Building More Resilient and Equitable Communities in the Face of Environmental and Climate Injustice

Building More Resilient and Equitable Communities in the Face of Environmental and Climate Injustice

Aug 14, 2023
Alex Bauer, Colleen Psomas, Chloe Green, Matthew Stagner, and Jacque Gombach
Illustration of various people at desks talking to one another

Human services agencies are designed to support the health and well-being of the individuals and families they serve—but all too often, climate and environmental injustices get in their way.

Climate injustice considers the disparate impact climate change has on communities that have been historically underserved or disenfranchised and thus are less equipped to adapt to or mitigate climate risks. Environmental injustice takes this a step further, reflecting on the unfair and unequal treatment these communities experience with respect to environmental laws, regulations, and policies.

Many of the individuals and families who receive regular supports from state and local human services agencies often feel the weight of climate and environmental injustices most acutely. These agencies’ perspective and input is vital to discussions on solutions to these injustices and they need a seat at the table. In recent years, Mathematica has partnered with the American Public Human Services Association (APHSA) and human services practitioners to explore opportunities for human services to integrate climate and environmental justice actions and principles into their existing service delivery. We believe these partnerships and their activities will help make meaningful advances toward creating more equitable and resilient communities.

Most recently, we joined APHSA for its National Human Services Summit 2023 in Baltimore. There, we cofacilitated a workshop of federal, state, and local human services practitioners and foundation partners to explore how to navigate and find solutions for climate and environmental injustices in the human services space. Below, we share key takeaways from our workshop that human services professionals can consider to spur action at their own agencies:

  1. Embed climate and environmental justice concepts everywhere.

    Climate and environmental injustices are major barriers to realizing the mission of human services agencies. Efforts to address these barriers must be integrated into a wide range of agency policies and day-to-day operations—not just those focused specifically on climate change and disaster response. This means continuing to advance efforts that center the voices of impacted individuals, families, and communities when developing and implementing human services programs and policies. Other steps to embed climate and environmental justice into human services may include educational campaigns to increase awareness and understanding of these issues internally among staff and externally among partners and across agencies. Agencies may also consider further emphasizing these concepts within their larger diversity, equity, and inclusion plans.

  2. Lead with empathy.

    Climate events affect the health and well-being of people in every corner of the country, disproportionately affecting marginalized communities – those often deeply engaged with local human services agencies. When offering support amid climate events and related climate and environmental injustices, human services agencies must remember the “human” element of their mission and lead with empathy and openness. By listening to and respecting the perspectives of people with lived expertise, agencies can more effectively pivot their programmatic and strategic decision-making to meet communities’ evolving needs. This empathy should also extend to human services agencies’ staff who are likely dealing with the effects of environmental and climate injustices themselves. While staff may put their own needs aside to help others in their communities, we cannot overlook the fact that they too are experiencing the impacts of climate events. Additional support and understanding of these realities can enhance staff wellness and resilience over time.

  3. Use data and evidence to make informed decisions.

    Agencies often have access to an array of quantitative and qualitative data about their programming and the populations they serve—from basic demographics and utilization metrics to costs, outcomes, testimonials, and more. They can use this existing data and existing data instruments, such as service maps and other federal, state, and local environmental justice mapping tools, to identify how various climate risks and injustices may affect different communities. By considering these quantitative and qualitative data points collectively, human services agencies can extend their view beyond numbers to get a more complete story about who they serve and how, as well as how these populations may be affected by various types of climate events. Such insight can help agencies maintain a human-centered focus on the people they serve. It can also help agencies to better understand existing gaps or opportunities and use strategic approaches, like rapid cycle learning, to tailor their services in an informed manner and meet evolving community needs equitably and sustainably.

  4. Partner to build resilience.

    Throughout our workshop, partnerships were consistently cited as one of the most promising tools human services professionals can use to drive more equitable and resilient communities. Partnerships can take many forms and provide a range of supports from funding to staff to additional resources. Partnerships should be made at multiple levels – federal, state, and local – and should always include collaborating with and empowering communities that are most impacted by climate risks and related injustices, as well as the organizations that most directly represent their interests (such as community-based organizations and advocacy groups). These partnerships are critical to understanding community and individual needs and identifying and developing community-driven solutions. This understanding can then inform additional partnerships within and across federal, state, and local agencies and departments (such as public health agencies, emergency management agencies, and environmental agencies) that can increase agency capacity and adaptability to address changing needs. Similarly, partnerships with key funders can help to ensure the necessary resources are available to act on identified solutions.

Together with the participants that joined our workshop at the APHSA National Human Services Summit, we made progress in exploring the role human services can and should play in advancing climate and environmental justice. We know this work is vital to the future of human services, and we look forward to continuing our work with APHSA at its Economic Mobility & Well-Being Conference in August 2023 in Long Beach, California, and beyond.

Explore more collaborative work between Mathematica and APHSA

Read the article in Policy & Practice, the official publication of APHSA, about the role of human services in securing environmental justice.

Read the article in Policy & Practice about how human services fit into climate conversations.

Listen to the episode of On the Evidence, Mathematica’s podcast, that considers how human services agencies can pursue the dual mission of promoting equity and minimizing the harm caused by climate change.

Listen and view this recording of a LinkedIn Live conversation between Mathematica’s Alex Bauer and APHSA’s Chloe Green about the role human services organizations and programs can play in addressing climate change and supporting environmental justice.

About the Authors

Colleen Psomas

Colleen Psomas

Senior Communications Specialist
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Headshot of Chloe Green

Chloe Green

Senior Policy Associate, Food and Nutrition Services, APHSA
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Matthew Stagner

Matthew Stagner

Vice President; Director of Human Services Business Development
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Headshot of Jacque Gombach

Jacque Gombach

Founder and CEO of Captuva, LLC
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