Transforming Forward to Environmental Equity with Sarah Shanley Hope, VP of Brand & Partnerships at The Solutions Project

Sarah Shanley Hope is the VP of Brand + Partnerships at The Solutions Project following seven years as the organization’s first Executive Director. Under Sarah’s leadership, the organization transformed its mission and culture to center racial and gender equity, launched the field’s first and only award-winning intermediary climate and equity fund, and grew a celebratory, collaborative and inclusive movement for 100% clean energy.

Sarah has held executive or leadership roles at the Alliance for Climate Education, Green For All, Cargill and Best Buy over her 15+ years of experience in brand strategy and social change. She has raised and helped deploy more than $50 million in support of a racial equity and climate solutions agenda over her tenure in the field.

She joins us on episode 131 of the Bigger Than Us podcast to describe what The Solutions Project’s grassroots support of efforts look like, how COVID and crises impact communities, and what the future holds for the organization.

Take me to the podcast.

Bold, Practical Climate Solutions

What is The Solutions Project, and what is your role at the organization?

(8:59) The Solutions Project is a US national nonprofit organization that is really focused on supporting, as our name suggests, bold, practical climate solutions. But for our focus, it’s different than a lot of other environmental organizations. It’s focused on those solutions created by those leaders and organizations closest to the problem. So thinking about environmental justice communities, and Black, Indigenous, other people of color, particularly women of color, leading on climate solutions for decades, if not generations.

The Solutions Project really sees their innovations and their wisdom as the path for all of us to create the future that we want. So we started the organization and we have a grassroots grantmaking program. We do media and storytelling to try to amplify the stories of success in places as different as Buffalo, New York, or Des Moines, Iowa, or where I live now in Oakland, California, bring those stories to the fore. And by doing so really change the imagination of what’s possible. We focus first on 100% clean energy and are now with the success around 100% clean energy really expanding to community climate solutions in food and lands management, and water systems.

The new normal means underlying issues are being exposed.

(20:12) [COVID] brought them to the forefront in ways that you can imagine the crisis response and trauma response, those skills that our partners on the ground had to develop in real-time. Our tools and skills that are now going to be built in a proactive way going forward…these are skills that we’re developing out of crisis.

…what are the new things that we can build the new ways of leading, and parenting and working, that will absolutely serve us much better for the future, where climate crises, and so much more, are only going to increase?

For The Solutions Project, we’re learning, we’re not thankfully, I am not as proximate to the threat and to the crises of 2020 that so many of the leaders and organizations that we support are. And wow, does 2020 put more and more and more and more of us into that experience of surviving through crisis and transmuting that pain into power, frankly, for creating the future that we want that is transformative, that does not look backward, but really says, okay, when the economy shuts down at the scale, and for the length of time that it does, because of a global pandemic, what are the new things that we can build the new ways of leading, and parenting and working, that will absolutely serve us much better for the future, where climate crises, and so much more, are only going to increase?

How The Solutions Project shows what’s possible through transformative stories.

(24:32) Those heroes journeys, those examples of the phoenix rising from the ashes, all of those kinds of metaphors are playing out in frontline communities, in environmental justice communities, where again, we’re seeing those bold, practical climate solutions, not just in idea form, but actually being implemented all over the place.

I can give an example of just one of these kinds of stories. So hurricane Maria hit the island of Puerto Rico. And so many climate crises fueled natural disasters in Puerto Rico have occurred since then. But at that time, I’m sure you can still recall, because it was so devastating and occupied the national news media for a few months, electricity was out. So that infrastructure totally collapsed for months, months, months, in some places, you know, more than a year, two years, and water systems, food systems, communication systems.

We started with relationships we already had. UPROSE, which is part of the Puerto Rican community in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, still with strong dysphoric ties to the island. We went there first, and said, how really bring some support to those on the island? And through that relationship, I learned about an organization who’s still our partner called La Maraña, and they were a community that really came together out of Hurricane Maria, to not just provide immediate support similar to COVID, mutual aid, like that immediate support, food, we delivered, portable solar systems with Goal Zero, great example of a technology company really partnering with us to support success and work on the ground.

How do we transform forward instead of building back?

(27:18) And then community members actually participated. So these are not engineers. These are not nonprofit leaders, these are neighbors and neighbors coming together through a design process to say, what do we want to build here that will better prepare us for the next hurricane, that’ll better serve our interests across health, across the economy, across basic access to housing and clean water and renewable energy, affordable energy? And so that’s what they’ve been developing these three years since, those ground up models that are again, community-designed, community-determined, and really setting an example of what’s possible for all of us to consider as we think about 2021, 2022 when we get through the kind of worst of the COVID impacts and need to rebuild our economy. How do we transform forward instead of building back?

How renewable energy can have unintended consequences on low-income communities.

(10:40) We just worked with two of our partners. Push Buffalo in Buffalo, New York, and the Miami Climate Alliance, obviously in Miami, to work on a story for TED around affordable housing as a climate solution.

