Climate justice in frontline communities: Here’s how to (really) help


As global warming accelerates, there’s a push by environmental groups and philanthropic foundations to engage with communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis. We are long-time activists from those communities, and we welcome the reinforcements. But we also have thoughts on how to make sure that well-meaning efforts to help are actually helpful.

Low-income communities and communities of color are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of global warming. Research shows that low-income people are more likely to live in flood-prone areas, and are less likely to receive federal aid once flooded. Abandoned by politicians and government, we need support from the philanthropic sector and nonprofits to build equitable climate resilience. 

There’s another reason for engaging frontline communities: This is how we win on climate. Global warming is a crisis, and we can’t rely on environmental nonprofits alone to tackle it. By combining the resources of national organizations with the experience and knowledge of those most impacted — low-income people, African Americans, Latinos and First Nations — we can build a diverse and powerful coalition for climate justice.

But frontline communities and their leaders, especially those of color, have learned to be wary of outside assistance. Based on our experiences living and working in these communities, here’s our advice on how to (really) help:

  1. We need power and adequate funding

The most common criticism of environmental nonprofits and foundations is that they swoop down into communities to run an event or offer an insufficient grant and swoop back out. The event or grant is offered on their terms, and the community is expected to be grateful. We can do better. Working with frontline communities requires a genuine partnership where the community leads the process, has access to the experts and the funds to cover their costs.

  1. We welcome your authority, knowledge and resources

While residents must lead the process, the environmental movement and its funders bring authority, knowledge and resources. Our local and state politicians take note when we have national and regional organizations backing us and money in our pockets, and partners and experts are more likely to join forces with us. We truly welcome you, but under our terms.






  1. Helping means staying

One of the leaders in Higher Ground has been working solidly for three years as a full-time volunteer to protect a wetland from development. An environmental organization offered to help. They did some graphics, sent some tweets (without mentioning the name of the community leader), got some glory and disappeared. This is one of many reasons why frontline communities feel aggrieved. Our fight is long. We need you to stick with us, through our successes and failures, and we need you to elevate our voices.

  1. It’s not our profession

The people we work with are suffering from the impacts of climate change — some have lost their homes, livelihoods and assets as a consequence. And we face a constant barrage of environmental injustices. One of us (Hilton) lives in Port Arthur, Texas, home to the nation’s largest oil refinery —and some of the highest levels of toxic air releases in the country. Asthma and cancer rates in the predominantly African-American West Side are among the highest in the state. Our neighbors have jobs and families to care for, many are elderly. They care deeply about their environment, but it’s not their profession. We need to engage them with thought and care — put food on the table, offer childcare, and host events at times and places that work for them.

  1. We are experts

We aren’t scientists or experts on resilience, and we welcome and need technical assistance. But we are experts on our community and how the impacts of climate change are playing out. We can show you the watermarks of flooding and point to where the floodwaters spill over. We can share the stories of neighbors who escaped. We also know that building resilience is as much about social and environmental assets as it is about science, and we know who and what those assets are.

  1. Ditch (most of) the tool kits

Guidance documents, best-practice case studies and tool kits may work well for city governments, but they aren’t for us — except when they are developed by us. Please come directly to our community, meet with our people, let us show you what we know, and then share your knowledge and resources with us.

  1. We are environmental activists

There’s a false belief that people of color and low-income Americans don’t care about the environment or climate change and that someone must persuade us to care. Research (and our own experience) shows otherwise. We don’t need a lesson on why we should care; we need solutions.

  1. Accept conflict

We like to partner with our cities and counties, truly we do, but sometimes their hunger for development dollars and neglect for our concerns means that first we have to fight them. Climate justice is political, and we need partners willing to accept politics and conflict.

9. Don’t lead with retreat

Some people say, “If you’re flooding, why don’t you just move?” We recognize the vulnerability of our communities to climate change, sea-level rise, and urban flooding. We know that some neighborhoods will have to move. But first we must spend time building trust. Research shows that government is quick to armor the homes of wealthier communities while declaring poor neighborhoods unsalvageable. (See, for example, post-Katrina New Orleans.) We support managed retreat as Plan B, but first we have to explore Plan A.

Those of us who live in — and fight for — frontline communities welcome assistance in the form of resources and expertise. But the best way to help us isn’t by “helping” — it’s by seeing us as equal partners and allies in the struggle for climate justice.

Katherine Egland is the co-founder of the Education, Economics, Environmental, Climate and Health Organization (EEECHO). As a resident of Gulfport, Mississippi, Egland is also the chairperson for the Environmental and Climate Justice Committee for the National Board of Directors of NAACP. Egland is a flood and BP oil spill survivor. 

Hilton Kelley is the founder and executive director of the Community In-Power and Development Association Inc. in Port Arthur, Texas. Kelley is a U.S. Navy veteran, accomplished actor and Goldman Prize-winning environmental justice activist. He joined Higher Ground after Hurricane Harvey. 

Both Egland and Kelley are members of the Higher Ground Council, the largest flood survivor network in the U.S.