Healthy Environment program officer Mary Rose Navarro and Taren Evans with the Coalition of Communities of Color share news of an innovative new effort to advance climate justice.
It’s probably no surprise that quotes such as “When you need to innovate, you need to collaborate” and “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much” inspire community organizations and philanthropy alike. That’s why efforts that bring together people who live in different locations, face unique challenges and have different ways to influence the government decisions attract funding from foundations such as Meyer. What you may not know is that occasionally the three sectors — community, government and philanthropy — all roll up our sleeves to actively shape an initiative together. That’s certainly the case with Climate Justice Through Collaborative Design, a joint project with Coalition of Communities of Color, Multnomah County, the city of Portland and Meyer Memorial Trust.
build equitable and sustainable communities by pairing local governments with philanthropy to support sustainability projects across the U.S. and Canada. Meyer will provide the one-on-one matching support for this award and will invest staff time in fostering the long-term relationships needed to make our communities more prosperous, livable and vibrant.
The Climate Justice Through Collaborative Design project will bring together community-based organizations, community members, government and local funders with the intent to co-create intersectional and innovative solutions to advance climate justice. It is no surprise that the Multnomah County Health Department concluded that the communities that face the greatest and most immediate effects of climate change, known as frontline communities, “face extremely sobering disparities that lead to more illness, fewer opportunities and shorter lives.” These communities are disproportionately made up of Black, Indigenous, Latinx and immigrant populations. We see these disparities tragically playing out in real time in the way frontline communities are experiencing COVID-19. The project adheres to the principle that the communities most impacted are best equipped to develop solutions.
In 2015, Multnomah County and the city of Portland adopted the 2015 Climate Action Plan, recognized as the “best” plan in the world by C40 Cities for the breadth of its scope and its focus on equity. The effort to create the plan broke new ground through partnerships with frontline communities that applied an equity lens throughout the process. Although the effort was groundbreaking, the past few years have shown us that even more innovative approaches that give voice to and elevate community concerns from project inception to completion are necessary to truly shift power.
Climate Justice Through Collaborative Design will create a new space where frontline communities can work with local governments in a way that shifts power and honors community wisdom and lived experience. This isn’t exclusively a community organizing space or a space for agency staff to set an agenda and make decisions. It’s a “third space,” where both can bring their unique perspectives to influence a new mental model for climate justice.
Fundamentally altering the way that local government and community work together involves throwing old ways of engagement out the window. Rather than being in a reactive role, community members will be in a generative role, helping to co-create climate justice strategies. Community members will be given resources to fully participate to compensate for their time and expertise. This will help to level the playing field between community and paid government staff and demonstrate the value of community knowledge.
This effort will require all the partners to be more flexible, capture learning along the way, value the relationships more than the outcomes, and trust the leadership of frontline communities. The Coalition of Communities of Color and Meyer are excited to collaborate on this new endeavor beyond our typical funder/grantee roles and look forward to sharing our experiences as we design a new space in which to envision a climate-just future.
The Long Haul Fight for Fish & People and the Clean and Healthy Waters they need to thrive: An Interview with Klamath Tribal leaders and supporters
Last month, I had the honor of talking with Klamath Tribal Chairman Don Gentry; Mark Buettner, Klamath Tribes' biologist; Jay Weiner, an attorney who works with the Klamath Tribes; Brad Parrish, Klamath Tribes water rights specialist; Roberta Frost, Klamath Tribes Council Secretary; Willa Powless, Klamath Tribes Council Member; and Jana DeGarmo, Klamath Tribes Grant and Contract Compliance Officer about their work to protect and restore Tribal fisheries in the Upper Klamath Lake and throughout the broader Klamath Basin.
Jill: Could you start off by telling us about the Klamath Tribes’ relationship with the Upper Klamath Lake ecosystem and particularly the endangered c'waam and the koptu (two species of sucker fish)?
Chairman Gentry: The fish are so important to our people. Our people are here because of the resources that were here. The suckers were a big part of how our people survived, and because of that we have a strong link to the suckers, both culturally and because they are subsistence species that we’d hoped to have forever to harvest.
Mark Buettener: Unfortunately, even with protection under the ESA (Endangered Species Act), the fish have continued to decline over the last 30 or so years. We’re really worried about the potential total loss of the species.
There’s been an effort recently to propagate the suckers. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service started experimenting about five years ago, and over the last couple of years the Klamath Tribes have also started a fish propagation program to prevent the suckers from going extinct and hopefully release enough fish of a large enough size that we can start seeing better survival. There’s also been restoration work, including marsh restoration to help improve habitat. Of course, our long-term objective is to improve the overall health of the system.
Over the years the biggest problem has been poor water quality in Upper Klamath Lake. Unfortunately, it takes a long time to improve water quality conditions. There’s got to be a basin wide effort to reduce some of the nutrient and sediment loading that occurs as a result of poor land-use practices. A lot of the tributaries to the lake are surrounded by agricultural land, so there’s a lot of impacts from agriculture and cattle grazing, which has degraded the water quality, and we’re working with state and federal agencies and private landowners to implement best management practices and habitat restoration in the watershed.
Since Upper Klamath Lake is the major irrigation source for a 200,000-acre federal irrigation project we are dealing with ESA consultation activities where their operations affect how the lake is managed in terms of water levels, and water levels impact not only fish habitat but the water quality conditions in the lake.
Chairman: That also brings to mind how complex this is, because there are federal agencies, state agencies, multiple ownerships, property owners. ESA is a part of it, but ESA only goes so far as to try to stop the fish from going extinct. We really need to have harvestable fisheries.
Jill: What are the new tension points related to climate change that you’re already experiencing or that you see coming that are impacting your efforts to protect and restore the basin.
We are in a real dry period, and have been, and that affects how we approach the reinitiation of consultation on the [federal government’s] biological opinion. Climate change must be considered and addressed when we look at future management related to the biological opinion.
Jay: We’re really seeing climate change problematizing the planning models that the Bureau of Reclamation uses [to manage the lake]. The climate is based on planning models that use basically a 40-year retrospective period that dates back to the early ‘80s. One of the things that we’re seeing in the course of over the past 5 to 10 years at least, is the year-to-year variation.
