At the intersection of social justice, climate and disasters

A section of Dairy Avenue flooded by Tulare Lake. This area is extremely close to two state prisons (the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and Corcoran State Prison) and near the agricultural town of Corcoran. Photo credit: Cindy Quezada

Editor’s Note: This blog post is part of our “Equity in Disasters” series. The series, which focuses primarily on racial equity and justice issues, also explores how these intersect with other kinds of marginalization and how historical and systemic discrimination create an uneven playing field for recovery.

At the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, we no longer talk about “natural” disasters. Our definition of a disaster is when a hazard meets a vulnerability. And we know that, in most cases, the hazards we’re seeing are greatly exacerbated by human-made conditions.

Additionally, the vulnerabilities – root causes like systemic and structural racism and colonialism and lack of resources and affordability – are also created by humans and can and should be addressed to prevent disasters. What happens when hazards meet human-caused vulnerabilities?

Root causes

Disasters exacerbate systemic inequities that already exist. Destruction from a hazard is often multi-dimensional, affecting housing, marginalized populations, education, healthcare, social services, food security and more. For this reason, we urge everyone to consider the full arc of disasters and the full scope of the recovery needs.

At CDP, we talk about racial and intersectional equity (RIE) instead of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). This approach centers equity and redistribution of power and resources. Through our work as funders and in service to the philanthropic community, we challenge persistent inequities and work to empower communities in recovery.

With a focus on our RIE vision and values, CDP is dedicated to addressing the root causes of disasters. We are committed to mobilizing philanthropic resources to create real, transformative change by listening, learning, understanding and investing in organizations led by Black, Indigenous and other peoples of color. We use our platform to stand up for what is right and just and fair. All our funding is done with a social and racial justice lens. And we add our voices to stand in solidarity with the courageous people working for change.

Funding with a social and racial justice lens

What does saying we fund with a “social and racial justice lens” mean? With this strategic approach, we have a sharpened focus on outcomes, not just outputs. We work to address the patterns of inequity we see in the systems and structures operating in the disaster recovery space. We separate symptoms from causes and work to address the causes. And this helps us reveal how race, ethnicity and justice are relevant to all. When we address the causes at the systemic level, the whole community is better.


Climate change accounts for 90 percent of all disaster events – or maybe even more. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says climate change “refers to changes in global or regional climate patterns attributed largely to human-caused increased levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases.”

Despite evidence that climate change is significantly impacting our world, increasing the frequency and intensity of disasters, philanthropy’s current approach to climate funding has been siloed, event-driven, focused on the environment and considerably underfunded.

Over the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to visit and learn from communities most affected by these drastic changes in climate. I live along the Gulf Coast, where there is currently an extended heat wave causing power outages and deaths and where winter freezes have shut down entire states. I’ve visited the Central Valley of California where, until the flooding rains and snowstorms of the past year, significant drought and water issues disproportionately affected those systemically marginalized communities.

California’s Tulare Lake – long dormant and used as agricultural land – has refilled after a series of intense storms, submerging acres of fields, homes, roads and power infrastructure in the state’s San Joaquin Valley. Indigenous people – the Tachi Yokut tribe – once relied on the lake for food and livelihood. But they were forced to migrate and now live on a reservation a few miles away. Though the tribe has celebrated the lake’s return, its return has also caused devastation for others. And in this area, small family farms are mixed among mega corporate farms. The effects of the lake’s return are not likely to be equitable. If it remains, it might restore ecological balance to the region. But it also might destroy the lives of those who lived and farmed in the dried-up lakebed.

A section of Dairy Avenue flooded by Tulare Lake. This area is extremely close to two state prisons (the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and Corcoran State Prison) and near the agricultural town of Corcoran.

Historically redlined Black and Brown neighborhoods in Boston struggle to escape the heat where greenspace and trees are nearly non-existent. They’re hot and growing hotter each year. Decades of racist policies and practices helped create places in Boston – primarily communities of color – where the heat is inescapable. Old housing stock and lack of affordable and consistent cooling systems exacerbate the problems. As a rule, cities are hotter than rural areas, but systemic inequalities have increased that variance. The heat is human-created. The city of Boston is trying to address these issues, but systemic changes are never easy.

How can philanthropy dig in?

Based on my experience working with communities facing the intersection of social and racial justice, climate change and disasters, here are some suggestions for philanthropy to consider:

  • During a disaster, think of your own positionality, the role of philanthropy within your communities, the make-up of your community and the nonprofit organizations you fund.
  • Consider providing flexible funding and building local nonprofit capacity in all the areas of social justice reform.
  • Fund more climate mitigation and disaster preparedness at the local level.
  • Build and strengthen relationships with and capacity of local nonprofits working to address systemic issues.
  • Support local coalitions, task forces and cross-sector partnerships. Engage with local, state and federal governments to encourage and hold them accountable.
  • Fund locally-led adaptation, resilience and preparedness programs.
  • Listen to and learn from your grantee partners and the communities where they work.
  • Financially resource Black, Indigenous and Peoples of Color-led and serving organizations.
  • Reduce the friction associated with your grant applications and reporting. Streamline your processes whenever possible.
  • Use your voice and position of power to amplify other voices.

At CDP, we frequently say that every funder is a disaster funder. No matter what issue area or community problem your funding hopes to address, that problem will worsen when a hazard impacts that community. Vulnerabilities are laid bare, and a hazard results in a disaster.

Join us in our commitment to funding at the intersection of social and racial justice, climate change, and disasters to make our communities safer places to live for all.

Sally Ray

Sally Ray

Director, Domestic Funds