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Chicago and Midwest Climate Justice Orgs Shine at the 2022 Environmental Grantmakers Association Retreat

Senior Climate Portfolio Officer Ryan Strode reflects on this year's Environmental Grantmakers Retreat

This year, the Environmental Grantmakers Association Annual Retreat visited Chicago, where frontline climate, environmental, and food justice organizations working in Illinois were prominently featured. My Builders Initiative (BI) colleagues and I were honored to be in the room with bold mobilizers and thrilled to see members of the BI community take the stage to share their diligent and effective strategies. Here are a few highlights:

"We are winning in Chicago."

Dr. Antonio Lopez, who leads Builders Initiative partner Chicago Frontlines Funding Initiative (CFFI), opened the conference in conversation with Pastor Scott Onque of Faith in Place, in which they discussed the history of the environmental justice movement in Chicago and how years of work to build strong coalitions led to recent victories. These include the Climate and Equity Jobs Act and the defeat of a permit for a polluting metal shredder on Chicago's Southeast side.

Dr. Lopez spoke about the critical role of CFFI in building the capacity of frontline environmental justice organizations.

"We are innovating on building our own intermediaries to direct resources, and Chicago funders are listening to us,” he said. “CFFI is led by the grassroots and we can get funds to the people who need it most. You can trust grassroots leaders to manage money."

"The pollution is too damn high!"

During one of EGA's concurrent sessions, we heard from a multi-sector coalition of leaders in Chicago. These participants have a rich history of advocating for reforms to how the city makes decisions about where to place pollution industries. Drawing on lessons learned from "Cumulative Impacts" ordinances in cities like New Jersey, the panel talked about the more than 300,000 Chicagoans (11% of the city) who live in communities that are overburdened by air, water, and soil pollution. They unpacked the dire impact this burden has on health, environmental, and economic outcomes. As they put it, "We don't live single-issue lives, and we don't need single-issue solutions."

Panelists included:

"Walking the Walk: Trust-based & Participatory Grant Making Practices"

In this session, we heard from two Builders partners deploying participatory grant-making models to distribute resources to community-based organizations working on environmental justice and clean energy.

The speakers talked about the importance of trust in grantee relationships, allowing for more streamlined and flexible grant-making practices such as general operating and multi-year grants, as well as support beyond the check (such as communications and fundraising support).

We also learned about innovative models for grassroots-led intermediaries like the Equitable Building Electrification Fund, where funders relinquish their power over decisions about who and want to fund.

Taking a Toxic Tour

People for Community Recovery led a "Toxics Tour" of Altgeld Gardens on Chicago's Southeast side. People for Community Recovery is a legacy environmental justice organization founded by the late Hazel Johnson, known as the mother of the environmental justice movement. The tour featured some of the landfills, industrial facilities, and polluted waterways in the Lake Calumet areas, as well as key historical sites in the struggle for environmental justice. PCR also shared their vision for community-driven economic development in Altgeld Gardens, including sites where they hope to launch a Hazel Johnson Center for Environmental Justice school, as well as a shared kitchen for local food.

Marching Behind the Builders

As the conference ended, our team came out feeling reenergized and motivated to build out our collaborations as the EJ movement marches forward. This year’s event was a reflection of just how far we've come on environmental justice in Chicago and across the Midwest. It also represented our ever-growing community. As of 2022, BI works with 40 different energy partners and supports them with a holistic toolbox that not only includes funding but communications support, networking opportunities, and more. As someone who witnesses the hard work of those on frontlines, it was incredibly rewarding to see their efforts recognized on a national level.

— Ryan Strode, Senior Portfolio Officer of Climate and Energy at Builders Initiative