Environmental and Climate Justice Community Change Grants in Tucson, AZ
July 2, 2024

The Environmental and Climate Justice Program (EJC Program) Overview

The Environmental and Climate Justice Program (ECJ Program) was created by the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) to provide financial and technical assistance for environmental and climate justice activities focused on serving disadvantaged communities.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) new Environmental and Climate Justice Community Change Grants program (Community Change Grants) is now open with approximately $2 billion dollars in Inflation Reduction Act funds available for environmental and climate justice activities to benefit underserved and overburdened communities. The EPA is accepting applications for the program on a rolling basis through November 21, 2024, allowing applicants to utilize technical assistance and reapply if they were not initially selected. 

Awarded projects will focus on community-driven initiatives that are responsive to community and stakeholder input and designed for communities disproportionately impacted by climate change and pollution. 

The EJCPS Cooperative Agreement program is a predecessor to the current Community Change Grant.

Considerations for municipal leaders

  • What are the local climate risks, or burdens, particularly for disadvantaged communities?
  • Has the city done a landscape analysis of the CBOs? What are the strengths and weaknesses of each? How will this impact partnership decisions? 
  • What are the CBOs that have the trust of the target population/project implementation area?
  • Based on the problem(s) identified in the community, is a coalition of CBOs needed or can one CBO provide the necessary services to achieve the goals? 
  • Does the community have a Climate Action Plan? What are local issues of climate justice and equity? How were CBOs engaged in the climate action planning process?

The Justicia Juntos Project | Tucson, Arizona

Project Leadership:

  • Mayor Regina Romero, City of Tucson
  • Fatima Luna, Chief Resilience Officer for City of Tucson
  • Claudia Jasso, President & CEO at Amistades, Inc.
  • Leonardo Gamboa, Program Manager at Amistades, Inc.

Location: City of Tucson

Focus: Racial equity, climate

About Amistades, Inc. 

Amistades is a Latino-led, Latino-serving non-profit organization committed to race and equity in Southern Arizona through the provision of culturally responsive services, advocacy for social justice, and community empowerment. Amistades uses a culturally rooted intergenerational family approach to working with Latinos – their approach is centered on restoring individuals, families and communities’ humanity and dignity. Amistades utilizes strategies that reconnect and uplift cultural assets that exist in communities of color and works with systems to change the conditions that lead to disparities and other negative life outcomes.

This case story discusses the work of Amistades and the City of Tucson, AZ that leverages an Environmental Justice Collaborative Problem Solving (EJCPS) Cooperative Agreement grant award from the EPA. Amistades is a Latino-led, Latino-serving non-profit organization committed to racial equity in Southern Arizona. 

Justicia Juntos, or Justice Together, is an initiative, led by Amistades, aimed at assisting Latino communities in Tucson, particularly in the 85706 zip code, facing the effects of extreme heat due to climate change and a heat island effect. The program includes three primary objectives: 

  1. Form a coalition of advocates to discuss the impact of heat on families and work towards an inclusive plan in alignment with the city’s initiatives; 
  2. Educate Latino leaders in South Tucson and neighboring areas on coping mechanisms for heat and environmental awareness; and
  3. Develop two Aztlan Mobile Oases Climate Resilience Hubs: dedicated spaces where individuals can cool down, connect with others, and access assistance.

As the work in Tucson shifts from planning to implementation, the initial funds from the EPA’s EJCPS program will kickstart community involvement, education, and activism around extreme heat in Tucson. While the grant from the EPA does not directly fund the hubs, it supports the foundational programming that will set the Aztlan Mobile Oases up for future success.  This grassroots initiative is designed to complement city and county efforts to mitigate heat through climate action resiliency planning, with an emphasis on raising awareness about the impacts of extreme heat. 

Through collaboration with the Mayor’s Office and the cultivation of new partnerships, Justicia Juntos seeks to mitigate the effects of heat and the heat island effect. The initiative will support the development of two climate resilience hubs over the next three years that can then be scaled up and replicated across the city and surrounding communities.

Climate Action in Tucson

In 2020, Mayor Regina Romero declared a climate emergency in Tucson and committed the city to being carbon-neutral by 2030. In March 2023, the climate action and adaptation plan, Tucson Resilient Together, was adopted by the Mayor and Council. The plan provides a strategic pathway to reduce the City’s emissions to net zero, identify the communities that will be most vulnerable to climate change impacts, and provide strategies that will assure that Tucson can adapt and be resilient to the impacts of climate change. 

