OPINION: Why Justice40 Initiative’s aim to direct 40% of the federal clean energy investments to cities like Detroit is critical

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The recent flooding in metro Detroit caused countless abandoned vehicles on highways, power outages, and water-logged basements in homes. Often, people associate climate change with coastal storms, drought, and sea-level rise. But the flooding in Detroit is also climate change happening before our eyes. And the EPA has acknowledged that the impact is felt disproportionately among people who live in poverty, older adults, and immigrant communities. 

The flooding incident in Detroit caused sewage back-up, toxic mold, and bacteria stemming from previous flooding events, which is cost-prohibitive for most resident Detroiters to remediate safely. These impacts are exacerbated in Detroit by decaying infrastructure, including unhealthy homes that contain lead, asbestos, and poison vapor intrusions from contaminated groundwater. To address these issues related to climate change, the Biden-Harris Administration has promised support. 

Specifically, the Justice40 Initiative seeks to “redress the high levels of pollution, chronic disinvestment, and lack of access to capital in communities who have dealt with discriminatory environmental, housing, infrastructure, and economic policies.” Through the Justice40 Initiative, the Administration has committed to direct 40 percent of the benefits of federal climate and clean energy investments to “disadvantaged communities.”

While the Justice40 Initiative is promising, legal and structural barriers have consistently created significant obstacles to ensuring investment reaches residents in communities who need it the most. For example, program and policy barriers have led to historic disinvestment and failed to address past discrimination that has caused race and class divides in Detroit. Specifically, it is unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which grants all citizens equal protection under the laws to remedy past discrimination in the policy. 

Michigan is part of a minority of states that have banned racial preferences or affirmative action in university admissions and employment. The outcomes have resulted in redlining and blockbusting, concentrated poverty (Detroit has one of the highest poverty rates in the country), lack of opportunities for Disadvantaged Business Enterprise contractors to access capital and implement projects in their communities, among other systemic issues. 

Discriminatory policies have worsened racial wealth divides and conditions in every aspect of life for Detroiters. At a national level, the USDA has come under recent scrutiny for a program that provides debt relief for farmers of color. Overcoming these legal and structural barriers is a moral imperative because the government needs to invest in communities like Detroit to repair harm. 

For decades, frontline community organizations in Detroit have been rooted in and accountable to their communities while facing disproportionate burdens from climate change and dirty energy. These community organizations have continuously fought back by using their creativity, skill, and political expertise and have found solutions to address climate change. 

However, there is a dire need for investment in these organizations, often overlooked by philanthropy and shut out of government funding opportunities due to the convoluted federal funding ecosystem. All the issues that Biden’s Justice40 Initiative attempts to redress – pollution, disinvestment, and lack of capital – are present and experienced by Detroiters. Detroit needs solutions, and individuals within the communities have the answers.

One emerging, innovative approach to assist frontline community-based organizations in accessing federal resources is the Justice40 Accelerator, a partnership of the nonprofit organizations ElevateGroundswell, the Partnership for Southern Equity, and The Solutions Project, with support from The Hummingbird Firm

The Justice40 Accelerator is independent of the federal government and the Justice40 Initiative. The Justice40 Accelerator will offer project development workshops, partnership opportunities, technical expertise, and informational briefings and resources to support dozens of community-based organizations as they apply for federal funds. Though the Justice40 Accelerator application is closing today, information about federal opportunities for front-line community organizations will be accessible on www.Justice40Accelerator.org

During a worldwide pandemic that has disproportionately impacted Black and Brown communities economically and lives lost and increasing impacts of climate change, the current resources are not enough. The benefits of the Biden-Harris Administration’s Justice40 Initiative are needed in Detroit and across similar communities. We must hold the Administration and ourselves accountable for ensuring that the federal government directs 40 percent of the benefits of climate and clean energy investments to neighborhoods and communities in cities like Detroit.


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