Mar 29, 2019

By Kim Moore Bailey

(This blog post is re-posted from Youth Outside

Last month, we celebrated Black History Month.

I believe that Black History Month happens every month for me as I think about the shoulders that I stand on to engage in the work at the intersection of racial equity, inclusion and the outdoors.

As the "official" month of Black History was underway, I found myself thinking about my grandmother who turned 102 on February 13th. She remembers what she wants to remember, walks with the aid of a walker and loves red roses. When I share my work with her, she is excited that it involves connecting Black people (& others) to the outdoors.

Whenever we talk about my work, she connects it with the passion my grandfather (Granddad) had for farming and fishing. Her husband for 70 years, and my father’s father, he looked at these activities not as sport or hobby, but part of life. Fresh vegetables for his family and community…sharing the bounty of a good day on the water…this made for stories and the chance to share with others, often in trade for something else. At no point did my grandfather call himself an environmentalist. However, he did know what “good” soil smelled like; that the weather in the spring would determine the harvest in the fall; and an early frost meant damage to the tomatoes, but perhaps the pumpkins and squash would be ok.

These memories celebrate my heroes. They offer me an opportunity to look back and allow me to look forward.

There is something powerful about storytelling and being able to hear about the wide range of relationships that my folks, Black folks, have had with the outdoors. From Granddad’s garden in Queens, New York to my great-grandfathers farm (on my mother’s side) in Jamaica, the relationship ranges from recreational to necessity.

My grandmother (Gran) on my mother’s side used to talk about walking to and from work and church while living in Alabama and supporting the bus boycott. She continued to walk, long after the boycott ended and she moved to NY. She would say, “When I walk, my senses are alive. You can see the crocus coming up, the dogwoods blooming, and the first signs of the leaves turning in the fall. You can smell the fresh soil in the gardens, the dew on the grass.” She also talked about the fear – her time in the country that echoed those contentious and often violent tales that are part of our history.

For my ancestors, the connection to the land, to nature was real. It was part of their lives and while there were fears, there were also joys and they wove these experiences together for me.

They would tell personal accounts of friends and family disappearing in the woods during the civil rights movement, but they could also encourage the curiosity of a six year old who wanted to take a walk amongst the trees and look for wild berries. Stares and unwelcoming behavior on walks, in playground areas and at the beach were common. What I learned from them was how to ignore that behavior, move with intention and know I had the right to be in these places. They believed that things would get better and I know their disappointment would be deep if they knew that racial discrimination in our public spaces still exists today.

I think it’s time to write a new chapter in the Black history book called “The Great Outdoors.” Let’s continue our work to make this part of the story a positive one full of healing and powerful new connections…a powerful narrative about how we were able to reclaim our relationships with nature and feel safe, supported and welcome in the outdoors.

Mar 22, 2019

By David Gordon and Chris Allan

As the world gathered in Paris in December 2015 to negotiate a new climate agreement, 600,000 people in 175 countries marched in support of the process. Yet the French government itself used emergency powers, put in place to fight terrorism, to put two dozen environmental leaders under house arrest for the duration of the negotiations.

In India, since 2015 the government has stripped the right to receive funds from abroad from some 20,000 NGOs. Civil society organizations that suggest alternatives to environmentally damaging megaprojects like agribusiness plantations, dams, and mines have been particularly targeted.

In February 2018, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and a leading advocate for Indigenous rights to lands and territories, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, was surprised to find that she had been named by the Government of the Philippines as a member of a terrorist organization. “When we stand our ground and refuse to leave our ancestral homes, we often face criminalization,” she said.

In the U.S., Native American leaders led highly publicized protests to protect the lands and waters of the Standing Rock Sioux from pipeline construction. Now, proposed bills in at least eight states aim to limit environmental protests against “critical infrastructure” such as oil and gas pipelines.

Brazil is the most dangerous country in the world to assert your land rights – in 2017 alone, 57 people were killed doing just that, more than one a week. And President Bolsonaro now promises to “supervise, coordinate, monitor and accompany” NGOs in the country and to “put a final stop to all forms of activism in Brazil.” Upon taking office, he immediately weakened protections for biodiverse Amazon forests, transferring power to demarcate Indigenous lands to the Ministry of Agriculture, which is known for defending agribusiness interests.

And in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a highly biodiverse and resource-rich country, even pro-environment public servants are targeted for their work. Twelve park rangers were killed in 2017 for battling militias who profit from wildlife poaching and illegal mining; more than 160 rangers have been killed in the last 15 years.

