Dec 1, 2016

Elena Huisman is a student at the University of Michigan, and was a EFP Fellow this Summer with the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF)

Identity. It’s personal, yet others use it to judge, create perceptions, and solidify stereotypes. I’ve struggled with my identity since leaving my hometown to attend college. 

I am a Texas-born Mexican-American, Texican, if you will (although Urban Dictionary defines Texican as a person living in Texas during the time of the Texas Republic). The more time I’ve spend outside of Texas, away from my roots, my family, and the language I grew up around, the less I identify as a Chicana, Latina, or Hispanic. Growing up in a rural town outside of Austin, Texas I was one of the few students who was of Hispanic origin, and my mother was one of the only people in our town who was bilingual. It was easy to identify as Latina. Everyone knew my mom made the best rice, beans, and homemade tortillas this side of the Rio Grande, and I even spent summers in Mexico with family. There was no fooling anyone—I was a Texican. 

When I left Texas for college I quickly realized people didn’t assume I was Latina, like they had in grade school. Even my name, although difficult to pronounce, didn’t clue people into my heritage. It was then I found myself convincing people of my Mexican heritage. Often times they would attempt to pronounce my name, look up from the paper quizzically, and inquire, “Where is your name from?”, and I would politely respond, “It is of Spanish origin” and wait for shock to set it. I would then go on to explain that I am half Mexican, but favor my father’s genes, he is 3rd generation German-American from Iowa.



Elena’s childhood home in Driftwood, Texas

For every new place I’ve lived, people I’ve met, new jobs I’ve had, I always have to explain my heritage and why I had such an ‘ethnic’ first and middle name, but an Anglo last name. Or why I didn’t look Mexican. 

The more time I spend away from the borderland I call home, the less I identify as Chicana. I do not eat homemade tamales, celebrate Día de los Muertos, and rarely do I speak Spanish. Ever since I can remember I’ve feared losing my Mexican heritage. Whether it was through marrying someone with a different background or not celebrating the traditions I grew up with. 

I recently connected with a woman, at the EGA Retreat, whose son is in a similar boat as me, half Latino half ‘American’. And she put the onus on me to ensure I continue my cultural practices despite living 2,000 miles away from home. The conversations I had with her were so meaningful and eye opening. I can’t make any promises, but I’d like to start reintegrating my Mexican culture back into my life. 

When I first started brainstorming what I’d write for this blog, my first instinct was to turn to academic literature (graduate school’s lasting effects) to see if others have experience similar challenges, and surprisingly there is A LOT out there. I resonated most with Jessica Vasquez’s piece titled, “Blurred Boarders for Some but not ‘Others’: Racialization, ‘Flexible Ethnicity,’ Gender and Third-Generation Mexican American Identity”. Vasquez explores the social and cultural position of third-generation Mexican Americans, much like myself straddling cultures, boarders, and race. The phrase “Flexible ethnicity”, used by Vasquez, illustrates how I’ve, unknowingly, navigated life. “Flexible ethnicity refers to the ability to deftly and effectively navigate different racial terrains and be considered an ‘insider’ in more than one racial or ethnic group” (46). I struggle with when or if I should identify as Hispanic—especially during this years’ election—where racial tensions and hate towards immigrants is ingrained in the political rhetoric. But having that option to not identify as Hispanic is a privilege I don’t take lightly. In staying true to myself and the traditions my parents worked so hard to instill in me, I know now that I cannot shy away from who I am and what I stand for. 

The opportunity to participate in the Environmental Fellows Program alongside an incredibly strong and diverse group of people has been an honor and a huge growing experience for me. In addition to being part of a wonderful cohort of fellows I was also fortunate to have amazing mentors at the National Environmental Education Foundation. Through formal meetings, informal conversations, and daily walks I grew professionally and personally throughout the summer. Meeting other environmentalist from all walks of life and for the first time identify as a Latina Environmentalist has been the highlight of my fellowship.

