Blog

Sep 5, 2017

By Lenore Hanisch, Senior Director of Engagement and Partnerships, Quixote Foundation and Zarina Parpia, Parpia Consulting

This was originally published on the National Center for Family Philanthropy Blog, as a part of the latest in a series of posts from the leadership of the Quixote Foundation.

On the issue of funding racial equity – and the broader concepts of diversity, equity, and inclusion – we at Quixote Foundation have a clear point of view. To begin, if equity work calls to you, go for it! Don’t be scared; don’t shy away. Whether you are explicitly focused on social or economic justice, or if you focus on education, community development, the arts, or the environment, we at Quixote think applying an equity lens to your work is one of the most timely and mutually beneficial paths a funder can take.

Our second point is more instructional. If you decide to embrace a strategy of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI or REDI as it is also sometimes referred to), don’t enter into it lightly. This is not just about adding a few boxes about staff and board diversity in your grant applications. Nor is it simply about re-stating your grant guidelines. DEI work is complicated, you can’t just throw a little money at the challenge.

Which leads us to the third point. To do REDI work correctly requires a fundamental shift in your external stance as a funder as well as a deep examination of your internal structures and processes. Embracing diversity, equity and inclusion is particularly challenging because ultimately it’s not just about race, or gender, or changing the faces at the table. It’s about power. It’s about privilege. And, it’s about confronting how power and privilege – warped by long-standing social and structural inequities – guide our work as funders. To do this right requires that we challenge the structures that perpetuate the status quo and re-imagine the relationships we have with our grantees, with other funders, within our internal teams, and with ourselves.

The bottom line is this: Funding equity demands sweat equity. You can’t just write a check. You need to step out of your comfort zone and roll up your sleeves.

If you engage in DEI funding with an open heart and mind, the result might be among the most rewarding and enlightening experiences you have as a funder. It was for the Quixote Foundation. 

As long-standing funders of the National Wildlife Federation’s (NWF) work on environmental equity, we decided to support their stated goal of becoming more reflective of the nation’s diversity in its leadership and membership. At first, we thought we were pretty smart. We understood that our job was to provide resources that support NWF’s vision and goals. We weren’t interested in asking them to simply report on their diversity statistics while we sat back and judged their progress. Knowing that this kind of internal change requires time and resources, we offered multi-year financial support that we hoped would set a solid base for achieving long-term DEI goals. We also worked with strong internal champions who shepherded the work forward.

As we checked off the list of DEI best practices, our instinct told us we were being “good funders.” Along the way, we checked in a bit, and generally liked what we saw. At one point, we participated in a powerful DEI workshop that NWF had commissioned for their regional leaders.

Then, at the end of the three-year grant in 2013, we received NWF’s final report. And the sweating began.

The report gave us the impression that NWF’s effort to reach their DEI goals had hit roadblocks. While progress had been made, certain objectives had not been met, and the report did not clearly communicate the path forward for advancing the work.

What followed were the real lessons we learned about what it means to support diversity, equity and inclusion.

The typical funder-grantee paradigm can be viewed as transactional. The funder provides resources and then the grantee “performs” by meeting the general or specific objectives of the grant agreement. After reviewing NWF’s final report, we were faced with a dilemma. Do we engage? Or do we step back and write off the grant as a disappointment, if not an outright failed grant? After all, even though the work appeared stalled, we knew from experience that when doing equity work, nothing is wasted. NWF had also undergone a major re-organization over the past year, and we thought that perhaps the committed focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion had gotten lost in the shuffle. Our dilemma was complicated by the fact that Quixote Foundation was in the final years of its strategic lifespan –our “Spend Up” – and we had no funding resources to use as an incentive for NWF to revitalize their DEI work.

Then we had our first epiphany. Funding NWF’s DEI work was not about the grant, or the Quixote Foundation, or even about NWF. It was about the urgent imperative for the U.S. environmental movement to reflect, engage, and mobilize the full diversity of the country. Not to get too high and mighty, but it was about saving the planet.

