The National Black Environmental Justice Network, an organisation that was first established in 1999 and later disbanded, has relaunched after both the culmination of years of conversations, as well as in response to today’s crises. The Energy Foundation have provided early backing after the launch through a $30,000 grant, and NBEJN hope it unlocks more funding.
‘African Americans are 79 per cent more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods with toxic industrial pollution that poses the greatest health dangers,’ reads a statement from NBEJN about its work. ‘Across the US, Black people are organizing their communities to fight back against environmental racism. This fight includes the inadequate resilience to climate change and inequitable disaster assistance in Black communities.’
The National Black Environmental Justice Network was first established in 1999 after a call from Black leaders across different sectors in the United States recognised that pollution from toxic waste facilities, high-risk chemical plants, oil refineries, and coal-fired power plants in Black and poor neighbourhoods was a significant threat to their public health. Though the network disbanded several years later, in 2006, its work continued in diffuse ways among individual NBEJN member organisations.
Then this year, COVID-19 came. The many systemic inequities that impact Black Americans – the ones NBEJN had tried so hard to influence 14 years ago, such as greater exposure to pollution, less access to quality healthcare, and over-representation in frontline jobs – made the community disproportionately more susceptible to the coronavirus. Already in conversation about NBEJN’s work, the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing protests that brought international attention to systemic racism pushed the Network to move even faster.
‘It was the perfect storm of these two events,’ said Tina Johnson, the network’s director to Inside Philanthropy. ‘The one was a virus, and then the other virus that was systemic racism.’
The Network, which is composed of 15 organisations across 10 states, launched without a single grant dollar, feeling that the work was too urgent to wait around for funding. Since the launch, NBEJN has garnered support in the press. But they’ve found financial support hard to come by, though they did receive a grant from the Energy Foundation shortly after launching.
NBEJN is hopeful that the momentum of the moment will propel funding for their work forward, but also are concerned that biases for big, typically white-led organisations will prevail.
‘Now, everyone wants to give to [environmental justice],’ Johnson said to Inside Philanthropy. ‘The concern right now is, will the big green organisations that don’t do environmental justice step in and take up that space, and take up those resources? Because that’s where the money is being directed now… Places and spaces that say, “Oh, we do EJ now. We’re interested in this topic,” when they weren’t interested, really, in any meaningful way before.’