Aug 16, 2016

Sarah DeNicola, Membership Program Manager, Confluence Philanthropy. This blog first appeared on Confluence Philanthropy's website
“We forget that the water cycle and the life cycle are one.” - Jacques Cousteau.
Whether our world is prepared or not – climate change has come to remind us. Drought or flooding, rising sea levels or crumbling infrastructure, shifting migration patterns and socio-political unrest, the impacts of climate change are plainly visible in our most important natural resource: water. The importance of water management and scarcity will only become clearer as the effects of climate change become increasingly visible and disruptive in our everyday lives. Businesses have already been forced to respond, as witnessed by the massive protests against Nestlé’s water bottling plants, and the complete departure of Intel’s semiconductor fabrication plants from California. With the state’s agricultural sector now using over 80% of California’s water, its clear that our strategies for managing these limited water resources must adapt – and quickly.
If there’s a sliver lining, it’s that persistent drought conditions across the Western United States have drawn new attention to how we manage and allocate our water resources. That more than 1 million Californians lack reliable access to clean and safe drinking water is unacceptable, and has been a longstanding reality for many communities. While drought conditions may be the new normal, these social injustices are not – along with the ineffective policies, overuse and misallocation of natural resources, and inefficient infrastructure that compound the impacts of a changing climate.
Confluence Philanthropy partnered with the Environmental Grantmakers Association, the Consultative Group on Biological Diversity, and The Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities to organize the first-ever Western Water Briefing: Strategies for Resilience on August 2-3, 2016 at the San Diego Foundation. Considering these momentous water challenges, the Briefing explored how philanthropic and impact investment capital could play a role in shaping our water future.
This 1.5-day event engaged over 50 funder, advisor, government, and nonprofit participants to discuss how all stakeholders can take effective action to address water issues in the region.

  • "It was both invigorating and informative to have so many investors, investment advisors, and water experts together in one room. While this is still an emerging investment market, the growth trajectory is encouraging." – Margaret Bowman, Consultant, Walton Family Foundation
  • “The CGBD was very glad to be part of this important briefing. The urgency of the subject cannot be overstated.” – Lynn Lohr, Executive Director, CGBD
  • “The Western Water Briefing was a valuable and unique blending of wide range of philanthropic and impact investing perspectives. Information and interests ranged from effective markets and environmental justice concerns to leveraging private sector investment.” - Lester Snow, Executive Director, The Water Foundation

Over the course of the conference, speakers and attendees addressed a variety of perspectives for how strategic investment can play a role in water resilience. Participants examined historical trends in foundation grantmaking for water-related issues, as well as innovative practices and new technologies to manage resources efficiently. Public servants shared their experience and visions for updating their cities’ infrastructure to improve water supply for everyone, while regionally-based foundations offered stories of their localized efforts to combat scarcity in particularly vulnerable communities. At the same time, investment advisors considered ways to impact water sustainability through environmentally responsible investment. With such a variety of expertise present together, participants found points of connection across the public, private, and philanthropic sectors. And those connections – new, old, or rediscovered – presented opportunities for the kind of strategic collaboration that we need to mitigate and adapt to environmental changes.
“There’s been real momentum around the intersection of water scarcity and impact investing in the funder community, so it was great to get grantmakers that are already engaged on one or both issues in the same room and see them come away with actionable next steps, and to take part in a growing conversation we can build upon in the coming months.” – Adam Harms, Environmental Grantmakers Association
Confluence members will continue discussions about how to address water scarcity through impact investment via an upcoming fall webinar and the publication of a report summarizing the outcomes from the Briefing. Please contact Sarah DeNicola, Membership Program Manager, for more information:

Jun 30, 2016

Annie Taylor, Program Coordinator, EGA

Last week, President Obama signed a bill updating the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), a forty-year-old law originally intended to regulate the introduction of new chemicals that posed a threat to public health and the environment. At the passage of TSCA, over 62,000 chemicals already existed on the market, making many of them exempt from toxicity testing. Fundamentally, these recent reforms now ensure that all chemicals – both those currently manufactured or used in the U.S. and those being introduced – are safe for people and the environment. In an effort spanning multiple years, Congress drafted and passed The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act (H.R. 2576) on June 7th. 