That sense of urgency enabled us to shed our role as funder, and instead engage with NWF in a more genuine way based on our shared commitments and values, not on the transaction of the grant. Ironically, by taking this approach, we were not just supporting NWF’s DEI goals; we were leaning into our own commitment to DEI. Not only were we prioritizing an effort to move DEI forward with a grantee, we were increasing our own ability to see our blind spots within the inherently unequal funder-grantee paradigm. Equity work is transformative because it shifts and widens perspective; we can’t change what we don’t see.

Of course, we would not have been at the table if we weren’t a funder. Our approach was not about denying the funder-grantee paradigm, nor its problematic components. It was about navigating it more deliberately and respectfully. We engaged in authentic conversations that acknowledged the power dynamic, and then re-focused our collective energy on a broader vision and goal. Together, we were operating within the lens of equity and inclusion, not merely viewing an issue with that lens.

In our sometimes-challenging conversations with the DEI champions, the NWF Board and the senior leadership team, we weren’t the heavy-handed funder with all the answers. On the contrary, we pulled the curtain back on Quixote’s own struggles in addressing DEI and engaged with empathy, patience, and respect. Ultimately, we used the report as a learning moment and point of entry.

The result of these shared efforts is that NWF’s commitment to build “a conservation army that includes and empowers the full diversity of Americanshas become fully activated. The last two years of annual meetings included a large-scale focus on DEI, with unconscious bias sessions on race and gender that resulted in packed rooms. Thanks to the determined efforts of some NWF women, the organization recently held its first Women in Leadership Summit. NWF is leaning in to change happening across the organization; progress on DEI, which will surely benefit the future.

Funders often pride themselves on the value of their strategic advice and guidance, in addition to the crucial financial resources. To be blunt, that model is a classic expression of white, male, upper-class supremacy. We have the money and the power, so therefore, we have the wisdom. What Quixote Foundation learned in comprehensively embracing diversity, equity and inclusion is that the value of our resources can be amplified many-fold when we combine those resources with a genuine commitment to the value of personal relationships. Even if they make you sweat a little.

Lenore Hanisch is a board member and the Senior Director of Engagement and Partnerships with the Quixote Foundation. Zarina Parpia is a a strategy and planning consultant to the Quixote Foundation.

Jul 31, 2017

By Holly Powers, Senior Program Officer, The Russell Family Foundation

This was originally posted on The Russell Family Foundation website.

For the past two years, Seattle has been the nation’s construction crane capital. According to Rider Levett Bucknall, a consulting firm that tracks cranes globally, there were 62 tower cranes in operation at various commercial, residential and mixed-use development projects throughout the city. That’s more than New York and Los Angeles combined.

To anyone who travels the I-5 corridor, this comes as no surprise; the cranes symbolize booming growth and all that comes with it (pros and cons). But, for those of us who support social and environmental causes, the proliferation of building sites underscores the importance of green infrastructure initiatives.

That’s because “green infrastructure” is so much more than the name implies. Permeable pavement and rain gardens are just part of the story. The big picture includes an array of multi-functional, eco-friendly support systems (including open and green spaces) that deliver numerous environmental, social, and economic benefits.

As a discipline, green infrastructure is still coming into its own as regional planning efforts shift from a traditional, project-centric practice to a holistic approach. This year, I have been honored to witness that process advance at several prominent events, which brought together experts from all sectors -- .edu, .org, .com, and .gov – to share their experiences.

In February, the 2nd Annual Puget Sound Green Infrastructure Summit* provided an in-depth view of green infrastructure innovations and their far-reaching benefits. The summit included presentations and networking conversations on clean energy, human-powered transportation corridors, park design, urban canopy management, land conservation, the needs of wildlife and much more.

The keynote speaker, celebrated urban revitalization strategist, Majora Carter, tied all these themes together by looking at “green infrastructure” from a community development lens. With compelling case studies, she showed how environmental improvement strategies have greatly enhanced nearby neighborhoods with higher property values, higher employment, and higher quality of life. Yet, as she made clear, local residents need to feel connected to the vision for it to come true.