In the Tucson Resilient Together engagement process, extreme heat was found to be one of the most prominent concerns of local residents. At listening sessions and in surveys, residents expressed concerns of heat “lasting longer” throughout the day. Additionally, they found that dealing with extreme heat is tougher for those who are not as financially secure because they lack the insulation or air conditioning to keep cool, or that it becomes prohibitively expensive to use air conditioning. 

As of April 2022, Tucson was one of the fastest-warming cities in the country – with an average annual temperature increase of 4.6 degrees fahrenheit (F) since 1970. Then, July 2023 was the city’s hottest month ever, with an average temperature of 94.2° F, and triple digit highs every day including 14 days with a high above 110. In 2023, Pima County, of which Tucson is the county seat, had 176 heat-related deaths, 54% were from migrant or unhoused communities. July alone saw 91 heat-related deaths.

The urban heat island effect makes the effects of extreme heat more pronounced in areas where natural land cover has been replaced by dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat. In highly urbanized areas, the result can be temperature increases of as much as 30 degrees; shaded areas, in the hottest part of the day, can be 20 to 45 degrees cooler than unshaded areas. Urban heat islands localize adverse health effects, particularly in low-income communities with higher populations of people of color. The result is more cases of heat-related illnesses and a higher cost burden of air conditioning bills. An assessment of case studies across multiple countries found that electricity demand for air conditioning increased up to 9 percent for each 2 degree increase in temperature. 

Furthermore, there is evidence that past redlining correlates to present-day neighborhoods that are hotter and have a high percentage of individuals with low-incomes and people of color. This comes to ground in South Tucson, an area that has historically been disproportionately affected by heat as a result of inadequate urban forestry and other socio-economic factors.

Building on the Tucson Resilient Together process, Mayor Romero and Tucson City Council adopted a Heat Action Roadmap and Heat Protection Ordinance for City Contractors on June 4, 2024. These two actions will increase the City’s ability to mitigate and manage extreme heat and build resilience for the future. The Heat Action Roadmap marks the next step as part of the implementation of Tucson Resilient Together. 

The Heat Action Roadmap includes three goals: 

  1. Informing, Preparing, and Protecting People; 
  2. Cooling People’s Homes and Community Centers; and 
  3. Cooling Tucson Neighborhoods

“Through the Heat Action Roadmap and Worker Heat Protection Ordinance the City of Tucson is leading with urgency, putting forward concrete actions to protect the public health of our community, our economy, and the Sonoran Desert… As the daughter of immigrant farm workers growing up in Somerton, Arizona, I saw first-hand how the dangers of extreme heat impacted loved ones and neighbors working in triple digit temperatures. These experiences shaped me” – Mayor Regina Romero

Developing the Justicia Juntos initiative

Developing the Justicia Juntos initiative

The Tucson Resilient Together plan emphasizes the need for actions to build community resilience, and includes recommendations like establishing accessible resilience hubs, providing resources and training for employers and workers that support protection from extreme heat, and bolstering community and regional networks to improve community-wide emergency response and resource-sharing. 

While the city and region do have a network of cooling centers, there are challenges in their access and visibility, especially as demand for the available resources increases with more extreme heat days. 

Justicia Juntos is an initiative aligned with this set of strategies and increasing demand for cooling resources. Through Justicia Juntos, Amistades is collaborating with the city, and other community based organizations (CBOs), to develop replicable climate resilience hubs that can meet the growing demand in their communities. 

Claudia Jasso, President and CEO of Amistades, talked about their position in the community, particularly given that in Jasso’s words, Amistades “knew how to educate Latinos, and how to organize Latinos.” Particularly, Amistades’ work prior to this focused on health equity and social justice in Southern Arizona, with an emphasis on serving Latino communities. Their experience and expertise in these spaces would provide Amistades with the opportunity to build the connection between climate focused groups and Latino communities that are on the frontlines of the climate crisis. The connection is made stronger by the fact that climate change is a health issue, particularly in communities that have been historically disinvested and see greater exposure to heat effects and legacy pollutants. 

Leonardo Gamboa, Amistades’ program manager for Justicia Juntos, echoed Jasso’s sentiments regarding Amistades’ role in “complementing environmentalism with cultural voice” – as a grassroots organizing group, they bridge the gaps between climate action and the frontline communities that they work in.  

The EJCPS and Community Change grants are centered in climate equity and designed to be place-based, thus Amistades needed to ensure their application had geographic specificity. Amistades leveraged available community data from the CDC’s Climate and Health Program and the City of Tucson’s heat call equity map. The City’s map uses unique data to geospatially illustrate equity gaps in relation to heat-related emergency calls, and is organized by census tract. This data guided Amistades’ focus  toward the 85706 zip code – a predominantly Latino, and low-income community facing the greatest effects of climate change in Tucson. The area has an extreme lack of shade, a high number of heat-related hospitalizations, and that was traditionally more difficult to engage.

