For me, the most important element of President Joe Biden’s infrastructure and climate action plan is the administration’s conviction that “historically marginalized and polluted overburdened communities” should have a loud say in the policy decisions. It’s not just talk: The Biden bunch has committed to directing at least 40 percent of related investments toward those communities.
Who will help shape those decisions? Last week, the White House published the list of more than two dozen volunteers whose voices are part of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council — in fact, they already have convened their first meeting.
This is a diverse group in many senses of the word: It includes a cross-section of Black, Indigenous and people of color, as well as minds representing the concerns of rural and urban America. Personally, I would have liked to see more focus on the nation’s midsection, although the decision to include at least two organizations representing farmworkers is encouraging.
For me, there were some familiar names including Jade Begay, an Indigenous rights advocate at NDN Collective; Robert Bullard, the Texas professor sometimes dubbed the “father of environmental justice“; Tom Cormons, executive director of Appalachian Voices; and Catherine Flowers, founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice (who GreenBiz interviewed a couple months ago). But I’m ashamed to say I’m meeting most of these individuals for the first time through their participation in this important collaboration. So I’ve made it a priority to learn about their work.
In that vein, I recently spoke with Mildred McClain, co-founder and executive director of The Harambee House/Citizens for Environmental Justice, which has helped bridge communities and companies for more than three decades. Based in Savannah, Georgia, the organization develops the capacities for local communities to “speak for themselves” when it comes to economic or environmental decisions that could affect their health and well-being.
McClain, a featured speaker on an EarthShare webinar series in April and May about climate justice, was instrumental in creating a community business roundtable in Savannah that helped shape the environmental policies of organizations with a big economic stake in the region including International Paper, the Georgia Ports Authority and Colonial Oil.
It was not easy to overcome corporate skepticism that the constituents Harambee House represents — predominantly Black individuals but also white and brown community members with lower incomes, she recalls. “It took us a quite a long time to convince them that, in fact, environmental justice was not an impediment to anything, that it was a bridge to everything,” McClain told me.
There’s a really critical, critically important step here that corporate leaders need to take. And that is to really humble themselves, and understand the power and authority, but also the humanity, that they carry.
How did the dynamic change? Much of it came down to both sides acknowledging each other at a human level, according to McClain and her long-time ally, Michelle Moore, chief executive officer of community energy nonprofit Groundswell, who was also part of the conversation. “There’s a really critical, critically important step here that corporate leaders need to take,” Moore observed. “And that is to really humble themselves, and understand the power and authority, but also the humanity, that they carry.”
Here are other important dynamics that make for a successful corporate-community relationship:
Respect the need for self-determination. Like it or not, businesses are just one facet of the larger community and shouldn’t be the only entity to have a say in planning. “It starts off with the definition that environmental justice … starts with the fair treatment of all people, and then the meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of their race, color, income, national origin, all that kind of stuff,” McClain said.
Listen to each other, and come with data. The person who became one of McClain’s key allies within Colonial Oil was someone who embodied many stereotypical characteristics of a white supremacist, McClain recalls. But because she set aside her own initial biases and focused on supporting her passionate arguments with quantifiable data that his business didn’t have, a mutual respect emerged. “We showed them that indeed … we were able to negotiate, that we were researchers, that the residents were what we call subject matter experts,” McClain said.
Be willing to invest in communities where businesses have done damage. Throwing money at a community in the form of grants and philanthropic donations after the fact isn’t the same thing as including individuals in the process in the first place. If your company is seeking to offer reparations, a more effective mechanism is to support low-interest loans that enable business owners and entrepreneurs to revitalize brownfields. Both McClain and Moore pointed to the long-standing Regenesis program in Spartanburg, South Carolina — which has leveraged $300 million over the past two decades — as a model worth emulating. But proceed with caution: “The finance piece of the equation can’t be a one-size-fits-all solution, we have to think about reparation,” Moore said.
As companies look beyond their internal processes for cultivating diversity, equity and inclusion, they would do well to seek ways to engage the BIPOC communities affected by their operations more proactively — not just as a one-time fact-finding exercise but as part of a systemic approach to considering environmental justice in their overall strategy.
That could mean anything from prioritizing business with minority-owned suppliers, as GreenBiz editor at large Marilyn Waite suggested earlier this year, to creating a council of advisers to help guide climate action plans. If you’re aware of great examples I should write about — ones that aren’t simply a rehash of long-time philanthropic activities — email me at [email protected].