At the Regional Open Space Leadership Forum in March, the focus was on protecting green and open spaces such as parks, farms and forests. Roughly 100 participants spanning academia, nonprofits, government, health, business, and community-based organizations shared ideas on how to integrate these types of open spaces into green infrastructure systems. The meeting also marked the completion of six years of work on the Regional Open Space Strategy (ROSS), which makes the business case for multi-jurisdictional planning across the open space system in Central Puget Sound.

The Green Infrastructure Leadership Exchange in May centered on the practical concerns of implementing green infrastructure solutions. This peer-learning event covered key areas of interest, such as technical expertise requirements, surmounting bureaucratic resistance, and enabling public/private partnerships. Through these honest, real-world conversations, participants gained a deeper understanding of costs, benefits, and interdependencies of green infrastructure programs.

The dialogue coming out of each of these events resonates deeply with The Russell Family Foundation. Our programs center on environmental sustainability, social equity, and encouraging community stewardship of local resources. Our commitment to clean water for Puget Sound is advanced through nonprofit organizations that work together to engage local governments, residents and private property owners. We believe this type of coordinated approach will increase the odds of success at both the policy and grassroots level.

That’s especially true when it comes to advocating for green infrastructure. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but we need sustained, collaborative leadership to ensure that good ideas for infrastructure enhancements are widely shared and implemented.

The Russell Family Foundation is continually searching for thought partners in this arena. If you are an expert or a newcomer to the green infrastructure movement, let’s connect to explore what’s possible.

# # #

* The Russell Family Foundation is a sponsor of the 2017 Puget Sound Green Infrastructure Summit

** Washington State Office of Financial Management’s 2007 population projections.

Jul 31, 2017

By Beto Bedolfe (Marisla Foundation), Carolyn Fine Friedman (Fine Fund), Shelley Hearne (Forsythia Foundation), Ruth Hennig (John Merck Fund) and Janet Maughan (Passport Foundation).

This post was originally published on the Health and Environmental Funders Network website.

The story of last year’s passage of the first major piece of new environmental legislation in 20 years, the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, is much like the story of almost any new legislation. Among advocates, we saw courageous risk taking, smart strategizing, and deep solidarity as well as strained relationships, crossed signals, and institutional infighting. Yes, the sausage making is always messy, and no one escapes the process without at least some gunk on their shoes.

Improving Our Game
But the question at the end of the day is always whether the gains outweigh the costs. Our foundations—the Forsythia Foundation, the John Merck Fund, the Marisla Foundation, the Passport Foundation, and the Fine Fund—joined together to evaluate years of funding and advocacy work leading up to the new law. We wanted to identify lessons that could improve all our work going forward. The Health and Environmental Funders Network organized and framed the evaluation and Tom Novick of M+R conducted it.

Just one of the findings that emerged from the dozens of interviews conducted for the evaluation was that even some of the law’s harshest critics concede that EPA’s enhanced authority to review chemicals, requirements to consider disproportionately exposed and disproportionately vulnerable populations, and legally enforceable deadlines represent a meaningful improvement over existing law.

Winning the Win
At a time when progress in Washington is measured in inches rather than miles, we and our funding partners congratulate the committed and tireless advocates who won this decade-long battle to finally give our toxics laws some bite. How much bite will depend on how effectively we all work to implement the law, which brings us back to the fallout from the sausage making: Recognizing that the coming regulatory battles will be determinative, we’ve already begun to see the environmental health advocacy community repair strained relationships, improve communications and coordination, and build on the momentum of this victory.

But in an administration that’s eviscerating public health and environmental protections, advocates and funders need to work harder and smarter and be more strategic and united than the other side. We need to continue to mobilize the broad grassroots and grasstops coalition that produced the law, marshal our best and brightest minds (particularly legal minds to enlist the courts), and communicate more effectively.

Urgency of Now
As funders and advocates, we need to do even more to recommit to working closely together—even when we don’t see eye to eye. The toxics advocacy community possesses extraordinary political and strategic resources—after all, it forced one of the world’s most powerful industries to the negotiating table and extracted meaningful concessions that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. In our experience, that strategic brilliance shines brightest when our small community works together identifying collective goals, sharing intelligence, marshalling supporters, and pooling contacts and relationships.