In bringing chemical regulations into the present, the law now requires the Environmental Protection Agency to evaluate the toxicity of existing chemicals, prioritized by their potential risk. If a substance or chemical is designated as a high priority, the EPA will face a hard deadline by which to complete a risk evaluation, which will now explicitly consider any risks to susceptible or highly-exposed populations. These enforceable deadlines represent a huge improvement on the past system, which was so slow and burdensome that the EPA could not effectively ban asbestos, a carcinogen that kills as many as 10,000 Americans every year. The law also establishes greater transparency of chemical information, both with regards to the public as well as to health and environmental professionals, and provisions funding to the EPA for implementation.

Many foundations and NGOs began advocating for this type of reform over a decade ago. The bill’s passage marks a landmark achievement, and represents the first major update to an environmental statute in 20 years. Now that the bill has been signed into law, the focus will shift to the EPA’s implementation of these new regulations. In a conversation sponsored by the Health and Environmental Funders Network, the Environmental Grantmakers Association, and Rachel's Network, chemical safety advocates and regulatory implementation experts discussed possible opportunities to ensure effective implementation of the reforms, as well as strong protections for the environment and consumers.

These experts emphasized that the speed and efficacy of priority designation and chemical risk evaluation will matter most to public health. Experts also highlighted the EPA’s new ability to require an affirmative finding of safety before a new chemical hits the market, which now guarantees a common-sense protection against untested chemicals. These advocates will help to hold the EPA accountable to future deadlines, and watchdog any possible exploitation of ambiguous language within the law. In particular, chemicals assigned a low-priority designation will not be immediately subject for review – it is still unclear which substances will qualify, and whether or not this result could be problematic for people or the environment.

Moving forward, funders and advocacy groups will play an essential role in fighting the regulatory battles that undoubtedly exist ahead. Ultimately, the Chemical Safety Act brings the U.S. one step closer to reducing chemicals that pose a significant threat to public health and the environment.

For more information, you can read highlights of the Chemical Safety Act’s key provisions or read the President's remarks at the signing.

