentum

A solar facility in Taos, New Mexico. Mona Makela/shutterstock

A solar facility in Taos, New Mexico. Mona Makela/shutterstock

New Mexico recently became a national climate leader, passing legislation that makes it one of only a handful of states aiming for 100 percent carbon-free energy—all thanks to the work of a diverse coalition of support.

That includes a big organizing push around clean energy that started in 2017, focusing on rural areas, and led by and engaging working class, Latino and Native American communities. The effort was backed by the Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund, a relatively new and growing initiative supporting grassroots work in New Mexico and similar efforts in four other states.

It’s a type of climate action—building power on the ground, led by underrepresented communities with the most on the line—that has been historically underfunded by climate philanthropy. But the impetus behind the Equity Fund, and a subset of climate justice funders like it, is that winning meaningful climate action means building greater political power with leadership from low-income and communities of color as both a moral and strategic imperative.

Related: Green Intermediaries: The Pooled Funds Connecting Donors to the Frontlines of Climate Change

First incubated at the Democracy Alliance, since it started in 2016, the fund has spun off into its own entity, and its grantmaking budget has doubled every year. In 2019, the fund has a projected budget of $4.2 million, with plans to expand to a total of seven states and support 50 grantees (up from just six initially). The fund is also expanding its training, convening and communications work to build toward greater progress.

Led by Roger Kim, former executive director of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, the Equity Fund is a thriving example among a growing number of grantmakers acting as intermediaries between large philanthropic entities and grassroots climate action. While the dollars in play are a small portion of a still small climate funding pie (sorry to be a downer!), the fund’s growth—with backing by some major foundations—is impressive, as is the work its grantees are up to. 

Moving Money to the Grassroots

A big motivator of the Equity Fund is the idea of a just transition—that as we move to a new energy economy, we need to empower those who have suffered the most under the reign of fossil fuels. But it’s also about building a stronger, more representative political base around climate change, and drawing insights from people grappling with the issue in their communities. 

That includes investing in grassroots organizing and leadership, supporting climate and clean energy campaigns, and doing nonpartisan voter engagement. 

“Our strategy is to ensure that we're really broadening the conversation around climate and energy, building the power of low-income communities, communities of color, to be at the table through organizing… but then also engaged in the policy conversations,” Kim says.  

Entities like the Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund, and others like it, are trying to diversify the historic concentration of environmental and climate philanthropy dollars by moving funding into diverse communities most impacted and connecting climate change with other economic and social issues like labor, health and housing. 

The fund is a 501(c)(3) pass-through grantmaker, which started with a budget of about a half-million. It now has about two dozen funders, including some powerful supporters like the Hewlett, MacArthur, Kresge, and JPB foundations. I often needle funders like Hewlett and MacArthur, in particular, for hewing too closely to the same strategies and large grantees, but here, let’s give credit where credit’s due. 

Part of the point of such intermediaries is that they allow these large funders, which likely would not otherwise mess around with relatively small grants to community organizations, to use them as a conduit to break up large flows of money. 

The Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund also has a separate partner fund that is still housed at the Democracy Alliance, moving 501(c)(4), non-charitable donations that have more flexible allowances for backing lobbying and electoral work. So that fund is aligned in the same states, but supports the election of climate and energy champions and more direct lobbying work. 

Climate Organizing in Oil and Gas Country

In 2017, the fund expanded into New Mexico, and the work of its grantees there illustrates what makes its approach unique and potentially powerful. 

New Mexico is an interesting state politically, swinging blue in recent elections and with a newly elected governor who’s prioritizing climate change, but also Tea Party-red rural areas, and the strong influence of a booming local oil and gas industry. At the same time, the state is nearly half Latino and around 10 percent Native American. That presence is underrepresented politically, says Oriana Sandoval, executive director of the Center for Civic Policy, an Albuquerque-based civic engagement group.

The state also has a lot of untapped wind and solar power potential, something CCP was increasingly hearing about, Sandoval says, unprompted: “Why are we not leading the country, if not at least the region, in solar and wind development, when all of our neighbors are, and they have great jobs, they have a thriving economy?” 

CCP had done a little work around climate justice, but didn’t have the funding to make it a major issue. But renewable energy seemed to be a rising issue in the state, and the Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund was able to support organizing around it. So with new funding, CCP formed a coalition that included CAFé and Somos un Pueblo Unido, two grassroots organizing groups that work on issues like immigrant and workers’ rights. 

Somos and CAFé had not been focused on climate change, either, which is an important distinction about the Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund—most of its grantees are not environmental groups first and foremost, but they do have close connections in their communities.

“Our groups have boots on the ground, have a presence, have a face in these communities, where there really is no progressive infrastructure,” Sandoval says of some of the rural areas they’re organizing, which are often economically dependent on the oil and gas industry, but still support expanding renewable energy.

They worked in partnership with green groups like Environment New Mexico and Conservation Voters New Mexico in support of the groundbreaking renewable energy legislation. While such wins are always highly collaborative and complex, the organizations the fund backed (it has five total grantees in the state) played an important role, Kim says. 

As Sandoval puts it, as community and justice groups gain seats at the table where they previously were not present, it strengthens the political case—opponents often try to paint climate action as an issue of out-of-touch urbanites—and leads to better policy. They pushed hard to secure jobs and economic development language in the energy legislation, for example, and state funding for a related workforce development study. 

Another thing that makes the fund impressive, Sandoval says, is that instead of just funding environmental groups to organize in communities of color, it’s funding community groups to take on the issue through their own lens. Over 80 percent of the fund’s grantees are led by women, and almost half are led by people of color. 

“This is the model of funding and environmental work and capacity building that should have been happening over the past 50 years, and that needs to be supported and continued and expanded,” Sandoval says.

Building Momentum 

Can the work the fund’s grantees are doing in New Mexico and its four other states—currently Florida, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Virginia—build up to national climate change solutions? 

Yes, but with qualifications, Roger Kim says. The fund is ultimately working to build momentum that will accelerate change nationwide. In fact, it has an “accelerator” program that offers technical and coaching assistance to organizations moving into clean energy issues, is expanding communications work, and started holding national convenings. 

But he’s quick to point out that the climate movement can’t lose focus of the importance of sustained organizing at the local and state levels. 

“We need to build the political power to win, and you can’t go around the states to do that,” Kim says. “You have to go through the states by organizing a base of voters who will raise the urgency of climate change and clean energy from the local, state and all the way up to the national level.”

The examples being set in places like New Mexico, Minnesota and California become models for national action. In Minnesota, another Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund state, the governor is also aiming for 100 percent clean energy. But the necessary scale of change demands a whole suite of policies at all levels of government, he says. 

States can also model this approach of elevating impacted communities as leaders, and the power in forging connections to community issues like jobs, health and housing. 

We’re seeing some hesitancy in environmental and Democratic circles about linking up climate change with what some consider separate issues of racial or economic equality, most notably in the national debate around the Green New Deal. I can understand that impulse, given the urgency and severity of climate change. But the New Mexico example shows that there’s power, not liability, in making those connections—and that getting all communities on board means connecting on the ways climate change impacts people’s lives.

“If you don't have a broad-based coalition that's representative of a broad swath of the American society, then how legitimate are you?” Oriana Sandoval says. “How much power do you actually have to pass transformative policies… then actually implement and enforce them?”