How communities of color lead on climate solutions — and ways to support them

The Hewlett Foundation has, for well over a decade, supported organizations around the globe that advance ambitious solutions to the climate crisis. The individuals within these institutions are smart, dedicated, effective, and committed to ensuring more voices are part of advocating for policies and practices that lead to a sustainable, healthy, and prosperous future for all. This feature article — focused on leaders advancing just and equitable climate solutions in the United States — is the first in a series highlighting grantees that are moving the needle on one of the most pressing issues of our lifetime.

Bridgette Murray in front of the air pollution monitor ACTS installed to measure harmful pollution from trucks coming out of the Houston port. Photo credit:
Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/Hive Fund

Bridgette Murray used to be a registered nurse. She worked where she lives — in Houston. As a nurse, she’d seen firsthand the ways her community’s environment was affecting their health. “Living in a community surrounded by freeways and other industries, I became quite curious about our environmental impacts, potential toxic exposures,” she says.

In 2012, while still working, the now 68-year-old founded Houston-based Achieving Community Tasks Successfully (ACTS), a volunteer-run organization that conducts citizen science and advocates for safe air quality. Upon retirement from nursing, Murray continued acting as executive director. The organization recently completed a disaster health recovery survey to understand COVID-19’s impacts in its community and has been installing air monitors throughout predominantly Black neighborhoods near polluting facilities since 2019. Despite operating on an annual budget of only about $120,000, the group has already installed eight monitors.

Running this community organization is a full-time job for Murray, but she’s not paid a market-rate salary. No one on her team of four is. They serve because they care about local health outcomes. They stretch their budget, including what they receive from philanthropy, to ensure they can maximize what they give back to the community.

Murray dreams of a day when she can pay her team a living wage and do even more for the city she loves: “Volunteers are great, but when you’re able to hire a team that can work on these various programs full-time, then you’re able to do more on behalf of the communities that we serve. We know that there is just so much more that needs to be done, but we have to be realistic about those tasks that we can take on.”

Organizations like ACTS — which center the needs of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color in their work — are making big strides on climate action. These efforts range from advancing strict truck pollution regulation in California to pushing the federal government to adopt an “all of government” approach to supporting equitable outcomes to partnering with labor leaders to help Oregon pass the sweeping Oregon Climate Action Plan. But despite a track record of success, these organizations also face some of the steepest financial hurdles. In the U.S., a gap of more than $2.7 billion of funding sits between white-led groups and those led by people of color, like Murray, according to the Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity in Environmental Philanthropy (InDEEP) Initiative. That difference in funding has a dramatic impact on what groups led by people of color can accomplish. Organizations led by people of color describe the challenges caused by such funding inequities — a lack of resources to conduct analysis, staff burnout, having to scale back their level of ambition, and much more.

These facts reflect a history of underinvestment, but that doesn’t have to be the future. For donors who, like the Hewlett Foundation, want to do more to advance climate action, as well as gender and racial equity, new intermediaries are helping get resources, support, and capacity to groups led by people of color that are advancing the climate cause.

What are intermediaries?

Intermediaries are mission-driven organizations that aim to more effectively link donors (individuals, foundations, and corporations) with organizations and individuals delivering charitable services. They come in many forms: Donor Advised Funds, giving circles, community foundations, fiscally sponsored pooled funds, fund aggregators, and social ventures.

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Intermediaries aim to fill the climate justice funding gap

The Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund, a key Hewlett Foundation grantee and partner, began providing financial resources to multi-issue community organizations in just two states. Six years later, the fund provides support in 13 states. Despite the specificity of its name, the Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund doesn’t only help groups with energy or climate agendas. It also funds organizations with track records of success in other social justice issue areas, including immigration, labor, housing, and reproductive rights.

“Our theory is that if these organizations are already winning in these other issue areas, and they already work with the communities most impacted by climate change, then these are the folks who should be receiving the bulk of funding in the climate sector,” says Lydia Avila, a program officer focused on the Southwest at the Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund.

The intermediary has been working to advance racial, environmental, and economic justice for several years in New Mexico, which is one of the most diverse states in the nation and third in the U.S. in oil production, after Texas and North Dakota. Avila works predominantly with communities of color that are exposed to the toxic air pollution resulting from oil production. The communities are also highly dependent on the industry for financial stability and jobs, so her team has prioritized funding groups that work on education and knowledge sharing to help residents in oil-dependent communities understand how transitioning to clean energy can provide economic opportunities that won’t pollute their neighborhoods.

The Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund is building power to stop climate change and create an equitable clean energy future.

“Our grantees are not necessarily talking to people about climate change explicitly,” Avila says. “They’re talking to people about jobs and about the dangers of being hyper-dependent on the oil and gas industry.”

After two years of door knocking and coalition building, Avila’s grantees recently celebrated a win. In 2019, the state passed the Energy Transition Act, which accelerates New Mexico’s clean energy transition and provides economic and workforce support for communities impacted by coal plant closures. A state task force — which includes representation from many groups deeply connected with New Mexican communities and supported by the Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund — will soon begin to identify new economic opportunities for the state and drive public investment toward them. But Avila and the community see this as just the beginning.

“That was a really good win, but we need to build off of that,” Avila says. “Once we get a win, we need to keep the funding going to ensure good practice.”

Hive Fund Co-Director Melanie Allen (left) on a visit with Mozine Lowe, Executive Director of the Center for Energy Education in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. Photo credit: Cornell Watson/Hive Fund

Investing in women of color to drive climate action

In the U.S. South, the Hive Fund for Climate and Gender Justice is another intermediary spurring new approaches to philanthropy. Launched in 2019 with $12 million in seed funding from Hewlett, it supports organizations, primarily led by women of color and others on the frontlines, that are taking on big players, like the fossil fuel industry that run oil refineries and petrochemical plants that pollute the air and endanger the health of neighboring communities.

