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How the Justice40 Accelerator Builds Community Groups’ Capacity to Receive Federal Funding

by Laurie Mazur

The Biden administration’s Justice40 Initiative was created with communities like Highland Park, Michigan, in mind. Launched in 2021, Justice40 aims to deliver 40% of federal investments in climate resilience and clean energy to “disadvantaged communities.”

By some definitions, Highland Park qualifies as “disadvantaged.” A municipality outside the City of Detroit, Highland Park has been hard hit by disinvestment, deindustrialization, and the many manifestations of systemic racism. Its residents, who are mostly people of color, have a median household income of about $21,000 per year.

But the residents of Highland Park are not defined by disadvantage. They are generating creative solutions to the climate crisis, while working to heal the environmental and social injustices that have harmed their community. When the local utility repossessed the cash-strapped city’s streetlights, a group called Soulardarity installed solar-powered lights. Soulardarity and other members of the Highland Park Community Crisis Coalition (HPC3) are also building net-zero housing and community centers, and transforming blighted city blocks into a sustainable eco-village.

It’s the kind of work — and the kind of community — that Justice40 promised to support. But Justice40 presented the members of HPC3 with a kind of Catch-22: They lacked the capacity to apply for the funding they need to boost their capacity. Applying for federal grants requires community groups to “basically halt the work they’re doing to do full-time organizing, paperwork and coordination,” says Stacey Grant, who is working with HPC3. “It’s a behemoth of a lift.”

Enter the Justice40 Accelerator. Led by the Partnership for Southern Equity in collaboration with Elevate, Groundswell, The Hummingbird Firm and The Solutions Project, the accelerator builds the capacity of front-line community groups to apply for funding under the Justice40 Initiative.

The accelerator launched in the spring of 2021 with early seed support from The JPB Foundation; other funders then joined, including the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, and the Builders Initiative. HPC3 is among the accelerator’s inaugural cohort of 52 organizations, which were selected from a pool of 320 applicants.

Hands-on help

The accelerator offers a broad menu of services to the cohort groups — including identifying opportunities and partners, informational briefings, and hands-on help with applications for Justice40 funding.

Simply flagging opportunities takes significant effort. “There are resources out there, but folks don’t have hours to sift through them,” says Angelina Benson-Glanz of Elevate, who works closely with the accelerator cohort. So, the accelerator hired two “navigators,” to do the sifting. “Having someone who can send you targeted grant opportunities is hugely beneficial,” says Benson-Glanz.

Of course, identifying opportunities is just the start. In Highland Park, Juan Shannon, founder of HPC3 member Parker Village, describes the frustrating experience of applying for federal funds: “They’re looking to give X amount of dollars for people to do A, B and C. And you say, ‘Oh, great, that’s what we’re doing. Then they say, ‘Oh, by the way, we need you to have three years of financial statements. And by the way, you have to have insurance.’ It’s kind of disheartening.”

Those requirements can be more than disheartening. In some cases, community groups use their own capital to launch projects, with the expectation that they will be reimbursed with federal funds. Failure to meet every requirement can put the reimbursement — and the organization’s survival — at risk. So by ensuring careful compliance, the accelerator and its supporters can “de-risk the capital” provided by the federal government, says Christina Cummings, VP of operations at the Partnership for Southern Equity.

Multidirectional learning

Among the accelerator cohort and its partners, learning flows in many directions. Shortly after launching the accelerator, staff met with each cohort member and designed the program to meet the groups’ needs. “We have learned so much from the cohort organizations,” says Benson-Glanz.

The accelerator also helps community groups and agency staff learn from one another. By brokering meetings with officials from federal agencies tasked with distributing funds under Justice40, the accelerator helps community groups improve the quality of their proposals. At the same time, agency staff learn about the barriers facing community groups as they navigate the federal funding maze — and how to make their programs more accessible.

Most importantly, the accelerator’s cohort groups learn from one another. Through informal “chill and chat” gatherings, cohort members share challenges and best practices across organizations and geographies. And they have come to see their organizations as part of a larger movement.

“Coming out of those conversations was a strong desire to think about how they can work together to raise their voice and advocate for change at the federal level,” says Benson-Glanz.

Measuring success

It is still early days for the Justice40 Accelerator. The initiative is less than a year old. But the inaugural cohort already has successes to report: Thirteen groups have submitted proposals related to Justice40; three have received funding so far.

But receiving a federal grant is not the accelerator’s only metric of success. In fact, success may lie in deciding not to apply. “If they decide with their power and agency that they don’t want to apply for federal funding because it’s not good for them, that’s a success story, as well,” says Cummings.

Or success might lie in finding a partner, such as a city agency, with which to apply. Some Justice40 grants can only go to municipalities; others encourage joint applications by city agencies and nonprofits. By building the capacity of community groups, the accelerator puts those groups on more equal footing with their municipal partners, giving them more power to shape the proposal.

That’s what happened in Highland Park. With help from the accelerator, HPC3 developed an application to serve as a pilot community for the Department of Energy’s Communities LEAP program. If they are chosen, Communities LEAP would provide technical assistance to transition the City of Highland Park to 100% clean energy. In effect, this would scale up the work HPC3 is now doing — one streetlight, abandoned building, and city block at a time.

For years, the community groups that form HPC3 have tried to get the city on board with their vision of a sustainable, solar-powered Highland Park. But they were met with resistance.

“Sometimes, they don’t understand and say, ‘Why can’t we just do it the old way?’” says Shamayim “Mama Shu” Harris, founder of Avalon Village, a member organization of HPC3. But, as their proposal gained momentum and community support, the City of Highland Park agreed to be the lead applicant for the DOE application. “They decided, ‘If you can’t beat ’em, join ‘em.’”

According to Rafael Mojica, program director at Soulardarity, the city’s turnaround reflects years of hard work by members of HPC3. He also credits the accelerator for identifying the opportunity that galvanized support. “Without that collective effort, this initiative wouldn’t see the light of day in Highland Park,” says Mojica.

Keeping the promise

Justice40 promises to right historic wrongs by ensuring that the hardest-hit communities reap the benefits of federal investments in climate and clean energy. But most front-line communities lack the capacity to navigate the federal funding maze, so the current, inequitable power structure remains intact. “If we want a different result, we need new channels for distributing resources,” say Lois DeBacker, managing director of the Kresge Foundation’s environment program.

The Justice40 Accelerator is one such channel. With a relatively modest investment of philanthropic resources, the accelerator could leverage significant federal support for communities — like Highland Park — that are advancing transformative solutions but have long been denied the resources they need to succeed.

To fulfill the transformative promise of this moment, funders must take care not to replicate the systems that created the inequitable status quo. “Philanthropy should not reproduce the loops of structural racism and inequality by having reporting and compliance requirements that are similar to the federal government,” says Christina Cummings. “When they are in partnership with front-line organizations, the relationship must be built on trust.”

With trust, funders can unlock the wisdom and creativity that resides in so-called “disadvantaged” communities. “We need to move away from models that seek to ‘save’ communities,” says Yianice Hernandez, senior program officer at the JPB Foundation, “and work to better equip communities to strengthen the beauty and talent that already exist within them.”

Laurie Mazur is the editor of the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, which is supported by the Kresge Foundation and the JPB Foundation.

This article was published in collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, which is supported by The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation. It was originally published March 30, 2022 on Inside Philanthropy.

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