In January 2021, President Biden’s administration announced the Justice40 Initiative as part of a series of measures to address the climate crisis. The initiative mandates that “at least 40% of the benefits of certain federal programs must flow to disadvantaged communities” to aid in climate-related issues.
To help implement the policy, the administration launched the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool, which “identifies communities that have faced historic injustices and have borne the brunt of pollution” last November, according to a White House press release. The Herald spoke to Rhode Island officials and organizations to understand the initiative’s impact on climate policy in the state.
According to Michael Healey, chief public affairs officer for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, the initiative represents a first in the history of climate policy in the United States.
“Not surprisingly given our nation’s history of racial and other inequality, the United States has never committed to environmental justice on this scale before — or even attempted to,” he wrote in an email to The Herald. Healey added that DEM hopes the initiative will bring resources for “communities (that) have been overburdened by legacy pollution and environmental hazards.”
DEM also hopes to benefit from other environmental justice measures established by the Inflation Reduction Act. Healey wrote that DEM is preparing to apply for an Environmental Justice grant later in the spring. Environmental Justice programs aim to support “government activities that lead to measurable environmental or public health impacts in communities disproportionately burdened by environmental harms,” according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s website.
The language on climate justice supported by the IRA and the Justice40 Initiative will also be reflected on DEM’s 2023-2026 strategic plan, Healey explained. The plan will focus on prioritizing “diversity, inclusion and environmental justice in all programs,” he said. Some of its goals will include the development of a diverse DEM workforce, a strong relationship with residents of underserved communities and the incorporation of environmental justice into grant considerations.
The Herald also spoke to Monica Huertas, executive director of The People’s Port Authority, an organization working to “stop the construction and expansion of fossil fuel facilities near and on the Port of Providence,” according to Huertas. She shared that the PPA was recently awarded a Justice40 grant. “I thought it was a great idea because those federal grants … usually just go to large organizations,” she said.
Huertas added that the PPA’s application for federal funding in 2020 was denied. Between 2021 and 2022, the application was approved, and the organization was provided a grant of roughly $27,000, Huertas said. The funds are being used to mainly support the organization’s Green Justice Zones, which, in underserved communities, aim to “pass … and write legislation … to have people in the community involved in the decision-making process,” according to Huertas.
“They can give us more money,” Huertas answered when asked if she felt there were ways the Justice40 Initiative could improve. For her, funding to local grass-roots organizations is crucial. “Leave it to the community. We know what we are doing, we know what our needs are,” she added.
While April Brown, interim director of the Racial and Environmental Justice Committee of Providence, also praised the initiative, she said that the Justice40 Initiative will not fix all issues around equity impacting local communities. She pointed to how smaller organizations still encounter difficulty when trying to receive federal funding.
“It’s still a challenge to get federally funded,” Brown said, explaining how smaller organizations usually struggle to compete with those that have the personnel and resources to go through a federal application process. She added that funding should also be made available at the state level. “Every state agency should have an equity plan so that the money can get to the communities” with the highest need, she said.
She also expressed concerns over the newly released screening tool. According to Brown, the tool — which uses asthma and lead rates as criteria to identify vulnerable areas — is “not necessarily bringing new information.” For her, it is “not rocket science” that places such as the Port of Providence are in need of assistance and resources. Washington Park, the neighborhood near the port, has one of the highest rates of childhood asthma in Rhode Island, because of pollution from nearby industry, The Herald previously reported.
“I think what will be helpful is when they start doing community engagement and looking at how that information is actually affecting the people who live in those areas,” Brown said.
"One of the challenges of data is that it loses context … if you are not having conversations with the people to understand the impacts, then you are just making guesses … and that's not good policy-making," she added.
While Brown is not dismissing the accomplishments of the Initiative, she still identifies areas where it can improve. "I do think people are trying to help … but I do also think there's still a disconnect” between federal legislators and communities, she said.
For Brown, projects like the Justice40 Initiative must aim to foster a closer relationship between policy-makers and those who be impacted by such policies. “We are already burdened,” she said. “We need (legislators) to let go of some of that burden on us. We need that to happen for equity to happen.”
Julia Vaz is a Metro editor covering the environment and crime and justice beats. She is a sophomore from Brazil studying Political Science and Literary Arts.