Balancing the Scales: What Justice40 Means to Me

Climate Change

By Jo’De Cummings, Technical Program Coordinator, Southface Institute 

On January 27, 2021, President Biden signed Executive Order 14008, “Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad,” that created a governmentwide Justice40 Initiative. This initiative aims to deliver 40% of the overall benefits of federal investments in climate and clean energy to disadvantaged communities. It is incredible progressive reform that can revitalize these communities in multiple ways.  


First, the cost savings from sustainability improvements have the potential to pay massive dividends toward providing additional resources, like more funding for school systems and transportation. Cities can invest in the interests of their residents, whether fresh food centers, safety improvements, beautification, or other such programs are needed. Then, the improvements themselves can contribute to a higher quality of life. People can become healthier as they start to benefit from fresher air, cleaner water, and less stress from disproportionately high energy bills. Studies have shown, time and time again, that when local government can meet the needs of their people, entire ecosystems will begin to thrive!  


What’s most striking about the Justice40 initiative is that the core of its policy is not new and historical efforts have proven that uplifting communities empowers communities. In fact, a similar policy was suggested in 1865: General William T. Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15, commonly known as “40 Acres and a Mule.” This initiative was born out of the ideas of 20 leaders of the Black community in Savannah, Georgia. It aimed to redistribute 400,000 acres of land formerly owned by members of the Confederacy to newly freed Black people who were formerly enslaved. The idea spread like wildfire, and the spark of hope that it held was instantaneous! “The freedmen hastened to take advantage of the Order.” Baptist minister Ulysses L. Houston, a member of the group that met with Sherman, led 1,000 Black people to Skidaway Island, Georgia, where they established a self-governing community with Houston as the “Black governor.” And by June, “40,000 freedmen had been settled on 400,000 acres of ‘Sherman Land.’” 


As a Black woman myself, when I recount this history, I can only beam with pride. I can see just how much freedom lies in the ability to actualize change. When my people were given a fighting chance, and the scales of power and justice were balanced, if only for a moment, they took it and used their talents to build a better life for themselves. Community engagement soared because they believed they could live the American dream that they deserved to realize. Now, with the Justice40 Initiative, the same thing can happen. It can strip away the blindfold that resides on Lady Justice and finally provide the equity that marginalized communities need. 


Disadvantaged communities exist for a reason. They tend to be communities of color who have suffered at the hand of economic disparities and systemic racism. When we’ve asked for justice and change, in the past and in the present, radical policies turn up empty when the balance of power shifts. Andrew Johnson, who was Lincoln’s successor and a sympathizer with the South, overturned “40 Acres and a Mule” in the fall of 1865. That empty promise left millions of Black Americans without a means to build wealth and left them vulnerable to the discrimination they would later face during the Jim Crow era. But this cannot afford to happen with the Justice40 Initiative, and I believe that if we all understand how important it is, we will all play our part to make its impact last.  


Unfortunately, the way we experience climate change and the way we combat climate change look very different based on the color of our skin. You can see the evidence across the nation. For example, Black communities that experience economic inequities are disproportionately exposed to pollution because they live within a half mile of natural gas facilities. These facilities and other manufacturing factories may be supplying a source of income, but they have drastic impacts on people’s health. In fact, over one million Black people face a “cancer risk above EPA’s level of concern” due to unclean air. Native American tribes whose diet and economy rely on seafood face more risks because of ocean acidification. Then when it comes to natural disasters, people of color with lower socioeconomic status are more likely to suffer from the consequences of tropical storms due to inadequate infrastructure and lack of proper insurance. This isn’t to say that progress has not been made; rather, this highlights the gaps of inequality that the collective “we” must address.  


I urge us to continue to be advocates and leaders under the banner of Justice40. Along with its benefits to the climate and our economy is its motivation for our nation to provide equity to communities we often overlook. I think Justice40 is a policy that has true justice in mind, and I think it will drive us to a future that is healthier, more sustainable, and full of hope. If I have to shout it from the mountaintop, I will, because the Justice40 Initiative is more than a vehicle for funding; it is an echo of promises being fulfilled and a beacon of necessary progress to come.  


Additional Resources 

White House Statement –  

The Solutions Project Justice40 Accelerator – 

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