Author:  Denise Fairchild   Published:

To truly build back better, we need a Justice 100 solution

The Biden administration has ushered in a new progressive era. Its “build back better” playbook of policies and initiatives address the serious challenges of our generation: climate change, economic recovery, racial justice and a safety net for struggling families. The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) represented a historic $1.9 trillion down payment on the administration’s promise to the American people, and an American Jobs Act (AJA) of equal or larger size may follow.

This is historic. The administration’s agenda has been likened to former President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in its sweeping investment in rebuilding the American economy, with one notable distinction. Unlike Roosevelt, President Biden has made racial and environmental justice a priority. The Justice40 initiative carves out 40 percent of federal appropriations specifically supporting communities most impacted by environmental and climate racism.

While naturally fraught with issues of definitions, measurements and implementation, Justice40 is unprecedented. Still, it raises a crucial question: What about the other 60 percent?

But can Justice40 deliver on its promises?

First, there are practical concerns around the perceived capacity of long-neglected and under-resourced communities to compete for and manage these investments. This lack of trust opens the door for large national nonprofits or consulting firms to move in and act as  intermediaries — program managers, fiscal sponsors and equity experts — at the expense of local groups with roots in the community.

There is also a growing debate regarding whether the commitment is for 40 percent of “investments” to go into low-income communities or merely that communities will receive 40 percent of the “benefits.” These are substantially different. Regional shopping malls, aquariums and convention centers have all been considered “benefits” worthy of public investment, though their impact on the wellbeing of marginalized communities is negligible — especially when compared to investments in affordable housing, community-serving retail and local business development. But local governments are skilled at stretching the definition of “public benefits.”

The stakes are high, so these are important and worthy challenges to sort out. The hope is that there is authentic community engagement to deliver the solutions, that investments meet community needs, that the predators stay away and that new, frontline and Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) institutions are formed to support this work and build capacity to carry out the long-term agenda of rebuilding  community resilience for on-going and escalating climate challenges. The good news is that the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC) and staff are hard at work driving accountability for these outcomes.

Large-scale contractors, business enterprises, labor unions and research and development firms will remain primary beneficiaries of the new climate federalism and infrastructure investments. Investment tax credits for renewable energy, for example, will serve large investors with no commitment to growing community-initiated and owned renewables. But this is the moment to disrupt those energy hegemonies and build community wealth.

Energy Democracy Project, which my organization is affiliated with, and its advocates propose to do that by scaling community-owned renewable energy. We could start by converting the Investment Tax Credit and Production Tax Credit to a cash grant for projects under three megawatts and for projects owned by nonprofit, cooperative, public, tribal, or publicly accountable entities (e.g., community development corporations). We could allow virtual net metering of community-shared renewables and implement additive feed-in-tariffs for community-shared renewable projects that reach low-income households. These are system-level game changers.

Prioritizing unionized labor on infrastructure investments is important for rebuilding the middle class. But, without serious attention to labor’s real and perceived legacy of racial exclusion, we will only exacerbate Black income and wealth gaps. Now is the time to rebuild unionized labor by growing its ranks with BIPOC and women. But that requires proactive and authentic labor-community dialogues and agreements at the local levels to fix historic communication barriers and to build win-win solutions to strengthen careers and business opportunities in the construction sector, particularly for the most underrepresented groups (Blacks and women).

Federal investments in infrastructure projects may include a requirement to utilize small, minority, women, veteran and disadvantaged businesses, but it is meaningless without serious attention to project delivery methods — like Public-Private Partnerships (P3s) – which make it near impossible for them to compete. We must untangle the barriers to inclusive public procurement and contracting, including legacy challenges of capital, bonding and insurance, as well as 21st century barriers to advanced technologies, equipment, materials and project delivery methods.

These are just some of the structural barriers hidden in the infrastructure agenda. Under every rock can be found layer upon layer of toxic soil — public and private policies and practices that reinforce the inequitable status quo. So, while Justice40 may repair the harms of past inequities, we will perpetuate the same institutional structures that created those inequities without careful attention to the other 60 percent of federal spending. To truly build back better, we need a Justice 100 solution.

Denise G. Fairchild is president and CEO of Emerald Cities Collaborative, a national nonprofit organization of business, labor and community groups dedicated to climate-resilience strategies that produce environmental, economic and equity outcomes.