Centering Equity: The Compass We Need for Effective Action on Climate

nathaniel smith

How do we ensure that a new, clean energy economy benefits all Georgians, especially those in previously disinvested communities of color? 

"Without a compass, we will not have an opportunity to get to the clean energy future we are fighting for. I believe in my heart that compass has to be equity."
-- Nathaniel Smith, founder and chief equity officer of the Partnership for Southern Equity

In honor of Black History Month, it’s our privilege to share the following essay in which Nathaniel Smith, who is also a co-chair of our Leadership Council, explores this idea in greater detail. This piece originally appeared in the 2023 State of Black Georgia report from the Urban League of Greater Atlanta. Visit their website to download the full report and find out how to donate or volunteer to support their important work.

Black to a Green Future: The Role of Climate Justice in Realizing Black Liberation

Established over 11 years ago to address the pervasive racial inequities harming our people daily in the American South, Partnership for Southern Equity targets four issue areas to advance racial equity: health, opportunity, growth, and energy. We understand the intersectionality of racial injustice in each of these areas. Therefore, we pursue policies and programs capable of systemic disruption and healing, while advancing innovative equitable alternatives to the prevailing status quo. 

Nathaniel Smith Energy Equity graphic

This is especially true within the sustainability and climate change spaces. Whatever transformation we aspire to achieve, we cannot get there in an environmental ecosystem that causes collective trauma and infirmities. At PSE we believe that many of the solutions required to liberate our communities are found in our past (and current) relationship with our natural environment. 

As stated in the title, we need to go Black to a green future. A “values revolution” must take place in Georgia where Black people prioritize healing our environment by working collectively with our allies to disrupt the destructive nature of white oppression infecting our current economy. We must advocate for a new energy economy that benefits all people and all communities. 

Historically, our people have aligned with nature

To start, let’s acknowledge and honor our history as the first environmentalists. African civilizations communed with nature, created societies aligned with their ecosystems, and possessed a vast repository of knowledge about the land before other expressions of humanity were on this planet. This respect for nature and knowledge of the Earth traveled across the Atlantic Ocean and found refuge throughout the Americas and Caribbean. 

It is unequivocally false to assume that environment and climate are non-traditional Black issues. We are part of an economy based on extreme extraction, White oppression, and structural racism. The energy of enslaved people was usurped to build Georgia before the use of electricity was mastered. Although we are legally free today, the maximization of profit is still the modus operandi driving the exploitation of our labor and land. Every day, Black people and other historically marginalized communities fight to ensure that water, air, land, and energy are clean, accessible, and sustainable. The movement is not solely about civil rights, equality, or parity, it is about changing the conditions of our lived experiences equitably where both our people and planet are liberated from the current toxic world view.

The future of our people and planet are inextricably linked:

  • Communities of color breathe in 40% more polluted air than white communities across the United States.

  • People of color nationally are 38% more likely to be exposed to asthma-causing pollutants. 

  • African Americans are 75% more likely than others to live near facilities producing hazardous waste.

  • Nationally, African American households experience a median energy burden 64% greater than white households.

  • According to the Century Foundation, “neighborhoods with large non-white populations have historically seen lower property values, meaning that land in those areas is cheaper for industrial actors to acquire — leading to greater pollution.”

  • According to a report published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, “urban flooding. . . .is most harmful to minorities, low-income residents, and others without the resources to handle the damage and disruption.”

How did we get here and how do we effect change?

These outcomes are not happenstance. Decisions were made – and are still being adopted -- by people in power who benefit from extreme extraction to the detriment of Black people. From Flint, Michigan, to Jackson, Mississippi, basic access to water is under siege. Ignoring the ever-present signs of climate change, the state of Mississippi did nothing to compensate for the severe storms that flooded the Pearl River, which eventually overwhelmed the city of Jackson’s water treatment plant. Now, 150,000 people do not have safe drinking water. Again, a series of decisions to maintain the historic systems of oppression, as it pertains to our environment, have left a whole city in crisis. 

Drawdown Georgia- Equity Drawdown Georgia

In his 1967 book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. posed a crucial question regarding ending poverty and the need for better jobs, higher wages, decent housing, and quality education. We, too, pose that question, highlighting the urgency of concern for our environment. How do we advance economically, politically, socially, and educationally without substantively addressing environmental conditions predicated on values and reinforced by systems founded on our devaluation as people? 

The change we seek exists within us. Black people must prioritize environmental and climate justice as key pathways to shared prosperity. We need a Green Liberation Agenda for Black people in Georgia and beyond. 

At Partnership for Southern Equity, we work with communities and other frontline organizations to fundamentally change the values guiding our economy by pursuing policies and programs where Black people are seen, heard, respected, and leading the clean energy revolution.

Some examples of PSE in action include:

  • Establishing the Just Energy Circle where 40-50 organizations convene to develop strategies for systems disruption and growing a regenerative economy.

  • Through funding from the MacArthur Foundation, PSE has hosted four Just Energy Academies where frontline organizations establish a deeper understanding of environmental justice through the lens of racial equity.

  • Leading a study, funded by the Kresge Foundation, on the correlation between climate change and health equity in the westside of Atlanta. 

  • Leveraging funding from the NBA Foundation to create a pipeline for Black and Brown people to enter the green economy as skilled professionals and/or entrepreneurs. 

  • Working with state legislators to center Historically Black Colleges and Universities as catalysts for a green liberation movement towards cleaner energy, more accessible energy, and greater diversity in the green economy sector. 

  • Leading a national effort to capitalize on President Joe Biden’s Justice 40 Executive Order by offering frontline organizations funding, technical assistance, resources, and community. This effort, the Justice 40 Accelerator, has served over 100 organizations who collectively have an 80% success rate in securing federal funding.

Although thankful for what we have accomplished, there is still so much left to do. Any chance to create a new, sustainable, equitable, people-centered economy, where the environment and Black genius are leveraged as an asset for collective benefit, requires Black people to reclaim their history as the first stewards of our planet. Time is of the essence. 

The federal government continues to infuse state and local governments with funding from the American Rescue Plan Act, Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and Inflation Reduction Act. Growing our economy requires preserving our environment. Fully realizing the benefits of these laws requires developing a strategy capable of shifting the paradigm where all people can realize their American Dream.

Partnership for Southern Equity is ready to stand in solidarity with other Georgians who believe, as we do, that our environment, our health, and our well-being are not for sale. Black to a green future is the only path forward, together.

Learn more about Partnership for Southern Equity and find out how to support their work at

>>Read more about Equity as a Compass for Taking Action on Climate

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About Author

Nathaniel Smith
Nathaniel Smith

Nathaniel Smith serves as founder and chief equity officer of the Partnership for Southern Equity, which advances policies and institutional actions that promote racial equity and shared prosperity for all in the growth of metropolitan Atlanta and the American South. He is a co-chair of the Drawdown Georgia Leadership Council.

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