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ICYMI: Focus on Environmental Justice motivates MI Healthy Climate Conference

Like the impacts of climate change, the effects of climate action ripple outward through communities, social strata, economic sectors, and more.

During the MI Healthy Climate Conference, members of the Michigan Advisory Council on Environmental Justice (MAC EJ) and Council on Climate Solutions enjoy their second annual joint lunch to further their camaraderie and mutual purposes.

During the MI Healthy Climate Conference, members of the Michigan Advisory Council on Environmental Justice (MAC EJ) and Council on Climate Solutions enjoy their second annual joint lunch to further their camaraderie and mutual purposes.

 

So when more than 900 people turned out for the second annual MI Healthy Climate Conference May 16-17 in Lansing, they found efforts toward environmental and climate justice and a just transition woven throughout the conference – as they are in the State of Michigan’s work every day.   

Conference attendees heard from experts, advocates, and officials dedicated to achieving environmental justice – the idea that the challenges and rewards of climate action must benefit people and communities that have traditionally borne the brunt of climate impacts.

With a theme of “Accelerating Action,” the sold-out conference focused on motivating Michiganders to advance goals set out in Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s MI Healthy Climate Plan (MHCP) and recently enacted historic clean energy legislation, and to bring home federal climate and clean energy funding. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) and its Office of Climate and Energy (OCE) presented the event at the Lansing Center.

Conference activities and announcements bolstered the MHCP’s commitment to environmental justice and pursuing a just transition to a prosperous, clean-energy economy for all Michiganders.

The gathering kicked off in the wake of the announcement of Michigan’s first-ever Environmental Justice Impact Grants, a new $20 million grant program to help the state’s environmental justice communities mitigate environmental and health challenges through remediation, pollution reduction, community improvement, and more. Applications for place-based and equity-focused projects are open now. Eligible to apply by July 15 are federally recognized tribes, community-based nonprofits (including grassroots and front-line organizations), local governments, schools, and child-care centers. Applicants may apply for up to $500,000, and funds will be awarded by early September.

Regina Strong, right, moderates the conference’s “Grounding Climate Action in Justice” panel.

Regina Strong, right, moderates the conference’s “Grounding Climate Action in Justice” panel.

 

On the first day of the conference, Regina Strong, the head of EGLE’s Office of the Environmental Justice Public Advocate (OEJPA), moderated a discussion on grounding climate action in justice. Panelists were Sylvia Orduño, an organizer with the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and chair of the Michigan Advisory Council on Environmental Justice; Donna Davidson, president and CEO of the Eastside Community Network in Detroit; and Kareem Scales, board co-chair of the Grand Rapids-based Community Collaboration on Climate Change (C4).

The frank discussion suggested paths for tackling some of Michigan’s greatest challenges, including equitably adapting to climate change and addressing the concerns of communities most affected by pollution from Michigan’s legacy industries and energy systems.

“Prioritizing environmental and climate justice as we address climate change is paramount,” Strong said. “Hearing directly from advocates who bring the unique perspective of their lived experience and expertise is critical as we build the path to a healthy climate that prioritizes minimizing impacts and ensuring economic opportunities for people in communities.”

Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist II announces the Climate Justice Challenge at the conference on May 16.

Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist II announces the Climate Justice Challenge at the conference on Thursday, May 16.

 

Afterward, Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist II delivered a keynote speech expressing a commitment to address not only climate change but climate justice. The Lieutenant Governor said decision-makers “need to center community leaders who have been deeply and darkly affected by the climate crisis … so we can then develop mechanisms for accountability and pathways for investment so we can walk into this future in a way that’s more responsive to those communities.”

He announced that the state – led by the OEJPA, EGLE’s Office of Climate and Energy (OCE), and the Michigan Infrastructure Office (MIO) – would make $12 million available to expand state climate justice efforts. 

The figure includes $11 million for the new Climate Justice Challenge initiative to help community-based organizations pursue U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Environmental and Climate Justice Community Change Grants by providing technical assistance with applications. The Climate Justice Challenge will provide up to $1 million in technical assistance and offer up to $10 million in matching funds for coalitions that win support from the EPA. This program is live now and accepting applications.