Isolated incidents? Hardly. The ability of citizens to organize themselves and redress grievances is under attack in 111 countries around the world. For environmental and conservation funders, these restrictions limit the ability to achieve key program outcomes, whether in wildlife protection, forest conservation, or climate change. These issues are summarized in our recent briefing document, Closing Civil Society Space: What Environmental Funders Need to Know.

What’s behind these increasing restrictions on environmental protection? 

As environmental groups gain influence and public support, creating larger impact, they must also reckon with a new reality of restrictions on their work that are rapidly increasing in scope and scale. Key drivers we see in countries across the world include the abuse of land and resource rights, unrestricted corporate power, and poor government oversight. Nationalist and populist governments pushing negative narratives about the value of citizen action are on the rise, maligning the motives and funding of citizen groups, and calling them anti-development, anti-patriotic, foreign agents, criminals, and even terrorists for their efforts to protect the environment. Threats to civil space increase where there is widespread racism and inequality, since it is difficult for marginalized groups to defend their rights. Finally, a lack of solidarity among environmental organizations and funders can fracture the movement: when some organizations are victimized while others remain silent, the ability to push back on restrictions is weakened. Lack of collaboration between the environmental movement and other movements on human rights and Indigenous Peoples undermines the ability of civil society to defend against these growing restrictions. 

What are funders doing about it? 

The funders we interviewed for our research are adjusting their grantmaking procedures to help grantees weather the storm, connecting with other funders and other movements, improving digital security, and supporting women leaders who are subject to gender specific threats when they take environmental action. Increasingly, environmental funders are supporting legal strategies to defend the rule of law and work to improve corporate and bank behavior. Recognizing that environmentalists will continue to defend their lands and territories despite the challenges they face, funders are discussing risk with their grantees to make sure that communities are supported in ways that are most relevant and secure for them. Some funders are committed to maintaining support in countries with high risk to civil society, becoming linchpins for both civil society and for other funders.

Funders are protecting environmentalists when they come under threat, especially through pooled funds like the Environmental Defenders Collaborative. They are also learning the need to engage and intervene at the earliest stages of restrictions on civil society, when conservation advocates are faced with public stigmatization and bureaucratic hurdles, rather than waiting until they are jailed or murdered. Many funders are exploring these issues together through the Environmental Funders Working Group at the Funders’ Initiative for Civil Society.

Results of these efforts inspire hope. In Canada, environmental groups successfully fought back against smears by government ministers, who vilified environmental groups and U.S. funders. In Kenya and Kyrgyzstan, broad civil society coalitions defeated legislation that would have restricted access of NGOs to international funding.

Nothing can bring back the hundreds of environmental defenders around the world who have been killed in recent years, or mitigate the lasting impact their loss has had on their families, communities, fragile ecosystems, species, and climate change – a loss that we are only starting to comprehend. But as environmental funders, we can come together with other funders, governments, and NGOs to address the root causes and manifestations to help citizens in their efforts to protect our shared planet. 

For more information email, or visit and

Jan 18, 2019

by Jonathan Leaning, Grassroots International.

In the beautiful, verdant jungle of the Brazilian Amazon—the very lungs of the planet—a small handful of Indigenous Munduruku communities have lived in connection with their ecosystem for more than a thousand years. When news emerged about plans to construct a massive dam right on their lands, the core of the Munduruku’s age-old existence was shaken to the core. The proposed dam would level and flood huge swathes of land, destroy the integrity of one of the most important rivers in the Amazon (the Tapajos River), and threaten their culture in the process.

The dam developers anticipated little resistance from the Munduruku communities: they were isolated, barely a few thousand in number, and far from the centers of power and decision. The remote land seemed ripe for the taking, and when omitting the ecological and cultural damage from the equation, the profit would be enormous.

It didn’t quite turn out the way the financial backers had hoped. The communities got wind of the plan and began to organize. They linked up with a national Movement of People Affected by Dams (Movimento dos Atingidos por Barragens - MAB) which brings communities together to resist dams and fight for energy sovereignty. MAB provides access to information, data, training and spaces to develop collective strategy. The Munduruku began to form alliances with supportive national and international human rights, environmental, Indigenous rights and other networks.

