November 17, 2016

Bridging Equity and the Environment

It’s a wrap!

Eight months after Meyer launched new grant programs in April, the first official funding round of the Healthy Environment portfolio is complete. We know that many of you are curious about how it all played out — and not just in the Healthy Environment portfolio but in the other new portfolios as well. To read more about that, please check out Candy Solovjov’s blog.

Before I share some reflections on the Healthy Environment portfolio grants batch, I need to acknowledge that I started drafting this weeks ago and am struggling to situate it in the aftermath of the election. It’s impossible for me to not acknowledge that the results have fanned the flames of racial bias, white privilege, sexism, misogyny and other forms of oppression that are deeply entrenched in our nation’s dominant culture. It’s also impossible to ignore that this same extractivist mindset not only systematically harms certain groups of people more than others, but it also drives the depletion of nature and degradation of environmental health.

When I consider where Meyer and its equity mission sit within this context in Oregon, I see one of our roles as speaking up for the values of inclusion and opportunity for all. It’s also our responsibility to support and amplify the efforts that aim to uproot all types of oppression and extractivism, and particularly where these intersect, that operate in communities across Oregon. We must support efforts to unify our communities. This takes long-term commitment and vigilance.

Today, more than ever, there is a troubling shadow over the outlook for progress on environmental protection and conservation. Clean energy policies and climate agreements may be repealed or defunded. We may see rollbacks on clean air and water protections as well as efforts to undermine the progress we have made on public lands management and protection efforts. Progress toward self-governance by Oregon tribes associated with protecting first foods and natural resources may be at risk. Organizations that have made steady progress blocking the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure in the Pacific Northwest and fossil fuel transport by rail may soon be facing new expansion proposals.

Despite this, Oregon groups will still forge ahead on climate justice and clean energy solutions at the state and local levels as well as conservation and protection of environmental health. Diverse interests will continue to gather at collaborative tables to tackle a range of ecosystem restoration and management challenges. We and the organizations we have the privilege of supporting understand that the big issues we are tackling are not won or lost during a presidential or congressional term. We take the long view, and we are resolved to move forward.

A key intention behind Meyer’s new Healthy Environment portfolio is to better connect the foundation’s support of a healthy environment with its equity mission. The portfolio’s vision, goals and strategies, which were informed by the hundreds of individuals who participated in the survey and listening sessions we did in 2015, reflect this intention. However, when we launched our new programs last spring we didn’t know how nonprofits would respond or what sorts of proposals we would get.

So what did happen?

First of all, we received a mountain of requests — 160 Healthy Environment inquiry applications requesting over $21.7 million — that aimed to advance the portfolio’s goals. After the inquiry stage, 56 applications moved forward, and we ultimately funded 47.

Based on what you submitted, we can see that you heard us. We said that we wanted to bolster work that simultaneously supports healthy natural systems and the health and vitality of all of Oregon’s diverse communities. Your proposals reflected this.

What did we fund?

If I were to try to summarize what characterizes the work that was most successful in securing funding, I would call it “change work.” As Doug Stamm wrote in his announcement of the new funding approach, “inequity is a pernicious obstacle to the flourishing and equitable state Oregonians deserve.” This means that the status quo isn’t working, so we must direct our energy and our resources toward change — changing hearts and minds, changing how we operate, changing institutions and changing systems. And we must double down on this work now more than ever.

Breaking it down further we saw some clusters of change-focused work that acknowledge this context.

We are pleased to make so many grants that align with the portfolio’s goals for environmental justice and diverse environmental movement goals, both of which sit at the center of the portfolio’s vision. Although there are a relatively small number of organizations in Oregon that define their work as being focused on environmental justice, we made a number of grants that support place-based work to advance environmental justice in both rural and urban communities as well as in state policy. These include efforts that are led by and designed for the benefit of communities of color and other populations experiencing disparities. They are tackling issues such as climate justice, forest workers rights, air toxics reduction and more. In addition, we made several grants to support planning for the integration of environmental priorities into the work of organizations whose missions focus on social justice.

The largest number of applicants requested support for work to advance the portfolio’s triple bottom line goal. We wanted a broad entry point for many organizations doing work for a healthy environment in communities across Oregon, and this goal helps create this doorway. However, we also noted that the highest percentage of applications that were declined fell under this goal area because many projects did not demonstrate a strong connection to our priorities. The most successful applications demonstrated clear environmental, social and economic impact — not based on their organization’s mission or values but based on the outcomes of the proposed work to be funded. Proposals that demonstrated measurable impact in all three areas were most successful.

The first round of portfolio grants also support a range of policy and systems change efforts focusing on water, air and land conservation at the local and state levels. Applicants are using a number of proven approaches — grassroots organizing, coalition building, strategic communications and participating in key policy making committees — to advance policy and systems change for healthy environment improvements. There are examples of organizations trying to take advantage of timely opportunities or a unique context for change and others who are doing the time-consuming, but oh-so-necessary, work of ensuring that newly adopted policy is actually implemented.

To advance change, we must innovate and try new ideas. There are a number of grants that are testing new approaches or scaling up new programs that deliver on the goals of the Healthy Environment portfolio.

We were not surprised to receive a number of applications that requested support for diversity, equity and inclusion training and planning. The environmental field lags behind in equity as compared with many other fields in the nonprofit sector, and there is a clear need for this foundational work to get started. 

These are a few of our initial reflections about this first round of grants and the kind of work the new Healthy Environment portfolio was designed to support. We hope that you will check out Meyer’s awards database to gain more insights as you consider future applications. We know that we will learn more as we work with this first set of grantees and support new ones in the future. We welcome your reflections, ideas and questions.

— Jill