Electrify, equitably: Community-driven philanthropic partnership seeks to center people in decarbonization
by Laurie Mazur
“Electrify everything” has emerged as a slogan in some quarters of the climate movement. The idea is to replace gas- and oil-burning appliances and vehicles with electric ones, powered by renewable energy.
Certainly, there is much to be gained by this approach — including lower greenhouse gas emissions and cleaner air. Buildings are especially ripe for electrification, as they produce about 13 percent of U.S. emissions. And we now know that burning fossil fuels in our homes produces toxins linked to cancer and respiratory disease.
But in the rush to electrify, we might just do more harm than good. Stark economic and racial inequities mean that people of color and low-income communities bear the heaviest burdens from our current fossil-fueled energy system — from high prices to poor air quality. If electrification proceeds without understanding and addressing those inequities, it will only deepen them.
Enter the Equitable Building Electrification Fund: A Collaboration for Frontline Communities. Born of a collaborative effort among community-based organizations, funders, and social impact networks working at the intersection of climate, energy, and justice, the Fund launched in 2021. Initial support came from the Heising-Simons Foundation, Kresge Foundation and Summit Foundation; the Builders Initiative joined in May 2022.
The Fund seeks to advance an equitable transition to building electrification for the communities most impacted by the negative consequences of fossil fuels. To that end, it moves money and power to frontline communities — supporting grassroots groups that have long fought for environmental and social justice but are often overlooked by funders. With grassroots leaders at the helm, and frontline groups at the center, the Fund is treading new ground for philanthropy.
The promise and peril of electrification
The potential gains from electrification are impressive — starting with removal of a hefty slice of climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing dependence on fossil fuels could also insulate our economy — and our wallets — from geopolitical events that have recently sent costs soaring.
Importantly, electrification could help right the wrongs that fossil fuels have inflicted on so many. From the scarred mountaintops of Appalachia to inner-city neighborhoods choked with air pollution, fossil fuels have taken a profound toll on the health and wellbeing of working-class communities and people of color. Investment in electrification could be targeted to those most-impacted communities, which have the most to gain. It could serve as a “wealth transfer,” said Bridget Vial, an organizer with the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, “where people in our communities are trained to do the work and invest in our homes and communities.”
Unfortunately, that’s not the usual trajectory for new, green technologies. For example, when rooftop solar became available, affluent homeowners with disposable income were the early adopters. “Low-wealth families and communities of color were left behind,” said Jessica Boehland, senior program officer at The Kresge Foundation. To this day, those communities lack access to cost-saving solar energy, and to jobs in clean energy.
A few years ago, building electrification was on the same path. Early electrification efforts focused on the scientific and technical challenges of decarbonization, but “it was a conversation about buildings, devoid of people,” said Martha Arguello, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility — Los Angeles. “Some thought it was almost a bother to bring up issues of social and environmental justice because, you know, it’s a climate emergency. But we also have an injustice emergency.”
Ignoring that injustice emergency could make things worse for overburdened communities. For example, without measures to make electrification affordable, low-income families could be stranded with failing gas utilities and higher energy prices. And without a wholesale shift to renewable power generation, electrification could ramp up demand at fossil-fueled power plants, which are disproportionately located in communities of color.
The recently-passed Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), with its historic investments in clean energy, has raised the stakes even higher. Unless those funds are carefully targeted, marginalized communities could once again be shut out of the game-changing cost savings, job opportunities, and health benefits that clean energy can provide.
What’s more, the IRA includes agreements for more fossil fuel buildout that will adversely impact marginalized communities. “Environmental and climate justice leaders have long educated us on the dangers of sacrifice zones,” said Jennifer Somers, the Fund’s facilitator and manager. “IRA programs must ensure that conditions in frontline communities aren’t made worse, and that solutions to the climate crisis include addressing energy burdens in limited wealth communities and communities of color.”
Indeed, the IRA — and decarbonization more generally — must address the climate and injustice emergencies. “If you address both together,” Arguello said, “you actually come up with solutions that work better.”
Making equitable electrification a reality
To seize the opportunity of equitable electrification, community groups need resources to make their voices heard. “Meeting the demands of the climate crisis is going to take a massive investment in electrifying homes that puts communities and people at the center,” said Vial.
Recognizing the need for people-centered policy on electrification, a group of community-based organizations working on environmental justice, energy democracy, civil rights, housing, and consumer advocacy began meeting in 2019. Eventually, like-minded funders joined the fold. “We saw a need to get more resources to community-based groups, and for a new mechanism to enable that to happen,” said Boehland.