After more than three decades of struggle, that small group of Munduruku communities achieved the unthinkable. Their years of coordinated direct action, education, alliance-building, international advocacy, and legal tactics finally paid off. It all culminated with the announcement in August, 2016 by the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) that they were cancelling the licensing of the São Luiz hydroelectric dam, citing an Environmental Impact Study. On the same day, Funai, Brazil’s National Indian Foundation, finalized demarcation of their lands bringing them one step closer to having constitutionally protected territory.

It was a victory of tremendous importance. Throughout the world, large dams have forced 40-80 million people off their lands over the past six decades.

According to the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), dams are the largest single human-made source of methane, responsible for approximately 23% of all anthropogenic methane emissions. Worth noting, methane traps more heat than carbon dioxide and, therefore, is a more potent greenhouse gas producer. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that methane has a warming impact 72 times higher than carbon dioxide if measured over 20 years.

Rather than offering a “solution” to climate change, big hydro-electric dams are false solutions that endanger the planet with the methane emitted and threaten to destroy local ecosystems and cultures, like the Munduruku. The world's large dams emit 104 million metric tons of methane annually from reservoir surfaces, turbines, spillways and rivers downstream. Dam methane emissions are responsible for at least 4% of the total warming impact of human activities. 

“It you want to take care of the forest you need to invest in us – Indigenous Peoples – because no one takes better care of the forest than we do,” says Antonio Dace Munduruku, a spokesperson for the Munduruku people.

That is one of the reasons much of the battle for the preservation of our environment, our planet, and climate is being fought successfully at the grassroots level, particularly among Indigenous and traditional peoples with deep roots to their lands and territories. This is why the CLIMA Fund is focusing on building support and funding for climate justice movements and groups.

A collaboration of four complementary funders (Global Greengrants Fund, Grassroots International, Thousand Currents, and Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Rights), the CLIMA Fund recognizes that the frontline communities most affected by climate change and environmental threats are best equipped to advance climate solutions and combat the impact of climate disruption. Reaching over 100 countries, the CLIMA Fund aims to raise and re-grant $10 million to Indigenous, women, and youth-led grassroots climate movement-building over the next four years.

Though the struggle against climate-warming megaprojects are difficult to win, the Munduruku success is not unique. Around the world, Indigenous Peoples and climate-impacted communities are advancing climate solutions that address the root causes of climate disruption, and are successfully challenging destructive projects.

Worth noting, the Munduruku and their territory face new threats from the recently inaugurated Bolsonaro administration that wants to abolish the environmental ministry and [further] open the Amazon to logging and mining. Indigenous Peoples, comprising less than 5 percent of the earth’s population protect 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity. That means supporting Indigenous Peoples and the management of their territories must be a central strategy to challenge climate change.

In Latin America, a network of anti-dam movements in 13 countries (the Movimiento de Afectados por Represasa - a Latin American Movement of People Affected by Dams) is gaining strength, sharing learnings, successes and campaigns strategy across the continent. This year, they will be expanding their network to include movements from other continents, making it much harder for dam-building corporations to hoodwink isolated communities for the sake of quick, big profits at the expense of the environment.

Often resistance to megaprojects like dams comes at great cost. For example, in 2016, Berta Cáceres was murdered for opposing the Agua Zarca dam in Honduras. Throughout the world, environmental justice leaders face violence, threats and assassination as they stand up to protect ecosystems and Mother Earth. The Indigenous organization Berta founded – COPINH (the Civic Council of Popular Indigenous Organizations of Honduras) – continues to carry on the work of resisting dams, advancing the territory rights of Indigenous Peoples, and defending Mother Earth.
When climate action is grounded in the experience and leadership of frontline impacted communities and connected by movements that have a clear analysis of the root causes of climate disruption, the results are powerful.

Throughout the globe, communities are weaving extraordinary solutions and connections, and building webs of resistance. Often they are accomplishing this on beat-up computers and cell phones, unpaid staff, sporadic electric power and barebones resources. One can’t help but wonder: what greater things could they accomplish if they weren’t mobilizing under the stranglehold of a shoestring budget?

Jun 6, 2018

Transformative large-scale change when it is deeply rooted.

By Rajasvini Bhansali, Executive Director, Thousand Currents

I took my first toxic tour of South Durban, South Africa in 2012. Hosted by the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA), an organization led by Goldman Prize winner Desmond D’Sa, the purpose of the tour was to learn from community members how they were holding the most egregious corporate polluters accountable in their neighborhoods, in South Africa, and beyond.

