Representative Ilhan Omar (left) and Senator Tina Smith (right) meet with officials from the University of Minnesota and the Environmental Protection Agency on August 23, 2023, to discuss a new environmental justice center opening at the university. Credit: Aaron Nesheim | Sahan Journal

The University of Minnesota is home to a new federal office that will help distribute funding to frontline communities working on environmental justice projects across the Midwest. 

The university’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs is launching the Great Lakes Environmental Justice Technical Assistance Center, one of 16 hubs across the nation tasked with supercharging projects that help low-income and racially diverse communities address pollution. 

Minnesota political leaders, officials from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and university staff held a roundtable discussion Wednesday highlighting the initiative. The EPA is awarding the university $10 million to develop and run the center, which will be housed in existing university facilities. 

The center will help communities navigate government grant applications for efforts such as pollution remediation and investments in clean energy. The goal is to smooth the process for cities, community-based organizations, and Tribal Nations to plan projects, apply for grants, manage those grants, and push projects over the finish line. Money may come from the EPA, Department of Energy, a state agency, or local entities like the Metropolitan Council. 

Senator Tina Smith, who attended the event, said Black and brown communities across the United States bear that brunt of pollution due to historical city designs and discriminatory zoning practices that placed people of color next to highways and industrial facilities. 

“So if we’re going to do something about that we have to be really as intentional as we were when we build those freeways through those communities,” said Smith, one of the lead authors of the climate investment-laden Inflation Reduction Act. 

Smith was joined at Wednesday’s event by Representatives Ilhan Omar and Betty McCollum, and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey. 

The University of Minnesota hosted a round table discussion on August 23, 2023, about bringing an Environmental Protection Agency Technical Assistance Center to the university. Credit: Aaron Nesheim | Sahan Journal

The new center is led by university associate professors Gabe Chan and Bonnie Keeler, two leading energy and environmental instructors at the Humphrey School. The EPA already awarded $4 million to the university, which will use the funding to hire four staff members and begin building capacity to help facilitate climate funding. 

“There are an unprecedented amount of dollars on the table, and I want to make sure those dollars are going to the places that need it the most,” Keeler said. 

Between the federal Inflation Reduction Act and a host of new investments approved by the Minnesota Legislature, there are millions of dollars available for clean energy and environmental initiatives. Governor Tim Walz signed a law to create a Minnesota green bank, which would also fund environmental justice projects. 

Much of that funding is available in grants from federal, state, and local governments. But getting those grants requires planning and knowledge that can be in short supply in rural and frontline communities. 

The university’s Great Lakes Environmental Justice Technical Assistance Center will lean into the U of M Extension services to help reach rural areas and Tribal Nations. Other partners include the nonprofit Great Plains Institute, The Midwest Tribal Energy Resources Association, and Community Engineer Corps, which will send out design professionals to help communities plan projects before they seek funding. 

Grants facilitated by the center could go to projects like brownfield remediation, building weatherization, forest restoration, and lead pipe removals. It could help get the most out of ongoing projects, like the U.S. Department Energy effort to create pathways for immigrant-run business in Minneapolis and St. Paul to add rooftop solar.  

“This kind of investment really is going to have an incredible impact,” Omar said. 

A main goal of the center is to ensure benefits aren’t just going to people who are good at paperwork, Keeler said. 

That was an issue with climate initiatives passed under President Barack Obama in 2009, according to Peter Wyckoff, assistant commissioner of federal and state energy initiatives at the Minnesota Department of Commerce. Wyckoff played a large role in crafting the Inflation Reduction Act when he worked for Senator Smith, and now holds a job designed to make sure as much climate money as possible comes to Minnesota. 

The federal government is investing $177 million in 16 Environmental Justice Thriving Communities Technical Assistance Centers. The U of M center is one of two in EPA Region 5, which covers the Midwest. 

A Chicago-based center is hosted by Blacks in Green, an environmental justice organization. Both centers can provide assistance to communities across Region 5, which includes Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin, and 35 Tribal Nations. 

“These are not just conversations; they are steps toward a brighter and more equitable future,” said Nisha Botchwey, dean of the Humphrey School.

Andrew Hazzard is a staff reporter with Sahan Journal who focuses on climate change and environmental justice issues. After starting his career in daily newspapers in Mississippi and North Dakota, Andrew...