The new toxics law could be an effective tool for future administrations to protect the public from toxic chemicals. Whether those administrations will have that tool depends on what we do now. 

About the Authors

Herbert “Beto” Bedolfe, Executive Director of the Marisla Foundation, was one of Oceana's founders and led the organization from 2002 until 2008. Under his leadership, Oceana's efforts led to many victories for the oceans including the protection of over 640 million acres of ocean habitat from destructive bottom trawling.

Carolyn Fine Friedman is Chair of the Fine Fund, which supports organizations using complementary strategies to eliminate toxic chemicals from humans and the ecosystem. Carolyn is a steering committee member of the Health and Environmental Funders Network and a member of Rachel’s Network, which supports women using philanthropy to enhance their environmental activism.

Shelley Hearne is Forsythia Foundation’s Executive Director. She has a wealth of experience in building the environmental health and public health advocacy fields. She is also a visiting professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the senior advisor to the Big Cities Health Coalition, which represents the leaders of America’s largest urban health departments.

Ruth Hennig, Executive Director of the John Merck Fund, has worked in the environmental field for more than 25 years. Ruth’s philanthropic contributions include working in management roles at the Health and Environment Funders Network, the Environmental Grantmakers Association and the Consultative Group on Biological Diversity.

Janet Maughan is a veteran philanthropic executive and advisor with the Passport Foundation. In her work with philanthropies, she has concentrated on global environmental, sustainability and development issues, as well as public health and poverty.

Jun 15, 2017

By Paul Beaudet, Executive Director, Wilburforce Foundation

This was originally published on the Center for Effective Philanthropy Blog, as part of their Shifting Winds series

The Edgewater, constructed to accommodate visitors to the 1962 World Fair in Seattle, was always intended to be temporary, perched at the edge of what was then an industrial waterfront. In the months after the fair, its rooms sat mostly vacant. That is, until the Beatles arrived. Hotels that had hosted the Fab Four during their U.S. concert tour in 1964 quickly learned that they needed to defend their properties against masses of crazed fans. Many Seattle hotels refused to accommodate the British invaders, but not the Edgewater.

Built atop a pier that juts into Puget Sound, the Edgewater was easy to secure and the Beatles settled in behind a protective barricade. Soon thereafter, a photo of John, Paul, George, and Ringo fishing from their hotel window went viral — long before that term was even a thing. The Edgewater quickly became the stop of choice for other musicians, including the Beach Boys, Roy Orbison, Ray Charles, the Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin. That “temporary” hotel is still standing today.

As a foundation that works to protect places — albeit those that are wild and not urban — we at Wilburforce Foundation recognize that the fate of places can hinge on an historic event. The election of 2016 was just such a moment. Our grantees, who work to conserve important lands, waters, and wildlife in Western North America, are suddenly facing an administration that enthusiastically promotes the exploitation of public lands to extract oil, gas, and coal, with fewer environmental protections and little regard for endangered species or other ecological, economic, spiritual, or recreational values associated with wild landscapes.

After more than a decade of working with a federal government where at least one branch generally favored environment-friendly policies, most of our grantees have little or no experience working with decision makers in executive and legislative offices dominated by a party hostile to a conservation agenda.

The program teams at Wilburforce developed our own ideas about what we should do to assist grantees in this new context, and we wondered how we could test our assumptions with our partners. Surveys or interviews of key grantees might offer some insights. But these might fail to capture new creative thinking that arises when people come together.

And so this spring, Wilburforce worked with Training Resources for the Environmental Community (TREC), a capacity-building intermediary that provides services exclusively to the foundation’s grantees, to convene 56 conservation leaders at the Edgewater Hotel in May. This group included a sampling of national and regional grantees — from scrappy grassroots organizations to large green groups — focusing on place-based advocacy, community organizing, science, and policy.

Attendees met over three days, participating in sessions that were designed to assure that attendees were “talked at” as briefly as possible, and only to set the context for deeper conversations facilitated by TREC staff.