The frequency of low water years has increased. It is no longer responsible to make planning decisions based on a retrospective record because of how rapidly the climate is changing around us.
Jill: What are the points of progress and challenges or setbacks this year?
Chairman: I believe we’re holding our own. We’re pushing as hard as we can using the available science and trying to use all of the tools at our disposal to push for what we think is important for the fish. I think there’s recently been a little bit of a turn — I’m not sure how far it goes — with the Bureau of Reclamation in their engagement with us. We’re having more frequent government-to-government meetings and we will be looking for meaningful response to our input.
We believe that all of the federal agencies have a trust responsibility because of our treaty to give us greater or at least the same consideration they give the irrigation project, especially given the dire condition of the fish, which is a treaty resource. It seems like we’re always pushed to the very minimum habitat needs for the fish so they can provide more water for agriculture.
I’m not going to say we have some lasting significant victory on the litigation front, but we’re currently holding our own and treading water. My hope, honestly, with the different administration coming in is that things would turn around a little bit and be a little more positive in response to needs for the fish
Jay: As Mark indicated, this was an incredibly challenging year on the water management standpoint and I think for the Klamath Tribes, we had a strange year, in terms of a shift of revolving alliances. (The Bureau of Reclamation’s) default seems to privilege irrigators beyond everyone else. One of the ways that we’ve seen that play out is — actually we’ve seen it play out pretty aggressively — is in pitting the upper and lower basin environmental and Tribal interests against each other. We ultimately found ourselves in the uncomfortable position this spring and actually joined with Reclamation to defend against a suit that the Yurok Tribe was bringing because of their [Yurok Tribe] desire for high, early-season, flushing flows, and because of how the incoming flow has been dramatically dropping for the upper basin during the middle of the spawning season. This was just existentially important for us (to protect water levels in the upper basin).
Ultimately the judge agreed with the side for which we were advocating. This reduced the amount of water coming out from Upper Klamath Lake for downriver flow. It was not at all comfortable for the Tribes to be opposing the Yurok and instead aligning with Reclamation and irrigation interests. But because of the paramount importance of the fish to the Tribes and because the Tribes continue to go where the science takes them, that’s where we found ourselves this spring.
One of the positives that came out of that, from about May to early August, is they managed early water releases from Upper Klamath Lake for both agriculture and lower river diversions based on a more conservative set of influences as compared to what they had done before. While Upper Klamath Lake ran uncomfortably low this year, they did stay above the scientifically established minimum, and we were very lucky not to see major fish dies.
Unfortunately, we come to mid-August, late August, and the end of the irrigation season, and the Yurok Tribe made a request for flows to Reclamation that are built into the operations plan to support a critically important Tribal ceremony. The Klamath Tribes said, “You know what. We support this as long as they can do it in a way that doesn’t hurt the lake.” Reclamation ultimately in mid-August turned around and said, “Yurok, we can’t do that this year. The flow is too low, and we’re worried about our Endangered Species Act [requirements], and we’re concerned about refill going into 2021. We can’t give you this one.”
The Yurok were ultimately able to get that water from Pacificorps and have that ceremony, which was fortunate. What was most galling to us in that situation is that it’s an indicator to us that Reclamation really hasn’t changed its order of priorities and continues to have this strategy of pitting the Tribes against each other. Literally, two weeks later, after declining to supply this water to the Yurok for their ceremony, they announced that they were increasing the project allocation of roughly the same amount of water that Yurok was asking for from Upper Klamath Lake and gave it to the irrigators instead for the end-of-season operations.
Mark: Sen. Jeff Merkely (Oregon) has been able to secure substantial funding to support our fish rearing program and to backfill some of the water quality and restoration activities that we’re involved with.
Jill: What else didn’t we cover about your work in the basin that you think is really important for folks to understand?
We feel the general community doesn’t have a good understanding of who we are, what we stand for, or what the real problems are with the fisheries. Unfortunately, there is greater a focus on supporting the agriculture community in the media rather than the Tribal fisheries needs. We are taking steps to bring the whole community along to understand our issues, so we’re not characterized as the bad people getting in the way of the agricultural community.
I think people really need to understand where we’re at, and the fact that what we [the larger society] have been doing isn’t sustainable. It’s obvious by the fact that we’re trying to fight to protect fish that have been here for thousands and thousands of years and trying to restore salmon that were once here for thousands and thousands of years. Now we’re facing climate change.
I just hope that the community will come to a better understanding of the complexities of what is affecting the fish- where the real problems lie. It’s not because the Tribes have treaty rights.
Jana: There are a lot of newer people coming in here and it’s been so long since we’ve been able to harvest our tribal crop. They don’t understand the importance of that [practice], not only to the Tribes but to the community as a whole and past history.
Jay: This isn’t just about the Tribes and the Tribes’ rights or some paper exercise or some abstract idea of sovereignty. This species that we’re talking about here, as the Chairman said, is both of critical importance to the Tribes but also, they’re suckers. They are extraordinarily hearty fish, and the fact that we are now talking about the extinction of two such sucker species, the fact that that is not a five-alarm fire for the sustainability of the environment of the entire ecosystem of the basin is mind-boggling to me from the outside.
You can’t go in the Upper Klamath Lake in the summer because it will kill you. And it will kill your dog. There were questions on whether we could continue to water crops with this water or if you’re going to sicken consumers, and so the Tribes end up having to bear the brunt of this [reality], when it is ultimately self-defeating for the entire community because they are functionally poisoning the environment around them.
There is just such a perception gap. There’s this notion that “This is just the tribes and they’re making issues for us. Now if they all went away, we could farm and be happy.” That’s just factually wrong and somehow that is not breaking through to the wider public.
Chairman: I think one of the big disconnects, too, is the fish should be every bit as important to everyone as the economy. Those fish are important to us because they’re a part of our culture, our history, and traditional subsistence economy. We want to harvest them again, and we have a federally affirmed Treaty right that should be employed to make it happen. But many folks say, “The lake is dying and the fish are dying, so big deal. We need agriculture and money and just those things have value.”
The efforts to marginalize the Klamath Tribes and almost demonize us and our concerns about the fish just blow me away. We want to change that thinking and want people to understand how important the fish are. Period. Just because they’re there and they should be there.
