It’s All About Justice: Lessons Learned at the Environmental Grantmakers Association Conference

by Abigail Rome, Threshold Foundation

“Fund the Fighters!” That’s the rallying call from the stars. Not the celestial stars, but from well-known artists such as Mark Ruffalo and Naomi Klein. They represented just a couple of the big names at the Environmental Grantmakers Association conference in Mohonk, NY in late September. With a range of themes, including social movement building; increasing diversity in environmental organizations and foundations; keeping fossil fuels in the ground; sustainable agriculture; and addressing global issues on international and local levels, I found myself pretty starry-eyed much of the time.

As a first-time, somewhat-dazed conferee, I decided it would be helpful to share some of the ideas and trends in environmental, and other, philanthropy with other members of the Threshold Foundation who could not attend. Here then, are bits of wisdom, experience and inspiration, fresh from the mouths of elders in environmental foundation boardrooms AND from youth of all colors on the front lines of climate change.

Movement Building:

Many big environmental battles (such as the ban on fracking in NY or Shell pulling out of the Arctic) are won because large and diverse groups of peoples have become active advocates for a cause, writing letters, signing petitions, making phone calls, marching on the streets, setting up blockades, etc. They’ve organized and come together to build a movement, to fight for their rights and those of others.

As funders, we can build movements by funding people, and giving support for training, organizing, etc. While ad hoc movements may wax and wane depending on current events and needs, once they are formed they build social capital that can be transferred to other causes when the need arises. Sometimes the issues are primarily (or seemingly) environmental while other times they’re social or economic. It doesn’t really matter which because the challenges posed are interconnected. It all boils down to the question of injustice. As funders of movement building, we increase the numbers and types of voices that are heard and we help them reach decision-makers.

Understanding the Links between Environmental, Social and Economic Issues:

“When did it become okay to leave your children to fight for basic human rights?” asks Crystal Lameman, a Beaver Lake Kree First Nations activist. She’s referring to the fact that in order to secure basic land rights (and prevent the oil shale industry from despoiling her home and our climate), her people need to sacrifice the welfare of their families and their traditions. It becomes clear that environmental concerns are closely linked to social and economic ones. And funders need to realize that.

Following Crystal, a plenary entitled “I Never Could Have Dreamed That: Looking Back to Look Forward” examined other historic and current movements for change, and discussed ways to apply lessons learned to the modern-day environmental movement. Panelists made the point that African Americans vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, and that Democrats support protection of the environment. We came away with the understanding that we need to think bigger picture and more strategically, to be willing to support causes that may not look environmental but that can have profound influences on how our society impacts nature and natural systems.

Empowering the Grassroots:

“We don’t need a big name leader or spokesperson. We’re all right here,” says Alicia Garza, founder of Black Lives Matter, referring to the importance of everyday people and their power to effect change when given voice. She and other speakers referred to the Civil Rights movement as just one example of how people power succeeded in improving lives and creating policies for the good of all. (That’s not say that there’s not more work to do….) Her recommendation to funders is that grassroots groups need to be supported for a sustained period of time because it takes years to build strength and gain influence.

She suggests that donors fund naturally evolving coalitions, and that they don’t force relationships between unlikely groups. Strong alliances form organically, and the best leaders come from the populations that are experiencing trauma. It is the funders’ responsibility to seek out and build the capacity of emerging grassroots champions.

Building Diverse Organizations:

Diversity was writ large at the EGA meeting this year. Never have I been at an environmental meeting with so many people of color, of different ages, cultural backgrounds, etc. Speakers talked of how African Americans and Latinos are deeply committed to the environment, and how they want to be “co-conspirators” in making change. Many are already involved in the climate justice movement, and seek to exchange ideas and strategies to build effective, community-oriented narratives. The call to funders is to support relationship building and to give evolving activist groups time and space to create alliances and gain strength.

I was particularly struck by the need for youth to increase diversity among foundation boards, staff and grantees. One panel consisted of three 20-somethings of Latino, Asian and African American origin – chosen because they are especially bright and articulate. The millennial generation has grown up with a different worldview than baby boomers, most of whom dominate the funding community. They communicate via social media, live more comfortably in a diverse America, challenge prevailing ideas about economic growth over all else, etc. And, they are becoming increasingly influential and their ideas increasingly relevant. As funders, we need to include them and help empower them to help build a sustainable world. And, we need to learn from them how to communicate to their generation and the youth that follow.

Relationship Building:

“Trust the relationships.” Now there was a suggestion that’s ingrained into Threshold's DNA. But the speaker wasn't someone who's attended our meetings. She is Adrienne Maree Brown, science fiction writer, coach and facilitator. She talks about everyone being interconnected, about how organizers need to listen to the voices on the ground, and about the need for funders to develop intimate relationships with their grantees. Relationship building takes time. Collective impact takes time. Funders need to think more long term, and give sustained support that addresses the real needs of the people.

This last message was brilliantly emphasized by Berta Caceres, a Honduran activist and indigenous movement-builder, who calls on the funding community to truly understand the roots of their problems, and to help them fight transnational dictatorships and capitalism. An African American colleague on her panel makes a similar point about understanding the needs of the people we fund by saying, “It’s not the polar bear that’s important, it’s the price of milk.” Well said.

At EGA, there wasn’t much milk, nor were there polar bears tiptoeing between icebergs on Lake Mohonk. Instead, there was reflection, celebration, exuberant dancing, and plenty of wise advice for all us who use our resources to create a healthy, diverse and just world.