Empowering Climate Leadership in Faith Communities of Color

Pastor Curry’s finely pressed cleric's robe contrasted the Bronx basement of Fordham United Methodist Church as he admired the facility's new energy-efficient boiler system. Those that have endured a New York winter recognize how important a quality heating unit can be and how obtaining energy efficient technology can make or break an institution financially. Despite its importance, purchasing energy saving equipment for faith facilities that predominantly serve people of color has been an uphill battle for faith leaders like Curry. Many projects are deemed “too small for the bank to consider making a loan,” according to Donnel Baird, CEO, and co-founder of BlocPower.

Inner-city communities like the Bronx, have historically been comprised of small organizations like Fordham UMC, rendering the acquisition of sustainable retrofits challenging. Baird, a former consultant to the Obama administration on energy-efficiency programs is addressing this issue by bundling small to midrange organizations primarily in “underserved” communities to garner the support of financial institutions. And faith communities are a big part of it.

BlocPower's mission to create an ecosystem of climate leadership, health, and economic growth, joins the efforts of similar organizations facilitating climate-minded retrofits with a cost effective approach. Energy service companies (ESCO) have developed loan free programs for faith communities to avoid hefty investments, and organizations like Interfaith Power and Light regularly secure solar installations for worship facilities across the U.S. Our partner Greenfaith Ministries has a certification program to accompany their efforts, allowing congregations to quantify these successes. Alas; there is something to be said about an organization that addresses the unique challenges endured by people of color in the climate movement. These days, this conversation is particularly relevant considering that people of color statistically express some of the highest levels of concern over climate change.

"It is not possible for the climate change movement to win anything significant without the participation of people of color." – Donnel Baird

The first black President of the Sierra Club, Aaron Mair, explained in a recent interview with Sojourners Magazine, "whether it’s in the United States or developing nations…we tend to be on the front lines," of climate change. A reality that ecoAmerica's report, American Climate Values: Insights by Racial and Ethnic Groups found to be a strong contributor to communities of color who “express a greater level of concern about climate change than the American population as a whole." While proximity to climate-related impacts plays a major role, as Mair states, he contends that faith has a lot to do with it.

"We cannot be stewards of God's creation and burn every ounce of buried coal," says Mair, whose faith-based responsibility to care for God's creation has been a motivator long before he joined the institution in 1999, representing a wider trend among people of color. ecoAmerica's ACV report found that African Americans in particular respond positively to faith-based language that encourages climate solutions such as 'caring for God's creation.' "68% of African Americans agree that doing something now on climate change will protect God’s creation," a substantially higher number than the national average.

Is climate language inclusive of people of color?

As I wrote last week, a Gallup Poll revealed that the number of Americans who identify as 'environmentalists' decreases every year. This is especially true in communities of color who have been deterred by this terminology for decades, according to a report tasked to examine 'the role of race and ethnicity in climate change polarization.'

Jonathon Schuldt, the study’s co-author, shared, "this lack of labeling among people of color can be tied to a shortage of diversity among environmental groups where it’s often an image of whiteness.” The Gallup Poll, which analyzed the phrase in broader terms, determined the word to be too 'political' for most Americans. When one positions these reports together, it's easy to see that in any context the term 'environmentalism' is likely to detract engagement.

"Every church, every school, every institution, every scout troop, every choir—if you are trying to sing the praise of God, planet, and community, you must be engaged in this movement." – Aaron Mair

Analyzing the language of the climate movement is an imperative step toward broadening engagement across communities, and it starts at the leadership level. To achieve real change, leadership operating within the climate space must "move beyond [its] silos," says Mair, "we must now leave those silos behind and come to a common space to organize and strategize so that we can elevate our human condition."

Latino communities in particular struggle with breaking the silos of climate engagement and it’s not due to a lack of concern. The ACV report found that “Similar to African Americans, Hispanic/Latino Americans believe strongly that climate change is happening, but they are struggling with admitting it in mixed company.” In 2015, a national poll found that 54 percent of Latinos rated “global warming as extremely or very important to them personally,” towering over the 34 percent of whites who share similar worries. Which may explain why “cultural contexts affects the ease with which individual [Latinos] can express their opinions on climate change when they differ from their social circles,” as ecoAmerica’s ACV report found. But leadership within the Latino community is finding new ways around this impasse.

The National Latino Evangelical Coalition and Blessed Tomorrow leader and NLEC founder, Rev. Dr. Gabriel Salguero are leading climate engagement toward communities of color. Latino communities across America are impacted by climate change and much like African American communities, faith remains a strong motivator in forging climate solutions. Rev. Salguero sees a value in empowering climate leadership in his community through engaging language and strategies that speak to the concerns of Latinos across the U.S. ecoAmerica has joined with Salguero for the inaugural National Latino Climate Leadership Forum in Washington, D.C. on June 17th, 2016.

The forum will welcome Latino leaders from various communities of faith, business and politics to engage, empower and collaborate on inclusive strategies for better communications within the climate movement. Learn more about the forum here.

For insights on communicating climate solutions in faith communities of color, check out ecoAmerica's report, American Climate Values.

Read Aaron Mair’s full interview at Sojourners Magazine.

Ryan Smith is a writer at Blessed Tomorrow. He received his master's degree in Religious Studies with an emphasis on faith and climate change from the University of California, Riverside. Click here to email Ryan.

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