Issues of racial and economic justice have dominated the national conversation since the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd earlier this year. As Conroy Boxhill, managing director of Porter Novelli-Atlanta, observed during the 3BL Virtual Forum last week: “The fight for racial justice is not siloed.” It is not separate from inequalities related to healthcare, energy, housing, community development or public policy. True progress is intersectional and takes on the overlapping issues that prevent equal access to opportunity, justice and wellbeing.
On the Forum’s virtual stage, Boxhill spoke with representatives of three very different organizations — energy policy nonprofit Fresh Energy, cult favorite ice cream brand Ben & Jerry’s and Latino advocacy organization UnidosUS. They discussed what brand leadership on racial justice looks like and how businesses can work across sectors to advance equity. Each organization’s unique case studies offer a glimpse into what the intersectional fight for racial justice means.
In five the years since the Paris climate agreement was adopted by U.N. member states, a growing number of governments and corporations have pledged to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions through a shift to clean energy. This is all great news, but if inclusion isn't kept in mind, there's a danger that the move toward a low-carbon economy could further entrench the racial and economic injustices that already pervade our societies, said Ben Passer, director of energy access and equity for Fresh Energy.
"Corporations are taking up the mantle of fighting the climate crisis," Passer said on the Forum's virtual stage. "What’s tricky is that while we’re excited to see that .... we also want to make sure those communities that don’t have the resources to invest in the next wave of clean energy are still able to access it." Based in St. Paul, Minnesota, Fresh Energy works with legislators, utilities and other stakeholders to advance clean energy policy in the state — and it's increasingly focused on energy access and equity, an effort further galvanized following the murder of George Floyd in St. Paul's sister city, Minneapolis.
In and of itself, clean energy policy has vast potential to positively impact communities of color: In Minnesota, 91 percent of Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) live in areas with high air pollution, impacting their health and putting them at greater risk of serious complications if they contract COVID-19. This is an issue nationwide, with people of color living with 66 percent more air pollution than their white counterparts on average.
While cleaner air benefits everyone — particularly those who are already disproportionately affected — many existing clean energy policies otherwise exclude people of color and low-income people. Renters, for example, have fewer options to control how their homes get energy and often can't benefit from cash incentives for things like solar power or energy efficiency. Through policy advocacy, Fresh Energy is looking to expand clean energy benefits to more people through means such as community solar gardens that open up solar energy to low-income renters and grant funding to improve energy efficiency in multifamily buildings. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, it also advocated for the use of Community Development Block Grant funds from the federal relief bill to support housing assistance programs.
"Being here in the Twin Cities and in Minnesota, I have to be candid, I feel a tremendous amount of accountability to make sure that our communities are benefiting [from our work]," Passer said. "The murder of George Floyd rocked our community to its core, and if you drive through Minneapolis, still to this day, communities are rebuilding .... As they rebuild, we want to make sure they’re doing it in a way that is really helping the community.”
A week after the murder of George Floyd, Ben & Jerry's issued one of the strongest corporate statements ever seen in support of racial justice, calling on white America to "acknowledge its privilege" and "dismantle white supremacy." It laid out four policy points for government to enact, and businesses and individuals to support, including committing the U.S. to a "formal process of healing and reconciliation" and creating a national task force aimed at "ending racial violence and increasing police accountability." The company also voiced its support for slavery reparations.
"There are moments when it is important to stand up, be counted and be bold, and in the wake of the tragic murder of George Floyd, we felt it was one of those moments," said Chris Miller, head of global activism strategy for Ben & Jerry's. "While words are insufficient and not enough, words need to be said at certain times, and we felt like this was the moment.”
Along with public statements and policy advocacy, Ben & Jerry's continues to work with nonprofit partners like the Advancement Project and Color of Change, and Miller says the company is keenly focused on engaging customers in the fight for racial justice. This month it re-released its Justice ReMix’d ice cream flavor as part of a call to urge young people to vote with justice in mind in the Nov. 3 election, and it launched a podcast about the history of racism in America in September.
"We speak to a broad audience," Miller said. "We sell more ice cream at Walmart than anywhere else, so we’re not preaching to the choir. We have an opportunity to get our fans and our customers involved in the causes that we are involved in."
Through policy advocacy and community partnerships, UnidosUS works on a breadth of issues affecting the U.S. Latino community, including immigration reform, education, healthcare and economic empowerment. The Washington, D.C.-based organization also came out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in the weeks following the murder of George Floyd, declaring "tu lucha es mi lucha — your fight is my fight."
The group's president and CEO, Janet Murguía, who marched alongside Black Lives Matter demonstrators in the streets of D.C., penned a powerful op/ed for The Hill calling on Latino communities to join the fight for justice for Black Americans. The organization also voiced support for the Police Exercising Absolute Care with Everyone or “PEACE Act” to raise the standards for use of force by law enforcement and joined the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda in calls for racial justice and police reform.
But both Murguía and Orson Aguilar, principal of policy and advocacy for UnidosUS, who spoke on the Forum's virtual stage, acknowledged there is still more work to do to rally the Latino community as allies — particularly with respect to the inclusion of Afro-Latinos in broader conversations about Latinos' rights.
The nearly 1 in 4 U.S. Latinos who identify as Afro-Latino often face multiple layers of discrimination both due to the color of their skin and to the xenophobic and anti-immigrant sentiment rising across the U.S. "Looking forward, we really do have to think about how we can be more inclusive of our Afro-Latino community," Aguilar said. "We need to also acknowledge that there is discrimination and racism in our own community, be bold enough and brave enough to call it out and talk about it, because if we don’t it will continue to happen."
While we’re on the topic of the U.S. elections, we’ll spend much of the final episode of the 3BL Virtual Forum, tomorrow, Thursday, Oct. 22 at Noon ET/9 a.m. PT, on how companies are doing their part to ensure everyone who’s eligible to vote in the upcoming U.S. elections can cast their ballots. Register if you haven’t already — we are presenting this event at no cost.
Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as managing editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of brands and organizations on sustainability storytelling.
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