May 13, 2016

By Mariella Puerto Senior Program Officer, Climate, Barr Foundation. This blog first appeared on the Barr Foundation Website. 
How a small incentive showed it can pay big to invest in renewable energy.
In the summer of 2014, I read that George Washington University, American University, and The George Washington University Hospital were going to buy 52 megawatts of power every year from a North Carolina solar farm. At the time, it was the largest non-utility solar power purchase in the U.S. and the largest solar project east of the Mississippi River. The icing on the cake was that they were getting fixed pricing for solar energy for 20 years at a lower price point than the current market.
In Boston, since we have so many colleges, hospitals, and large institutions—all major energy users—I thought, “Could we do something similar here?” The Boston Green Ribbon Commission (GRC) also considered this question and last year organized an informal network of Boston institutions to talk about how they could do large-scale renewables procurement. There was a lot of interest in joint purchasing to reduce costs and make it easier, but uncertainty about how it might work. To continue the momentum and to inspire action, the GRC issued a prize and Barr partnered with the GRC to fund it.
The $100,000 Renewable Energy Leadership Prize launched last summer. Its goal was to spur local leaders who were contemplating big renewable energy purchases to move ahead with their projects.
On February 25, the GRC announced the winner: PowerOptions, in partnership with Tufts University and Endicott College. The largest energy-buying consortium in Massachusetts, PowerOptions procures electricity and natural gas supply for 500 nonprofit and public members. The nonprofit organization teamed up with two of its members, Tufts University and Endicott College, to purchase up to 12 megawatts of power from a wind project in New England.
Other applications came from Boston University and by A Better City (ABC), a consortium of Boston institutions and civic leaders. All three applicants went through twists and turns to pursue a deal and, as of this writing, their pursuits are still ongoing. Some customers participating in the deals withdrew because developers changed their terms. Some deals fell apart or were delayed as market and policy conditions changed. Most notably, Endicott College is no longer part of the PowerOptions deal because the developer wanted them to purchase a larger amount of power. They were replaced by Partners HealthCare, the parent organization of Massachusetts General Hospital and other major healthcare facilities.
At this point, it appears that the Prize is yielding two sets of results. First, it spurred the three applicants to devote considerable time and effort to solving the puzzle of buying offsite renewable electricity. Our initial hope and hypothesis was that a prize would catalyze action, and that turned out to be right. There was a risk that there would be no takers and we were pleasantly surprised to see such significant interest. The applicants were in different stages of readiness and had different factors motivating their actions. The Prize helped push them to their finish lines by creating deadlines for accomplishing what some had been planning to do for some time. If all three deals go ahead as currently planned, it could result in as much as 63 megawatts of new renewable energy capacity.
The Prize helped push them to their finish lines by creating deadlines for accomplishing what some had been planning to do for some time.
The second result is learning: by the applicants and their developers, consultants, and brokers; by the GRC and their stakeholders; and by the Barr Foundation. To share the lessons learned from the Prize, the GRC recently released a case study, called Solving the Puzzle.
Here are four of the key takeaways:
1. Collaboration takes time, but multiplies returns.
The Prize placed a high premium on collaborative proposals, with the theory that joint procurement would be better. While this created a barrier to wider participation, it also tested the theory that institutions could collaborate to negotiate stronger green power purchases. While results suggest that more time is needed to structure such deals, it also showed that collaboration did in fact create better deals. I hope the participants’ experiences of crafting and negotiating these deals provides them with jumping-off points to continue their efforts and to inspire others.
2. Unexpected terms may make the deal work for you.
All three applicants considered or deployed some complicated features in their deals, including forms of arbitrage for both electricity and renewable energy credits, as well as inter-regional power deals. The complexity was worthwhile because of the significant financial benefits it captured. There were huge price variations between technologies and regions that enabled significant cost savings.
3. Policies can move or delay an energy deal.
State, regional, and federal policies had major implications for the nature of the deals. Strong energy policies drive progress in clean energy, but they are difficult to navigate and can be slowed down by legislative inaction. State solar regulations and federal tax credits were both up in the air at the time of the contest, causing a number of delays and potential dead-ends. The applications, and the response from potential suppliers, were affected by this uncertainty.
4. A commitment to sustainability really matters.
While all applicants were looking for the most cost competitive deals, their degrees of commitment to sustainability and clean energy played decisive roles in motivating their actions. Those with long-term carbon-reduction goals embedded across their organizational decision-making processes looked at their options in a different light than institutions without such goals.
I would strongly encourage other funders to consider launching a similar initiative. The Prize was particularly useful here in Boston, where higher education, healthcare, and private companies have the potential to directly purchase renewable energy. The Prize motivated them to commit to such purchases. I expect many other places are in similar situations.
There is still work to be done to expand interest in renewable energy purchases and to make it easier for institutions to participate. But, the Prize offered a major learning opportunity for the Barr Foundation and for the GRC in what it takes for institutions and companies to engage in renewable energy purchases.