 A biological opinion is the document that states the opinion of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as to whether or not the federal action is likely to jeopardize the continued existence of listed species under the Endangered Species Act or result in the destruction or adverse modification of critical habitat.
Meyer is grateful to partner with the Klamath Tribes on their work to protect and restore the suckers in Upper Klamath Lake and hope to continue supporting their efforts.
Lessons learned from a decade on Oregon’s Big River
The year 2020 has boggled both hearts and minds. With each new turn of events, the deep-set systems of racism, environmental harm and underinvestment in public health loom larger and more urgent in our country. I admit I’ve wondered: What could the learnings of one foundation’s river health program possibly mean in the context of this moment? But while the Willamette River initiative (WRI) was about the river, it was also about people. And it turns out that what we learned about investing in people — in learning, community-building, collaboration and inclusion — couldn’t be more pertinent than right now. I’m thrilled to share a snapshot of findings and lessons learned from an in-depth evaluation of Meyer’s Willamette River Initiative, an effort to improve the health of “Oregon’s Big River” that invested more than $20 million in grants between 2008 and 2019.
How can we know whether the WRI made the Willamette River healthier? The answer is complicated, but no more complicated than the river system itself. The Willamette is the largest river within Oregon’s borders: It runs through the state’s largest cities. It waters farms. It provides drinking water. It supports many of the state’s iconic wildlife and fish, including endangered salmon. It starts in smaller tributary rivers that flow through pristine forests and logging operations and through dams that minimize flooding but drastically alter its natural rhythms. With every rain, it receives a cocktail of chemicals, toxins and heavy metals from water that passes over fields and streets. This complex set of variables makes it impossible to make a causal link between Meyer’s investment and the river’s health at a given point in time. But what we can measure is the impact the WRI had on the ability of people and organizations to work more effectively on behalf of the river. Meyer invested in strategies that decades of ecological research and on-the-ground practice told us would have the best shot at putting our river on a trajectory of health. And we know that the number of projects meeting that criteria increased about 1,500% over the course of the WRI, a pace and scale never before seen in this river system.
The evaluation also looks at diversity, equity and inclusion.
When the WRI began, we asked: Who is working on watershed restoration in the Willamette Basin and how can we support them to increase the scale and pace of their efforts, be more strategic and be more effective? Like many freshwater conservation efforts across the U.S., the WRI defined “watershed restoration” from a dominant-culture, Western-science mindset. Consequently, the grantees and partners of the initiative were overwhelmingly white.
At the time, we didn’t consider the demographics of those organizations or whose goals and values were represented in their approach to the work. In 2015, as Meyer paused most of its grantmaking and restructured its efforts to better work toward equity in Oregon, the WRI acknowledged its own whiteness and adopted a new goal to advance diversity, equity and inclusion within the movement for a healthier Willamette River system. With only a few years left in the initiative to make progress in this area, we invited the WRI’s core grantees to learn with us and began building relationships with leaders of color, Indigenous leaders and community-based organizations whose work connected with river health.
To measure the WRI’s impact, we worked with a team of evaluators at the Portland-based consulting firm Dialogues In Action. Their participatory approach centered interviewees as co-owners of the story, in much the same way the WRI set out to work with its grantees and partners. With data from nearly 100 interviews and a quantitative survey, the evaluation report is a trove of findings and analysis that get at the impact the WRI had on people and systems, along with lessons about the WRI’s approach and recommendations for the future.
So, what did we learn? Here are some highlights, and for the full picture, you can download the report here.
The pace, scale and strategic nature of river restoration work in the Willamette River Basin has increased. Interviewees reported being able to do more projects, to do them better and to target them in the areas most likely to have a positive impact on habitat and river health. Before the WRI, most restoration efforts were disconnected from each other and done in a more opportunistic way as grant funding became available.
People are seeing their work as part of a larger vision for a healthy river. Whereas individual organizations were working in relative isolation before, the evaluation tells us that the WRI succeeded in fostering a culture of collaboration and a sense that “we’re all in this together.” For a large river system with no basin-wide authority or management plan, this is a notable accomplishment. People have started to see themselves as part of a team with a common vision. Competition is still a factor, of course; funding is finite. But the data show that a collaboration mindset is now part of the DNA of many former WRI grantees. They are asking the question of “How can we do more together than we can apart?” and several regional collaborations have grown from the grass roots up. The evaluation gives us reason to believe that these partnerships — in essence, a knitting together of the social fabric that supports river work — will live beyond the WRI and make the system more resilient to changes and challenges. Read more about collaboration through the WRI in this case study.
WRI grantees are beginning to center diversity, equity and inclusion in their work. By the time the WRI adopted a DEI goal, we were about two-thirds of the way through the initiative. We stayed on course with our original goals: to improve the river’s health, to increase coordination among those working on it and to build a strong foundation for improving river health into the future. Rather than changing course entirely, we kept on with the goals and grantees we’d been working with for nearly seven years but introduced a new conversation. We invited a core set of 15 grantees, a group of white-led, mainstream organizations, to immerse themselves in yearlong learning cohorts with the Center for Diversity and the Environment. All 15 opted in, and most are now engaged in ongoing partnerships and individual work to advance DEI. The civil unrest of this year has underscored the need for white people to step forward into the cause of anti-racism and to stay in it, beyond Instagram posts and reactions in the moment. Although time will tell, the evaluation shows early and promising evidence that this is the start of deeper, transformational change across the field of watershed restoration in the Willamette. A major focus of that change must be a vastly increased investment in leaders of color, Indigenous leaders and community-based organizations whose work connects with river health.
The evaluation gives us much to celebrate, but it also points to challenges that will need attention. Tracking and measuring changes in river health as a result of specific restoration actions is difficult, and this became only clearer through the WRI’s investments in monitoring. Yet, people long for the ability to tell a clear, simple story about the river’s state and restoration’s impact. This is an area of great need and potential, and though the WRI didn’t get as far as people hoped in these areas, the evaluation shares lessons learned that can inform future efforts.
Closely connected to “the what” of the WRI’s impact is “the how.” The data from the evaluation point to a few lessons from the WRI’s strategies that made the biggest difference.
