Climate resilience is one focus of Rihanna’s Clara Lionel Foundation. Photo: lev radin/shutterstock
Climate resilience is one focus of Rihanna’s Clara Lionel Foundation. Photo: lev radin/shutterstock

As a Black kid who went to camp every summer, I’ve always felt that the idea that the rich open spaces of upstate New York—never mind the great West—are only for white people is false. Though we are stereotyped as an urban people today, Black Americans had a decidedly southern and rural start in this country. Heck, one in four cowboys were Black.

And yet, from all angles, the environmental movement and the great outdoors have long been seen as the sole purview of whites.

However, in recent years, environmental justice groups have been on the ascent, building on decades of work led by people like Dr. Robert Bullard and Dr. Dorceta Taylor. To be sure, several major green groups—and their boards—are still predominantly white. But a growing force of Black, Indigenous and POC communities and environmental justice groups are now racking up wins and mobilizing their communities. People of color have good reasons to be invested in issues of pollution, climate change and global warming, with tragedies like Hurricane Katrina and the Flint water crisis at the top of the list.

Among the organizations on the ground doing the work is Climate Justice Alliance (CJA), a network of local organizations formed in 2013 to create a “new center of gravity in the climate movement by uniting frontline communities and organizations into a formidable force.” Tribal communities are playing a major role in efforts to protect land and water and block new oil and gas infrastructure, united by organizations like the 30-year-old Indigenous Environmental Network. And regional environmental justice networks and community groups are leading the charge across the country, whether that’s the Asian Pacific Environmental Network based in the Bay Area, or the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy in Louisiana.

We’ve also seen a rise of funding efforts to support BIPOC-led environmental and climate justice work. The Solutions Project, for example, has a 100% clean energy vision and pledged it would invest 95% of its resources in innovative frontline leadership of color, with at least 80% going to organizations led by women.

Still, too many environmental justice groups led by or focused on people of color are underfunded. And only about 1% of environmental grantmaking from 12 of the largest environmental funders went to environmental justice groups, according to a 2020 report by the Building Equity and Alignment Initiative.

All the while, the nation’s ethnic landscape is changing. By 2050, America will be majority non-white. So even though large foundations and white individual donors need to step up to fix inequities in environmental grantmaking, it’s worth looking at the role donors of color are playing—and specifically, Black donors.

In my search, the list of names that turned up was not long. Pop sensation Rihanna is one Black environmental funder, and billionaire Robert F. Smith is another. However, there are figures working to identify and galvanize more of these donors. Consider Ashindi Maxton, executive director of Donors of Color Network, a collective of high-net-worth donors building community power to win systemic change around racial equity. There are Black donors among this cohort, but also Asian, Latino and other POC donors.

Starting out as an elementary school teacher, Maxton went on to work for the NAACP. Later, she worked for the Democracy Alliance. It was within this space that she started doing racial justice work, backed by white donors. But when she met other nonprofit leaders of color operating within the same dynamic, it dawned on her. “Where are the donors of color? It is my fundamental belief that lived experiences would make donors see things differently, ask different questions, and take different risks,” Maxton said.

Pooling resources around climate change

Launched in 2016, Donors of Color Network has identified some 2 million people of color with assets over $1 million and tens of thousands of people of color with assets greater than $30 million. The organization pools resources at the intersection of four key areas: climate, politics and democracy, culture and impact investing.

I asked Maxton about where donors affiliated with the network stand on climate, and what they’re doing.

“At our very first convening, which was on native land in New Mexico, we put up pictures of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Maria. We talked about the fact that people of color are the front face of climate change, but are not resourced to deal with it… Our donors have been looking for the way to engage on climate since we first came together,” Maxton said.

Donor of Color Network’s 63 donors include a four-time Tony award winner, a double Rhodes Scholar couple who are educational entrepreneurs, a former NFL player and more. And Donors of Color’s climate campaign was launched with the understanding that there are very few people who can hold philanthropy to task, but that wealthy donors are among them.