Apr 25, 2016

By Ana Marie Argilagos & Amy Kenyon, Ford Foundation
Habitat III is a major UN conference dealing with urbanization and human settlements that happens only once every 20 years (the last one was in Istanbul in 1996). H3 will happen in Quito, Ecuador this October. It will be UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s last conference before the end of his term and 30,000 people are expected to attend. The New Urban Agenda that will be adopted in Quito is significant because it will function as a global framework to deal with the realities of rapid global urbanization–we would argue one of the defining global megatrends of our time. The conference will be the first major UN conference to take place after the SDGs and COP21 Paris Climate agreement were ratified. It is significant because currently cities are developing in ways that lock in and reinforce inequality and poor environmental outcomes (in the US cities account for 70% of GHGs). The New Urban Agenda presents an opportunity seized (or missed) for the future of our planet.
We want to make sure you have the information you need to participate in the lead up to the conference (and beyond!). Our priorities are to make sure that YOU have input in the drafting process for the zero draft of the New Urban Agenda, which is scheduled to be released on May 6.
How you can get involved:

  • Participate in the monthly civil society working group hosted by the Huairou Commission - you can participate by phone. It serves as a good place to get live updates on the process. To subscribe, email:
  • Sign up for the Habitat III Secretariat newsletter here.
  • You can also join one of the General Assembly of Partners (GAP) constituent groups. The GAP supports stakeholder engagement to the conference via 15 Partner Constituent Groups (PCG) with United Nations' major groups and includes philanthropy. Go here for more information.
  • Apply for the Habitat Village and/or Side Events in Quito – the call is now open! Take a look at the websites linked above if you are interested in submitting an idea. Deadline is 30 May.
  • Open-ended informal consultative meetings are taking place April 25-29 in New York. These meetings are open to all ECOSOC accredited organizations, members of the GAP and Major Groups. These meetings will be webcast live AND there will be an online dialogue so you can participate! You can find the agenda, here, the online dialogue here,and the webcast here.
  • Civil Society Informal Hearings New York, June 6-7: Stakeholders are invited to participate and provide feedback during 2 days of informal hearings. Ford Foundation will host thematic breakfast discussions during that week. Stay tuned to learn about topics to be addressed. These events will be video-conferenced with opportunity for global participation.
  • July 25-27: Attend the Third Habitat III Preparatory Committee Meeting (PrepCom3) Surabaya, Indonesia. Apply for Special Accreditation so that you can attend here. Deadline is May 2nd.

For more information on the background of Habitat III, the New Urban Agenda, and the process, we encourage you to a look at Citiscope’s very extensive coverage of the process.
For the official Habitat III calendar see here.
We know this is A LOT of information to send all at once, but things are starting to happen at a rapid pace as we move closer to the conference, and we wanted to give you the full picture of where we are headed!