There’s a high level of gentrification and displacement, both because of climate impacts which disproportionately affect lower-income communities of color, but also, because of the unintended negative consequences of green development that doesn’t have an equity focus.

So, again, in each of these two places, and this is true in many other cities and towns across the country, the need for affordable housing is growing. There’s a high level of gentrification and displacement, both because of climate impacts which disproportionately affect lower-income communities of color, but also, because of the unintended negative consequences of green development that doesn’t have an equity focus. So if a neighborhood starts to develop solar on their housing, oftentimes, those people those families that are living in that neighborhood, the rents are increased to a point where they’re not able to stay. They’re displaced because of the improvements made in their neighborhood.

Push Buffalo and Miami Climate Alliance are two examples of organizations that are really at the forefront of innovating in explicitly affordable housing, and developing a strategy that really integrates solar energy efficiency, geothermal, and in the northeast, thinking about, innovative climate solutions, and heating and cooling to really solve those kinds of basic human needs challenges that so many communities face.

Communities are best equipped to solve their energy burden with grassroots efforts.

(13:30) The energy burden is something that another one of our partners in Atlanta, Partnership for Southern Equity, has done a significant amount of work around. And it’s everything from looking at the maps of towns and communities that were established by people who were formerly enslaved. So African Americans generationally in the south, mapping those communities, historic disinvestment, we did not have reparations in this country or any kind of robust reconstruction to account for extracted free labor in our economy in the United States.

Then you just see the burden is not just your utility bill. It’s also your health costs, it’s also your job prospects.

And so mapping that experience across the south with the highest cost of dirty energy in the country maps with the health impacts, so the cancers the asthmas, all of the negative repercussions of dirty energy. Then you just see the burden is not just your utility bill. It’s also your health costs, it’s also your job prospects. And so taking an approach that looks at the whole system, and what is not just housing attainable, but a life that attends to that historic disinvestment and instead, invests in the well being and the thriving of all communities in our country is very much what The Solutions Project is supporting, through our partnerships all across the country.

And I think that’s the other thing I would just share in terms of why we see the boldest, most effective, and frankly, most efficient solutions to the climate crisis really beginning being created in those most impacted communities. At the source of so many of these problems, is, you know, when your life is on the line, when those that you love and the place that you love, is under that daily threat, you can be sure that everyone is working to solve those problems and to solve them in ways that are not one-offs or silos, not the whack a mole, that I think a lot of environmental advocates who are not that proximate to the problems. They’re not seeing the breadth of connections, the interconnections in solutions that are required so that as you’re developing solar for multifamily housing, or an electric vehicle program that you’re looking at, yeah, what will this mean, for rents? What will this mean, for transit? What will this mean for our waterways and water access as well?

What transforming forward will look like for The Solutions Project in 2030.

(37:44) I am so excited for this question. Because Gloria and I have been dreaming with just that scale.

When she came into the organization as a board member three years ago, she shared her experiences with the grantee and said, The Solutions Project is ready for the big time. Yes, you’re an early-stage organization, testing all these different models. And we’ve got something really special here to bring to scale.

And so thankfully, under her leadership, starting in 2021, we will be close to a $15 million a year organization, which is no small feat. And our vision for thinking about 2030 is bringing that scale to transformation in our outcomes. We know that today, even with this doubling of climate philanthropy on equity, that the Bezos Earth Fund grants recently achieved a total of $151 million for equity-focused work over the next three years, The Solutions Project not only, you know, as a beneficiary of that, of that scale of philanthropic investment in our organization, but glorious education of the Bezos Earth fund team really created that scale of commitment $151 million over the next three years to five equity organizations. And even with that scaled commitment doubles the current climate philanthropy focused on equity every year. And before this last month, it was 60 million and now it’s 120 million each year. Even with that it’s less than 1% of climate philanthropy that supports an equity centered approach to climate solutions.

And so for The Solutions Project, these next 10 years is again, bringing, bringing that number up dramatically so that those bold practical solutions that we’ve been supporting, you know, more than 100 grantees, since we started all across the country at the neighborhood level, connecting those place-based innovations with city, state, and now, hopefully, federal policy that we’re able to see in the next 10 years, a total shift in the center of gravity away from a top-down, technology-only CO2 singular metric, to really inverse our dominant approach to solving the climate crisis, that this is happening at the community level ground up.

That this is about integrating technology with generational and cultural wisdom, born from Black, Indigenous, immigrant, other communities of color who have not broken their bond with the land or with Mother Earth.

That those solutions are really setting the standard for everyone, whether you’re in business or whether you’re in government or, or a mortgage dominant environmental organization.

That you’re really seeing that this is where change happens at the block by block level by those communities who are experiencing the problems and the interconnected problems so that those solutions, those intersectional interconnected solutions are the norm.

www.thesolutionsproject.org

Before we go, I’m excited to share that we’ve launched the Bigger Than Us comic strip, The Adventures of Mira and Nexi.

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Raj Daniels