Castañeda: Justice40 Initiative provides massive opportunity for South Texas

Previewing the South Texas Justice40 Symposium that takes place at TAMIU on Aug. 3.

LAREDO, Texas – For the first time in the nation’s history, the federal government has made it a goal that 40 percent of the overall benefits of certain federal investments flow to disadvantaged communities that are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution. 

President Biden made this historic commitment when he signed Executive Order 14008 within days of taking office.

Now, stakeholders, elected officials, and community leaders in Laredo and neighboring counties have a chance to learn more about the initiative. 

The Rio Grande International Study Center, in partnership with Green Latinos, will welcome leaders and decision-makers from six counties in the region, for the first-ever South Texas Justice40 Symposium.

The event takes place at Texas A&M International University’s Academic Innovation Center in Laredo, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on August 3. The keynote speaker is Susana Almanza, a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Committee (pictured above).

Alejandra Castañeda

RGISC Federal Environmental Justice Program Manager Alex Castañeda said the symposium aims to bring awareness to what she calls an “historic federal funding initiative” known as Justice 40.

“So, I was hired on to basically promote information movements around the IRA, which is the Inflation Reduction Act and IIJA, which is the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. There is also an executive order, Justice 40, which basically dictates that 40 percent of the funds being funneled through the IRA and the IGA need to go to disproportionately impacted communities, much like the communities along the border,” Castañeda told the Rio Grande Guardian International News Service.

“So, I see my job as informing decision leaders and creating a network to ensure that everyone is informed of the opportunities that are coming under the two pieces of legislation and what Justice 40 is all about. It just makes us just a tad bit more competitive when it comes to these grant opportunities.”

Castañeda said another part of her work is to foster collaboration and spur innovative project ideas.

“I am talking about large scale projects, the types of projects that create systems change. That’s basically what we’re trying to accomplish here and why we’ve invited all of these decision-makers and key stakeholders.”

Castañeda said she hopes participants will gain valuable insights and understanding of these new federal policy initiatives.

“I am hoping it enables them to play a proactive role in the competitive grant process to help our local communities obtain federal funding to advance projects related to climate change and environmental justice,” Castañeda said.

Castañeda said the event speakers will focus on five key topics: clean energy, climate resiliency, clean transportation, workforce development, and water and wastewater infrastructure. 

“We, in the South Texas Region, are being presented with a unique opportunity through Justice40 to create lasting positive impacts on our communities,” Castaneda said. 

“Our goal is to explain what Justice 40 is, create an information hub, and help our local governments, school districts, institutions of higher learning, and nonprofits take advantage of this moment.”

Castaneda said the symposium will feature speakers from the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, Emerald Cities Collaborative, Evolve Houston and more.  

She said it is being organized through a collaborative partnership with Green Latinos, a national non-profit organization, and with the support of Energy Foundation, Chispa League of Conservation Voters and Emerald Cities Collaborative. 

Castaneda said U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar will be present. The Laredo Democrat said he recognizes the opportunities Justice40 provides to help shape the future of South Texas.

““I helped pass the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act to deliver federal dollars to our communities. The Justice40 Executive Order will deliver 40% of the overall benefits of clean energy, water infrastructure, affordable housing, and workforce development investments to disadvantaged communities and create lasting positive impacts,” said Cuellar, a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee. 

“Thank you to RGISC for organizing this symposium and bringing together key stakeholders to learn more about these important public investments.”

The Guardian asked Castaneda to provide some wrap-up remarks for a preview story.

“Again, the Justice40 Initiative is really important because it has the potential of making us a bit more competitive when it comes to these federal grant opportunities. It really gives us a chance to do these system change types of projects. Just look at the amount of money that’s coming down. We have a massive opportunity. But it is going to take collaboration, working together. Remember it is very different from some of the state grant opportunities which are very narrow in scope. This really allows for big changes to happen.”

By way of example, Castaneda said some counties in North Texas have formed a coalition in order to apply for the maximum amount, which is $400 million dollars, for a community solar project.

“I am super excited for for the event on Thursday. And I am very happy with the attendees that we’ve gotten thus far. This event is the first of its kind in this area. And we’re really hoping that it turns into a series of sorts,” Castaneda said.

“So, I am hoping that we have a big turnout the day. I know this is going to be really advantageous for our region. And I’m really excited to continue to work with all of these decision makers to ensure that South Texas is adequately represented and adequately funded.”

Editor’s Note: Officials from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Economic Impact and Diversity were in Edinburg and Brownsville in April to promote Justice40 in the Rio Grande Valley. Click here to watch a Rio Grande Guardian International News Service video.

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