Fast Facts on the 85706 zip code; a focus for Justicia Juntos

  • Population: 54,853 (44,974 Hispanic or Latino)
  • Monthly Household Income (MHI): $46,532 (AZ state MHI is $74,568)
  • Education: 9.2% bachelor’s degree or higher
  • 61.9% speak Spanish at home 
  • 25.2% living in poverty (almost double the state poverty rate of 12.5%)

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

However, that data only tells a piece of the community’s climate story. Leonardo Gamboa, program manager at Amistades,  took pains to familiarize the organization with the neighborhood factors that contribute to the negative impacts of the climate crisis, such as the heat island effect, a huge challenge for the zipcode, and the assets that the community has available to manage them. “That involves reinvigorating parks that have been left behind in the heart of the south side,” Gamboa said.  “Looking at the southside not just as a set of demographics tied to a zip code, but  there are neighborhoods sandwiched between a highway, airport, and military installation.”

Building a coalition

Coalition building has been a key component of Mayor Romero’s climate policy. Fatima Luna has served as Tucson’s Chief Resilience Officer since September of 2023 after serving as Mayor Romero’s Climate and Sustainability Advisor and working heavily on the development of the Tucson Resilient Together plan. According to Luna, the city emphasized intentional engagement with CBOs and other community partners to gather community viewpoints and concerns for Tucson Resilient Together. From the city’s perspective, these organizations are valued subject matter experts and were treated as external consultants for the plan’s development. 

Ultimately, these partnerships provided a foundation for enhanced collaboration between the city and Amistades, alongside other stakeholders. Luna described a three-part approach wherein government, community based organizations, and the general public can collaborate to develop and provide resources to the community to address the impacts of climate change. Amistades and Luna both discussed the role of the city as a key convener and network-building ally, ensuring that the city and their partners maximize impact and avoid duplicating efforts. 

“The frontline communities are subject matter experts on climate change as much as any academic.” Luna said, “They deal with it and live with it and see it every single day. I walk into these communities knowing they are experts on the subject. The only difference is the jargon we use.”

For Amistades, Gamboa spoke to what the ideal partner may look like, being an organization with a track record of complementing organizing strategies with an additional layer of need, so that Amistades can then bridge a dialogue gap between subject matter experts and cultural organizing needs in tandem with environmental and ecological work. 

Amistades has extensive experience in cross-sectoral coalition building that they will replicate in executing their  EJCPS Grant. For example, Amistades led the creation of the Mayahuel Prevention Consortium Coalition (MPC), a culturally responsive substance misuse prevention project for Latino youth and young adults. There, Amistades brought together a diverse array of CBOs and stakeholders representing education, government, health, law enforcement, civic groups, substance abuse organizations, media, and youth-focused organizations. Beginning with a comprehensive needs assessment in the community and regular hybrid coalition meetings, the coalition, led by Amistades, developed an understanding of the community’s substance abuse issues and brainstormed community-based solutions. Then, they developed and delivered culturally conscious educational programs delivered in partnership with schools, community initiatives – like the Barrio Naloxone Training Initiative which provided naloxone training to bars and schools – and hosted collaborative events, like the Wellness Day Celebration at Envision High School and the Community Posada at Toltecalli High School. These events, with the support of the coalition, offered resources, activities, and education to the community, and have since become annual projects demonstrating a commitment to sustained community engagement.

Looking ahead: next steps for Justicia Juntos

In the Justicia Juntos initiative, Amistades, the City of Tucson, and coalition partners will focus on advocacy, education, and service to the Latino community at the frontlines of the climate crisis as they develop and pilot climate resilience hubs, building on Amistades’ successful coalition efforts in other initiatives. 

With the EJCPS Award, Amistades is eager to take this work to ground and build on the foundation created through the Tucson Resilient Together Plan. As they look toward the coming months and years, a critical first step will be to build upon the  community engagement with open ears and humility. By being receptive instead of prescriptive, Amistades can meet the community where they are and work hand in glove to identify specific needs, as well as the resources and implementation methods to address them.

This is nothing new for Amistades. For years they have taken a cultural approach for their health equity and social justice work, Razalogia, that utilizes a four step cultural framework to engage the community and drive systems change: 

  1. Get to know the community, 
  2. Build confidence within the community, 
  3. Build unity
  4. Collaborate to achieve power. 