In keeping with the historic location, the arc of the event could be described musically through a well-curated Beatles playlist. For example, our attendees arrived in a state of elevated anxiety:

  • Help!
  • Tell Me Why
  • The Fool On The Hill
  • Misery
  • I Just Don’t Understand
  • I’m So Tired

We knew we could move to a more upbeat segment of the Beatles canon, one that featured relationships as the bedrock of the work we undertake. Our grantees’ relationships with us — and with each other — inform the types of capacity and program investments our foundation makes. We encouraged participants to use the convening to make connections, share ideas, and surface needs.

Imagine, if you will, the following playlist as the philosophical framework for what followed:

  • Come Together
  • Fixing A Hole
  • We Can Work It Out
  • All Together Now
  • With A Little Help From My Friends

Currently, we’re sifting through pages of notes, red-dotted priority lists, participant survey responses, and direct feedback from grantees. Wilburforce and TREC staff are already considering some investments in new programing. And we’ve uncovered a few key takeaways that should be useful to other funders, regardless of the issues upon which they work:

  • Don’t presume to know what grantees need. In our role working with large numbers of grantees, we often assume that our perch gives us a unique perspective; that grantees “don’t know what they don’t know.” Collectively, though, they know more than we do. While we could have guessed at some of the findings that came out of the convening, there were new ideas that we might have never conceived.
  • We’re not just playing defense. We may not advance a proactive policy agenda at the federal level, but we can continue to broaden our movements, break down partisan divides, and shift advocacy efforts to state and municipal governments where we may have more traction.
  • Relationships matter. Of all of the outcomes we had proposed, deeper connection was one that grantees seemed to value more than any other. New friendships were made, networks were strengthened, and ideas were shared across organizations and geographies. Foundations have the resources to bring people together. We should do it more often.
  • A new world may require new metrics. One participant lamented that though their context had changed significantly, many funders were still holding them accountable to deliverables and outcomes that were developed (or imposed) when proactive conservation strategies seemed likely to prevail. This concern was echoed by others, who affirmed that fewer restrictions and more flexibility could help them as they adapted to the new reality and identified fresh outcomes.

There are more specific recommendations flowing from this convening that will guide Wilburforce’s work. We’ll be considering ideas around strategic communications, skills building, and advocacy. We won’t be able to do everything we want to do, but we will do something.

In closing, I am confident that a more hopeful Beatles playlist will describe the future to which we aspire:

  • Revolution
  • Getting Better
  • Here Comes The Sun
  • I Feel Fine 

Paul Beaudet is executive director of the Wilburforce Foundation and a member of CEP’s Board of Directors. Follow the foundation on Twitter at @WilburforceFdn.

May 11, 2017

By Arturo Garcia-Costas and Michele Kumi Baer, New York Community Trust

This article was originally published in the Huffington Post

WE ACT for Environmental Justice marches at the 2017 People’s Climate March in Washington D.C.

Climate change and pollution affects us all, but some more than others. The poor, the infirm, and the elderly are particularly vulnerable to temperature extremes and violent storms. Low-income communities of color often bear the brunt of our civilization’s legacy of pollution: from the noxious facilities in their neighborhoods to lead in their drinking water. They are on the “frontlines” of these growing environmental challenges.

A key strategy is to help communities already coping with climate change and other environmental burdens lead the way toward a more just, sustainable future. They have the drive, evidence, and moral authority to help steer us in the right direction. Now they just need the resources to do so.

The good news is that charitable giving can help create a cleaner, healthier environment. It has before.

In the years before and after the first Earth Day in 1970, average Americans opened their wallets and the United States saw a surge in charitable giving to new and old environmental organizations. Philanthropy soon followed suit, sparking an unprecedented shift in environmental activism and provoking policy change worldwide. But the scientists, lawyers, and others who launched the modern environmental movement in the 1970s failed to act upon the ideals of the overlapping Civil Rights era.

As a result, the newly minted environmental organizations of the time ushered in a modern environmental movement that was overwhelmingly white and male. This exclusionary dynamic helped set the stage for the emergence in the 1980s of a separate and distinct environmental justice movement led by people of color.

