HBCUs as Key Actors in Climate Justice: Sustainability on Campus and in Communities

April 1, 2024

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Title: The HBCU Climate Action Blueprint: Sustainable Campuses, Empowered Communities

Authors: Kendra M. Sharp, Julian Thompson, and Ed Smith-Lewis

Source: United Negro College Fund (UNCF) Institute for Capacity Building

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HCBUs) are uniquely positioned to lead in climate justice and sustainability practices within higher education. In the United States, climate change disproportionately impacts communities of color and Black populations. About 60 percent of Black Americans are concentrated in the Southeast, where exposure to heat, hurricanes, and flooding is high. Climate risks compound with many of the socioeconomic challenges these communities face, as environmental injustices are rooted in historical discriminatory practices. With an emphasis on interdisciplinary knowledge and lived experience, HBCUs are prioritizing sustainability and continuing their history of community engagement by furthering environmental justice.

UNCF launched an institutional survey to better understand and identify opportunities to assist HBCUs leading in climate and sustainability. The survey posed the following critical categories of climate efforts within HBCUs: administration, community engagement, curriculum and research, energy and decarbonization, food and recycling and agriculture, green buildings, green investing and grant management, and student involvement.

The survey report provided six key insights.

1. HBCUs have foundational strengths and untapped potential: Green initiatives, recycling programs, sustainable dining, and local food production are foundational practices across multiple HBCUs. This foundational and broad focus on climate action highlights the possibility for institutions to lead in environmental justice and innovation.

2. Legacies of community empowerment equip HBCUs to lead sustainability efforts in their communities: Many institutions are creating mission-centered strategic plans and partnerships to address environmental injustices in minority communities. HBCUs uniquely leverage connections to marginalized communities that are most affected by climate change.

3. Persistent underfunding stifles innovation: Despite HBCUs’ active engagement in climate action, financial constraints limit their ability to advance. Addressing the funding gap is critical to promoting HBCUs as leaders in sustainability. Only 15 percent of universities surveyed have an allocated budget for climate and sustainability projects, and all universities reported uncertainty in grant funding.

4. HBCUs are trailblazers for renewable energy: The survey suggests an increased commitment among HBCUs to renewable energy projects and energy-efficient certification. Greenhouse gas reduction and campus-wide energy conservation are also key priorities for universities.

5. HBCUs are developing curricula for green futures: Several sustainability initiatives at HBCUs focus on intertwining academic teaching and training with environmental engagement. Half of the surveyed HBCUs offer degree programs or certificates in subjects important to sustainability, and there is strong faculty engagement and research activity surrounding climate.

6. HBCUS are extending sustainability beyond the campus: Notably, 55 percent of the responding institutions collaborate with the agricultural communities close to them to promote climate-resilient agricultural practices, demonstrating the practical application of climate prioritization.

UNCF ends the report with a call to action for the implementation of climate hubs and community beneficiaries that work with HBCUs to increase the impact of the climate work coming out of these institutions, especially regarding local food production and biodiversity.

To read the full report and view the participating universities, click here.

—Eliza Gonzalez


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