The other $1 million is for the MHC Justice 40 Technical Assistance Program to support community-based organizations’ efforts to implement the MHCP by providing resources they need to serve disadvantaged communities with technical assistance and training to apply for and deploy state and federal climate-related funding. Chosen applicants will receive a participation grant, one-on-one support, training in grant applications and management, and technical assistance in grant writing or other technical needs. The program will open for applications soon, with information to be posted on EGLE’s OCE webpage.

The state also has committed to implementing and seeks to exceed the Biden Administration’s Justice40 policy that ensures at least 40% of the overall benefits of certain state and federal investments flow to environmental justice and disadvantaged communities.

A Justice40 panel on the afternoon of May 16 – led by Kris Brady, MIO’s Technical Assistance Center (TAC) director – who presented hot-off-the-presses details on the Climate Justice Challenge announced by the Lieutenant Governor that morning – as well as environmental justice Impact Grant details from Strong. Attendees learned about the Minneapolis Foundation’s forthcoming Great Lakes Environmental Justice Thriving Communities Grantmaking Program and technical and other assistance available to environmental justice communities through the Blacks in GreenThriving Communities Technical Assistance Center.

It was followed by an open house focused on meeting Justice40 commitments and providing “office hours” with TAC representatives, in-state technical assistance providers and experts, the EPA, and the U.S. Department of Energy for technical assistance on climate and equity programs.

Regina Strong, second from left, and Katie Lambeth, second from right, both with the Office of the Environmental Justice Public Advocate, talk with conference attendees at the Climate Equity Technical Assistance Open House.

Regina Strong, second from left, and Katie Lambeth, second from right, both with the Office of the Environmental Justice Public Advocate, talk with conference attendees at the Climate Equity Technical Assistance Open House.

Concluding the conference was a panel led by Jonathan Smith, chief deputy for the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, on Michigan’s approach to ensuring a just transition for communities and workers. The audience heard representatives of local government, organized labor, small business, and industry discuss the challenges and opportunities of embracing justice in the state’s transition to a cleaner economy. Carla Walker-Miller, CEO of Walker-Miller Energy Services in Detroit, was on the panel.

“For the first time in the history of this country and of this state,” Walker-Miller said, “we have the opportunity to integrate equity into a major economic transition, enabled by the Biden Administration and forged into reality by Governor Whitmer’s Environmental Justice leadership in the MI Healthy Climate platform. Now, we must be courageous, innovative, and inclusive to make equity a reality and to normalize it for all ongoing efforts.  

About the Office of the Environmental Justice Public Advocate

In 2019, Governor Whitmer created the Office of the Environmental Justice Public Advocate (OEJPA) by executive order to serve as an internal and external advocate and catalyst of ensuring that environmental justice is prioritized and integrated throughout state programs and in communities across the state, and to address environmental justice concerns and complaints.

In the same executive order, the Governor created an Interagency Environmental Justice Response Team (IEJRT) to ensure departments remove silos and think creatively about solutions to address environmental injustices. The MAC EJ was also created.

OEJPA coordinates closely with environmental justice communities throughout the state to ensure equitable statewide engagement. This includes regional roundtables and the bi-annual Environmental Justice Conference, development and updating of EGLE’s Language Access Plan (formerly the Limited English Proficiency Plan), EGLE’s nondiscrimination policy, EGLE’s public participation policy, and training all EGLE employees in environmental justice.

In coordination with EGLE and other state departments, OEJPA launched a beta version of a state-specific interactive environmental justice screening tool, MIEJScreen, to identify Michigan communities that may be disproportionately impacted by environmental hazards.

The office works directly with tribal governments and communities; launched programs like the MI Wild Rice Initiative, the Air Quality in Environmental Justice Community Schools program, and the Mobile Air Project; leads initiatives like the 48217/Southwest Detroit Community Resiliency Planning Pilot; and works with state departments on new efforts to center environmental justice in their programming.