You’ve heard the saying, “Change moves at the speed of trust.” In the climate movement, we have serious trust issues. Frontline, community-based organizations—often with leaders who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC)—are at the forefront of movements on climate, racial justice, and more. But too often, funders do not trust these groups with the resources they need. And this limits our ability to achieve transformative change.
As a Black woman who cares about the environment, humanity, and the healing of all people, my work at the intersection of social justice, racial equity, and environmental protection has never been easy. I have fought enough battles to understand that change takes time, but I am at a breaking point.
I am frustrated, saddened, and increasingly impatient with the pace of change—and with the lack of trust that holds us back.
Most climate victories have been won with BIPOC-led frontline groups at the center. We simply cannot succeed without the authentic leadership of these groups. And yet, about half of philanthropic funding on climate issues goes to 20 national organizations, 90 percent of which are led by white people, 80 percent by men.
It’s not just climate. Frontline groups are responding in real time to many of the most urgent issues facing our communities. And, while women of color are the backbone of frontline groups, only 0.6 percent of US philanthropic dollars go to women-of-color-led organizations. Overall, organizations led by people of color receive less grant money, with more strings attached, than white-led groups.
The historical and systemic racism that infects every part of our society is certainly to blame. Despite countervailing evidence, many funders do not trust BIPOC leaders to be strategic problem solvers in their own communities. Too often, funders take a top-down approach that centers technical expertise, misdiagnosing the root of the problem, and creating narrow solutions that diminish community voice and leadership.
If we want to take on the crucial issues of our time, funders need to trust—and support—frontline leadership.
The ecosystem of change
Change looks different on the frontlines. Rather than focusing on a single issue—climate change, say, or housing—frontline groups confront multiple problems at once. They take a holistic, “ecosystem” approach that acknowledges connections among issues like racism, climate impacts, and health disparities.
Because they are rooted in the community, frontline groups respond quickly to emergent concerns. Consider PUSH Buffalo, a community organization in Buffalo, New York, that works on affordable housing, energy efficiency, and job training. When COVID-19 hit, PUSH met the moment. Street teams already in place to educate neighbors about free energy-efficiency upgrades helped deliver groceries and medical supplies. Existing grants for affordable housing were redirected to rent relief. And School 77, an abandoned campus that PUSH renovated and converted to solar-powered affordable housing, became a mutual aid hub. These solutions were launched as soon as the crisis hit, weeks before Congress passed its first stimulus bill.
In California’s Bay Area, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) also pivoted, preventing evictions and utility shutoffs, providing PPE (personal protective equipment) to essential workers, and organizing protests against police violence. Like most frontline groups, APEN keeps its eyes on the long-term prize while responding to immediate needs. “We know we need to transition away from an extractive economy based on profit and pollution,” says APEN executive director Miya Yoshitani. And, because APEN works in communities that are economically dependent on fossil fuels, “we need to do it in a way that centers the people who are most impacted.” That’s why APEN is working to build locally controlled clean energy resources and strengthening the social safety net for workers and residents.
Meeting community needs is the key to truly transformative change, says Nathaniel Smith, founder and chief equity officer of the Partnership for Southern Equity. “Revolutions are usually seeded and supported by the folks who are suffering the most. But the people who are suffering aren’t usually the ones that design or create the theories of change,” says Smith. “Why is that? It’s not because they’re not brilliant or because they don’t have the answer. It’s because they are hungry.”
The Partnership is working with neighbors suffering from the current crisis, launching a COVID-19 fund to support basic needs, and leading a campaign to prevent utility shutoffs. “By ensuring that people are in the position to feed their families, that they have shelter, that their utilities are on, we give them a chance to think bigger than just about survival,” says Smith.
In addition to seeing the connections between immediate needs and long-term transformation, many frontline groups see themselves as connected to a larger movement. Take, for example, Black Visions Collective, a Minneapolis-based community group. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, Black Visions held trainings for medics and protesters, hosted marches and meetings, and organized mutual aid efforts. This work caught the attention of media, and donations poured in. But Black Visions’ staff were not aiming to build a large, well-heeled organization. “We see ourselves as a part of a larger ecosystem of organizing,” they explained in a letter to supporters. So they urged potential donors to give money to other underfunded groups, instead. Now, they are working to give away some $200,0