Long-term capacity funding. A core approach of the WRI was to provide multi-year capacity grants. This funding allowed organizations to hire project managers, retain them year after year and give them the flexibility to develop projects in a strategic way. In order to be strategic — to restore high-priority areas that would have the biggest ecological impact — organizations needed funding to build relationships with streamside landowners. In many cases, this meant building trust with people who weren’t necessarily inclined to want to work with them. Some of the highest-impact projects funded by the WRI came after years of relationship building and intensive planning, followed by multiple phases of implementation that, all told, spanned the entire duration of the WRI. Meyer’s 10-year commitment to fund in the Willamette made these projects possible. Read more of the WRI’s approach to funding in this case study.
Grantmaking and network-weaving as companion strategies. The WRI treated funding and convening as equally important to build a community in support of the river, and each strategy informed the other. WRI staff spent significant time in the field getting to know grantees and partners. When challenges came up, there was a deep well of trust to draw from. This allowed people to be more honest about failures, learn from them and adapt. It also helped build a supportive community. The initiative’s Within Our Reach conference was frequently named as one of the most valuable aspects of the WRI: It provided time and space for people to share their work, celebrate successes and really see each other — a “luxury” that hadn’t existed before. Investing in the wholeness of people, not just in their role in achieving the stated outcome of a specific grant, allowed people to feel their worth and come to see themselves as part of a team. That mentality is durable and continues; it marked a culture shift in the field. Read more about Within Our Reach in this case study.
Going far by going together. The WRI built on the idea of a “Team Willamette” on a number of levels. In the tributaries, the WRI supported a cohort of seven watershed councils that worked closely together over 10 years to share strategies and bolster each other through challenges; on the mainstem, a working group of watershed councils, land trusts and others formed a partnership that went on to secure a six-year commitment of $7 million from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board. The idea of building capacity not just as individual organizations, but as a community, was also essential to the WRI’s approach to diversity, equity and inclusion.
For white-led mainstream groups, this was new territory, and they stepped into it together. The evaluation tells us that this cohort approach — building upon the years of trust and collaboration they had built through the WRI — was pivotal in the shift toward centering DEI in a relatively short period of time. The need for a supportive network also became clear in the WRI’s early efforts to build relationships with leaders of color and Indigenous leaders. Although the WRI had supported peer-to-peer learning among white-led watershed groups for years, this kind of investment was completely lacking for community-based organizations. We saw this imbalance of resources in sharp relief after commissioning an assessment of the field’s capacity for culturally relevant environmental education. The WRI began supporting a cohort of leaders of color and Indigenous leaders, and even with only a year and a half left in the initiative, participants felt a significant impact. Having the ability to come together as peers, learn from one another and work through their experiences of systemic racism gave cohort members a system of support and a new sense of hope. Read more about the cohort approach to DEI in this case study.
As much as the evaluation reflects on the past, it’s also a story that brings us to the present.
In the Willamette Basin, as in our nation right now, moving toward a better future will require reckoning with deep-seated systems of injustice and environmental harm. It will require healing and coming together across differences to think more like a watershed; like a circulatory system; like a community. It won’t be easy, and in some ways 2020 has shown us there’s more work to do than ever. But fortunately in the Willamette Valley, we can confidently say that we have a stronger foundation to build upon than ever before.
Foundations for a Better Oregon is disrupting the root causes of inequity in education
Investments in strategies that support crucial system inputs that are designed to shift culture within Oregon’s education system and build new approaches to addressing old challenges are essential to developing an ecosystem where innovative ideas, people and students thrive.
For more than a decade, Foundations for a Better Oregon — formally Chalkboard Project — has done this work, serving as a powerful catalyst in merging vision with action by shifting conversations from focusing on increasing funding for education to evidence-based discussions about educator quality, accountability, student achievement and improving student outcomes through innovative pilot projects and building greater accountability through data and research.
Today, Foundations for a Better Oregon is a highly respected organization with well-earned political capital, recognized for its independent and nonpartisan voice. This new iteration of the organization defines its strategic priorities by critical structural and cultural changes Oregon must make to disrupt the root causes of inequity and radically accelerate progress for children: In a better Oregon, research and data is community-centered; investments in education are equitable and coherent; and decision-making is inclusive and participatory.
You can learn more about Foundations for a Better Oregon here.
Foundations for a Better Oregon Director of Public Policy and Government Affairs Amanda Manjarrez facilitates a workshop with community-based organizational leaders during Meyer’s 2019 Gathering for Student Success at PCUN (Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste) in Woodburn.
This week the PCEF coalition released an Executive Summary and full in-depth campaign report that details the coalition’s experiences of building trust within communities of color and with white-majority organizations; securing endorsements with unusual allies; and implementing innovative campaign strategies.
Although front-line communities led the initiative’s creation, it took strong relationships with mainstream environmental and labor organizations to create a successful campaign. These bonds will be critical in achieving the city of Portland and Multnomah County’s 2017 commitment to transition all energy sectors to 100% clean energy. It will take the unique knowledge and lived experiences of each group to ensure these funds result in projects in communities most impacted by climate change while ensuring that people of color can fully participate in the emerging green economy.
As grantmakers, we at Meyer are reflecting on what role our funding might have played in the success of this effort. The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) issued a challenge to foundations to target grant dollars to address the needs of underserved communities and empower them by funding advocacy, organizing and civic engagement. Meyer joined NCRP in 2011 and began supporting communities of color in their efforts to build capacity and expand collaborative power to develop their own policy solutions.
What we’ve learned is that our support can’t stop at the policy win. Meyer has funded multiple projects since 2018 so that the coalition can continue playing a key role in the implementation of the ballot measure as it is established by the city of Portland. Without strong participation by the groups that designed the policy concept, the community values and priorities that have driven this effort are at risk of being de-emphasized or lost altogether.
The grants that Meyer has awarded since the PCEF ballot measure passed include:
$143,750 to Verde for the coalition to support early program design work by the nonprofit organizations that led the effort to establish it.
$100,000 to the Coalition of Communities of Color to pay for a dedicated staff position to organize and support partner organizations to continue playing a strong role in supporting the implementation of PCEF.
