Alternet.org recently published an article by historian and journalist, Peter Montague, entitled: “Why the Environmental Movement is not Winning.” The principal reason for its failure, he said, is a gaping disconnect between environmental funders and grassroots, community-based groups representing the people who are most injured by environmental harms.
In essence, grantmakers have long favored the “large professionalized environmental organizations” well-versed in inside-the-beltway lobbying campaigns. These larger environmental groups have flourished with consistent funding while environmental justice groups and community organizations on the front lines of the disastrous impacts of global warming, pollution, energy poverty and destruction of natural resources are persevering with little funding and support. This top-down funding strategy has led to an environmental movement apartheid in which the big, national-level groups are the “haves” and the smaller, local environmental groups are the “have-nots.” What adds to this injustice is that these local groups outside the beltway, frequently made up of people of color and low-income families, are the ones disproportionately impacted by environmental degradation.
If we want to see improvements in environmental policies on local, state and national levels, we must nurture leadership and long-term community mobilization. This community-based focus will generate the citizen groundswell that is necessary to achieve social change. As Montague emphasizes in his article, the current trickle-down theory approach to environmental funding and advocacy is simply not working and donors must make a paradigm shift – to spread the wealth – if they want to see any significant change in U.S. climate and energy policies.
I met several people at the recent National Environmental Justice Conference and Training Program this month who have felt the impact of the funding divide first hand. Environmental justice advocates from across the country discussed how they have accumulated decades of evidence of environmental harm such as polluted water and contaminated air leading to insurmountable asthma, cancer, painful respiratory problems, birth defects and infertility, but have not had sufficient resources to enable them to hold offending parties fully accountable.
Many of these environmental advocates are championing these issues from their kitchen table in late evening hours after having worked hard during the day and taken care of their families after returning home. These advocates possess the day-to-day environmental impact data and the oral histories of many generations hurt by environmental harms. They have visited their neighbors in the hospital when they have fallen ill. They have counseled community members about their steeply rising energy costs. They have gone to the funerals of people who died because of unbridled pollution. They have seen and smelled the toxic sludge flowing in their rivers and streams. And, to their credit, many of these environmental justice advocates have achieved local victories by virtue of their unbreakable commitment and dedication to their communities and natural environment.
However, these tireless advocates have done so with sparse support from grantmakers. Not only have they had to beat the odds of environmental harm, but they have had to beat the odds of a lack of resources. Foundations should ponder how much more effective and powerful these environmental justice advocates could be if they had adequate financial support.
Sadly, these issues are not limited to the environmental movement. While the large, professional organizations do great work and should continue to be supported, it is shortsighted for funders to restrict their giving to such a small portion of the environmental movement, or any movement. At this point, we need all hands on deck for addressing, mitigating and adapting to global warming, climate change, and the multitude of problems being worked on each day by passionate individuals like those I met at the National Environmental Justice Conference.
Funders concerned about national and global issues should consider stepping outside of their comfort zone and putting more resources into the hands of more people, not just those that show up regularly to Capitol Hill meetings.
Photo credit: VinothChandar
Grantmakers have long favored the “large professionalized environmental organizations” well-versed in inside-the-beltway lobbying campaigns.