Twenty-five years later, these parallel but linked movements are facing an environmental crisis like no other: Climate change is already happening, but we face an unprecedented assault on federal funding and programs to address it.

To advance a more inclusive, and therefore effective movement, we must patiently build up the national and regional environmental justice networks that frontline communities have created over the past decade.

Over the past 20 years, The New York Community Trust’s environmental grantmaking has supported the emergence and strengthening of such networks. Separately, most community organizations might struggle to carry out large-scale advocacy campaigns at a citywide, statewide, or national level. When they come together, however, they have proven time and again that they can strategically pool their knowledge and resources to make things happen.

These emergent networks act as intermediaries between frontline communities and government, foundations, and mainstream environmental groups. Key examples include the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, which is made up of nine community organizations from Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx; the Environmental Justice Leadership Forum on Climate Change, which was established by the New York-based WE ACT for Environmental Justice and includes 42 grassroots organizations from 19 states; and the Midwest Environmental Justice Network, which is made up of 12 groups from 4 states.

Three years ago, these environmental justice networks helped mobilize the People’s Climate March, which brought more than 400,000 people onto the streets of New York to demand that heads of state take action to confront human-driven climate change. A year later, they did just that, signing a historic agreement in Paris. Now that agreement is in jeopardy. That is why over 200,000 Americans, once again led by people of color, marched through the streets of Washington, D.C. this past Saturday in a new People’s Climate March.

In the ’60s and ’70s, foundations provided steady, flexible support to new and old environmental organizations to great effect. Our air and water is cleaner, and many species were brought back from the brink of extinction, including the Florida manatee, the California condor, and the American alligator.

Today, by patiently supporting environmental justice networks, from the regional to the global, we can help create the broad, inclusive environmental movement we need for the 21st century.

Arturo Garcia-Costas is Program Officer for the Environment and Michele Kumi Baer is a Program Associate at The New York Community Trust.

Apr 24, 2017

By Rachel Leon, Executive Director, EGA

There is no better inspiration in the lead-up to Earth Day than listening to a wise woman. On Friday, I was blessed to start my day at an event organized by WE-ACT and co-sponsored by Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Jesse Smith Noyes Foundation.

Dr. Dorceta Taylor, Professor and Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources & Environment, was the special guest. As you may know, we have been proud to partner with Dr. Taylor on our Environmental Fellows Program – for which the second cohort of 21 fellows will start their summer fellowships in just a few weeks.

Dr. Taylor and I have been working closely together for nearly two years now, but what I experienced with my EGA team last week was an even deeper connection to the significance of Earth Day, to our shared values and work, and to opening our hearts and minds to an exploration of the conservation movement.

Maybe it is the moment we are in, or the recent and approaching national rallies. Maybe it's, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described it in a famous April 1967 speech at Manhattan's Riverside Church (next-door to EGA offices), the "fierce urgency of now". Maybe it was hearing the passion of Dr. Taylor, and further understanding the significant role she has played in enabling a new generation of changemakers. Maybe I just needed a dose of hope and truth to face what lies ahead. Whatever it was, we felt it in the room.

The audience was diverse in every way, including seasoned activists and millennials starting anew. Dr. Taylor shared incredible stories with us - both from her life and her book, The Rise of the American Conservation Movement: Power, Privilege, and Environmental Protection.

In doing so, she took us on a historical journey that looked back to earliest days of conservation, and then seamlessly made connections to challenges of today. She referenced similarities in the documented coarseness of Andrew Jackson and President Trump, and unpacked myths about many environmental heroes. Together, we explored how cycles of ugly language and mistreatment throughout American history - be it directed towards Native Americans, slaves, women, immigrants – continues to be repeated.

In closing, Dr. Taylor stressed the need to build bridges across race, class and gender - something we look forward to translating into action with our special community here at EGA. We can only move forward when we are able to take risks with new and different allies, and embrace feeling uncomfortable.

And with this understanding, I saw a glimpse of the future, and gained a better sense of our imperfect history. It left me inspired, and ready to forge ahead with a full heart.

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.