Equity in [Environmental] Philanthropy
Updated: Nov 16
*Originally posted at Environmental Fellows Blog
As some of you know, in 2013, the Overbrook Foundation convened leaders from across the country at the Wingspread Retreat Center. The purpose? To create a common vision around building alignment and equity within the environmental and broader progressive movements. The strategy that emerged from this conversation and future meetings metamorphized into what is now known as the BEA (Building Equity for Alignment and Impact). BEA seeks to improve the effectiveness of the environmental field by increasing the pool of resources to grassroots groups and building power with those most impacted by environmental threats.
I look to BEA for inspiration—it illustrates the possibility of philanthropy, nonprofits, and the community to work together to increase the impact of the environmental field in a manner based on reciprocity, trust, deep listening, and collective action. It signals the importance of being as passionate about equity as we are about the environment. Can we in environmental philanthropy heed this wisdom and work towards sustainability for all, while being truly innovative, understanding who we are, and crafting solutions as big and bold as the issues we face?
As inspiring as the BEA story is, the reality we face is that the rate of positive change in the environmental movement is misaligned with the tremendous rate at which our natural systems are failing. We’re playing catch up and we’re barely out of the gate. Add to that the fact that the environmental field has historically ignored the importance of diversity and inclusion in who we work with and how. So, it’s no wonder that some days it can feel like we’re in over our heads.
We can look at contemporary movements like marriage equality in the U.S. or the global mindfulness movement as models for dealing with complex problems. Many of these movements embraced risk, new ways of thinking, and social imagination to break the limits of our present circumstances. In many of these examples, we see two common criteria: an emphasis on building trust, and the ability to embrace change. As with all social change, the work is far from done.
At my first job out of college, I led a sustainable neighborhood program whose purpose was to cultivate grassroots sustainability through community organizing, collective visioning, and public art. After working with my brilliant colleagues to craft a program, I set about implementing the strategies that we were confident would improve the lives of families in one of our city’s most segregated neighborhoods. Luckily, before I got too far, a friend from the community stepped in. “I need to be honest with you,” she said. “And I’m telling you this because I know you’re going to do something about it.” What she said next changed not only how I approached this project and the trajectory of my career, but how I’ve reframed every community-facing approach since. She simply asked: Who is at the center of this program? The community or the organization you work for? Although the intentions of our programs were good, they were more about our own agenda, based on an organizational mission crafted through the lens of our own perspectives, and my privilege, than they were about the community’s needs.
My general insight as a facilitator, a queer woman, an environmentalist, and a community organizer is that we need to come at this from every angle. We’ve dangerously decoupled human suffering and environmental degradation, when in fact, they are one in the same and can only been understood, let alone solved, as one. And here are some ways we in environmental philanthropy can do that:
1) Pay attention to our inner selves. Self-acceptance, unconscious bias, ego, health, diet—they all affect our ability to promote justice in our spheres of influence, at work, with our board and trustees, but also with our families and our communities. How can we answer the question—who is at the center of our work—if we don’t really know ourselves, our shortfalls, and our strengths? In that same vein, it’s easy to fool ourselves into ignoring how our lived values do or do not match our proclaimed values, and/or how our good intentions can often blind us to the impacts we have on larger systems and structures of oppression. Arguably more than any other sector, we in philanthropy have the resources to take the time to reflect, to innovate, and to be strategic at personal, professional, and systemic levels. If we can’t prioritize equity and make time for self-reflection, how can we expect it of our grantees?
2) Embrace intersections to forge new partnerships. A unique challenge within the environmental field is that in many ways it is a movement of movements. If we look to ecology, we can see that everything is connected and yet, we still try to slice and dice systemic issues as separate and create buckets of funding that reinforce these silos. Green issues are urban issues and conservation issues are also about justice. We fail to embrace our interdependence partially out of fear that a more ecological approach will dismantle nearly five decades of building power along issues and that social justice is a distraction from the mission at hand. In my experience, this excuse is a distraction from the vulnerability we need to take on as a field and as individuals. In short, we’re all on this planet together and have a stake in the health of it and the people on it. Let’s change this narrative and actively invest in cross-issue work led by a diverse group of people.
3) Be open to new ways of doing things. The environmental field is a young movement by some standards, we’ve learned a lot, and we have a lot to offer. But we are far from perfect, and philanthropy has in many ways unintentionally and intentionally contributed to the atomistic and proprietary nature of the field. I believe that we can build a dynamic movement that evolves to embrace the complexity of our collective narrative, admit our mistakes, and set a course for a sustainable future. However, approaches to holistic sustainability will only succeed if they are applied equitably and inclusively—we can no longer afford to leave anyone out. But because we have left people out, we have a lot of trust building to do. This means re-training ourselves in not just what we do but how we do it. And it starts with the simple question: Who is at the center of this program? Our grantmaking? We can only answer that question when we truly know ourselves, and when we trust the wisdom of those who see the world from a different angle than we do.
The shift towards equity ultimately leads to more effective and widespread social and environmental outcomes. I don’t have it all figured out; I’m still learning just like you. I will continue to reflect on what it means to be an equity champion, invest in just and authentic partnerships, and explore the possibility of new opportunities. What is and will continue to be central to my work is creating a new paradigm, in partnership with communities, that redefines who we collaborate with and how so that we’re valuing the interests and strengths of every community and partnering in mutually beneficial ways for wellbeing. We need to co-imagine a new vision of
environmentalism so that we know what we’re working towards together. It needs to draw from our respective strengths and skills. And importantly, it needs to be motivated by love and compassion, not naïve and blind love, but fierce and accountable love.