Late in June, a group of grassroots organizations in the Gulf Coast region co-wrote a letter and sent it around the environmental blogosphere. The letter eschews specifics and does not name names, but it holds a message most can likely get behind, demanding “ … respect and solidarity from the national organizations and funders who continue to use our stories, our disasters and our peril to their own advantage, for their own campaigns, for their own purposes—oftentimes without collaboration, consideration or consent from our communities who are used as poster children of environmental injustice.”
This is strong language, to be sure, but perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the letter is the fact that it is just so … unsurprising. The environmental justice community has formally and consistently delivered this message to the “big green” arena since 1990; the only nuance here is the inclusion of the philanthropic sector, “called in” to recognize its own role in wielding financial power to dictate actions, thus stripping grassroots campaigns and communities of their capacity and longevity.
In 1990, the Southwest Organizing Project delivered the now famous “grassroots letter to the big greens,” pointing out the exclusivity of the large green groups, demanding an equitable role for people of color in the mainstream environmental movement, and imploring the groups to work with solidarity and respect as basic principles of engagement. In 1996, the environmental justice-led group that crafted the Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing spelled out those best practices in detail, yet the atmosphere of inequity persisted, necessitating another letter 14 years later—this one in response to the perceived blindness of green groups to grassroots expertise and power in the fight for climate legislation. And now, here is yet another letter to mainstream organizations, reiterating steps to meaningful success for people and the environment.
As an environment program officer at The Overbrook Foundation—a member of the sector admonished for bulldozing ahead without respect to community priorities—I do believe people committed to untangling the complexities of our times are engaging with the best of intentions. Yet good intentions are not enough, and given a history of environmental philanthropic funding going overwhelmingly to mainstream, largely white-led groups, as well as the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in leadership positions in foundations, it is impossible to separate the demands in these letters from a deeper history of racism and colonialism.
I could say Overbrook has nothing to do with this; we’re a comparatively small family foundation and don’t really fund much in the Gulf Coast region anyway. And, as a white woman whose ancestors hail from the shtetls of Eastern Europe, I could claim the same for myself as an individual. On the surface, and point by point, both Overbrook’s and my personal lack of accountability in this case would be true. But just as white allies in the fight for racial justice must understand they as individuals exist as part of a long continuum, and just as the justice demanded here reaches far back into history, so must we who work for foundations and green groups, even the “good ones,” understand that, try as we might to hold equity as our highest ideal, we are trumped 9 times out of 10 by the weight of our shared history. And so it is incumbent upon us to figure out where we sit on the continuum, recognize our privilege, and push ourselves and our institutions to stretch out of our comfort zones toward a better future.
Three years ago, Overbrook posed the question, “What kind of impact could the environmental movement make if organizations of all sizes and issue areas worked together, and what would it take to make that happen?”
What happened next had the trappings of something radical: The foundation took a step back, and in this small way began chipping away at that historic trend of funder privilege. In essence, we committed to launching an initiative whose leadership would immediately be relinquished to others.
Along with a small team of consultants from the philanthropic and grassroots sectors, we convened a larger group reflective of the movement: multi-sector but grassroots-led, majority grassroots, majority people of color, with history, culture, and equity honored as core principles. Individuals’ networks nominated them to attend, so rather than being chosen by funders, each participant came as a representative, connected and accountable to organizations, coalitions, and communities at home.
Together, the group decided on a name, Building Equity and Alignment for Impact (BEA-I); decided to base its actions in the Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing; and agreed to work toward the overlapping goals of facilitating equitable partnerships among the sectors, shifting resources to more equitably serve the grassroots sector, and supporting philanthropy to shift cultures of practice toward investment in a local-to-global, bottom-up approach.