$27,000 to Resource Media to develop a communications strategy and tools to share the success of PCEF with other organizations working for a healthy environment
The bottom line is that front-line coalition-led efforts require ongoing, long-term support to ensure that the implementation of their initiatives truly leads to stronger, more resilient communities that will experience the worst of our planet’s climate crisis. You can learn more about PCEF’s efforts in my previous interview with Alan Hipólito.
I look forward to following up in another blog as the coalition's efforts prosper.
Climate justice: Front-line communities are transforming the environmental movement
It seems like not a day goes by without new information emerging about the state of our changing planet.
Reports and data, such as the evidence presented by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), continually show how increases in pollution and carbon emissions are warming our climate, causing sea level rise and affecting the earth’s water supply. Although the science is sound, arguments over climate change divide our nation and fracture relationships in the communities that call this state home.
As we look toward a flourishing and equitable future for Oregon, we’ve begun to ask ourselves who is by our side and who is missing? Where both trust and relationships are most strong? And recently, how have or haven’t we addressed mistrust?
At Meyer we use the phrase “centering front-line communities,” which is a blanket term to refer to neighborhoods that are most vulnerable to the detrimental effects of climate change because they lack things like shade, air conditioning, access to parks, nature and clean air.
In reality, these words have much more meaning.
Last summer, Momentum Fellow Denise Luk sat down with Alan Hipólito, who represents Verde — a nonprofit organization that works to secure social and economic benefits for low-income people and people of color through social enterprise, outreach and advocacy — to discuss the creation and passage of the Portland Clean Energy Fund (PCEF) and why front-line community leadership was key to building the relationships needed for success.
Below is an abridged transcript of their conversation edited for clarity.
Denise: Who developed the Portland Clean Energy Fund? Where did the idea come from?
Alan Hipólito: It started with a conversation between Jo Ann Hardesty, a civil rights, social justice advocate who was then the director of the Portland NAACP (and is a now Portland City Commissioner) and Brent Foster, an attorney and environmental advocate.
In the summer of 2016, front-line communities were already doing a lot of work together on climate policy issues, whether that was Oregon’s cap and invest proposal, The city of Portland and Multnomah County’s 100 percent renewables, or just building capacity within front-line communities around climate change issues, for example the Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA), Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO), Verde and the Coalition of Communities of Color (CCC). The NAACP reached out to say, “Hey, do you want to come and sit and talk with us and a couple of environmental organizations, mostly 350PDX, to talk about this idea (the Portland Clean Energy Fund)?”
Denise: How did this group expand?
Alan Hipólito: Jo Ann and Lenny Dee from 350PDX, a longtime Portland activist and organizer, were out talking to different organizations, environmental, small business, social justice, environmental justice and the trade unions about the concept of PCEF, seeking endorsement or a willingness to work on the campaign. Simultaneously, those of us at Verde, APANO, NAYA and the Coalition of Communities of Color began doing our own outreach into the front-line communities.
That whole year, summer 2016 to summer 2017, was really about building relationships and trust across the core organizations — NAACP, Verde, APANO, CCC, 350PDX, Sierra Club — so that we could ultimately build a kind of collaboration and relationship that was necessary to be successful.
A key watershed moment was in the summer of 2017. We had a two-day planning retreat for the front-line community organizations, where we learned about ballot measures and what it would take to run a campaign. We set some common values about how we wanted to work together and most importantly the agreement that front-line communities were going to lead the effort. After that, things started to really pick up speed.
Denise: At what point did more mainstream environmental groups get involved?
Alan Hipólito: Portland Audubon’s entry into the coalition was really important. They’re a well-respected, long-standing environmental stakeholder, have a strong membership base and influence with local policy makers and other environmental organizations.
When they came to our meeting, they said, “We want to be involved: first, because we like the initiative; and second, (and even more importantly), we want to support the movement that you’re building.” They’ve been in many campaigns where it’s solely about getting 50.1% of the vote and therefore don’t include front-line communities. They saw PCEF as a chance to change the status quo of campaigns. “Win or lose, we want to help grow a more inclusive, front-line community-centered environmental movement.” While they wanted to contribute their experience to the decision-making and bring our resources to the table, they did not need to be in charge. “We’re ready to support the leadership of front-line communities in this campaign.”
That was a really big moment.
Denise: Since this effort, have there been other types of environmental ballot initiatives led by front-line communities — in partnership with mainstream environmental groups — in other places?
Alan Hipólito: Obviously, front-line communities lead all sorts of things, all over the country, including environmental measures. But this was the first of its kind in Oregon in terms of the partnership that was formed by front-line community-led leadership and then bigger mainstream groups signing on. That was a rare thing and hopefully changing.
Denise: What was the power dynamic like within the steering committee and then within the smaller subsets of PCEF? How was the decision-making process?
Alan Hipólito: It was pretty harmonious. There were obviously points of tension and stress because none of us had ever really worked on or run a campaign like this before.
We maintain a distributed leadership structure. We didn’t have, unlike some campaigns, a bunch of paid core staff. Our field team was paid, but our campaign manager, communications colleagues, fundraiser and the point person for our political endorsements committee were all volunteers or staffed and funded by partner organizations. It didn’t make sense to have a rigorous, centralized, decision-making model. It meant that we had to free folks up to be creative and use their best judgment in the day-to-day work they were accomplishing.
Denise: What were the key takeaways from this coalition and how the partnership worked?
Alan Hipólito: A lot of folks would say there would be no way to build and hold this kind of coalition together unless it was front-line community-led. Progressive efforts that bring mainstream environmental groups together with construction, labor and trade unions don’t often happen. However, everyone understood the need to center this kind of community leadership if any kind of progressive change was going to happen.
This kind of broad coalition building can win elections, especially when it comes to addressing the more traditional arguments against such initiatives. To arguments like, “This is going to kill jobs” or “This isn’t really an environmental solution” or “How is this going to affect poor people?”
The answer simply is: Environmental organizations have been putting in a lot of work and investment to build their understanding of equity and what it means to operate from a justice framework. Audubon’s posture in coming to the initiative was a testament to the growth and diversity, equity and inclusion work that they’re doing. The trades are the same way. They know where future workers will be coming from, that things haven’t been fair and just in the past or even today. They saw that a front-line community can put together an initiative that will make a difference in the things they care about.