The South Durban Community Environmental Alliance fights the root causes of climate change and uplifts worker rights in South Africa. Photo Credit: The Guardian

I sat in a room with a dear grandmother who had learned the bucket method to test and monitor air quality. She was part of the “bucket brigade,” SDCEA’s signature low-tech, high impact way for community members to collect air samples for identifying pollutants.

For her, having grandchildren drop out of school due to asthma was no longer acceptable. She knew that black and brown children who did not complete school would soon join a permanent underclass of oppressed service sector workers. So, for her own grandchildren and for the dream of liberation of all people, she took it upon herself to show up at every chemical leak or flare. She would be there to do the research and to educate, inform, and organize more people.

As a student of movement building, that day I learned about the power of responsiveness.

When your community is struggling every single day to breathe, your organization does not have the luxury to plan a meeting two months down the road. 

You begin from where you are. You make information available and accessible so that every grandmother can imbibe it with ease and use it to transform herself into a changemaker.

SDCEA has also helped me see that you do not let the size of your budget determine the magnitude of your impact. With complete commitment, D’Sa and colleagues on the toxic tour talked about how together we would stop port expansion in South Durban. Together we would get our message to the South African government and their international financiers. We would name and shame all those who are implicated in displacing thousands of our people in this neo-apartheid time.

A few years later, I got to watch as they did in fact, stop the Durban port expansion dead in its tracks. SDCEA and local communities managed to deploy a strategic mix of advocacy and organizing to ensure that there was a groundswell of resistance combined with de-legitimization of the expansion project.

If SDCEA, with its grassroots base and small budget (proportionate to big philanthropy), can do all this to achieve climate justice, then why not us? Thousand Currents has the privilege to be based in the San Francisco Bay Area. We have over 30 years of experience working within global development and international philanthropy. Within our community are leaders, advocates, and changemakers in every sector. We move millions each year to grassroots organizing. We have the capacity to move millions more. And we are not alone.

Other public foundations like Global Greengrants, Grassroots International, Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights have also been funding and fighting for decades. Inspired by the work of partners like SDCEA in our portfolios, Thousand Currents joined forces with these three funders following the 2014 Peoples Climate March to collaborate and take strategic action.

Climate justice is the moral imperative of our times, so together we refused to continue an age-old competition for a very thin slice of philanthropic resources carved out of the world’s wealth. Instead, we came together to boldly imagine a future where we could be as responsive, community aligned, feisty, and prepared as SDCEA and our grassroots partners around the world. We imagined a future where we took our role and responsibility as funders so seriously that faced our fears and dared to imagine a well-resourced and connected global climate justice movement.

In fact, we put our organizational egos – what were petty differences and worries – aside to build that future together. Our resulting collaboration, the Grassroots Climate Solutions Fund, provides a continuity of multifaceted support – from emergency grants to multi-decade commitments – directly to grassroots organizations and social movements made up of those most impacted by climate change: Indigenous Peoples, small-scale farmers, Afro-descendent communities, women, and youth across the Global South. The Grassroots Climate Solutions Fund aims to raise and re-grant a minimum of $10 million over the next five years to support organizations and communities tackling climate change. We unleash solutions that blend traditional knowledge with advocacy, movement and alliance building, storytelling, and inclusion in all levels of decision-making.

For me and for the other funders, this fund is not built on merely an idealistic, aspirational perspective, but on conviction grounded in many decades of walking alongside “bucket brigade grandmothers” and supporting many more of the fiercest community-led actions in the world.

I believe we are going to witness a complete and total decimation of the fossil fuel industry in our lifetimes. 

I know that the efforts of community organizers, policy advocates, environmental litigators, and progressive alliances, coalitions, and networks fighting for our future will win.

This is why we choose to spend our time and our organizations’ attention on preparing, resourcing, and elevating what grassroots leaders tell us is possible; that is breathable air, drinkable water, edible food, and the fundamental human right to dignity, health, and a livable planet for us all.

When grandmothers become community scientists, when neighborhoods unite across race and class differences, when grassroots groups create movement infrastructure, and when funders collaborate with each other and with movements in solidarity, we – all of us – make climate justice possible.  

