Chris Nicotera/shutterstock

Chris Nicotera/shutterstock

In Louisiana, along with coastal land loss, flooding, and extreme weather, climate change is leading to school closures, job loss, mental health issues, and much more. 

It’s these cascading societal impacts, which don’t always hold the spotlight in climate change discourse, that the Foundation for Louisiana is taking on with its five-year-old climate justice program. 

“When we see land loss and flood risk increasing, and as we see it continue to increase with sea-level rise and climate change, we also have lots of rippling effects to our communities,” says Liz Williams Russell, climate justice program director. 

“From the outset, the fund was started to think about issue areas that were not seen as environmental, whether that’s housing and development and transportation, whether that’s public health, whether that’s education and economic opportunity.”

The foundation’s work is also rooted in an understanding that these impacts are disproportionately experienced across the state, the result of generations of inequality and systemic racism. 

A unique kind of community foundation, the statewide grantmaker acts as an intermediary between mainly larger national funders and community leaders, helping the people most impacted shape local solutions through a combination of leadership building, policy work, and storytelling. 

Since its founding, FFL has made an impressive impact on its own community, and is helping this vulnerable state serve as a national leader on climate justice and resilience. 

The Eye of the Storm

Foundation for Louisiana makes place-based grants serving the state, but it’s not your typical community foundation. For one, it was born out of a community in crisis, founded just six days after Hurricane Katrina. At the time, it was called the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation, but was renamed in 2010. 

It eventually expanded to support Louisiana more broadly, seeking to counter longstanding inequities and advance racial justice. Since 2005, the foundation has moved $55 million to more than 250 organizations. 

Aside from climate justice, it has current focus areas in race, gender and sexuality, arts and culture, community finance, and philanthropic leadership, making grants and investments and acting as a fiscal sponsor for new organizations. In 2017, NCRP honored the foundation for its peer organizing work, recognizing its role in creating influential regional networks, and highlighting its work to reduce state prison populations. 

Another thing that sets Foundation for Louisiana apart is that it doesn’t serve primarily as a home for local donor-advised funds as most community foundations do (although it does have a handful and is looking to add more). It acts as more of an intermediary for other funders supporting work in the state, with major backers including the Rockefeller, Ford, Kresge, Surdna, Kellogg, and McKnight foundations. 

FFL’s climate justice portfolio began in 2015 as the Coastal Resilience Leverage Fund, in partnership with the Blue Moon Fund, to bring together multiple funding sources around land loss, flood risk, and restoration to communities and businesses. One of the fund’s early focuses was on how it might steer some of the much larger dollars coming into the state via a combination of government funding packages and Deepwater Horizon disaster settlement money. Over time, the program evolved to more explicitly center climate justice and address economic and societal impacts that communities are feeling.

Underlying FFL’s work is an understanding of how these climate impacts are shaped by Louisiana’s deep history of systemic and environmental racism, dating back to colonialism and slavery, but also generations of wealth inequality and petroleum industry pollution. In particular, there’s a stretch of the state between New Orleans and Baton Rouge known as Cancer Alley or Death Alley, because of the several petrochemical plants in the area and regional clusters of cancer cases in surrounding communities of color. 

“The context is that these residents are exposed to any toxic fallout from that industry and are disallowed from fully participating in the economic boom that then came from that industry,” says Caressa Chester, coastal community programs associate. 

The current program has three main strategies for taking on these problems—building leadership and power in communities, supporting justice-based climate policy, and lifting up local stories to create a different climate narrative based on how people are experiencing the problem. 

A couple of illustrative examples include the foundation’s support for the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy, including its work on Gulf South for a Green New Deal, an organizing and policy effort championing a version of the Green New Deal that focuses on the needs of Southern states.  

And one notable environmental justice campaign the foundation is supporting is the work of Rise St. James, a grassroots community group that is opposing a massive new petrochemical facility planned in a historically Black community.  

The Full Toll of Coastal Land Loss

One way to get a sense of how Foundation for Louisiana approaches climate change is by looking at its work on coastal land loss. Louisiana is losing huge swaths of its land to the Gulf, due to a combination of factors that include the building of levees, oil and gas exploration, and rising sea levels.

In 2016, FFL began to engage more deeply on this issue for a couple of reasons. For one, there were a lot of coastal planning efforts happening, and the foundation was hearing from its partners and grantees that their input to these plans was being requested too late to influence them, after many decisions had already been made. The team was also learning more about deep social impacts arising, like school closures, shifting tax bases, job losses, housing affordability, and mental health issues. 

