Community First: EPA’s $2 Billion Grants Program Targets Community-Based Organizations

By Anita Tillman, AMCorp International

For too long, communities across America have suffered from pollution, impacts of extreme weather, unaffordable energy burdens, and disinvestment that erode quality of life and locks in decline. Rising waters endanger aging homes, and toxic sites sit neglected. 

What could your hometown become if seniors in aging homes no longer had to flee floodwaters or children no longer suffered the effects of asthma and contamination? If abandoned factories gave way to affordable housing and community gardens cooled the summers? Outputs like energy efficiency and stormwater management can reconnect fractured neighborhoods, open economic opportunities, reduce healthcare costs, and strengthen resilience when disasters strike. The compounding community dividends also build workforce skills, local leadership, and faith that government can deliver results. The deep commitment to those long-marginalized lifts everyone through cleaner air, stabilized neighborhoods, local jobs, and increased equity across measures of well-being. Now is the time to ensure historic infrastructure investments reach communities in need first – catalyzing their vision for a brighter future.

EPA’s $2 Billion Community Change Grants Program

Environmental justice ensures that every person, regardless of background or circumstances, has a fair say in decisions affecting their environment and health. This includes protection from harmful environmental effects, like pollution and climate change, and ensuring everyone has access to a healthy, sustainable, and resilient environment for all aspects of life. It is about overcoming historical injustices and systemic barriers to create equitable and healthy living conditions for all. 

As communities grapple with environmental and climate injustices, the Environmental Protection Agency’s recently opened $2 billion Environmental and Climate Justice Community Change Grants Program (Community Change Grants) opens a lifeline designed to empower community-based organizations (CBOs) and local governments in their fight for a healthier, more sustainable future. This program can award up to a $20 million grant to a partnership between two CBOs or a partnership between a CBO and one of the following: a federally recognized Tribe, a local government, or an institution of higher education.

The Community Change Grants focus on projects addressing climate resilience, reducing pollution, and strengthening community capacity. Unlike traditional grant programs, this initiative is geared towards projects that have a long-lasting, transformative impact on communities, especially those historically underserved. 

While the primary beneficiaries are underserved communities, the program's outcomes will reverberate across entire regions, fostering a healthier, more resilient environment for everyone. Projects funded under this program will address immediate environmental concerns and contribute to long-term community development and sustainability.

This is a chance to envision what thriving, resilient neighborhoods could look like - then make that vision real. Transformative investments will expand greenspaces, weatherize homes, install solar, clean up contaminated land, upgrade transit systems, and more. Residents will guide decisions, prioritizing non-profits working in partnership with local governments and tribes.

Community-Based Organizations Drive Meaningful Change

The Community Change Grants program, as outlined in the EPA's Notice of Funding Opportunity, underscores CBOs’ vital role in spearheading environmental and climate justice initiatives. Unique to this program is the ability for CBOs to be lead applicants without mandating local government partnerships, offering them direct access to substantial resources. This approach acknowledges the deep understanding CBOs have of their communities' needs and their capability to drive meaningful change.

However, the challenge for many CBOs lies in their inexperience and limited capacity to apply for and manage large-scale grants like this program's potential $20 million award. To address this, the Southeast Sustainability Directors Network’s (SSDN) Local Infrastructure Hub (LIH) Cohorts program provides essential technical assistance and capacity building in the Southeast. LIH helps CBOs prepare competitive grant applications, ensuring they can effectively navigate the complexities of the application process and leverage these opportunities to their fullest potential. This support is crucial in empowering CBOs to enact transformative environmental improvements within their communities.

In East Harris County, Houston, a region long plagued by neglect and underinvestment, the East Harris County Empowerment Council (EHCEC) stands out for its commitment to community-led transformation. This CBO, known for its engagement with diverse stakeholders and innovative solutions, sought LIH's aid to develop a grant strategy, fund an organizational financial audit, and enhance its capacity for federal funding acquisition. Through support from Impact Energy and Sustainable Strategies, LIH provided resources to help EHCEC and partner agency Achieving Community Tasks Successfully (ACTS) develop the project and the technical assistance required to apply for the Community Change Grant. This support kindles hope that federal funds, steered by the community's voice, will catalyze much-needed growth and infrastructure development in East Harris County.

Embracing Partnerships and Building Capacity to Address Environmental Issues

The grant dollars and multi-year focus equip lasting change. However, successfully securing and managing federal awards takes next-level capacity. That is where the Local Infrastructure Hub steps in. LIH offers a range of services to assist community-based organizations and local governments. These include:

  1. Grant Strategy Development: Helping organizations identify and align community needs with federal funding opportunities.
  2. Community Engagement Support: Facilitating stakeholder ownership in proposal planning and project development.
  3. Technical Expertise: Providing specialized knowledge in areas like energy efficiency and sustainable infrastructure.
  4. Federal Proposal Assistance: Supporting the drafting and submission of proposals for federal funding.

These services provided by experts like Pamela Fann, Co-owner/Principal of Impact Energy, enhance the capacity and efficacy of organizations in accessing and utilizing federal funds for community development. Successful projects require a deep understanding of multiple layers of environmental challenges, like air and water quality, industrial impacts, and health concerns that are often uncovered through community engagement. Fann emphasizes the need for comprehensive solutions integrating federal programs and local resources, creating job opportunities and sustainable improvements. She advocates for collaboration between CBOs, local governments, industries, academia, and other stakeholders, ensuring all voices are heard, and resources are effectively leveraged for maximum community benefit. As Fann says, “If we learn to solve for those most vulnerable, the rest comes easy.” This holistic approach addresses immediate concerns and fosters long-term community development and resilience.

There are no silver bullets against complex challenges, but historic investments like the Community Change Grant and the wealth of resources and expertise offered by LIH at no cost to CBOs and local governments is a huge start and a giant step in the right direction.

The Community Change Grants application period is open now and closes on November 1, 2024. Initial awards selections will be made beginning in March 2024. SSDN recently hosted a webinar on the Community Change Grant and how the LIH program could potentially support efforts to apply.  A recording of that webinar is linked here.

Application details and additional information about the Local Infrastructure Hub Cohorts program can be found on SSDN's website here.  For more information, contact Nick Deffley at nick@southeastsdn.org.