Apr 23, 2018

Ashley N. Bell is a doctoral student at Tulane University, and was a 2017 Environmental Fellow placed at the New England Grassroots Environment Fund

Prior to becoming a 2017 Environmental Fellow, the concept of “environmental philanthropy” was foreign to me. In fact, my first thoughts upon receiving an email from a friend regarding this opportunity was “Environmental philanthropy? What is that?” I would like to believe that I am an academic. When there are topics that are of interest to me, I research, question, and attempt to attain as much information as possible. Naturally, my first step upon receiving the email was to google the term expecting the search to return a dedicated Wikipedia page that would provide me with a simple, concise definition. Instead, the search returned several different pages that had some variation of the words “grants” or “giving” in the title. Based on this information it was logical to conclude that “environmental philanthropy” was essentially giving funds to environmental causes. Assuming this to be all there was to it, I did not understand how this could be a career. However, the focus of the fellowship, “diversifying the environmental field, in order to create a more equitable and inclusive environmental workforce” intrigued me. The environmental field (academia, advocacy, political, etc.) has traditionally been a white space, which is at odds with reality, because poor black and brown people are disproportionately more likely to be the victims of environmental degradation and experience adverse health outcomes as a result.

As fellows, we were placed with non-governmental organizations, nonprofits, policy institutes, and foundations throughout the country. In my case I was placed with the New England Grassroots Environment Fund in New Hampshire. I did not have many expectations going into the fellowship, but I wanted to absorb and learn all that was possible. I will admit, I had some reservations, the main one being, “How am I, an African American student, supposed to explain to professionals, that diversity in this field (a field that I just became aware of) was important?” I was pleasantly surprised when I met the staff and realized that I did not need to be the diversity advocate. After one conversation, it was apparent, that while working there, my role would not be to convince them that the voices of the marginalized are important. It wasn’t my role, because it was not needed. As a whole, the New England Grassroots Environment Fund “got it.”

For my summer project, I worked specifically on environmental justice and equity issues and how they were or were not incorporated into projects that addressed land and water issues throughout the New England area. While conducting this research, I got a first-hand view of how void the field is of people of color. When confronted with this information, many organizations provided some variation of the response “They (people of color) aren’t going into these types of fields.” This standard response acknowledges that the field is void of people of color, and inadvertently absolves those in the field of the responsibility to actively recruit and engage diverse voices. Consequently, many of these organizations were not specifically considering environmental justice or equity when addressing land and water issues.

One space this summer where I was able to see the connections between equity, justice, and environment was at the Environmental Grantmakers Association Fall Retreat. This was my first retreat and I did not know what to expect, except, that outside of the fellows within my group, there would not be many people of color. There were approximately 500 attendees, with less than 100 of those being people of color. This is a relatively small percentage, however, the issues that disproportionately affect black and brown people, were on full display. Virtually every speaker addressed issues through the lens of environmental justice and equity, social issues, or racism. Many speakers expounded on how important it is to have diverse voices not only at the table but given equal weight as well. All of the speakers spoke with conviction and passion. They were not reserved in their delivery or rhetoric even though they were presenting to a room full of grantmakers, many of whom they more than likely have requested funds from. I greatly appreciated this because it showed to this small segment of the field, that black and brown voices are important, they are needed, and most important, they/we are here.

Prior to this fellowship, I knew I wanted to work on environmental justice and equity issues. I knew that I wanted to work with traditionally under-represented communities. Coming from the world of academia, I assumed that the way to do this was through academia and research. I, indeed believe there is a place for this, but participating in the fellowship showed me that while it is vital to get resources to the community, it is essential that the environmental field reflects the community that it serves. That is what I hope to bring to the field of environmental philanthropy. I hope that when the community sees me, it sees themselves. I hope that those currently in the field, recognize the importance of diverse voices and actively work to engage these voices and make these spaces welcoming. The excuse that “they are not pursuing these types of careers” is no longer valid. We Are Here!

Ashley Bell is a PhD Student at Tulane University where she is pursuing a degree in Global Environmental Health Sciences. She hopes to focus on action at the community level to address environmental justice issues. She received both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Animal Science and Agricultural Sciences from Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University. The original life plan was to be a veterinarian, however after completing a study abroad program in South Africa, she realized that her degrees could be better used in service of improving public health via environmental health. It was at this time she discovered the concept of One Health and it really resonated with her because of the interdependency of animal, human and environmental health that it champions. Her passion within environmental health is environmental justice. The merging of social and environmental issues is right up her alley because she wholeheartedly believes that quality of health should not be geographically or status dependent. In her spare time, she likes to listen to music (Justin Timberlake), read a book (that’s not school related), play with Mylo (her mini dachshund), or get outside and “live in nature”. 

