Harnessing Infrastructure to Advance Racial Equity and Climate Justice

By Kristin Gimbel

Photo credit: Creative Commons

The Biden Administration has called the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity to make radical improvements to expand and modernize our infrastructure; address long-standing needs in impacted communities; support climate resilience; and preserve endangered ecosystems. Yet, if investments are rolled out through “business as usual” approaches, we stand to further exacerbate inequities, threaten human health, reinforce structures of racism, and miss a critical opportunity to curb the devastating impacts caused by climate change.

To truly leverage this pivotal, historical moment, governments at all levels have the opportunity to recast decision-making processes in favor of more deliberate, inclusive and just approaches to prioritizing investment. In April 2022, Metropolitan Group convened an expert panel, over Zoom, for a conversation on harnessing infrastructure to advance racial equity and climate justice. Joined by 85 thought leaders across disciplines, sectors and states, the panel engaged in a clear, poignant and hopeful conversation on how to meaningfully create the conditions that deepen community connection and voice, build capacity of staff to operationalize commitments to justice, and use data — informed through an equity lens — to evaluate impact. Each of the panelists shared innovative practices and partnerships that are seeking to disrupt systemic racism and center impacted peoples and places. Click here to watch the full recording of the conversation.

Moderated by Kristin Gimbel, vice president and policy lead at Metropolitan Group, the panelists shared what is at stake and what is possible with regard to infrastructural improvements. Each panelist emphasized actions that we can take now to hear from the voices of those most impacted in ways that shift the conversation to centering communities most impacted by climate change, and interrogate systemic racism and historic infrastructural decisions that continue to burden communities today.

The conversation featured anecdotes and historic insights from our panelists.

Vernice Miller-Travis, executive vice president at Metropolitan Group, opened the conversation by sharing that her entire career as an environmental justice advocate has been galvanized by infrastructural decisions that have negatively impacted populations. From hazardous waste sites to sewage treatment plants in the backyards of Indigenous, Black and Brown people, immigrants, and other communities of color and low wealth, she has been a champion of addressing the effects of infrastructural racism for decades. She recommended two books for further reading: “Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, And What We Can Do About It” by Mindy Thompson Fullilove, and “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America” by Richard Rothstein. Infrastructural development often indicates a growing and modernizing society, but it is often coupled with great trauma, disruption and dislocation. Historically, as towns and cities grew — and land became more valuable — these community groups were pushed into undesirable and often toxic urban areas. Even land use designations like the National Park System are rooted in inequitable zoning ordinances, which codified racial segregation under the guise of “urban renewal.” Vernice also connected the devastating realities of “Cancer Alley,” an area between New Orleans and Baton Rouge located on the Mississippi River with a high concentration of petrochemical manufacturing plants, to the disproportionate cases of residents being diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses at alarmingly high rates. ​​When done hand in hand, racist urban renewal and infrastructure development wreak an incalculable emotional, psychological and physical toll upon marginalized communities. This harm has caused loss of wealth, irreversible health impacts and generational trauma to countless families living in the United States.

Jennifer Messenger, senior executive vice president at Metropolitan Group, tied the conditions of the built environment to our public health. For over two decades, she has been a strong advocate for shaping the places we live, learn, work and play — while centering the best conditions for health and well-being for all people. Jennifer listed the tremendous public health benefits that the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act could bring to our built environments, such as: clean drinking water, expansion of broadband access, education opportunities, health related jobs, improved roads and bridges, more walking and bike paths for commuters, weatherization to help us deal with the effects of climate change, as well as over $13B of direct investments to Tribal communities. She echoed Vernice by saying that displacement and structural racism has caused great harm to many communities, and there’s a lot at stake with regard to health equity, particularly if we don’t use these investments to center the lived experiences of marginalized groups. In Portland, Oregon, Albina Vision Trust is leading a collaborative process to build a socially and economically inclusive housing network. It is an inspiring example of how nonprofits, community leaders and other organizations can work together to make positive social change.

Jacqui Patterson, founder and executive director of the Chisholm Legacy Project, contextualized our conversation around Sandbranch, Texas, a predominantly Black community in Dallas County, which has suffered tremendously as a result of racist infrastructural decision-making. Sandbranch is an unincorporated area that was settled in 1878 by a community of 11 people who were formerly enslaved. As a result of this designation, Sandbranch is not serviced by a municipality, and they have no existing water infrastructure — their wells are non-potable due to decades of contamination. Residents rely on donated cases of water and use it for everything from drinking, cooking, bathing and other hygienic needs. Since this community has no garbage pick-up, the hundreds of plastic bottles of water they accumulate during the week are burned in backyards, further contributing to the toxic environment they dwell in. Chisholm Legacy Project is asking for justice and self-determination for these formally emancipated families who built the infrastructure of this nation. Despite inequitable examples, like Sandbranch, some communities have triumphed, asserted agency, and amassed power to design and implement projects in service of their communities. For example, the Seattle Community Network, Kansas City Freedom Network and Metal Mesh, are all internet networks dedicated to providing broadband access to residents. In terms of water infrastructure, the Howard County stormwater management project resulted in job creation and innovative community design and development initiatives. Jacqui’s recommended reading included the article To truly build back better, we need a Justice 100 solution,” by Denise G. Fairchild.

Ezra Milchman, senior executive vice president at Metropolitan Group, provocatively reflected on both the great good and the great harm the mainstream environmental movement has made for communities nationwide. Some of the good includes: species and habitat protection, clean energy and water, making recreation accessible, and connecting people to nature. The harm includes population displacement, codifying racial segregation through zoning ordinances and public transit decisions, and putting historically marginalized communities in toxic environs — ignoring their fundamental basic health needs. He emphasized that social justice advocacy and environmental protection go hand in hand, and when this is ignored, environmental work is incomplete and has long-lasting impacts on families. For too long, environmental organizations, agencies and foundations have been reluctant to focus on equity and justice issues, which has resulted in wielding infrastructure in overtly racist ways. For generations, we’ve been putting infrastructure improvements largely in white neighborhoods, while placing polluting infrastructure in largely Black, Brown and Indigenous neighborhoods. As a result, pollution and race correlate more strongly than pollution and poverty — Black middle class neighborhoods are far more polluted than white poor neighborhoods in this country. There are so many benefits to these infrastructure dollars, but without reflecting on decisions of the past, they could widen the gap between communities as well as deepen existing structural and systemic inequities. Racial equity and climate justice advocates are calling on us to take a hard look at these types of disparities in service of transforming how we work as individuals, as organizations and as agents of change. Transforming means centering justice, equity, diversity and inclusion in our day to day behaviors, our norms of decision-making, and the systems and structures that we live in, create and manage every day. Ezra stressed that this is the real work of our time.

These were just some of the highlights of the conversation. Check out the full recording to watch this poignant discussion unfold. If you’d like to connect with us, email hello@metgroup.com.

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MG/ISMG crafts strategic and creative services to amplify the power of voice of change agents in building a just and sustainable world.