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$150k grant fund aims to build climate resilience for Philly’s Environmental Justice Advisory Commission
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$150k grant fund aims to build climate resilience for Philly’s Environmental Justice Advisory Commission

After a year spent defining its own structure, the commission is funding community-scale solutions for healthy foods and clean air, water and homes.

It’s been a year and a half since the Philadelphia Environmental Justice Advisory Commission was first convened to make recommendations to city leadership.

In that time, the commission has defined its own governing structure and bylaws, supported the city’s effort to obtain federal funding to push projects forward, and engaged with community members to better understand the environmental harms they face.

Now, the commission is ready to make changes on the ground. It’s been armed with $150,000 to hand out to community groups focused on environmental justice as part of the city’s first Community Resilience and Environmental Justice Fund. The commission is accepting applications through July 26 at 11:59 PM and will then select 15 projects to receive a $10,000 grant to carry out their vision. The grants are intended for projects focused on climate resilience, clean air and water, healthy foods, and toxin-free homes.

The fund, which was backed in the city’s budget for the next five years, includes $50,000 from the city and an additional $100,000 from the William Penn Foundation. Advisory Commission member Joyce Lee, president of sustainability and wellness consultancy IndigoJLD Green + Health, said the inclusion of environmental justice in the city’s budget for the first time represents “a change in the mindset” of Philadelphia. With its grants, the commission is aiming to reach smaller, community-based organizations that may not have the resources to access larger philanthropic funding opportunities.

“We really need to jumpstart some good ideas emanating from communities themselves,” Lee said. “The amount may not be very big, but the idea is to let a lot of flowers bloom, and we hope this will lead to a larger project in those communities in the future.”

In an effort toward inclusion, the application is available in English, Spanish and simplified Chinese. Applicants must either be registered as a 501(c)(3) or working with one as a fiscal sponsor. Genevieve LeMarr LeMee, Philadelphia’s senior adviser for environmental justice, said the grants are intended to be “seed money” that can open the door for deeper investment for organizations addressing issues specific to their communities.

“We’re trying to grow a movement here,” Lee said.

Commission prioritizes climate resilience projects.

The grants could be used to launch a community garden, or to bring neighbors together to apply for energy-efficiency programs or whole-home repairs. Ideas that combat climate change and its tangible impact on Philadelphia’s neighborhoods – including heat islands and flooding – will be particularly compelling to the commission, Lee said. The commission will also emphasize youth leadership and development in its selections, giving younger members of the environmental justice movement the opportunity to start handling projects themselves.

They’re not afraid to point out that adults are more complacent. It’s their world, it’s their future, and they’re very passionate about this,” Lee said. “You need people on all sides working together to get this integrated into the DNA of a city.”

The commission intends to announce grant recipients in September and get projects underway shortly thereafter. “The sooner we get them started, the sooner we’ll see results,” said Lee.

Much of the commission’s first year was spent defining its own structure and ambitions after the city left it to members to decide how their work would be done.

“It was a rare show of faith on the part of the city not to bring us in and tell us what to do,” said Kermit O, a commission member who is an organizer and researcher at the intersection of food, land, and environmental justice.

Structuring the Environmental Justice Commission

That faith, however, led to lengthy discussions among the 17-member commission about how to operate. Ultimately, the commissioners landed on a traditional leadership structure. It is being chaired by John Armstead, an adjunct professor at Villanova University and retired U.S. Environmental Protection Agency director. Carlos Claussell of the World Wildlife Fund serves as vice chair. And Su Ly, a fellow at the Alliance for Watershed Education, is secretary. The commission now has 13 members after some early departures but intends to return to its full complement soon.

O, who acknowledged he is “probably the most radical person in that body,” said he pushed the commission to require a three-quarters majority on voting matters and the ability of commissioners to submit public comments when a vote is split—similar to a dissenting opinion from a judge. He wants to ensure the commission does more than write an annual report that lacks a mechanism to force action on the part of City Hall.

“I’m not here to be a poster child for anything. I’m here to see environmental justice communities survive and thrive,” O said. “I want to see change happen.”

The grant fund is a step in the right direction, but it’s not the commission’s first. The commission supported the city’s successful effort to obtain a $1.8 million federal grant to help fund planning for the Chinatown Stitch, a project that would reconnect the neighborhood by capping the Vine Street Expressway, which tore it apart when it was built. Commissioners have also supported the city in its attempt to acquire two grants from the EPA, one of which would address the city’s insufficient tree canopy.

Moving forward, O sees the commission continuing to embrace its potential as an organizing body, bringing together voices from across the city and throughout the environmental justice movement. With bylaws in place and its first grant fund ready to be deployed, the commission can begin improving the state of affairs in a city with a long history of environmental injustice to address.

“If we can convene a larger group of people and identify key incumbent themes, I think we’ll be in a better position to tell the city what needs to happen,” O said.

Cover photo: City of Philadelphia. Photograph by Albert Lee 

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