When climate impacts force migration, it leads to loss of tax base in areas experiencing flooding, shrinking funds for social services and infrastructure there, while overburdening the areas people are moving to. There’s also damage to the cultural fabric and residents’ mental health in places experiencing such sudden loss and uncertainty. 

Starting in Plaquemines Parish, a particularly vulnerable part of the state, they began to ask partners, “OK, if we were going to design a planning process that was inclusive and equitable and brought you to the table from point zero, what would that look like?” Russell says. 

That eventually led to a process called LA SAFE, which was co-funded and co-managed by FFL and Louisiana’s Office of Community Development, Disaster Recovery Unit. Over 71 public events involving nearly 3,000 residents, the process took a holistic view of what’s at stake in a kind of “crowdsourced land use planning.” 

LA SAFE resulted in a package of regional and local strategies and steered $41 million in government funding for projects, including some you might expect like green infrastructure in resilience zones. But also funded were expansion of mental health services in a particularly disaster- and flood-prone parish, a business incubator to support firms owned by disadvantaged residents, and a pilot project for affordable housing in areas with lower flood risk.

Leadership Development

Also core to the foundation’s approach is giving locals what they need to take the lead. This kind of leadership development is an underfunded strategy that grassroots groups often cite as critical, but that leaves some funders scratching their heads. 

One of FFL’s signature programs, LEAD the Coast, prepares local residents for civic engagement, teaching basics on climate change, government, theories of power and race, organizing, and advocacy. Running since 2016, the program offers childcare, transportation, meals, and stipends to remove barriers to participation.  LEAD the Coast now runs in partnership with nine of the foundation’s grantees across 10 parishes, which also allows participants to make connections across the regions. 

The LA SAFE coastal resilience program involved dozens of LEAD the Coast graduates, and others have gone on to play community leadership roles, create new nonprofits, and one alum has even testified before Congress. 

“We’re seeing very tangible representation begin to show up at different levels of power and decision making,” Russell says. “We’re really seeing a lot of our leaders become more and more identified as somebody that has to be at different tables.” 

The latest development in the program is a partnership with NOAA leadership allowing graduates to share what they’ve learned and help replicate the program in regions outside of Louisiana that are impacted by climate change. 

On the Frontlines

Foundation for Louisiana is well aware of the state’s important place within national efforts for climate mitigation, resilience, and justice, and a big part of its role is as an intermediary for national funders. But managing relationships with groups outside the state can be challenging. 

“National funders do come to us a lot and sort of ask for names and the information for the folks who are most impacted by the effects of climate, but in a way that feels a little bit extractive,” Chester says. 

A similar tension was called out in a 2017 report by NCRP, which identified a shortage of funding for climate-vulnerable communities in Southern states. In the report, Naeema Muhammed of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network (NCEJN) is memorably quoted as saying, “the groups that are on the ground—the ones that are down in the trenches—we get the crumbs off the table.”

National NGOs or foundations will often contact FFL or its grantees, but in a way that doesn’t always compensate community organizations, acknowledge the value of their time and expertise, or engage them as partners. 

“We struggle with that a lot because we are happy to be an intermediary, at the same time, we want to be in good relationship [with local groups],” Chester says.

FFL, because its team lives and works locally, has built up longstanding relationships with organizations and local leaders. Sometimes the team is able to mediate between them and other funders, and help create better relationships. 

“Sometimes it just doesn’t work out, right?” Chester says. “But sometimes it works out and they come back with something that encourages empowerment and agency on behalf of the folks [in the community].” 

Of all the things they try to impress on funders wanting to have a positive impact in the Gulf Coast region, there’s one piece of advice they recommend above all else—listen

“Listen to what has already been going on, because people have been fighting these battles for decades, generations, and they know what they’re doing,” Chester says. “And that doesn’t mean that they don’t need support, and that working together is not necessary, because of course it is. But you just have to listen to Southern black and indigenous leadership.” 

In fact, the team sees the communities they serve as national leaders on climate change, with expertise they can share with other regions. Increasingly, people from other places experiencing coastal flooding and land loss are coming to Louisiana, looking for insights.

“We are not necessarily waiting on a Green New Deal or similar policy at a federal level for us to really transition and build anew the way that our communities and businesses and culture work,” Russell says. 

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