According to the Greenlining Institute, protecting fossil fuel workers during the transition to a clean-energy economy is a critical element of climate justice. (Photo courtesy of Greenlining Institute)

Location: Oakland, California
For More Information:
Type of Organization: A policy, research, advocacy, and leadership development organization in California that works on racial equity across several issue areas.
Mission: Greenlining is the solution to redlining. We advance economic opportunity and empowerment for people of color through advocacy, community and coalition building, research, and leadership development.
Primary Funding: Philanthropic
Interview With: Sonrisa Cooper, Community Development Program Manager

How does your organization’s focus relate to the built environment and land use?

The Greenlining Institute wants to build a community-centered economic system that is cooperative, regenerative, democratic, non-exploitative, and inclusive. Our vision for the world is a future where people of color thrive and race is never a barrier to opportunity.

At Greenlining, equity and justice are at the core of our work. We advocate for low-income people of color by directing climate investment dollars to the most affected communities, developing equitable climate adaptation and resilience strategies, expanding access to clean transportation and mobility options that lift people out of poverty, and creating a new economy built to support people, the planet, and prosperity.

How do you define environmental justice in your work?

We define climate justice as ensuring that the people and communities who are least culpable in the warming of the planet, and most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, do not suffer disproportionately as a result of historical injustice and disinvestment. Low-income communities of color are at the frontlines of climate change, in that they experience the impacts of the climate crisis first and worst. Climate justice requires leaders to acknowledge that frontline communities are experts in creating solutions to protect and preserve our air, water, land, and communities, despite these communities’ historical exclusion from decision-making and from public resources and services. Climate justice also requires leaders to provide public resources and services to frontline communities to engage and assist them in developing technologies, policies, professions, services, and projects for addressing the causes and impacts of climate change and healing from historical injustices.

We define equity as a continuous practice of transforming behaviors, institutions, and systems that disproportionately harm people of color. Equity means increasing access to power, redistributing and providing additional resources, and eliminating barriers to opportunity in order to empower low-income communities of color to thrive and reach their full potential. Our vision goes beyond saving the planet; we are working toward a resilient new economic system that repairs past injustices and in which all people can thrive.

What do you hope to see from the real estate sector, especially given current increased awareness of racial and environmental justice?

There is so much potential in the real estate sector to bring racial justice into the field. The sector needs to understand and acknowledge the legacy of racism in the built environment; planning and zoning decisions made decades ago are responsible for many of the racial disparities in our world today, and ignoring that fact will just reinforce those disparities. Many of the same communities that were redlined in the 1930s were demolished for urban renewal in the 1970s, destroyed by the foreclosure crisis in the 2000s, and are currently facing the worst impacts of COVID-19 and climate change.

I am a planner, and I am constantly asking myself what more I can do to bring a racial justice lens to my work: How can I listen to the community better? What can planners and developers do to make sure that people are not displaced? How can we repair past harms done to communities of color? The real estate sector needs to proactively take an approach to investment and development that prioritizes the needs of low-income communities of color if we want to level the playing field.

What connections do you see among current movements for racial justice and climate change or environmental issues?

Racial justice and climate change are deeply intertwined. Decades of structural racism have put communities of color on the front lines of climate change. Thanks to the long history of disinvestment in communities of color, formerly redlined neighborhoods suffer the worst and costliest flood damage, are more likely to have poor air quality due to pollution from oil refineries, and can be as much as 20 degrees hotter than wealthier neighborhoods due to a lack of tree cover. Perhaps this is why Black and Latino communities recognize the seriousness of the climate crisis; a 2019 poll by the Yale Program on Climate Communication showed that 69 percent of Latinos and 57 percent of Black people were concerned with climate change, compared with just 49 percent of white people. The environmental racism of the climate crisis is yet another way that our society continues to devalue communities of color.

If you look at a redlining map and compare it with a current map of air quality, heat exposure, wildfire risk, or flood zones, you’ll see that the formerly redlined neighborhoods are the same ones that are the most vulnerable to climate change and pollution. Solutions to environmental issues need to be led by the people who are most affected by climate change, so we need to make sure that our policies are being shaped and implemented by people of color.

What is the role of private investment in addressing energy and environmental equity, and how can that process achieve greater impact? 

Private investment definitely has a role to play in addressing equity, but it will take a willingness from the sector to shift power. One way to do this is by making sure that private actors are held to a set of equity standards around how they do business. Without guardrails in place such as a strong value-capture approach or regulation over equity policies, private investment in environmental projects can trigger gentrification and displacement or exacerbate existing inequities in low-income communities of color. The private sector can contribute by prioritizing projects that provide co-benefits by addressing multiple issues and sectors at once—for example, a transit-oriented project developed in partnership with a health care provider and a workforce development agency. Other ways the private sector can address equity are by making sure that the main benefits of a project go directly to the most-affected people instead of trickling down from the top, and pushing for community voices to be part of decision-making.

On a broader, more systemic level, we need to change the way that we think about risk in private investment. For decades or even centuries, communities of color have been forced to bear the social and environmental costs of extraction and exorbitant profit. Projects that implicitly pass these costs onto communities can reinforce past injustices and worsen current disparities. Private investors need to fully account for the externalities upfront and refuse to pass the costs on to communities if they want to be serious about environmental justice.

What approach do you think we should be taking to COVID-19 and the economic recovery?

Similar to climate change, we need to orient our disaster response toward long-term community resilience. Immediate relief is important, but we also need to be working in parallel toward a future that addresses the root causes of racial disparities. We need to set standards for community investment strategies as we bounce back from crisis; in particular, we need race-conscious solutions that target investment to formerly redlined communities that have suffered the longest from historical discrimination and disinvestment.

COVID-19 will go away eventually, but the economic impacts of the pandemic will reverberate for decades. A recent study titled “Longer-Run Economic Consequences of Pandemics” put forth by economists at the University of California, Davis, found that the economic effects of a pandemic will typically linger for about 40 years after the last victim dies. The history of redlining reminds us that in the past, economic recovery efforts have left communities of color by the wayside. This time, we have an opportunity to change the course for climate change, the racial wealth gap, and other issues facing communities of color. This is our chance to rewrite the rules of our economy into one in which community resilience comes first.

ULI Member Perspective: Exploring Issues of Environmental Justice and Land Use