Maxton told me that Danielle Dean, a climate strategist, revealed to her that only about 1.3% of climate funding was going to people-of-color-led organizations.

“Even if that number is off by a factor of 10, which it’s not, but even if it were, it’d be a dramatic underfunding of the people who are the front face of climate change,” Maxton said.

Maxton believes there’s a false dichotomy between environmental justice work and climate change. Earlier this year, Donors of Color Network launched a Climate Funders Justice Pledge, challenging the nation’s climate philanthropists to shift 30% of their donations toward environmental efforts led by Black, Indigenous, Latino and other people of color.

Still, when the announcement was covered, and Maxton spoke about the toxified communities of Detroit—the closed-down playgrounds, the $500 homes for sale—she said she believes more emphasis should have been put on the fact that those communities are actually part of the environmental movement. And so part of her work involves promoting more public awareness and reframing the conversation.

So far, within Donors of Color Network, there are some Asian American donors who are bigger climate funders. But few Black American donors have joined the ranks as yet. “Our Black folks are giving more to education. That’s where they’re starting… I hope that I can tell you a different story a year or two for now. And in fact, that’s why we exist,” Maxton said.

Who’s out there?

OK, so you may be wondering: Which Black donors are out there backing environmental work? For now, a few pioneers.

Launched in 2012, music sensation Rihanna’s Clara Lionel Foundation (CLF) supports education and emergency response programs around the world. A few years back, CLF started rethinking its strategy in the disaster response space, going from being reactive to proactive and focusing on climate resilience. It’s challenging to shift “the entire emergency response mechanism into believing it’s OK to support vulnerable communities before a disaster occurs,” CLF Executive Director Justine Lucas once said. But this is precisely what CLF has set out to do with its resilience fund, which is strongly driven by intersectionality.

For instance, in an early pilot project, CLF worked with International Planned Parenthood Federation/Western Hemisphere Region and Engineers Without Borders-USA to make reproductive health clinics in the Caribbean more resilient to disasters. This $25 million initiative will be a major focus during the next half-decade.

Meanwhile, Black billionaire Robert F. Smith is an active environmental philanthropist and has quietly become one of the largest private donors to support America’s national parks. Smith’s Fund II Foundation directed nearly $39 million to the National Park Foundation in 2016 alone. Work has included preserving MLK’s birth home and his home during his life. But there’s an educational component there, too. Part of Smith’s effort involves youth enrichment focused on the digitization and curation of these spaces to bring history alive for younger generations. This is something for other Black donors—who might put a premium on the power of education—to consider as they wade into climate change. Environmental giving needn’t be siloed.

Will and Jada Pinkett Smith’s long-running philanthropy also involves their children. Son Jaden co-founded the beautifully named 501cthree, which deploys solutions for energy, food, water and shelter. Since its inception in 2019, 501cthree has delivered Water Boxes—free dispensers of clean water that eliminate the need to ship in thousands of plastic bottles—to Flint, Newark and Los Angeles’ Skid Row, providing more than 49,000 gallons of water to community members.

There are other figures we are watching, including real estate mogul Wayne Jordan, co-founder of the racial-justice-focused Akonadi Foundation, and Steve Phillips, an attorney and political organizer. Phillips is married to Susan Sandler, daughter of billionaires Herb and Marion Sandler. Both Jordan and Phillips are active and monied Black donors in the California progressive space. In 2012, Jordan and Phillips made investments in a California environmental initiative which became the California Environmental Justice Alliance and Mobilize the Immigrant Vote (now Power California).

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Sarah Shanley Hope, executive director of The Solutions Project, believes this list can grow, especially as these givers continue to lead by example. It’s no secret that donors influence each other, and this momentum can encourage others to wade into new terrain.

Hope also echoed Maxton’s point about the unique power of diverse donors to take philanthropy to task. “Living donors feel uncomfortable bringing their stories forward,” she said. “But I think it’s really important, especially with Black donors who are and who have been giving at these intersections for years. They really can claim that leadership space, and I think it is really important to disrupt philanthropy.”

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