At this moment when climate and environmental justice are being centered and marked for remedy, it is vital that the female founders and vanguards who have long centered their work around environmental justice principles be heard. As the Biden-Harris Administration begins to act on its climate, infrastructure and jobs policies and goals, it is imperative that people of color who have been most impacted by the burden and legacies of climate injustice are the first to receive its benefits, and that environmental justice groups who have already been on the ground doing this work are empowered, affirmed and receive fiscal investment to continue their efforts.

We are two women of color and environmental justice leaders in the Midwest: Huda Alkaff, an ecologist, environmental educator, environmental justice activist, and the founder and director of Wisconsin Green Muslims who for more than two decades has advocated for environmental justice and initiated Muslim and interfaith programs on energy democracy, and water equity, and Donele Wilkins, an environmental justice activist, founder and CEO of the Green Door Initiative in Detroit; she has provided workforce development in the environmental and green collar sectors for people of color for nearly two decades, ensuring that more than 400 people secure good paying employment.

Photo: Huda Alkaff: Paige Green, Donele Wilkins: Joe ParnellEnvironmental justice activists (left to right) Huda Alkaff, founder and director of Wisconsin Green Muslims and Donele Wilkins, founder and CEO of the Green Door Initiative in Detroit.

A Black woman and a Muslim woman. The dominant culture and narrative say that we don’t fit the typical profile of who leads climate work, but despite this notion, we have been initiating and leading the charge to provide environmental justice and climate equity solutions for decades, working on behalf of our communities and the grassroots power movement. Despite our proven experience,  our voices and efforts have too often been underfunded, overlooked, ignored and isolated. Together we say: Now is the time for bold investment in environmental justice! Based on the 2021 White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council Recommendations, we recommend the following measures be taken before the end of this year:

  • Ensure that 100 percent of the investments do no harm to frontline and environmental justice communities
  • Make federal funds accessible and distribute them equally, ensuring that small organizations such as ours can access resources and aren’t blocked out by larger organizations who have more resources, hindered by bureaucratic red tape, or excluded based on inequitable assessment criteria
  • Invest financially in people of color-led grassroots organizations to acknowledge their efforts and ensure future viability; grant us the resources to offer community-based technical assistance and equitable solutions
  • Require women of color and environmental justice advocates to be compensated on par with others who are doing work in this field

We have been working in the shadows and sacrificed a lot…it requires resilience and fortitude to press forward when people don’t acknowledge you as the leaders and innovators that you’ve proven yourself to be. But as women of color, and elders in the environmental justice movement, we’re used to having to break through, to force our light through discriminatory clouds, systemic cracks, and institutional crevices. For too long, environmental justice groups and communities have been underfunded; according to a 2020 Building Equity and Alignment for Environmental Justice research, organizations in the Midwest have received no more than one percent of the $134 million in environmental grant dollars given, and of this, only about $1 million went to environmental justice organizations (and only half of that going to groups in our regions). For too long, women of color have been marginalized, and according to our observations, make up approximately one percent of the solar industry, as supported by a 2019 Solar Foundation report.

The Green Door Initiative solar manufacturing facility will create 200 full-time jobs for marginalized residents including formerly incarcerated. The Detroit Solar Manufacturing plant is anticipated to open by the end of 2022. Through the Wisconsin Faith Communities for Equitable Solar Initiative, Wisconsin Green Muslims is educating more than 6,000 people of 18 different faith traditions, spiritualities, and backgrounds, providing solar training to women of color, and is also seeking to continue a fellowship for young adult BIPOC faith climate activists. 

We are grateful to be members of collectives such as the  Environmental Justice Leadership Forum and the Midwest Environmental Justice Network - also helmed by women and people of color — that connect us to larger organizations, initiatives and opportunities, but established entities and government officials have a duty to make sure they’re seeking us out, too- we’ve been working for the greater good and on behalf of the underserved and overlooked for years…and doing it on pennies to your dollars. 

If the Biden-Harris Administration, and other stakeholders and advocates, want to fulfill the promises of the Justice 40 Initiative and ensure that environmental justice communities receive the benefits of federal climate projects and infrastructure investments, it’s not enough to expect that we should simply find you. 

There can be nothing about us without us: There will be no say in any policy that’s going to affect our communities without hearing from us. The sun is a sacred gift and trust for everyone, and we all must have access, for our homes, congregations, and every aspect of our lives. We are motivated to continue leading the charge to ensure that communities of color, and overburdened and disadvantaged communities, receive the benefits of jobs, justice, and climate solutions. In our decades of lived experience, we know that the power of a people is a true personification of the very essence of the sun: a glorious, radiant light that need only be acknowledged and appreciated to sustain our existence and purposefully shine on those who’ve been left behind for too long. 

Huda Alkaff is an ecologist, environmental educator, environmental justice activist, and the founder and director of Wisconsin Green Muslims, a grassroots environmental justice group, formed in 2005, connecting faith, environmental justice, sustainability, and healing through education and service. For over two decades, Huda has advocated for environmental justice, initiating Muslim and Interfaith programs on energy and water conservation and democracy.

Donele Wilkins is an environmental justice activist, founder and CEO of the Green Door Initiative in Detroit, MI. She has provided workforce development in the environmental and green collar sectors for people of color for nearly two decades by ensuring that more than 400  people secured good paying employment.