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Advocating for Environmental Justice at the White House and Beyond

Helen Davis Johnson, president of the Michigan Municipal League (MML) Foundation recently represented the foundation and its membership at the White House for an executive order signing by President Joe Biden that prioritized environmental justice for all federal departments. Davis Johnson is sharing more on her visit to the White House and how the MML Foundation is working to support communities in accessing federal funding for water infrastructure needs.

Helen Davis Johnson, President, Michigan Municipal League Foundation joins Dr. Jalonne L. White-Newsome, Senior Director for Environmental Justice, White House Council on Environmental Justice at the White House for an executive order signing by President Joe Biden.

Helen Davis Johnson, president of the Michigan Municipal League (MML) Foundation, recently represented the foundation and its membership at the White House for an executive order signing by President Joe Biden.

The executive order prioritized environmental justice for all federal departments. It mandates that all federal departments prioritize environmental justice and dedicate 40% of their resources and funding to overburdened and disinvested communities across the country.

“It was an honor to be invited to attend these events by the president. It’s clear that the Biden-Harris administration has prioritized equity and is pursuing strategies, such as the Justice40 mandate and the executive order signed on Friday (April 21), that seek to unlock federal funding for disinvested and overburdened communities,” Davis Johnson said.

While in D.C., Davis Johnson also participated in a roundtable discussion with philanthropic leaders, environmental justice activists, funders, federal government staffers and Biden-Harris administration appointees.

“It was incredible to be able to share with everyone who the League and MML Foundation are, and how we serve our members. I was able to share information specifically about our broad and diverse membership, and how ServeMICity, MI Water Navigator and our partnerships with philanthropy help to support community leaders with resources, tools and training,” Davis Johnson said.

The conversation focused on how the nation might make more progress on environmental justice and how we can all learn from each other and understand what’s working in many areas of the country.

“I was so struck by the intentional and beautiful diversity of participants in the roundtable conversation. Tribal nations, communities of color, philanthropy and elected officials, federal career staffers and appointees, and young and old activists alike sat together and discussed challenges and opportunities that communities are facing. We all know that vulnerable populations experience the impacts of environmental injustice most acutely,” Davis Johnson said.  

The Biden-Harris Administration also announced other new steps to further the president’s commitment to environmental justice, including publishing the first-ever Environmental Justice Scorecard, launching the White House Campaign for Environmental Justice, announcing new Justice40 covered programs and taking new steps to combat plastic pollution in communities.

“We must strive to do work together that gives lift to those in vulnerable and toxic situations. Our communities must become places that cultivate a positive human experience and where everyone has the opportunity to thrive. This happens when we ensure that the path to environmental justice is intrinsically connected to strong local economies, net positive community health, vibrant culture, resilient infrastructure, and bold, visionary local leadership working in partnership with community, business, nonprofits and philanthropy,” Davis Johnson said.

The MML and MML Foundation work with over 530 communities across the state and have launched several programs, including the ServeMICity program that supports communities in accessing and implementing incoming state and federal funding through direct technical assistance.

Davis Johnson shared that MML’s initial investment of $100,000 in ServeMICity leveraged over $200 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act and American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding within the first 12 months.

“The work has included numerous information webinars, developing and providing guidance documents and most importantly, providing on-call technical assistance to communities to answer questions, help them prepare application documents and just work with them in whatever way they need to submit their funding applications. We have offered support for community leaders to consider how to leverage data to develop community engagement approaches that work and to consider how they can respond to the constant string of environmental disasters with an equitable wellbeing lens,” Davis Johnson said.

As CMF reported, the MI Water Navigator Program, launched by MML Foundation and funded in partnership with CMF members the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and The Joyce Foundation, provides a platform and resources for municipalities to connect with streams of existing state and federal funding to support their water infrastructure needs. 

“To date, MI Water Navigator has served more than 75 communities across Michigan, over 60% of which qualify as overburdened and just as many have populations of 10,000 or less. ARPA and Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act (IIJA) funding in its final round and an imminent Environmental Protection Agency funded technical assistance boom on the horizon, overburdened and small communities need help navigating available funding and technical assistance options for their drinking water systems,” Davis Johnson said.

Davis Johnson shared that through this work within communities, it’s clear that local government leaders want to equitably engage their communities and deploy resources in strategic ways.

“It’s also clear that after decades of severe disinvestment they largely lack the staff or capacity to do so at the scale and speed necessary in this moment. Most Michiganders don’t realize the state has disinvested in our communities to the point that local governments struggle to provide the basic local services everyone desires, like adequate roads and police and fire protection. The pandemic-induced recession felt like the final blow to many municipalities, forcing a broad based municipal financial crisis during a public health emergency,” Davis Johnson said.

According to Davis Johnson, Michigan needs community leaders to work with philanthropy to seize these opportunities by envisioning new models, and making strong, confident and strategic choices that ensure justice and equity across the state.

“Philanthropy has an important role to play in advancing environmental justice. But not alone. This is the moment for us to come together across sectors, to meet each other through authentic conversation and build partnerships that ensure that all Michigan communities get a fair shot at wellbeing,” Davis Johnson said.

Want more?

Learn more about Davis Johnson’s visit to the White House.

Learn more about the ServeMICity and MI Water Navigator programs.