Intersectional environmentalism: How foundations simultaneously address race and climate


Jake Safane


Conserving natural spaces. Cleaning up waterways. Reducing the use of fossil fuels. At first glance, all of these areas may seem to just be environmental issues. Yet foundations (among many others) are increasingly advocating with their money and their megaphones that environmental and racial issues are intertwined. To make the most environmental impact, race needs to also be part of the conversation and the action, according to many nonprofit leaders.

‘We deeply believe that climate justice is racial justice,’ says Deborah Philbrick, program officer, Climate Solutions, at the MacArthur Foundation.

This philosophy often goes by the name of intersectional environmentalism – a phrase that came to light a few days after the murder of George Floyd, when writer and activist Leah Thomas defined the term within a viral Instagram post. In part, she explained intersectional environmentalism as an ‘inclusive version of environmentalism’ that ‘identifies the ways in which injustices happening to marginalised communities and the earth are interconnected.’

While the protests and other forms of racial justice activism that occurred around the world in mid-2020 perhaps accelerated intersectional environmentalism, this shift toward inclusivity had been happening for several years prior, including by Thomas.

In fact, the term intersectionality dates back to 1989, when Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw wrote a paper discussing the intersection of race and gender as it relates to Black women.

Since then, more organisations, including a wide spectrum of foundations, have been increasingly focused on solving problems by taking a more intersectional approach, such as when it comes to tackling environmental challenges.

‘We’ve been making the choice against people who have been disproportionately harmed by climate change again and again and again and again,’ says Philbrick. ‘And we are just now as a movement starting to see significant traction.’

At the MacArthur Foundation, this change particularly took shape within the Climate Solutions team as part of a 2019 strategic review to assess the group’s progress halfway through what the foundation considers to be one of its 10-year Big Bets.

‘Part of that strategic reorientation made our commitment to equity much more explicit,’ explains Philbrick. ‘If you looked at the way that we were doing grantmaking before, it was definitely there, but I think that people are saying the quiet parts out loud much more often now.’

Photo credit: Unsplash


The need for intersectionality

While the need to focus on racial equity may be more apparent from a societal view, some may still question what that has to do with the environment.

‘My short answer is there is almost nothing that isn’t an environmental issue,’ says Alison Corwin, program director, Sustainable Environments, at the Surdna Foundation in New York. ‘Take immigration, for example. Folks are forced off their land, out of their homes, out of their communities as there are climate events,’ and climate migration has already started to happen.

In the same vein, essentially every issue, including the environment, arguably has a racial aspect. Not only does climate change affect immigration, which often has a direct racial or ethnic component, but on a broader scale, the environment and race tend to be inextricably linked, whether you’re looking at access to green spaces, living near pollution, or many other issues.

‘At least in the climate work – and I think in all of the work – you’re not seeing the full picture if you’re not thinking about how it’s being experienced through a racial lens,’ says Philbrick.

We deeply believe that climate justice is racial justice.

As a study by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finds, ‘the most severe harms from climate change fall disproportionately upon underserved communities who are least able to prepare for, and recover from, heat waves, poor air quality, flooding, and other impacts.’ And as the planet warms further, the ‘EPA’s analysis indicates that racial and ethnic minority communities are particularly vulnerable to the greatest impacts of climate change.’

These types of issues also show up around the world, particularly in the Global South, ‘where the majority of the populations are people of colour,’ says Masego Madzwamuse, Environment Programme director at the Oak Foundation. ‘And yet they did not cause the problem in the first place.’

From 1850-2011, the US and countries now in the EU were responsible for 62 per cent of global emissions, according to the Center for Global Development. Developed countries as a whole accounted for 79 per cent of emissions during that period.

Mirroring historical geopolitics, such as with colonial history contributing to fragile economies in the Global South, adds Madzwamuse, the region is now ‘largely underfunded in terms of either research for climate mitigation or resources to support climate adaptation.’

Yet it’s often the same people most affected by climate change who can help change the course of environmental degradation.

As an article by The Nature Conservancy Australia explains: ‘Indigenous rangers in northern and central Australia set strategically placed smaller fires at the right time of year, which burn cool and low. This recreates the mosaic pattern of burning that occurred prior to European settlement, which supports a wider diversity of wildlife and quells raging hot season wildfires.’

Implementing intersectionality

Amidst this backdrop, foundations have been finding ways to deliberately be more intersectional with their funding and their work overall. That often means shifting the way foundations work with partner organisations, beyond just being more inclusive with grantmaking.

That shift ‘looks like accountability and understanding that you are constantly moving with consent and permission from your partners, and showing up in philanthropy in a different way, which means you don’t make decisions about how resources move or about work you’re going to do without those folks sitting in the room,’ says Corwin of the Surdna Foundation. ‘You’re not just sitting around a table of funders and making a decision in isolation, especially for me as a white funder, sitting in New York, removed from a lot of our work in the South (of the US).’

