Justice40 Accelerator program boosts Detroit nonprofits, but advocates say more help is needed

The program supports President Biden’s Justice40 Initiative, which promises to direct 40% of certain federal investments toward underresourced communities overburdened by pollution.

Seven non-profit environmental justice organizations in Detroit are receiving support from the Justice40 Accelerator program, which provides technical assistance to over 100 environment and climate organizations led by Black, Brown, and Indigenous people of color across 35 states and U.S. territories. 

But while the Justice40 Accelerator is helping city nonprofits progress towards creating a more resilient Detroit, advocates say the federal funding program has not yet lived up to some of its promises.

The Accelerator is funded through private philanthropic organizations and operates through several nonprofits, including Elevate, Groundswell, Hummingbird Firm, Partnership for Southern Equity, and The Solutions Project.  

The program follows President Biden’s Justice40 Initiative, which promises to direct 40% of certain federal investments –– such as climate change, sustainable housing, and pollution reduction –– to flow toward underresourced communities overburdened by pollution.

The seven organizations receiving technical assistance in the area are EcoWorks, Eastside Community Network, The Green Door Initiative, Highland Park Community Crisis Coalition, BLVD Harambee Detroit, Detroit Future City, and Native Justice Coalition based in Manistee, Michigan.

Dearborn resident Stacey Grant is a navigator for the Accelerator. (Editor’s note: Grant is also a member of Planet Detroit’s Advisory Board). Her work includes helping participating organizations build capacity and readiness to access government funding for community-led climate solution programs.

“The organizations we work with have initiatives in their communities that bring clean energy, green infrastructure, food justice, and other restitutions to underserved communities,” Grant said. 

Countless studies show that Black communities across the U.S. are exposed to more harmful air pollution than white ones. 

According to Fumes Across the Fence-Line – a 2017 NAACP and the Clean Air Task Force study – Black Americans are exposed to 38 percent more polluted air than white Americans. They are 75 percent more likely to live in communities next to industrial operations that produce harmful pollutants.  

According to the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, outdoor air pollutants –– like volatile organic compounds emitted from the Stellantis Jeep plant –– cause 690 deaths and 1,800 hospitalizations or ER visits a year in majority-Black Detroit.

Green Door Initiative is one of the Detroit organizations participating in the cohort. Navigators like Grant started out Green Door with an assessment identifying the organization’s challenges and needs as it prepares to apply for federal funds.

Donelle Wilkins, the CEO of Green Door Initiative, said the organization’s budget was $300,000 in 2020 but grew to $4 million with the help of the Justice40 Accelerator. “When that assessment was complete, we had a firm and solid foundation that allowed us to be competitive for federal resources,” she said. 

Donele Wilkins. Photo by Joe Parnell.

Green Door Initiative has received prizes from the Department of Energy for clean energy innovation and Environmental Protection Agency grants. Wilkins said these funds go towards Green Door Initiative’s green workforce program that trains disadvantaged and minority workers to be environmental technicians. 

“Normally, in a year, we’d train 25 people, but now we’re training 100 people or more a year,” she said. So far, Wilkins said the organization has been able to place more than 90% of the people it has trained into jobs like handling hazardous waste materials, installing solar panels and solar farms, and weatherizing buildings. Trainees receive OSHA workplace cards and certification after completion.

The Justice40 Accelerator also helped Detroit Future City implement tools to address the best uses for vacant land in the city, examining costs to build & maintain projects, conditions for success and challenges, and information on a project’s social, environmental, and economic benefits. 

Sarah Hayosh, director of land use and sustainability for the organization, said the Accelerator helped Detroit Future City receive a $30,000 grant through American Cities Climate Challenge.

“The fund has allowed us to do research on several promising land-based climate resiliency projects,” she said. 

Justice40’s climate investments will be rolling out through federal programs and funding over the next decade. As of January, more than $2 million has been awarded to the seven Michigan participants. Grant said the Accelerator does not ask organizations to report back if they have received federal funds so that number may be higher.

The Whitehouse Council on Environmental Quality plans to calculate and measure the benefits of community-led solutions for the public. It is expected to release an Environmental Justice Scorecard in early 2023 to track the impact of Justice40 investments.

Once the scorecard is in place, the progress of federal investments toward environmental justice initiatives can be measured, which could make the grant process easier for non-profits working with frontline communities.

“Organizations need to have the ability to show they have managed federal funds in the past for their programs which is part of the selection process,” said Tim Skrotzki, development lead with the Chicago nonprofit Elevate, which is part of the coalition that founded the Justice40 Accelerator. (Editor’s note: Skrotzki is also a member of Planet Detroit’s Advisory Board). 

Despite Green Door Initiative and Detroit Future City’s successes, Grant said Justice40 has a long way to go before meeting its promises. “We wish every community had a Justice40 Accelerator and Navigators whose sole purpose is to help organizations maneuver the complex landscape of grant funding,” she said. 

Grant and Skrotzki expressed frustration at how onerous the grant process can be for underresourced communities. In applications, Grant said that organizations are asked to prove they can create the most impact while being the least resourced.

Another challenge has been that federal funds have been slow to roll out, partly due to the Trump administration’s cutting 26% of funding for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, according to Skotzki.

“Basically, what happened is good employees left or were kicked out during the Trump administration,” Skrotzki said. “The IRS and EPA who administer Justice40 funds didn’t have the capacity to meet Biden’s promise.” 

Skrotzki is hopeful that 2023 is the year when money will start flowing in earnest even more for Justice40 Accelerator partners.

“We’re very excited to support organizations and prepare everyone to take advantage of the funding because this is the year when the money will start flowing,” he said.

PHOTO: Green Door Initiative trains disadvantaged and minority workers in hazardous waste handling emergency response. Credit: Green Door Initiative


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