Apr 6, 2018

By Chris Kieran, Program Associate, William Penn Foundation

This was originally published on the William Penn Foundation blog, as a part of the "Penn-ing Progress" series where staff shares information, stories and perspectives to illustrate the Foundation's commitment – and that of many others – to enhancing the quality and vitality of life in the Philadelphia region.

More than 14,000 farms make up over 20 percent of the land in the Delaware River basin. Since what we do on the land impacts the health of our rivers and streams, agriculture presents a huge opportunity to conserve clean water in the region. Water running off farm fields can contain bacteria, pesticides, fertilizers, and sediment that pollute streams, posing public health risks, killing aquatic life, and increasing drinking water treatment costs. Conservation practices on farms can prevent much of this pollution, but they cost money. A new partnership between the Rodale Institute and Stroud Water Research Center is focusing on a suite of farming practices that are good for clean water and also good for business.

Stroud Preserve, in Chester County, PA, is the site of new cutting-edge research to reduce pollution caused by agriculture runoff and improve the health of our waterways. The site is owned and managed by Natural Lands. Photo by Nicholas Rohr.

In the book Nature’s Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature, The Nature Conservancy CEO Mark Tercek and Jonathan Adams wrote about the value of nature through the lens of business and investing: “Concepts such as maximize returns, invest in your assets, manage your risks, diversify, and promote innovation are the common parlance of business and banking. These are rarely applied to nature, but they should be.” In fact, these concepts are also the common parlance of regenerative organic farming, in which production systems are designed to regenerate natural resources like soil and water, rather than depleting or degrading them.

Farms are interesting places to think about applying business principles to conservation because, more than many other businesses, their work is so closely tied to the land. The soil is where water is infiltrated, nutrients are retained, and carbon is stored. It is also a crucial business asset for a farm. Healthy soils increase returns, manage risks, benefit from diversification, and improve resiliency. Promoting innovation in soil health can improve farm profits as well as environmental benefits.

Organic farming in particular presents a compelling case study of how market forces hold potential to drive environmental benefit. Farmers use practices that benefit the environment because their customers want it and pay for it. With year after year of double-digit growth, organic is now the fastest-growing sector of the food market, achieving over $43 billion in U.S. retail sales in 2015. Much of that food is produced in Pennsylvania, which ranked 2nd in the nation for organic sales in 2016. Depending on tillage and other practices, organic farms in theory have healthier soils that retain more nutrients and infiltrate more water, reducing polluted agricultural runoff. It’s the story of a growing industry that leverages environmental benefit as a product feature and monetizes it.

"Organic farming in particular presents a compelling case study of how market forces hold potential to drive environmental benefit [...] It’s the story of a growing industry that leverages environmental benefit as a product feature and monetizes it."

The William Penn Foundation’s Watershed Protection Program seeks to maximize the benefits of conservation for clean water, and conservation on farms is a major element of the work we fund to improve our streams. The Foundation recently approved a grant of nearly $6 million to support a long-term research collaboration between the Rodale Institute and Stroud Water Research Center, two world-class research organizations located right here in the Delaware River watershed. These two partners are each leading experts in their own right. Rodale’s 38-year Farming Systems Trial is the longest-running side-by-side comparison of organic vs. conventional farming in North America. Stroud, a National Science Foundation-designated site for Long-Term Research in Environmental Biology, is renowned for its seminal research on the importance of forested stream buffers in mitigating agricultural runoff. Combining their expertise, this new partnership will elevate a research focus on the relationships between soil health, stream health, and business health, illuminating new ways to scale up conservation.

We recently sat down with Jeff Moyer, Executive Director of the Rodale Institute, and Bern Sweeney, Distinguished Research Scientist at the Stroud Water Research Center, to learn about their work.

As leading experts in different facets of the agriculture industry, through this grant Stroud and Rodale will work together to advance our understanding of the relationships between soil health and stream health. How do you view the state of the science currently and how will your research advance it?

Jeff: We can never have too much scientific data and back end support for the many decisions farmers and consumers must make on a daily basis. From long-term systems trials at Rodale Institute and other locations across the country we already have interesting results on how changing farming practices can make dynamic changes to the soil, and that those changes can impact interactions with water. Now we want to expand our work to definitively address the important impacts farm practices will have on the water resources we all need and enjoy. By expanding from detailed plot research to field scale trials at Natural Lands’ Stroud Preserve, we will be able to identify specific practices and define the extent of the impact soil changes will have on surface and ground water.

