Long-term investments for deep and lasting impact

This summer, Meyer Memorial Trust announced its largest initiative to date: $25 million to support Justice Oregon for Black Lives. With this new commitment, we seek to make sweeping changes to the systems that perpetuate racial inequity in Oregon. This isn’t the first time Meyer has rallied behind a single issue — and it won’t be the last. Thanks in part to one of its initiative predecessors, the Willamette River Initiative, we know that long-term investment in a focused area can have a deep and lasting impact.

The Willamette River Initiative launched in 2008 with the goal of achieving a healthier river by better aligning the efforts of the nonprofits, agencies and researchers focused on river health. It sought to build a strong foundation for future river health work. And, starting in 2015, it worked to advance diversity, equity and inclusion in the watershed conservation field in the Willamette River Basin.

During the WRI, the pace and scale of habitat restoration increased mightily, new regional partnerships and networks took root, and cohorts of the initiative’s mostly white, mainstream environmental grantees began to embrace the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion — first through immersive learning, then through internal organizational change. At the WRI's biennial conference, Within Our Reach, you could look around the room and feel a sense of community. We suspected these were the inklings of change. Now, more than a decade and $20 million in Meyer grants later, we have the data to back it up. An external evaluation, completed by the Portland-based firm Dialogues In Action, tells us definitively: The WRI made a real and durable impact on our ability to achieve a healthier Willamette River system.

The evaluation also points to a key ingredient that made this impact possible: collaboration.

We’re lucky in Oregon to have the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, a state agency devoted to improving the ecological health of our lands and waters. OWEB was Meyer’s core partner from the start. By joining together public and private funds, we were able to leverage enough support to ramp up restoration in seven major tributaries of the Willamette River and along its main channel. At the time, the field lacked the capacity to take on large-scale, long-term projects in the river’s floodplain, and little restoration had taken place there. But decades of research told us this was an area of high priority if we wanted to make big strides in river health. Meyer’s flexible capacity funding gave organizations the ability to think strategically over the long term and build trust with riverside landowners in the hopes the landowners would partner with organizations to improve habitat on their lands.

Combined with project dollars from OWEB and later from the federal Bonneville Power Administration, Meyer’s funding unlocked close to 30 large-scale projects on the mainstem Willamette River. Many of these projects are in places you can visit today, like Willamette Mission State Park in Keizer and Minto-Brown Island Park in downtown Salem. This is on top of the over 900 landowners working with watershed councils in the tributaries, compared with 83 in 2010 — an exponential increase made possible by Meyer’s partnership with the Bonneville Environmental Foundation. The BEF brought its innovative Model Watershed Program to the Willamette. Along with restoration expertise, the BEF supported collaborative efforts across the basin by filling in the gaps that individual organizations had a hard time covering on their own, such as bulk ordering plants and seeking funding. The collective impact of funders, nonprofits, government agencies, scientists and community members working in a coordinated way was integral to the WRI’s success.

Forests take decades to grow back, but we can take comfort in knowing that nature is resilient if given a chance. Even in young forests planted during the WRI, farmers and ecologists alike are seeing a vibrant new buzz of birds and insects, the first signs of a recovering ecosystem. In one site, Wapato Cove, a relentless invasive weed has been greatly decreased and wapato, an important Tribal First Food, has taken off in its place. I’m eager to watch as the ecological successes of the WRI continue to develop in the coming years.

For Meyer, building community is as important as grantmaking. The WRI exemplified this. The initiative set a tone of network-weaving by hosting events like Within Our Reach and serving as a basin-wide “matchmaker” to help seed new projects and partnerships. Organizations met the moment. Across the basin, we’ve seen people step into a deeper level of partnership than ever before. These new collaboratives are here to stay; they have shared staff, formal partnership agreements and, in one case, a new office building that serves as a nonprofit hub. The evaluation tells us that this change in how people are in relationship with each other is likely to endure.

From the start, Meyer hoped to unite people across the basin toward a healthier Willamette. The data say that establishing a common vision for the river is one of the major accomplishments of the WRI — no small feat. And yet, this is only true for those who were part of the WRI. As a mainstream conservation program framed by Western science, the WRI had to reckon with its exclusive whiteness. This meant inviting its grantees into immersive learning, while beginning to build connections with leaders of color, Indigenous leaders and community-based organizations. Some white leaders who weren’t fully ready to dive in at the time are now the most powerful voices among their peers in support of addressing racial equity in the context of river health. It’s still early, but the work has begun to build trust between white leaders and the Indigenous leaders and leaders of color who have long advocated for healthy water, air and land for their communities but have been denied meaningful access to decision-making tables.

