The Biden Administration is using a “whole-of government” approach to ensure that all federal agencies center environmental and climate justice in domestic and foreign policy. However, to achieve true environmental and climate justice, racial equity must be centered in order to fully tackle the degree to which white supremacy and systemic racism are entrenched in federal policy. The Biden administration has begun taking on this complex issue by organizing within. As most federal policies were built on white supremacy and systemic racism, structural change must begin with race because it is the starting point in understanding the intersectional ways that marginalization occurs.
In January of last year, President Biden signed Executive Order 13985, officially titled Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities. Biden’s first executive order, the policy demands the federal government “pursue a comprehensive approach to advancing racial equity for all” and establishes guidelines for how the federal government can revise policies that have historically advanced racial inequities. As a direct response to this executive order, Race Forward launched FIRE (the Federal Initiative on Race and Equity) in September of last year to provide tools, strategies, support, and learning opportunities to engage in ongoing dialogue and spark change on a federal level.
FIRE, which has been working closely with the Biden administration, is a complement to the longstanding work of GARE (Government Alliance for Race and Equity), a project of Race Forward, and UC Berkeley’s Institute for Othering and Belonging. GARE is a national network made up of regional hubs and organizations working to advance racial equity in state and local governments. The alliance has created a pathway to help state and local governments reshape how they organize for racial equity internally. Over the years, it has developed resources around four key ways to advance this work. These key resources focus on:
- Creating racial equity core teams. The core team’s primary responsibility is to set the vision for racially equitable outcomes across offices.
- Developing a racial equity lens. This lens helps to identify sources of inequity and acts as a guide to undo those harms.
- Writing and executing action plans. Actions plans turn theory into action. They also quantify and make tangible the time, expertise, and resources needed to advance racial justice.
- Using a racial equity tool: A racial equity tool is critical for explicitly considering racial justice in every decision. It helps to:
- Engage the community in the decision-making process
- Identify who will benefit from or be burdened by a particular decision
- Examine the unintended consequences of particular decisions while outlining strategies to mitigate potential negative outcomes
- Develop mechanisms for successful implementation and impact evaluation
Why Equity in Government Must be Approached With a Racial Justice Lens
Earlier this year, GARE published Organizing for Racial Equity within the Federal Government, a resource guide that outlines a clear strategy to build capacity for racial equity at the federal level. The tool outlines four strategies and speaks to one fundamental question: what does a racially equitable government look like?
The four strategies are as follows:
- Use an outside/inside strategy to learn from communities most impacted by systemic racism and create accountability. An outside/inside strategy acknowledges historical harms, maps existing power dynamics, and directs funds to organizations that are working towards racial justice.
- Build capacity for lasting organizational change. Lasting organizational change looks like increasing the number racial-equity practitioners across agencies and being open to re-designing mechanisms to focus and grow justice-centered policy and initiatives.
- Build networked structures across the whole of the federal government for long-term institutional change. This process can start with creating a core office that stewards racial equity, ensuring deep coordination across and between agencies to work towards a common vision. It also includes an organizing strategy that creates a pipeline of leaders who advance racial equity and the establishment of various points of engagement to serve a broader range of equity practitioners up and down the hierarchy.
- Prepare for and learn from internal and external backlash. Proactively addressing resistance to change requires engaging in ongoing conversations to make clear an agency’s role in dismantling systemic racism and designing justice-centered policies.
An outside/inside strategy acknowledges historical harms, maps existing power dynamics, and directs funds to organizations that are working towards racial justice.
Some of the federal government’s recent actions reflect the strategies mentioned above. The first strategy—use an outside/inside strategy to learn from communities most impacted by system racism and create accountability—is already visible in the creation of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC). The council is made up of leaders of frontline environmental justice organizations like WEACT, GreenRoots, and Latino Action Climate Network, which are helping to guide federal climate policy that will undo the environmental harms communities of color and low-income communities have experienced for decades.
We can also see implementation of the third strategy—build networked structures across the whole of the federal government for long-term institutional change. On September 24th, the EPA announced the launch of a new national office dedicated to combatting environmental justice and advancing civil rights. The new office aims to center the well-being of environmentally overburdened communities in decision making, create better access to grants and technical assistance to overcome climate equity issues, and build up the Justice40 Initiative and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
“We’re going from tens of thousands of dollars to developing and designing a program that will distribute billions,” says EPA Administrator Michael Regan. “But we’re also going to be sure that this money goes to those who need it the most and those who’ve never had a seat at the table.”
Strategic organizing and lessons learned in the nonprofit sector lead to change at the federal level. The strategies learned from GARE and prioritized by FIRE build on the Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing, creating space for intention and inclusivity and striving to build just and lasting relationships. Most importantly, these strategies work towards self-transformation—the last and arguably most critical Jemez principle. Organizing towards racial equity within the federal government enables a shift from operating on an individualistic mode to community-centeredness.