“It’s a four step approach to building power in the community, being able to do things together in an effective way. It’s something that we’ve used for almost 20 years now that we learned from Dr. Roberto Vargas, who developed the concept in the early 80s with communities of color, in particular Latinos.”

– Claudia Jasso, President and CEO, Amistades

 Here, the goal is to leverage the framework for climate action and resilience work as they seek to understand the needs of the community and develop solutions fit to the community. This will take shape through Latino-responsive community outreach activities that will include a community of practice to drive stakeholder engagement, multiple half-day climate resiliency-focused meetings to educate community members and stakeholders, youth-centered mobilization efforts, and planning activities for the Climate Resilience Hubs. 

The funding available through this program and work being done with it also provides an opportunity for the city to invest in data practices that will help them better track trends in heat, as well as the impacts of rising heat in the community which can inform future strategies and investments. Amistades and the City of Tucson will leverage the pilots and programs implemented through Justicia Juntos to inform other initiatives and grant applications focused on resiliency and heat mitigation.

2024 Community Change Grants NOFO

Track I applications – Community-Driven Investments for Change will focus on multifaceted applications with Climate Action and Pollution Reduction Strategies to meaningfully improve the environmental, climate, and resilience conditions affecting disadvantaged communities.

Track II applications – Meaningful Engagement for Equitable Governance will facilitate the engagement of disadvantaged communities in governmental processes to advance environmental and climate justice.

The activities to be performed under the grants are expected to fall under the following categories:

  • Climate resiliency and adaptation;
  • Mitigating climate and health risks from urban heat islands, extreme heat, wood heater emissions, and wildfire events;
  • Community-led air and other (including water and waste) pollution monitoring, prevention, and remediation;
  • Investments in low- and zero-emission and resilient technologies and related infrastructure;
  • Workforce development that supports the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and other air pollutants;
  • Reducing indoor toxics and indoor air pollution; and, 
  • Facilitating the engagement of disadvantaged communities in state and federal advisory groups, workshops, rulemakings, and other public processes.

The Local Infrastructure Hub also released a “Winning Strategies” resource for Community Change grants, providing detailed strategies for cities considering pursuing these resources.


Climate change is not felt the same by all. Low-income and minority communities are frequently those facing the gravest consequences due to legacy pollutants and historic disinvestment – creating burdens for already struggling communities. The Community Change Grants program is an investment in community-driven solutions to address legacy issues around climate and environmental equity. 

In his 2019 book Palaces for the People, author Eric Klinenberg compares two distinct neighborhoods in the South Side of Chicago – Englewood and Auburn Gresham. Klinenberg notes that Auburn Gresham’s social infrastructure made the community and its residents better prepared for and tolerable of extreme heat, comparing the support of the social infrastructure to having working air conditioning. This is the infrastructure that Amistades and the City of Tucson are seeking to pilot through Justicia Juntos with a focus on the Latino community in South Tucson.

“They knew their neighbors – not because they made special efforts to meet them, but because they lived in a place where casual interaction was a feature of everyday life. During the heatwave, these ordinary routines made it easy for people to check in on one another and knock on the doors of elderly, vulnerable neighbors…And with heatwaves becoming more frequent and more severe, living in a neighborhood with a social infrastructure like Auburn Gresham’s is the rough equivalent of having a working air conditioner in every home.” 

– Eric Klinenberg, Palaces for the People (2019)

While still early in the process, Justicia Juntos is an example of how CBOs and cities can collaborate with their communities to develop and deliver resources needed to combat extreme heat and climate change. Practices in Tucson can and should be adopted elsewhere to ensure that community voices are heard and acted upon:

  • Blend data analysis with community-level discussions to understand how data plays out at the ground-level;
  • Meet the community where they are with humility, recognizing that those facing the effects of climate change are the subject matter experts in their community; and
  • Build networks of community-based organizations, government entities, and communities to foster the relationships necessary to deliver solutions. 

The effects of climate change are clear, as are the impacts of inaction. While Tucson and southern Arizona have a network of cooling centers, there are challenges in their access, visibility, and capacity, as more extreme heat days drive demand for the services and resources at cooling centers as well as other solutions to help residents mitigate the impacts of extreme heat. Justicia Juntos is a key step towards building more of this critical capacity for the Latino community in South Tucson and a great model for cities seeking meaningful partnerships that result in true community change.

Accelerator for America would like to thank Drexel University Nowak Metro Finance Lab for their partnership in production of this case story for the Local Infrastructure Hub.

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