How was this culture shift possible in only three years? The data tell us that it was in large part due to the WRI’s culture of community and trust built over time. It was the same recipe that enabled the creation of a new community-driven organization that would live outside Meyer and center diversity, equity and inclusion from the get-go. The new Willamette River Network is poised to expand upon what the WRI started, with the leadership of Indigenous people and people of color at the fore and a vision of people and rivers thriving together.

In 2008, the Willamette mattered to Meyer and it mattered to our partners and grantees. It should matter to all of us now. About 7 out of 10 Oregonians live in the Willamette Valley, most of them within a 20-minute drive of the river. The Willamette is the largest river system that is entirely contained within Oregon's borders. This makes it our river — our gift and our responsibility. The Willamette Valley produces 75 percent of Oregon’s economic output, and our river is its backbone. It provides recreation and tourism; it waters our crops; it gives us drinking water, beer, wine and cider; it washes semiconductors. The river’s salmon have been a cornerstone of the diets and cultures of Willamette Valley Tribes since time immemorial. A healthy river system is an enormous economic and cultural asset. What would it look like to treat it as one?

I believe we’re at a pivotal moment where we can unlock far greater impact for rivers and for people, with equity at the center. But it will take a broader coalition of collaborators, including public and private funders, businesses, and industry.

The WRI has shown us how much our community is capable of when given the right kind of support. The portal is open. Let’s step through it together.


A crowd of people marching during the 2017 Portland People's Climate Movement March.

A crowd of people marching during the 2017 Portland People's Climate Movement March. Photo by Fred Joe Photo.

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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.

And that’s a message of hope.


The Willamette River is the largest watershed in Oregon’s borders: Our gift and our responsibility. Fortunately, we have a stronger foundation to build on than ever before.

The Willamette River is the largest watershed in Oregon’s borders: Our gift and our responsibility. Fortunately, we have a stronger foundation to build on than ever before.

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ICYMI: Nez Perce Tribe invests in lodge conservation easement

Last month, the Nez Perce Tribe secured a conservation easement for 9.22 acres of land along the Wallowa River, permanently protecting an area on the Tribe's ancestral homeland that is known as Waakak’amkt or “where the braided stream disappears into the water.” This accomplishment will also preserve the Wallowa River’s eastern channel and wetland areas from future development.

The Wallowa County Chieftain documents the historic purchase, made possible by grants from organizations such as The Collins Foundation, M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, Meyer Memorial Trust, Oregon Community Foundation and others:

The easement is part of a growing presence of the Nimiipuu (Nez Perce) people in their Wallowa County homeland. That includes the preservation of the Iwetemlaykin State Heritage site, Nez Perce participation in management of the county’s 1,800-acre East Moraine property, the work of the Joseph-based Nez Perce Fisheries in restoring coho salmon, lamprey eels and eventually sockeye to the rivers here, the Homeland Project in Wallowa and the Precious Lands preserve (Hetes’wits Wetes) in the Joseph Canyon area.

'Our efforts will continue to interact with the land,” said Shannon Wheeler, Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee chairman. “That’s where our people are from. … When the Nez Perce people were leaving (in 1877), one of the elders asked people to turn around and look at the land because it might be the last time that they would see it. … So any chance that we get to come back, I see a lot of smiling faces when our people are there, and I think the land smiles when the Nez Perce are there.'

Read the entire piece here.

The new conservation easement will preserve the Wallowa River’s eastern channel and wetland areas from future development. Photo by Ellen Morris Bishop/For the Wallowa County Chieftain.

The new conservation easement will preserve the Wallowa River’s eastern channel and wetland areas from future development. Photo by Ellen Morris Bishop/For the Wallowa County Chieftain.

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The story of the Portland Clean Energy Fund is live!

By now, most people in Multnomah County have heard about the Portland Clean Energy Fund (PCEF). The breakthrough 2018 ballot measure—led by a front-line community coalition including Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, Coalition of Communities of Color, NAACP Portland Branch 1120, Native American Youth and Family Center, OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon and Verde—raising an estimated $44 million to $61 million annually to support renewable energy, job training, green infrastructure and economic justice projects. The initiative is touted for what it will ultimately accomplish through the investment of these funds, and the story of how this initiative came together is worthy of attention in and of itself.

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.


—Mary Rose

A photovoltaic solar panel array near Portland State University in downtown Portland.

A photovoltaic solar panel array near Portland State University in downtown Portland.

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Earth Day 2020: An Unforgettable 50th Anniversary

We will never forget spring 2020. The impact of and response to the novel coronavirus has been simultaneously saddening, enraging and inspiring. We are seeing heart-wrenching losses and immense health and economic fallout. We are being inspired by front-line workers who put themselves at risk to take care of the sick and keep essential services moving. People are adapting, innovating and showing kindness in so many ways. We are also coming together in one of the biggest collective actions ever by physically distancing ourselves from each other in an effort to stem the spread of the virus.