Another takeaway is that I would certainly want to provide to the next group that tries this sort of coalition building is to not have to nickel-and-dime-it the way that we did. That was really hard to manage from a budget standpoint. At the same time, not being well-resourced required creative energy and distributed leadership. Without having a heavily centralized staff, organizations ended up putting in their own staff time. This is critical to the success of the movement we are building. However, those organizations need to be funded, too.
Denise: What’s it been like after the measure passed and is now in place? I understand the coalition is still working together.
Alan Hipólito: That’s correct. The PCEF coalition’s work did not end on election day, it shifted from winning an election to successfully and faithfully implementing the initiative. To do that, we’ve used the same front-line community-centered practice that we’ve talked about. This has allowed us to work in strong partnership with the city of Portland on key implementation issues like staffing the program, seating the PCEF grant committee, launching communications platforms and outreach efforts as well as building front-line community capacity to develop strong applications to the PCEF grant program
So I think we can feel good about all the work that we’ve done since election day, feel good about the collaboration that we built with the city bureaus and the elected leadership … and moving forward we need to make sure that the coalition has the resources needed to not just implement this victory but to solidify the power and endurance of the coalition. Organizational-level infrastructure such as internal communications will allow us to not only defend the win, but to also figure out how to move forward and build on this initiative.
And there’s still the need to fund the nuts and bolts of the work among the many organizations who developed and led the initiative, especially the front-line community-serving organizations. One of the things that we’ve learned the hard way is that the opposition doesn’t run out of money. They see this initiative, and any future initiatives, as a threat to their control over resources and political power. They are going to keep coming after us, trying to weaken or overturn PCEF at the city and state levels. The big challenge is to have the strength and resources as a coalition to counteract that consistency.
Denise: Do you feel that sense of power-building and power-sharing is still part of the implementation piece?
Alan Hipólito: Absolutely. This coalition, if it’s viable and enduring in the way that we want it to be, will inevitably decide or be asked to get involved in other things. How are those decisions going to be made? Who makes them? On what criteria, if any, are they made? How do new groups come to the table? All of these questions are where the extension of power sharing and practice of front-line community leadership is going to grow.
The story of the PCEF coalition demonstrates the unique position of front-line communities in the environmental justice movement and illustrates the way lived experiences of the communities most impacted offer solutions and innovative strategies — across interests — that transform campaigns and accomplish wins. In this way, front-line communities are transforming the environmental movement and allowing more people to see it as relevant to their lives.
Mainstream conservation organizations are important partners in this work. With established credibility and influence with local officials and the broader community, their endorsement can activate many and shift perspectives. As new approaches to climate justice emerge from the front line, it will be important for mainstream groups to explore new and innovative ways to contribute their resources, time and established reputation.
This doesn’t always mean taking a visible lead, but instead backing the proposals of those whose voices are new to the movement and allowing for new possibilities in our shared future in the face of climate change.
Housing stability is inextricably linked with other systems of care – health care, criminal justice, child welfare and education, to name a few. We were intrigued to see a proposal in 2017 from a collaborative working at the intersection of affordable housing and workforce development. Worksystems, Inc. was leading a collaborative effort to link employment and housing services for formerly homeless families in Portland, giving low-income residents community-based career coaching and supports to achieve family-supporting employment.
We saw the project as an opportunity for systems to coordinate in intentional, equity-informed ways that could produce better outcomes for both employment and housing stability. Now, over a year into the work, we are following up with Stacey Triplett, community programs manager at Worksystems, to hear more about the collaborative’s progress.
Theresa: How is Worksystems’ project aligning with the homeless services system?
Stacey: The Worksystems’ Aligned Partners Network (APN) is a flexible set of community-based employment service providers who are experienced in a customer-centered approach. This network approach creates success in making relevant services available in our community for folks experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity.
Today, APN career coaches are a vital part of homeless services, working one on one with customers getting jobs, getting scholarships for occupational training and getting better jobs, all of which serves to stabilize their housing. High-demand, family-wage careers are open to those with a need for housing support if, and only if, they are able to set career goals and layer supports that are needed. Supports are timed to make progress possible; customers both gain skills and access employment opportunities.
The model for systems alignment is a “housing hub” approach where dedicated rent assistance coordinators bring housing market knowledge to customers in need of rapid rehousing or eviction prevention services alongside the work of the employment service providers of the APN. The same customers are shared across systems. The new normal is for career coaches to engage with their customers before, during and after they receive rent assistance in a manner that demonstrates that both housing AND employment stability are goals around which they engage their customers. This was a result of career coaches coordinating closely with and experiencing great support from the housing hub and its specialty knowledge to address short-term rent assistance needs.
Theresa: Can you share an example of a household that has benefitted from your work?
Stacey: Sure. Khalid had a master’s degree in electrical engineering and eight years of experience before he arrived in Portland as a refugee. To be recognized as a professional engineer in this country, his career coach helped with his resume and requesting the recommendations he needed in order to get approval to take the engineer licensing exam. He also had to take an English exam to qualify for the test.
At first, Khalid stayed with friends, and it was very crowded and noisy. He had difficulty studying for the English exam, but with only $300 a month in refugee assistance, landlords would not approve him for a unit. His career coach referred Khalid for rent assistance, and he was able to secure a unit quickly. His new home provides a safe and quiet space to study in order to pass the English exams and the professional engineering exam that he will be required to take in order to regain his certifications.
Once he had his own place, Khalid said, “I was able to focus on getting a job.” He found work as an electrical engineer at a construction firm and is working full time. Khalid has been approved to take the professional engineering exam in October and continues to study for it. His career coach will use support service funds to pay the costs and fees associated with taking the exam. At the same time, Khalid is already giving back to the community by helping others learn English and translating for them.
Theresa: Impressive work by Khalid and the team! How long have you been doing this collaborative work?
Stacey: This has been a journey of over five years. Meyer Memorial Trust supported work that brought all the relevant organizations together in these efforts. Human Solutions, as the housing hub, learned to share customers with IRCO, SE Works, Oregon Tradeswomen, Constructing Hope, Central City Concern and Human Solution’s own employment department. In more recent years, the network has grown to include Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center, Latino Network, the Urban League of Portland and Black Parent Initiative. Our project also prioritized production of data on how efforts that career coaches and rent assistance coordinators make on behalf of their shared customers increase their success by orders of magnitude compared to prior disconnected approaches. Specifically, in 2017 we measured greater income increases (almost double the rate of increase) for customers in the shared approach compared to those who were not. And they were also 53% more likely to leave the program employed.