One of the ways this change has played out in terms of direct impact can be seen in Louisiana. Following the destruction of Hurricane Ida in 2021, the indigenous United Houma Nation missed out on federal recovery funds due to being a state-recognised – but not federally recognised – tribe.

However, as a result of close coordination with local partners, Surdna ‘moved some immediate funds to the folks in Houma, understanding that was where the most impact [from the hurricane] had happened,’ explains Corwin. ‘It’s really important we remain in deep relationships with [these types of partners], because otherwise we would have totally missed that.’

In addition to this type of direct impact, foundations are also often working on a broader scale to empower marginalised groups.

While the protests and other forms of racial justice activism that occurred around the world in mid-2020 perhaps accelerated intersectional environmentalism, this shift toward inclusivity had been happening for several years prior.

For example, part of the Oak Foundation’s work involves transforming food systems to minimise environmental impact, while keeping in mind how transitions within food systems might affect agricultural workers, who tend to be ethnic minorities, notes Madzwamuse.

‘The investments that we have been making have been around coalition building and building movements that are intersectional. They bring together the various groups so that they can shape a collective vision around these questions,’ she says. ‘Other investments that we’re making at the early stages are really around narrative change, framing a new discourse, a new directive, and a new vision for what inclusive food systems might look like.’

Even for foundations that do not specifically fund climate work, intersectional environmentalism still increasingly shows up. For example, following the murder of George Floyd, Allstate started taking a more direct approach to address racial equity, both on the business side of the insurer and philanthropically through the Allstate Foundation. Doing so has changed how the Allstate Foundation then addresses environmental issues like natural disasters while also tackling one of its core pillars – ending domestic violence.

In the past, when a natural disaster hit, Allstate would typically support broad-based nonprofits that provide things like food and medical support to affected areas. Now, however, in addition to supporting these types of large organisations, the foundation is also looking at how natural disasters affect places like local domestic violence shelters, particularly those that tend to serve people of colour.

‘We know that often when there is a flood, fire or people are displaced from these types of disasters, often people of colour are disproportionately impacted. And so we are adding to our approach more funding targeting the providers who are going to be set further behind,’ says Francie Schnipke Richards, VP of Social Responsibility at Allstate and VP at The Allstate Foundation. ‘We know we have a responsibility to hold up that intersectionality in how we fund.’

Measuring progress

While progress has been made, many foundations are still relatively new to intersectional environmentalism, and not everyone is necessarily moving at the same speed or in the same direction.

In 2021, the Donors of Color Network, a cross-racial community of high-net-worth donors and movement leaders (e.g., environmental justice groups), launched the Climate Justice Funders Pledge. This pledge has two parts: the first is a commitment to transparency; the second calls on funders to put at least 30 per cent of their US environmental/climate funding toward BIPOC-led justice organisations in the US that focus on serving and building power in communities of colour.

‘We’ve had really great progress on the pledge,’ including among some of the largest foundations, says Isabelle Leighton, interim executive director of the Donors of Color Network. (As the funding numbers are dynamic, please see the pledge website for current data.)

Some foundations have committed to both transparency and the 30 per cent mark, while others are starting with transparency. The MacArthur Foundation, for example, has committed to the transparency portion of the pledge as it figures out a process for collecting and reporting demographic data before making more commitments.

‘The first step is to actually be transparent and accountable,’ says Leighton. ‘We want to first encourage foundations to not be afraid if the number is not where they want it to be. There’s definitely room to grow.’

Yet some haven’t even fully bought the premise. ‘Some have outright said that they’re not prepared to or don’t believe in the strategy to give money to BIPOC movements as part of their environmental justice work,’ says Leighton. ‘That’s honestly pretty disappointing to hear, given that there was so much interest and press in 2020, and even into 2021, on foundations wanting to recommit to communities of colour. Yet the money doesn’t seem to be going where their PR is going.’

But for others, the 30 per cent mark is just a starting point, and Donors of Color offers tools and resources to help get there. Many foundations, such as Surdna, have already reached far beyond that.

‘Folks are talking the talk, but are they walking the walk?’ says Corwin of the Surdna Foundation. Funding changes ‘are not going to happen overnight. You need time to get there. But transparency about where you are in that journey has to be part of the conversation,’ she adds.

And as these types of shifts occur, many philanthropy leaders see an intersectional approach as not only the more equitable route but the more direct one in terms of solving challenges like greenhouse gas emission reductions.

‘For some people, speed is the number one factor. And we certainly think that speed will only happen if you look at things through an intersectional lens,’ says Philbrick of the MacArthur Foundation.

Jake Safane is a freelance writer in Los Angeles who specialises in finance and sustainability.

Alliance magazine’s climate change coverage is supported by Fondation de France.

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