That new mechanism — the Equitable Building Electrification Fund: A Collaboration for Frontline Communities — launched with initial assets of $1.8 million. The Fund regranted to 10 community groups in its first round, and is now issuing a $50 million call to action to advance equitable decarbonization efforts across the country.
Fund grantees are working to take equitable electrification from concept to reality. The Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, for example, is calculating the cost to electrify the state’s low-income communities. In California, staff of the Center for Race, Poverty, and the Environment serve as “community energy navigators” to help rural, off-the-grid communities leapfrog from propane to solar-powered electricity. Fund grantees have already achieved significant wins: for example, Physicians for Social Responsibility-LA helped broaden the city’s definition of climate policy to ensure that limited-wealth communities and renters in particular are incorporated into climate and electrification plans at the city and state level.
Beyond its impact on policy and practice, the Fund is breaking new ground for philanthropy. It is led by a governance assembly that includes environmental justice advocates, who shape the Fund’s grantmaking strategy. (Grantmakers from Kresge, Heising-Simons, the Builders Initiative, and the Merck Family Fund also serve on the governance assembly.) Early on, the assembly dispensed with the standard grant application process, allowing applicants to choose an interview rather than a written proposal, if they wish. Assembly members also reworked a scoring system for prospective grantees that may have shortchanged worthy applicants.
“We are not judging people by how many characters they can put on a sheet of paper. We get a feel for the person, the organization, and their commitment to and vision for the work,” said Jacqui Patterson, executive director of the Chisholm Legacy Project, who serves on the Fund’s governance assembly.
That revised application process resulted in a diverse cohort of grantees. “We have folks who are leading on policy, folks who are implementing projects, and folks who can help tell the story,” said Patterson. “It’s a nice tapestry of gifts, talents, and outcomes.”
Importantly, the Fund does not dictate solutions. “We’re all on the same page in terms of the highest-level goals,” said Laura Wisland, program officer at the Heising-Simons Foundation. “But community groups are in the best position to know what solutions will work best in their community. The Fund is not saying we know what the answer is, but instead creating resources to let thousands of flowers and creative ideas bloom.”
The speed of trust
It’s an approach that is deeply rooted in trust. According to Darryl Young, who recently left the Summit Foundation to head up the Merck Family Fund, building trust is a constant, ongoing process. At the Fund’s inception, he said, “[Building trust] required community-based organizations to accept funders into the conversation. And it required funders to come into the conversation humbly and quietly.”
Together, the funders and community practitioners who developed the Fund also created a set of Principles of Transformative Partnership, inspired by the principles for a Just Transition and the Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing, aimed at equalizing power and cultivating mutual respect.
The painstaking process of building trust may seem at odds with the urgency demanded by the climate crisis. But as Caroline Farrell, executive director of the Center for Race, Poverty, and the Environment observes, choosing between trust-building and speed is “a false choice.” Organizing is about building relationships and trust, which form the basis of sound policy that can win broad support. “If you take time to do the policy right, you’ll actually move faster,” said Farrell. Indeed, change moves at the speed of trust. That is true at the community level, and also within the larger community of organizations and funders working on equitable electrification.
Building that larger community has been a priority for the Fund’s governance assembly. To that end, the Fund fosters shared learning among funders and grantees. “The learning community is incredibly important,” said Logan Atkinson-Burke, executive director of the Alliance for Affordable Energy, who serves on the governance assembly. “We are not just saying, ‘here is money to do the thing you are doing, but here is also support to learn.’”
That support is proving essential to grantees who are essentially building a new field from scratch. “We get to meet folks from rural Virginia to the City of Detroit who are working on similar projects or who are approaching it totally differently,” said Vial. “This is something I am really excited to be a part of, and I really need the information.”
It is still early days for the Equitable Building Electrification Fund, but the Fund’s leaders have bold hopes for the future. Wisland at Heising-Simons wants the Fund to grow in dollars, capacity, and partnerships. Patterson at the Chisholm Legacy Project hopes that “equitable” becomes the inevitable preface to “building electrification.” Boehland at Kresge wants to see deep partnership with community groups become the norm in shaping policy.
And all want to see the Fund’s novel approach light a new path for philanthropy. “The world is telling us that the ways of doing it in the past are not working,” said Patterson. “So we need to think outside the confines of traditional philanthropy.”
Laurie Mazur is a writer and editor for the Island Press Urban Resilience Project.