In the three years since its founding, BEA-I has created workgroups, built a body of research to define “impact” and track grassroots success stories, organized funders, led equity trainings, begun developing a grassroots-administered grantmaking fund, and created space for political alignment among sectors. The work has progressed quickly and is led always by grassroots participants, with input and solidarity from green group and funder allies. The work is tremendous, unprecedented, and perhaps most radically, multi-sectoral and shared. As a funder on the support team for BEA-I, I often feel that simply proving such a model can work is as important as the actual work we do, and that upending hierarchies and living the example of solidarity and equity matters more for our collective future on this planet than anything else.
However, as with any new and risky endeavor, the path forward is not always clear. Just last year, BEA-I leadership had ongoing dialogue about what we should do as we approached the infamous double-anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill—environmental, economic, and racial justice horrors that respectively pummeled vulnerable and abandoned communities of color in the Gulf Coast region. If it is our purpose to build widespread equity and alignment, we asked ourselves, to support the whole grassroots sector so that all of us can thrive, what do we actually do when we are pulled out of the theoretical and faced with the tangible? How can we zoom in and support only a small number of Gulf Coast groups and individuals who are our trusted friends and partners?
On the one hand, BEA-I now had upward of 70 individual participants representing groups and networks, and we were linked to hundreds more. We had a growing cadre of allied funders we could have tapped to refresh new philanthropic support for local groups that had fallen below the radar once the post-disaster focus dissipated. We could have catalyzed multi-sector discussion or written our own letter in line with the others, calling for allied support ahead of the game instead of expressing betrayal afterward. We could have helped publicize personal narratives and disseminate on-the-ground solutions crafted by the most impacted community groups, connecting complex local struggles to an extractive industry whose global operations cause very individual, very intimate harms. In the end, BEA-I’s leadership decided to go to New Orleans to march and stand in solidarity.
One year out, I still feel just showing up was not enough. But I also understand the arguments against shining a more deliberate light specifically on individual Gulf Coast partners. The argument was, essentially, with partners all over the United States who are suffering from lack of funds, who have been “invisible-ized,” and who are equally bearing the frontline-sickness of fossil fuel extraction, how can we in good conscience highlight just a few? The problem is so immense; chipping away at one piece of it felt to some in the group like turning our backs on the rest.
As an allied funder privileged to be a part of these conversations, I worried local partners might feel BEA-I had let them down. But I also suspected they understood our conundrum all too well. I realized this choice between elevating a few groups or remaining neutral was an untenable one groups on the ground should never be forced to make. And funders, who have the least to lose from risk-taking, must walk with movements, stick with communities after the news cameras go home, trust local solutions, and do whatever we can to reverse this hobbling, historic culture of scarcity.
Recognizing there will never be enough funding to go around, it’s important to remember we can approach a restructuring of power not just through grantmaking, but also relationship-building. We can commit to showing up and staying in the room when talk gets tough, and assisting (rather than leading) strategy sessions on movement alignment that are rooted in the voices of those living the day-to-day ravages of climate disaster. We can agree to dig into the difference between “diversity” and “equity,” and ask if grantmaking gets to root causes of systemic issues, even if this means justifying long commitments with unclear deliverables to our boards. And finally, with what we know of funding disparities and the high cost of communications teams, we can commit to reminding each other that just because a group is under the radar doesn’t mean it’s not playing a critical role.
Writing this, I recognize the brilliance of many of my colleagues working in philanthropy, as well as the years of experience, intelligence, and insight many of them bring to the field. I know I am not the first one to think of such recommendations, and it would be arrogant to assume there aren’t other people out there who have been working hard to push back against destructive historic trends. But when the stakes are this high, a little repetition certainly can’t hurt.
And yet, in a fight for people and planet—in which every minute, every dollar, every inspiration and train of thought is critically important—I can’t help but wonder what good the repetition is really doing us. What progress could have been made in the collective time it took those letters from the grassroots sector in 1990, 1996, 2010, and 2016 to be written, and rewritten, and rewritten yet again? Perhaps our next “win” as a movement, standing in solidarity, could be reaching a place where we’re confident—through our relationships, transparency, and culture of equity—that another letter will never need to be written.