Feb 3, 2016

By Amanda Hanley, Co-founder and Director, Hanley Foundation. This article first appeared on the Huffington Post Blog.
I've been impatiently waiting for the world to come together and combat climate change since the '90s. Knowing the Paris talks would be different this time around, I was eager to take part. Then three weeks before our trip, terrorists attacked Paris. Three days beforehand, terrorists attacked San Bernardino (10 miles away from our son). Instead of driving us away, we were compelled to support this imperiled world of ours even more. COP21 turned out to be an unforgettable experience, with a true sense of progress and unity. To top it off, we squeezed in a U2 concert. The most timely, life affirming concert ever to rebound from the recent heartache. To me, it also amplified the summit's underlying purpose, one love for people and the planet. Bringing it home, here's a recap.
My husband George and I were honored to participate as members of the NRDC delegation. Our agenda included an endless array of forums, gatherings and exhibits scattered throughout the city. I was drawn to events that featured people on the frontlines of climate change (by NRDC, UNESCO, Sierra Club and WECAN). Coming from Ecuador to the Philippines and the Arctic to the Congo, a range of indigenous leaders shared stories about their endangered homelands, refusing to be invisible as negotiators determined their fate. Here's just a few:
Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner is from the Marshall Islands, ground zero for climate change. She uses spoken word poetry to put a human face on their struggle. For her, "1.5 To Stay Alive" couldn't ring truer. Watch her 2 Degrees performance, highlighting how this inadequate temeperature goal assures her nation will tragically vanish under rising seas.
Allison Akootchook Warden, an Iñupiaq interdisciplinary artist from Alaska, explained, "The ground is melting beneath us. We must stand up for our children's right to live their ancestral life. I like the cold. But last winter, instead of 40° below, it was 40° above and raining. We have the smarts to figure this out." See her "I Am a Caribou" rap.
Mundiya Kepenga is a traditional Leader from Papua New-Guinea working to preserve his forests. Through a translator he said, "I do not know how to read or write. I'm not a scientist. But I can testify with my eyes and heart. I'm here as a bridge connecting the new world and mine. You need you to understand my side of the bridge. It no longer rains, our source water and native species are disappearing. We are losing the ability to feed ourselves. When all the trees disappear, the brothers of trees will too."
Devastation from climate and the fossil fuel economy is also happening closer to home. Neighborhoods are ravaged by floods, hurricanes and wildfires; farmers suffer from droughts; children living near coal power plants and toxic petcoke clouds are stricken with asthma; drinking water is poisoned from fracking and oil spills... The list goes on.
The human toll is unconscionable. Vulnerable communities least responsible tend to be hit the hardest, and the burdens disproportionately affect women and children. It's estimated 450,000 deaths worldwide are linked to climate change each year, which will escalate over time. Another 4.5 million people die each year from lung disease associated with burning fossil fuels.
Fortunately, an unprecedented climate movement has been building momentum for bold action in Paris. While there, it was energizing to mix and plot next steps with environmental groups and fellow activists I've engaged with along the way including anti-Keystone and Peoples' Climate March demonstrators; Divest-Invest advocates (organizations worth $3.4 TRILLION have pledged); the faith climate justice community (go Pope Francis!); and student sustainability leaders. Alongside NGOs and grassroots, the huge presence of business and subnational governments pledging significant commitments rounded out this powerful coalition.
On December 12, 2015, a beautiful day, 195 countries signed a landmark, legally binding climate accord to limit warming increases below 2°C and aim for 1.5°C. Nations, representing 97% of the world's carbon pollution, submitted commitments to reduce their emissions. The agreement calls for an elevation of these commitments every 5 years, a system to track progress, financing for poor countries to expand clean energy and help making vulnerable regions more resilient. Notwithstanding the miracle of this momentous step, a great deal of work lies ahead to meet these ambitious targets.
Most importantly, the world now recognizes that fossil fuels have become a bad addiction and it's time to embrace the clean energy revolution. We spent the several days at the Energy for Tomorrow conference hearing from top business leaders and investors, policy makers, academics and technologists. They noted, before the narrative of decarbonization was about sacrifice, now it's about a trillion-dollar market opportunity with billions of users, millions of net jobs. As Elon Musk stressed at his Sorbonne talk, slowing down this inevitable transition is "the dumbest experiment in history." The dropping prices of solar and wind energy, LEDs and battery storage, Mission Innovation and the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, shifting Millennial preferences, corporate sustainability practices (linked to stronger financial performance), no sacrifice impact investments - all favor disruption. The Solutions Project lays out how 100% clean energy is possible with today's technology. To drive this transformation, the business crowd (not treehuggers!) called for a carbon neutral tax, ending fossil fuels subsidies, policies to de-risk investments, cross sector collaboration, sustainable agriculture, livable cities, utility iteration, decentralization, clean energy access for 1.6 billion people... Also worth noting, moving beyond fossil fuels will reduce international conflicts and the potential for terrorism.
Despite the commitments and support of corporate giants, states and cities, religious leaders, military leaders, a majority of citizens and NEARLY EVERY NATION ON THE PLANET - Republicans threaten to shred Obama's climate commitments, derail the Clean Power Plan and end the 40-year crude oil export ban. We must hold fossil fuel backed politicians accountable. And ramp up pressure to keep it in the ground.
During the concert, Bono shouted out, "You will not have our hatred. In order to defeat the monster, we choose love over fear," to enormous cheers from the crowd. He said they returned to Paris after the attacks as quickly as possible because their music is all about defiant joy, "They're a death cult, we're a life force." In their first performance since the attack killing 90 people at their Bataclan concert, the Eagles of Death Metal joined U2 on stage and ended the concert aptly singing People Have The Power and I Love You All The Time. They vowed to keep on rocking as "a beacon of compassion, love, progression forward, being part of something greater."
At the heart of the matter, climate activists keep pushing ahead in the name of love and connectedness too. We cannot walk away or sit still, the beat goes on. As the audience sang out in unison...
One love, One blood
One life, you got to do what you should
One life with each other
Sisters, brothers
One life, but we're not the same
We get to carry each other, carry each other
Follow Amanda Hanley on Twitter: 