Theresa: What special role do the collaborative partners play in the project?
Stacey: They are the absolute champions of this effort. All the day-to-day changes to accommodate this new model have been made in a very consensus-oriented manner with good participation and communication amongst and between career coaches and rent assistance coordinators.
Theresa: What kind of challenges have you faced, and how have you overcome them?
Stacey: We’ve found that systems alignment challenges can best be overcome with frequent and clear communications. With our system alignment work with the housing system, understanding each other’s performance metrics can be difficult, but the deeper we dig the more that we understand the intricacies of each other’s work with participants and how our decisions impact participant lives and performance outcomes for both systems.
Theresa: What do you hope happens going forward?
Stacey: I hope how career coaches and rent assistance coordinators work together will be sustained by the benefits that both colleagues create for customers’ outcomes. It took time for each area to learn one another’s strengths, procedures and how to best stabilize customers experiencing housing instability while pursuing employment goals. Now there’s a natural alliance where housing and employment are “everyone’s business.”
There are many ways the network has embraced the customer-centered teaming that happens when career coaches appreciate the intricacies of operating the housing hub and rent assistance coordinators take cues from training timeframes and employment activities to make sure customers can achieve their goals.
Theresa: Are you able to share the results of your work to a broader audience?
Stacey: There has been interest in this work by many national bodies. Currently, Portland is featured in the 2018 Systems Work Better Together: Strengthening Public Workforce & Homeless Service Systems Collaboration report by the Heartland Alliance. Also, this work has been featured to inspire states outside Oregon to consider utilizing public resources such as are utilized here to fund “SNAP to Skills” efforts that the USDA supports nationwide. An Oregon Housing and Community Services webinar was held with participation from housing professionals, workforce development staff and local funders around the country.
Theresa: Congratulations! Anything else you would like us to know?
Stacey: This goal of systems aligning for customer benefit is that everyone comes to see the connections as the most logical, natural and smooth way of working and doubts that it was ever any other way.
Theresa: That’s a great ending thought. Thank you so much, Stacey, for sharing the progress on this collaborative work to align systems.
The Willamette River Initiative is in the midst of a transformation.
As we enter the final year of our 10-year commitment to support efforts to achieve meaningful, measurable improvements in the health of the Willamette River and its tributaries, our grantees and partners have accomplished much. But as a recent article in the Corvallis Gazette-Times underscored, our collective quest for a healthy river isn't complete.
Summertime water temperatures throughout the basin are still dangerously warm for native coldwater fish. Toxic pollutants leach into our waterways at unacceptable levels, while invasive plants threaten to alter our native ecosystems. Floodplain habitats, while more abundant than when we began this work, remain too rare. Meanwhile, population growth and climate change are affecting our watershed in ways we don't yet fully understand.
Tackling those challenges will take sustained investment and coordination well beyond March 2019, when the Willamette River Initiative ends.
So, together with our partners, we're planning how best to support the next phase of the Willamette restoration and protection movement. We envision a stronger, more inclusive, nimble and community-driven alliance of Willamette River stakeholders, connected by an entity that provides coordination, technical assistance, and other services while advocating on members' behalf for actions that support river health.
Our community has laid the foundation for this planning process over many years and many conversations. You'll find some of that backstory in this grounding document, and also in this memo detailing our initiative's past, present, and hopes for the future.
While our vision for this new entity is still taking shape, based on our experience and the feedback we've received so far, there are certain traits we know it must have. You can find a full list here.
Conversations with our community have also given us a solid starting sense of the functions this entity could perform and support services it could provide for the field. We've outlined them here.
We have convened an advisory group to help us make this vision a reality. Group members, who are listed here, have a wealth of experience in river health and related issues. Some are longtime members of the Willamette restoration community. Others bring deep expertise in related fields. All are passionate about building a river movement that is effective, equitable and sustainable.
The advisory group will meet several times in the coming months. We're also planning opportunities for the broader Willamette community to help shape this new era in Willamette restoration, during spring and summer 2018. View our planning timeline to learn about opportunities to engage as we move forward.
We'll post periodic updates on the planning process on WRI's website, and share them in our newsletter. Subscribe to stay in the loop.
At first glance, Oregon’s Willamette River and the Río Laja in the Mexican state of Guanajuato look starkly different.
The two rivers’ mouths are 2,600 miles apart. And while the Willamette Valley is verdant and rainy, the Laja runs through semi-arid lands with few trees. Salmon, so central to the Oregonian ethos, aren’t found there.
Though their climate and ecology may differ, six restoration experts from Guanajuato visited Oregon this month to explore a commonality between two places: Water and the communities it connects.
“Water is the base element for all ecosystems,” said Mario Hernández Peña, director of the botanical garden and nature preserve El Charco del Ingenio, who traveled to Oregon as part of the June 2017 exchange. “No matter where in the world you are, it’s a common resource.”
The visit was the latest highlight of an international partnership the two basins launched in 2015 as part of the Willamette community’s receipt of the 2012 Thiess International Riverprize. The award, which recognizes exemplary efforts in river protection and restoration, includes an opportunity to collaborate with a watershed outside the prize winner's home country in an exchange program known as Twinning. Meyer's Willamette River Initiative stewards the project on behalf of the basin's restoration community.
“It’s so valuable to be able to talk, to connect, and to learn from our international peers about how they approach similar watershed conservation challenges in a different social and environmental context,” said Tara Davis, coordinator of the Twinning project.
Many of the Willamette’s biggest watershed health challenges are also present in the Laja. Restoration practitioners in both basins are working to improve water quality, increase migratory bird habitat, foster community engagement and restore ecological function to former gravel mines. And both basins face competing priorities for how water is managed and allocated.
The Twinning project is designed to encourage dialogue about how to tackle those challenges through repeated visits to one another’s home turf. But just as importantly, the project has yielded fruitful relationships between people with a common interest in protecting water in the Willamette Basin and Mexico, a country with strong connections to Oregon.