Bern: From the water side of this project, there are few published quantitative data regarding how some agricultural practices impact water quality. These impacts could include the ability of soil to infiltrate and retain rain water for crop usage, or the effect of certain farming practices on the quality of water flowing from the crop field as surface runoff or as subsurface flow toward underground aquifers. Our project will fill this void by measuring the quantity and quality of water inputs and outputs associated with four agricultural methods. The methods will span from conventional tillage farming with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to no-till regenerative organic. We will also evaluate farm productivity and financial balance sheets. The project will provide farmers with hard facts (both environmental and financial) upon which they can base their present and future choices of preferred farming practice. We propose that those facts will show that farming practices that increase soil health conserve both water (quantity and quality) and farm productivity and thus lead to more sustainable and more profitable farms.

Beyond the nationally significant research you plan to undertake, a major component of this project is about educating consumers, farmers, and farm service providers on what you know already and what you learn from the new research. Why is that work so important and how do you plan to go about it?

Jeff: Research without outreach cannot have the necessary impact we want and desire. In order to make lasting changes within the extended farm community, we need sound scientific data coupled with a dynamic education, training, and outreach program. Like any business, farmers need customers. We will have an outward facing communications effort that targets the general public to inspire them to support changes in farm practices by changing their food purchasing decisions. We will also have a farmer-facing communications component that targets regional farmers and growers, giving them the information and tools they need to move from the current farming practices to those that are more water friendly.

Bern: Everyone knows that farmers who grow food for which there is no market go extinct. If we want to help farmers move along the gradient from conventional to organic farming, then we need to grow the market for more nutritious, healthy, and environmentally friendly food. This does not necessarily require additional data. It does require packaging those data in very different ways. For example, cover cropping can reduce the need for synthetic pesticides. These data incentivize farmers to undertake the practice because it reduces costs and increases profits. The same data can incentivize consumers because the food is more pure and nutritious and has potentially less side effects regarding consumer health. Credible scientific information can and should provide the basis for messaging to both the producers and the consumers, and the communication needs to be direct.

What kinds of barriers, financial and otherwise, do you witness preventing more farmers from using practices that benefit our water?

Jeff: This is a serious question that could take hundreds of pages of text to address. We have in place a complex set of systems geared toward supporting a “status quo” production system within our farm community. These systems include government policy, banking and insurance industries, social norms, peer pressure and others. This project is envisioned as one step in expanding our work to address the many facets of barrier reduction. Rodale Institute has already taken steps to organize organic farmers on a national stage to impact policy decisions through the creation of the Organic Farmers Association. We expect to use information generated through the work of this project to address financial barriers to transitioning from conventional production strategies to organic and water friendly practices.

Bern: Farmers, like most individuals, often don’t like change. Conventional farming is straightforward and simple. It is almost like following a recipe in a cook book. Things get more complex as one moves along the gradient from conventional to regenerative organic. The degree of strategic planning increases along this gradient. This can be confusing and frustrating for some and exciting and invigorating for others. This is one barrier. Another is that plows and disks will become obsolete and new, specialized, and expensive equipment will be needed for the transition to non-conventional farming practices (e.g., inter-planters for planting cover crops among cash crops, roller crimpers for avoiding pesticide burn down). Financing and incentives will be needed to overcome this added expense.

What most excites you about this new partnership?

Jeff: Like all industries, agriculture is dynamic and subject to change as the future unfolds. There hasn’t been a time in recent history where this change is being driven by consumer demand and a real change in farm management as our aging farmer population hands over the management decisions to a younger generation. This new generation of management has different expectations and outcomes in mind, and will be responding to shifts in consumer purchasing decisions. To remain viable, change will be inevitable. What excites all the individuals involved in this project is the possibility to be a catalyst for real change. Change that improves our soil health, changes that improve the quality of our water resources, and changes that can impact our own personal health.

Bern: The project connects food and water in a way that is novel. I’m excited about the increasing recognition that conservation of land and water are not independent, mutually exclusive disciplines. And the opportunity to demonstrate that farming can be a solution rather than a cause of the current water crisis at a local, national, and global scale. 