Jan 28, 2016

By Marcelo Bonta, Momentum Fellow at Philanthropy Northwest. This article first appeared on the the Philanthropy Northwest website.
Pursuit of equity in grantmaking is the reason I joined the Momentum Fellowship. It’s a priority of the fellows, it’s a priority of Philanthropy Northwest and it’s a priority for Meyer Memorial Trust — the Oregon foundation hosting me and two other Momentum Fellows for the next 20 months.
Two experiences have led me here. First, as the only person of color — I am biracial: Filipino and white — at a national conservation organization, I experienced isolation, racism and a homogenous culture that restricted me from reaching my full potential. In the meantime, my multiracial daughters were born, and I wanted them to grow up in a world where they could pursue any career without institutional and systemic barriers. As a result, I started the Center for Diversity & the Environment, where I spent the past decade working with hundreds of leaders and organizations across the U.S. committed to racial and ethnic diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the environmental movement.
(As I continue to use "DEI" terms, let me explain how I define them. When I mention "diversity," I meanall the ways we are different and unique. I define "equity" as the existence of conditions where all people can reach their full potential. I define "inclusion" as being valued, respected and seen, especially across differences like race and ethnicity. This is visible in an organization's culture, behavior and treatment of people.)
After 10 years of deeply meaningful and transformational work in the nonprofit sector, I stepped down as the center's executive director. As I pondered my next career move, what came up for me was a desire to continue to work on DEI in the environmental movement in an influential space that needed help: philanthropy.
Making Strides
Through my work in Oregon, I had heard about Meyer Memorial Trust's revised mission and values "to contribute to a flourishing and equitable Oregon." I was intrigued that the foundation had started its DEI journey by working on equity first, when most organizations begin with diversity. As part of this commitment, Meyer has created an equity statement, equity team equitable policies and mandated equity as a foundation for new programs. Then in 2015, Meyer started an environmental program with an equity focus. Perfect! I wanted to be part of that progress — but I was also apprehensive. In my experience, many organizations say they support equity, but are not taking adequate steps to make an impact. I was afraid Meyer would be satisfied by merely having racially diverse faces around the office, not necessarily actively working on equity issues internally and externally.
My fears were allayed immediately. From day one, I have felt a welcoming, warm, open culture from the board, executives, operations and program staff. For the first four months of my fellowship, Meyer has been a place where I can bring my full self to the work. Other staff value my voice and have already implemented some of my suggestions. For example, our Willamette River Initiative has created a stand-alone DEI goal rather than trying to infuse DEI in its established goals.
While adopting a more equitable and inclusive culture, Meyer has made strides on racial diversity. The last nine hires and the last three appointed board members have been people of color. Four out of seven executive-level staff are people of color. Overall, Meyer’s staff is now just under 50% people of color — and the organization is committed to ongoing learning. Last week, we held a staff racial equity training, required for all new staff and optional for staff who had participated in a similar training two years previously. All staff participated.
Overall, my experience has exceeded my expectations, and I feel that I have been set up for success, which leads me to the following question: Why is Meyer Memorial Trust succeeding at DEI? And what can other organizations learn from this example?
Finding the Starting Point
Perhaps the key is to decide which term is the best starting point: diversity, equity or inclusion?
Most organizations start with diversity; they focus on recruiting people of color or reaching out to communities of color first. But leading with diversity does not necessarily result in equity and inclusion. Organizations may become satisfied with numbers, and neglect to create an inclusive atmosphere or equitable programs that are relevant to the broader, diversifying community. In my experience, most DEI efforts that fail, no matter the good intentions, are efforts that do not successfully address equity and inclusion. Tokenizing is a common example of addressing diversity while overlooking the importance of equity or inclusion.
Inclusion as a starting point is difficult to address and implement because it requires a self-examination of deeply rooted norms and rules that have been in place for decades — created in a time when racism was more overt. For an established organization to start with inclusion would mean a total cultural transformation. For a new organization, however, where the organizational culture has not yet been developed, inclusion could be a successful way to begin the DEI journey.
Meyer has led its DEI work with equity, by institutionalizing equity into policies, programs and communications. Diversity then followed, because staff and board knew they could only meaningfully pursue equitable practices and programs if they included the voice of those who experience racial inequities. In short, if you are working on racial equity, you need to listen to and follow the lead of the racially oppressed who know the systemic and institutional racism firsthand. (Not a novel idea, but a simple approach that surprisingly does not happen as often as it should.) Also as a result of the equity focus, Meyer has made progress on creating an inclusive culture, which should be the most difficult part of DEI to address for an organization that's more than 30 years old. How has this happened? One explanation is that staff and board have a strong sense of emotional intelligence. The values of empathy, humility, transparency and flexibility were already part of Meyer's culture.
So, is leading with equity the real answer? Perhaps. We’ll see as more organizations follow suit.
Tough Questions Along the Way
As I continue my Momentum Fellowship journey learning about the intricacies of equity in grantmaking, tough questions remain. Even if Meyer gets everything right as an organization, will our work address and change the systems and institutions that have led us to an inequitable sector and society in the first place?
And is the broader philanthropy sector sustaining its own life and creating its own work by investing dollars in a system that continues to oppress and create the very problems that foundations are set up to address?
Are foundations missing deep, impactful solutions that breakdown systems and transform institutions because they too often ask the least impacted and most privileged to direct and find solutions for the most impacted and least privileged?
Dalian Yates, another Momentum Fellow, recently emailed our cohort a New York Times op-ed, Why Giving Back Isn’t Enough. The author, Ford Foundation's Darren Walker, describes the systemic challenges of equity in the philanthropic sector:

Too often, we have declined to question our own circumstances: a system that produces vast differences in privilege, and then tasks the most privileged with improving the system… ‘giving back’ is necessary, but not sufficient. We should seek to bring about lasting, systemic change, even if that change might adversely affect us. We must bend each act of generosity toward justice. We, as foundations and individuals, should fund people, their ideas and organizations that are capable of addressing deep-rooted injustice… are we hearing — and heeding — those who understand the problems best?

Walker ends with the most poignant question that all of us working in the philanthropy sector should think deeply about and ask ourselves and others: “What can we do to leverage our privilege to disrupt the drivers of inequality?” I'll add, "... in meaningful, equitable and truly successful ways that uplift the voice and values of the very communities that are most impacted by the inequities that foundations have tasked themselves to solve." Focusing on the "how" we do DEI work is more effective than focusing solely on the "what" we do.
While Meyer Memorial Trust, Philanthropy Northwest and the Momentum Fellowship may not holistically solve these deeply rooted systemic challenges anytime soon, we can surely pave the way towards an equitable future. I am grateful to be a part of this transformation, co-creating a place where my daughters and their children may thrive — in a "flourishing and equitable Oregon."
Marcelo Bonta is a Momentum Fellow hosted by Meyer Memorial Trust. Read more about the Momentum Fellowship on the Philanthropy Northwest website, and stay tuned for more blog posts from our first cohort.