Note: It’s been lovely to connect and share the work of REACH Fund grantees over the past 18 months. The REACH team will be pausing this newsletter for the remainder of 2021 to rest and reflect. We’ll be back with a brand new Storyletter and cadence in January. Wishing you rest and joy.
For many of us across the nation, the traditional seasons are beginning to change. With massive climate shifts beginning to make themselves known more frequently and violently, many are being forced to adapt (with little warning) and to move (with little certainty about what comes next).
Overall we are in a moment in time that proves the prophetic Octavia Butler quote, “The only constant is change.” While surely much of what we are faced with is confronting and uncomfortable, much of what we have been facing for generations has been, for many of us, confronting and uncomfortable. Which means that this time is imbued with as much possibility as it is with ongoing uncertainty.
As racial equity continues to be a stated value for many (although the volume has turned down since the summer of 2020), it can be assumed that organizations led by folks of color and imbued with racial justice values are automatically doing things right. And yet, any organization can “take on” racial equity without intention or attention or an engaged willingness to pause, reflect, and change, much less the staffing and budget necessary for impact. This includes organizations that talk the talk and even organizations that appear to be leading the way on this work in their respective fields.
Many of our grantee partners have used the cauldron of the past 18 months as an opportunity to imagine differently, not only their own work with clients, but also the ways in which they are showing up for themselves, their colleagues, and their organizations. A number of them are shifting into collective leadership models and actively practicing the decolonization of their internal structures, policies, and practices.
The invitation this month is: What structures, policies, and practices internal to your organization and/or team are actually standing in the way of progress? What might you or others have to let go of in order to be in alignment with your stated values? What is possible beyond what has already been created, and how can you envision getting there?
—Ain Bailey, REACH Program Officer
A Growing Connection to People and Place: Decolonizing the Environmental Movement
For this month’s storyletter, we dig deep with Queta González and Tanya Pluth from the Center for Diversity & the Environement (CDE). They talk to us about what sparked their passions for justice and the environment, how the movement has changed and grown, and ways funders and organizations can continue to make progress in environmental justice.
“I grew up wanting to understand, to act, to have a real heart connection and feeling that passion and following what was sacred in any moment. That’s an intersection grounding me here: sacredness and inherent in that sacredness is every person, every plant, animal, body of water. The spirituality part for sure is a thread that brought me to be in rooms with mainstream environmental organizations and saying, ‘Hey wait a minute. Your vision of the environment, of what’s sacred, doesn’t actually have any people in it. What do we do about that? Unpack what that means.'”
—Tanya Pluth, Program Associate, Center for Diversity & the Environment
“I am the daughter my mother raised. My mom is full of grace and absolutely fierce when it comes to justice, and during my elementary school years growing up in South Dakota — while my country of birth is Venezuela— after a year of having my mouth washed out with soap and being put into time out in the janitor’s closet for speaking Spanish, I began to realize what’s my problem and what’s other people’s stuff.”
—Queta González, Director, Center for Diversity & the Environment
How has the climate world/field adjusted to racial equity work over time? What changes have you seen in this space within the past year?
Queta: When I look at the mainstream environmental movement and the climate field outside of environmental justice—because environmental justice has been fighting for this for a long time—I think there are some real similarities to the women’s movement, which is really the white women’s movement. Both mainstream environmentalism and the mainstream women’s movement are rooted in dominant culture, a culture born out of colonialism and white supremacy. These ideologies require a separation and ascension of a group of people based on race and separated from our natural world and from the broader global family. And so it’s taken a little while for the mainstream environmental and conservation movement to become aware of the gaps when it comes to inclusion, and to understand where the disproportionate impacts of climate change are and to honor the voices of the people on the front lines. I think I’m seeing a growing desire in climate science to make the connection to place, and a growing understanding of the wisdom of Indigenous science, a science born out of connection to place. I think that’s one evolution that I’ve noticed if I look back.
Tanya: And maybe just one thing I would add is some increase in self awareness of the racial makeup of their organizations and the kind of elements of white supremacy culture that are in the science world, the rigidity of some of those approaches and starting to scratch the surface and see how those are interplaying with this push to solve the climate crisis and doing that in a way that actually creates a different framework [rather] than just recreating the same injustices around race that have been present all along.
“I’m seeing a growing desire in climate science to make the connection to place, and a growing understanding of the wisdom of Indigenous science, a science born out of connection to place. I think that’s one evolution that I’ve noticed.”
What challenges are you seeing being lifted up by the leaders you support in advancing this work?
Tanya: There’s more naming of dynamics of race, of whiteness, of the kind of influencing capital that some mainstream environmental organizations have access to, and so more awareness of “Oh, we could be involved in re-granting. We see that we have this gatekeeper role, what do we do with that? How do we make meaningful shifts?” People see themselves, their responsibilities and their influence in new ways.
And more conversation, more examination of the role of capitalism in dictating organizational priorities or focus areas, and also the roots between capitalism, racism, white supremacy, colonization. I’ve heard that come up among the organizations we’re working with. People name these pieces, pause, and go, “We need to be different right now.”
Queta: Those are all really important challenges that are being lifted up by the leaders we support. I think another element is organizations—because of the pandemic—they’ve learned to pay attention to seeing what the racial disparity is around testing, contact tracing, access to vaccinations, and timing of the access to vaccinations in BIPOC communities and poorer nations. That awareness, in combination with the impacts of the ongoing racial justice movement, Land Back movement, Indigenous rights movement, and so on, impel leaders to action. I’m seeing a stronger examination of their core work and where that work intersects with various opportunities for justice.
We have a growing awareness and concern about water, clean water access, competing priorities on water, etc. The West is in critical drought mode. That’s an additional pandemic, and it’s a crisis. Finally, I think the other thing that is climate-related is the devastation caused by fires. So the intersection of the pandemic, racial justice movements, environmental crisis, and knowing what they mean for the most vulnerable communities—that’s being addressed more and more by organizations that have a deepening analysis of racial equity.
“The intersection of the pandemic, racial justice movements, environmental crisis, and knowing what they mean for the most vulnerable communities—that’s being addressed more and more by organizations that have a deepening analysis of racial equity.”
How can philanthropy ensure that the progress-oriented changes you are seeing continue?
Queta: Fund community-based organizations and Indigenous, Black and People of Color-founded and led organizations first. When we talk about equity, we talk about redressing past practices, and if we redress past practices, that means more dollars going out the door to Indigenous, Black and People of Color-founded and -led organizations, true community-serving organizations, organizations that are by all measures of research underfunded related to their white counterpart organizations. I think that there needs to be a bold step in supporting the margins and taking a beat on some of the historically well-funded organizations, and that takes some tenacity, I understand. It also, I think, needs to be coupled with technical assistance and understanding that redress also means, “Okay, now that you’ve got a whole different situation here, how do you manage in new ways?” and supporting people who now have access to new resources.
I think we continue to underestimate even here in the United States the importance of Indigenous science in rebalancing our systems, and we have some great works happening in different Nations. And that needs to be supported, environmental justice as a key part of social justice.
What We Read, Listened to, and Watched This Month.
White Supremacy Culture. Dismantling Racism Works. In this well-known article, Tema Okun describes the characteristics of white supremacy culture and antidotes to counter the insidious way it permeates our daily personal and working lives.
(Credit: Tema Okun, Dismantling Racism Works)