The Hive Fund chose the South because of the sheer scale of impact of fossil fuels to communities of color in the area. The region is home to some of the highest greenhouse gas emitters in the country. Texas alone released more than 823 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels in 2019, more than three times the next three highest-emitting states combined. Recognizing that many leaders in the region were women of color — and that they received only a tiny share of overall funding — the Hive Fund committed specifically to supporting those tackling the climate crisis with a lens on gender, race, and class.

“One of the really important things we need to break through is this idea that we can solve the climate crisis and then deal with justice or race later,” explains Melanie Allen, co-director of the Hive Fund, which funds ACTS. “That’s just not true. … If we’re not dealing with them in this enmeshed way and if our solution set is not considering all of them, then we’re not going to be able to solve these complex and difficult problems.”

Texas State Director Angelica Razo (left) and her team at Mi Familia Vota. Photo credit: Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/Hive Fund

A growing Gulf South climate movement

The Coalition for Environment, Equity, and Resilience (CEER) works toward a cleaner, healthier future. It was born after Hurricane Harvey in 2017, which killed at least 88 people. The Houston-based coalition is made up of 28 member organizations working to build power to prevent such a tragedy from hitting their people again.

Iris Gonzalez was CEER’s first paid, full-time staff member, and is now working for the EPA. Gonzalez says the coalition could do so much more with more funded positions and better-resourced partners. Funders can provide connective tissue through long-term grants and resources focused on operations and capacity.

“Organizations can’t work in coalition if they don’t have what they need to really keep going and to grow along with us, so we can only scale if we all scale together,” Gonzalez says.

Mi Familia Vota Education Fund, which organizes to improve voting rights for Latino and immigrant communities, is one coalition member group that could significantly grow its impact with more funding. Angelica Razo has been with the organization since 2017. Then a recent college graduate, she is now the Texas state director. In this role, Razo localizes national climate policy so people understand the real-life impacts of issues that often feel removed from their everyday lives. She also supports communities in engaging with state-level policy.

In 2021, when the power grid failed as temperatures dropped, Razo spread the message of community power and sounded the alarm on climate change. She continually highlighted that being low-income or a person of color shouldn’t subject people to unequal suffering. “We’ve done a lot of work to try to make sure our community members know that’s not normal, and you can demand more,” Razo says.

Bakeyah Nelson also played a significant role in helping strengthen and grow CEER’s impact. She dedicated four and a half years to protecting public health as executive director of Air Alliance Houston, a nonprofit tackling poor air quality. “I had no idea that people and children were living directly next door to huge polluting facilities,” Nelson says. “I had never seen anything like it.”

Under her leadership, Air Alliance Houston took the challenge head-on, rallying against highway expansions and fighting for industry regulations. She built a powerful foundation to ensure the nonprofit could continue its critical work long after she left. That doesn’t happen overnight. As Air Alliance’s leader, Nelson was also devoted to finding funding. Now, Nelson is on the Hive Fund’s advisory board, and serves as a consultant to foundations, where she continues to apply her experiences to steer resources to smaller, community-run groups that approach climate change systemically.

“I recognize the power in being able to lead an organization, but I also see similarly that there is an opportunity to make a difference on the philanthropic side,” Nelson says.

The opportunity for climate funders


of the Hewlett Foundation's Environment Program grants went to organizations led by people of color

≈ $28 million

was given by the Hewlett Foundation's Environment Program in support for the Hive Fund and Climate and Clean Energy Fund

Nelson is not alone in seeing an opportunity to make a difference on the philanthropic side.

The Donors of Color Network (DOCN) launched the Climate Funder’s Justice Pledge with a goal of supporting groups led by Black, Indigenous, and people of color in the climate cause, because they saw it as both a just and smart commitment. The network, a cross-racial community of donors, has called on climate funders to increase their funding transparency and dramatically increase funding to groups led by and serving people of color. Nineteen funders have fully signed the pledge, which includes sharing funding totals and committing 30% of funding to organizations led by Black, Indigenous, and other people of color. An additional four, including the Hewlett Foundation, have signed the transparency portion of the pledge.

“It’s not effective to be essentially fighting something as big as climate change with only a portion of your team on the field,” says Sharon Chen, a board member for DOCN who helped launch the campaign. “It’s not a winning strategy, and it would be better for everyone — white people included — if we were fighting this problem with everybody appropriately funded.”

Erin Rogers, co-director of the Hive Fund and a former Hewlett program officer, says that funding technical policy solutions for, say, more solar panels is necessary, but “it’s definitely not sufficient to get at the change we need, at the speed and scale required, to avert the very worst disaster.”

The Hewlett Foundation’s Environment Program has been increasing its giving to groups led by Black, Indigenous, and people of color, and supporting efforts that help the environmental field, broadly, overcome its historic pattern of underinvestment. According to the foundation’s most recent grantee demographic portrait, the program directed 23% of its grants to organizations led by people of color. It has provided nearly $28 million in support for the Hive Fund and Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund. And in its most recently released funding strategy, which is focused on how the transportation sector can address climate change, it is ensuring inclusion of environmental justice groups in strategy development and funding.

“Organizations fighting for clean air and water and expanded economic opportunities for people and communities most impacted by climate change are essential partners,” says Carrie Doyle, senior fellow for Hewlett’s Environment Program. “We need new leaders at the forefront of this movement. We need to resource a broader solution set. Winning on climate requires a more inclusive coalition.”


Yessenia Funes is an environmental journalist currently serving as the climate director for Atmos, an independent nonprofit magazine covering the intersection of climate and culture.

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