One-in-eight Oregonians identify as Latino, many of them with Mexican heritage. The Willamette Basin includes some of Oregon’s largest and fastest-growing Latino communities.
“At a time when the public relationship with Mexico is framed in terms of division and exclusion, a project that focuses on building collaborative relationships between conservation professionals from both countries is particularly meaningful,” said Allison Hensey, director of the Willamette River Initiative.
Already, the Twinning partnership has revealed promising collaboration opportunities.
Recognizing that some migratory bird species spend time in both watersheds, partners from the Willamette and Laja have teamed up to explore opportunities to monitor bird populations and use the data to prioritize habitat restoration.
Participants in the June exchange hoped to take the Twinning partnership a step further, leaving with inspiration for increased collaboration in the Rio Laja watershed and an idea for a future project the two basins could tackle together. It didn’t take long for a theme to emerge.
As exchange partners traveled up and down the Willamette River touring projects and meeting with partners, the conversation always came back to people.
“How do you get the public to care about restoration when you’re working in such an urban environment?” Laja partner Javier Vega Ruiz asked as the group toured Talking Water Gardens, a wetland restoration and water treatment project in Albany.
Willamette partners shared a number of techniques, such as hosting school students for on-site science lessons and designing public spaces into restoration plans, but acknowledged community engagement is a challenge in the Willamette, too.
Vega Ruiz’s question spurred others as the two sides sought to learn from one another.
How can conservation workers be better advocates for the communities hit hardest by environmental threats, particularly low-income people and racial minorities? What are the best examples of restoration work that improves ecological conditions while creating beautiful, useful community spaces? And what can we do now to shape the next generation of environmental stewards?
For Heather Medina Sauceda, a board member for the Calapooia Watershed Council who often works within Oregon’s Latino community, the exchange trip itself became an exercise in the power of human connection. Medina worked with Mario Magaña Álvarez, an Oregon State University 4-H outreach specialist to underserved communities, to bring several of Magaña Álvarez’s Latino students along for a day of the exchange.
The pair, who are both Latino, hoped exposure to Mexican leaders in science and conservation would help the teens imagine themselves in a career field that, in America, is still predominantly white.
“It’s powerful to see leaders who look like you,” Medina Sauceda said.
The exchange also held personal significance for Medina Sauceda. Born in Michigan, she grew up with a love for the outdoors that led to a career in agricultural conservation. She had never associated her career choice with the farming culture of her heritage, but interacting with the Laja visitors revealed a profound link between the two.
“I might not have realized in college why I was drawn” to conservation work, she said. “To have that tie with this group coming up from Guanajuato made me feel like it’s something deep down inside; that it has to do with that cultural connection.”
By week’s end, representatives from the two basins saw a partnership opportunity in their shared ambition to connect people through the rivers that sustain them. The migratory bird group has begun discussing ways to involve the community in its bird monitoring efforts. Other Willamette and Laja partners hope to work together on youth engagement initiatives. They are exploring the possibility of sharing environmental curriculum for students in Mexico and Oregon or launching an exchange program that pairs students from each watershed on a scientific project.
The conversation is just getting started, Medina Sauceda said, but “there’s a lot of potential for the future.”
Organizers raised the voices and issues of those most impacted by environmental hazards — people of color, low income Oregonians, rural communities and tribal people — at the People’s Climate March on April 29.
Following a blessing from Native Elder Ed Edmo (Shoshone-Bannock, Nez Pierce, Yakima) at Dawson Park in Northeast Portland, a crowd of nearly 3,000 set off for Buckman Field in Southeast Portland. Marchers repeated a familiar chant, first in English, then in Spanish, “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!”
Intersectionality reigned at the event organized by Oregon Just Transition Alliance. Zen monks demonstrated alongside marchers protesting immigration sweeps and no-cause evictions. Vegans waved “no more meat” signs and youths wearing “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts chanted alongside youths supporting farmworker rights and children holding “Kiddos for Climate Justice” signs and marchers for social justice.
Multnomah County commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson addressed the diverse crowd at Dawson Park: “Listen to front-line communities. Show up for racial justice, economic justice, worker justice and climate justice. Our fates are tied. Everyone has a role to play.”
“This is a demonstration of front-line activism,” said Huy Ong, executive director of OPAL, a recent Meyer grantee and a member of the Oregon Just Transition Alliance along with APANO, Beyond Toxics, Environmental Justice Oregon, PCUN, Unite Oregon and Rural Organizing Project. “The community is here demanding action to stop and reverse climate change and to grow our collective power.”
Carrying a sign that read “System Change, Not Climate Change,” People’s Climate March participant Charlie Graham said he was marching because the world is in crisis.
“The system is the problem,” said Graham, a retired elementary school teacher from Hillsboro. “It’s not just the environment over here or politics over there. Housing, climate change: we’re not on a sustainable path.”
All along the route, one of Tiffany Johnson’s hands gripped the palm of her 9-year-old daughter, Ona. The other hand held a sign that touched on many of the issues on demonstrators’ minds: “This is All Native Land: Love is Love, Immigrants Rights, Science is Real, Environmental Justice, Black Lives Matters, Women’s Rights and Feminism.”
“We go to all the social justice, police reform and environmental marches,” Johnson said. “But we don’t often see ourselves (Ona is Native American and black; her mom, Native American) reflected in the leadership or messages. Native people are commonly left out. It’s really important that Ona see the connections, that she claim her place and her voice.”
Rinzan Pechovnik, a priest from the No-Rank Zendo, a Zen Buddhist temple in Southeast Portland, scanned the crowd of thousands.
“This is the fundamental march,” he said. “We have to throw our bodies in to let the world know we care.”
Cary Watters (Tlingit), a Community Engagement Manager at NAYA, banged a hand drum leading marchers past the convention center.
“Ecological and social justice is really key,” she said. “You don’t have one without the other.”
Mary Phillips recently relocated to North Portland joined the march with her daughter-in-law, Erin, and son Mike, a program associate on Meyer’s Healthy Environment portfolio.
“We have to stay vigilant,” Phillips said. “Climate change affects everything — jobs, health care, housing — and this march shows how intersectional it gets. We’re all together in this.”