Feb 28, 2018

By Eddie Torres, President and CEO, Grantmakers in the Arts

This was originally published on the Grantmakers in the Arts blog, as a part of an onging series of posts from Eddie Torres.

Grantmakers in the Arts has just returned from the Affinity Equity Summit and the Solidarity Defense & Action Funder Briefing, a two-day summit in mid-February, in Oakland, California in which over 20 philanthropy-serving affinity organizations and their members came together across issues and disciplines to build a collaborative path forward for the philanthropic community with equity as our shared guiding value.

GIA was a Summit co-sponsor and was invited to speak to our work in support of racial equity as a core mission and primary focus. Nadia Elokdah, Deputy Director and Director of Programs and Roberto Bedoya, board member and Cultural Affairs Manager for the City of Oakland, joined me in representing GIA.

Through our time at the Summit, we made the case that any philanthropic investment in social change should also include investment in arts and culture. This engagement with our peers is a natural extension of GIA’s Thought Leader Forums, which explore member supported case studies of the overlap between art and other content areas such as health, the environment, or emergency readiness. We approached the Affinity Equity Summit in a similar manner, aiming to inspire other parts of the philanthropic community to invest in arts and culture as part of their social change strategies.

We explained that GIA values equity as an investment in peoples, communities, and their cultural forms. With this position established, we discussed that the three often conflated strategies – diversity, equity, and inclusion – are in fact three separate strategies with three different points of intervention and three different outcomes. By increasing alignment of values across discipline and sector, equity, particularly racial equity, can be advanced across many facets concurrently. Therefore, investments in communities and peoples must include investments in their cultural forms and their ability to express themselves creatively. This is central to taking an asset-based approach to communities and their residents. Otherwise, we are treating people as nothing more than a collection of problems to be solved.

Throughout the Summit’s plenary and breakout sessions, we found that many different fields recognized the value of the arts. The strategy of investing in communities resonated with conference participants who similarly value asset-based investments in communities as a strategy toward environmental justice, civic engagement, and LGBTQI rights, among other focus areas.

A particular point that resonated for all of us was targeted support for rural regions. So often, we classify rural cultural forms as “folk” as though they are less important than forms within the Western European cannon. This classification as “folk” – and other like terms – too often serves as a means to diminish whole groups of people, just as we find with exclusionary terminology that refers to ALAANA communities’ forms and organizations as “culturally-specific.”

When we fail to affirm the best of any group of people, we risk losing them – losing their perspectives, losing their insights and solutions, and too often losing them to ideologues. Across all our disparate disciplines, we recognized that losing the perspectives of peoples by failing to value them on their own terms was a loss too great to accept. We agreed that arts philanthropy plays a central role in affirming and supporting the creativity and cultural forms of different people and their communities.

We found that many of our peers in philanthropy want to include art in their strategies. But they often don’t know how to work with artists and arts organizations or at what point to involve them. As part of our mission to advance racial equity through collective actions, GIA will continue to work across disciplines to show the value that the arts play in all social change efforts. We will continue to share case studies and facilitate dialogue across disciplines, sectors, and fields. And we commit to continued advocacy for the inclusion of arts and culture in the toolkit of supports utilized by the entire philanthropic community.

I am grateful that this effort was so well received by our followers on social media. GIA live-tweeted the summit and received some of our highest levels of participation, delighted with the appetite for collective action toward equity and justice among our network.

We consider it a privilege to serve as a valued colleague to our peers in the philanthropy community and, in such a role, take seriously our mission to establish the arts as an essential component of positive social change.

Affinity groups involved in co-sponsoring this effort to-date are:

  • Biodiversity Funders Group
  • Blue Sky Funders Forum
  • CHANGE Philanthropy
  • Confluence Philanthropy
  • EDGE Funders Alliance
  • Environmental Grantmakers Association
  • Funders' Committee for Civic Participation
  • Funders Concerned About AIDS
  • Funders for LGBTQ Issues
  • Funders for Reproductive Equity
  • Funders' Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities
  • Funders Together to End Homelessness
  • Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees
  • Grantmakers in Arts
  • Health and Environmental Funders Network
  • Hispanics in Philanthropy
  • Justice Funders: Powering Philanthropic Transformation
  • Human Rights Funders Network
  • Media Impact Funders
  • National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy
  • Neighborhood Funders Group
  • Northern California Grantmakers
  • Peace and Security Funders Group
  • Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement
  • Smart Growth California
  • United Philanthropy Forum