Black Women in Tech Might Be the Key to Climate Justice

“If we get it right in the hardest hit areas, it’s probably easier to have an impact on all communities.” - DR. JACKIE “BOUVIER” COPELAND, FOUNDER OF THE WISE FUND

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By Nadira Jamerson, Digital Editor, Word In Black

Toxic air. Dirty water. It seems we find out every day about another Black neighborhood being damaged by environmental pollution. The Justice Department recently filed a complaint against the city of Jackson, Mississippi — which has been without clean water since August — over its alleged violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act. And now Houston had to release a “boil water” notice to warn millions of residents against using contaminated water supplies.

On top of that, Black folks are more likely to live in communities impacted by climate change, and they are more likely to experience adverse health effects as a result. People of color in the United States are 61% more likely than white people to live in a county with a failing grade for at least one pollutant, and 13.4% of Black children have asthma — a disease exacerbated by dirty air — compared to 7.3% of white children.

But all hope is not lost. Bay Area, California-based activist Dr. Jackie “Bouvier” Copeland says there is more we can all do to combat climate change and inequity. She’s the founder of the Women Invested to Save Earth (WISE) Fund, which she says is a “solution that addressed the multiple challenges of racism, sexism, climate change, and funding in equity that exists not just in the U.S. but all across the world.”

Copeland previously worked as the chief operating officer for the Anita B.Org Institute for Women in Technology, the world’s largest impact-focused women’s technology enterprise. However, her over 40-year career was propelled to new heights in 2020.

That year, COVID-19 deaths swept the Black community, protests emerged for racial injustice, and out-of-control wildfires decimated California, burning an area roughly the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined and killing 33 people.

“California burned almost every single day for seven months in 2020,” she says. “I could see fires out my living room window.”

As a result, Copeland was forced to relocate with her elderly mother — the air pollution caused by the ongoing fires was giving them both respiratory issues. With smoke literally filling her living room, Copeland felt confronted by the state of the world and asked herself what she could do to create meaningful change.

“For a person like me who’s always tried to walk the talk of impact, here all of the issues are in mine and others’ living rooms,” Copeland says. “I asked myself — as many people did — are you doing all you can do to be the change?”

Through the WISE Fund, Copeland raises funds to support affordable and innovative technological advancements by Black women and people of color who are creating climate justice technology that can also serve as economic engines in the communities hit hardest by climate change. In her former position, Copeland noticed that Black women and women of color were often overqualified, yet they still received fewer opportunities to fund their ideas. With women accounting for more than half of the global population, Copeland says an unwillingness to invest in this group is hurting the world at large.

“They can have all the ivy league degrees in the world, and be fine, often overqualified technologists, but we only get 2-3% of the funding,” she says. “The decision is often based on the package we come in and not necessarily the qualifications, the benefit of the doubt, and the potential we hold.”

“We are not getting our fair share of innovation capital based on our capacity and potential. We are more than half of the planet, so how can our country and the world address all of these issues if more than half of the innovators can’t get funding to be a part of the solution?”

So far the WISE Fund has raised over $1 million and supported various climate justice initiatives and climate activists in Africa, Australia, Brazil, India, the U.S., and the Caribbean.

WISE helped to fund We Solar, the first Black woman-owned solar farm in the U.S., which provides more affordable and cleaner energy to Washington, D.C. residents. In Nairobi, WISE worked with Majik Water — a company working to combat drought in Kenya through an atmospheric water system that extracts water from the air.

WISE also serves as the umbrella company for Black Philanthropy Month, an annual and year-round celebration in August facilitated by Copeland to raise awareness of Black giving and promote funding, equity, philanthropy, and business investment. Copeland says that Black Philanthropy Month has served 18 million people in 60 countries since its founding 20 years ago.

“We believe that by doing funding in such a way that supports home-grown grassroots technological innovations in the communities most underfunded and impacted by these climate and social issues — in a way that builds economy — is a key to positive accelerated change to match the rapid destruction of our communities,” Copeland says.

Black women and other diverse voices looking to receive funding for accessible and affordable climate-justice-focused technologies are encouraged to check out Get WISE Support and fill out their pre-qualification link. Support is provided on a rolling basis as WISE continues to fundraise to be able to work with more forward-thinking projects. WISE is currently working to raise $50 million in funding so that they can continue to invest in climate justice actions around the world.

“If we get it right in the hardest hit areas, it’s probably easier to have an impact on all communities — because climate change is a global issue. Racism and sexism are global. We can’t just work in our own backyards and think we have addressed the root cause of the issues. These issues are local, regional, national, and global all at the same time. We are one humanity and we are sharing one planet.”