What’s also crystal clear is that although COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, is harming all communities, communities of color are the most impacted. A study released last week found that COVID-19 patients exposed to even a moderate increase in air pollution long term are at a greater risk of dying. Black Americans are dying from COVID-19 at higher rates partly because they disproportionately live in places with more air pollution. On Friday, Race Forward, which has a mission to catalyze movement building for racial justice, summed it up: “Let’s be clear: Coronavirus kills, and structural racism is its accomplice.” This is because the systems and structures that drive how our society operates in a pandemic are the same broken systems that drive how it operates in normal days.

At Meyer, we understand this. We know that structural, institutional, historical and systemic racism are components in the context in which we do our work. We also know that the exploitative mindset that underlies structural racism is the same mindset that drives and sustains the overexploitation of nature. Dominance of people and nature is the story of our nation and of Oregon.

Organizers of the Oregon Environmental Justice Pathways Summit postponed the in-person convening until fall 2020. However, the organizers decided to host a virtual summit “teaser” last week by engaging some of the speakers to share a preview of their presentations on what would have been the summit’s opening day. In honor of Earth Day 2020 and to elevate the need to strengthen and grow Oregon’s environmental justice movement, I wanted to share some highlights from the preview.

University of Oregon Professor and Ethnic Studies Department Head Laura Pulido moderated a 90-minute webinar on Oregon’s environmental justice history that included the following speakers.

David Harrelson, Cultural Resources Department Manager and Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Community of Oregon  Gwendolyn Trice, Executive Director, Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center  Ramon Ramirez, Taconic Fellow, Community Change and Special Projects Director & Movement Elder, PCUN  Linda Tamura, Professor of Education Emerita, Willamette University

In the opening presentation by David Harrelson, entitled “The Kalapuya and the Myth of Wilderness,” David spoke about the history of the Kalapuya people’s cultural management of their ancestral territory in the Willamette Valley since time immemorial. He also explained how one of our country’s core conservation laws, the Wilderness Act of 1964, has played a role in building the narrative around the idea of “pristine nature without humans” that is grounded on the removal of Native American people and has informed how conservation has been practiced in the United States.

He reminded us that the cultural practices of the Kalapuya people have shaped their ancestral lands in northwest Oregon for more than 500 generations and that there is no “untrammeled land” — a term from the Wilderness Act — in their traditional territories. This narrative of pristine nature and the practices driven by it have invisibilized the Kalapuya people’s history and created barriers to their ability to practice traditional cultural management of the land today. David noted that he sees the opportunity to learn from, understand and translate ancestral teachings about land management to have a much more holistic and resilient management regime in the future.

Gwendolyn Trice’s presentation “Oregon Timber Culture: Then and Now” opened with the story of Black loggers from Maxville, who were recruited to move to Oregon to work in the timber industry at a time when the Oregon Constitution prohibited Black people from residing in or owning property in the state. Gwendolyn shared how the Black families in Maxville lived in segregated housing, attended segregated schools and played on a segregated baseball team, as well as greatly contributing to creating a vibrant timber community.

She talked about the significant role of the Ku Klux Klan in Oregon in the early 1900s, describing it as the the biggest social club in the state that played a key role in connecting the dominant culture at the time. It also played a prominent role in Oregon politics. Gwendolyn also talked about Vernonia, another small timber community, as a place where different racial and ethnic groups lived and worked in segregated and substandard conditions until the NAACP stepped in to advocate for improvements. Beatrice Morrow Cannady, who was the first Black woman to graduate from law school in Oregon, was a key leader in this movement.

Ramon Ramirez grounded his presentation about Oregon farmworkers in the history of the agriculture movement in the U.S., which is rooted in exploitation that began with slavery and shifted to the sharecropping system and now excludes farmworkers from national labor laws, which were first passed in the 1930s.

Ramon shared that 70% of the farmworkers who work for piece rate in the Willamette Valley are members of undocumented and Indigenous communities. Their exclusion from labor law protections, poor living conditions and legal, but dangerous, industrial agricultural practices expose them to significant health risks. Ramon shared startling information gathered from a Marion County clinic that over half of the farmworker women they serve have had miscarriages. He also shared that the average life expectancy of a farmworker is 49 as compared with 78 in the U.S. and that 25% of farmworkers get cancer.

He ended his comments by highlighting the brutal reality that even though farmworkers are deemed “essential workers” during the coronavirus crisis, most of these workers will not be able to access benefits from the recently passed CARES Act because of their citizenship status.

Linda Tamura shared how Japanese immigrants came to Oregon and how racism impacted the Japanese community for generations in the state. Japanese workers were drawn west to work on the railroads’ expansion. In the early 1900s, a strong community of Japanese immigrants grew in Hood River and gained property in exchange for clearing land for white property owners. They grew strawberries and asparagus, while establishing apple orchards.

Linda recounted how after a number of attempts, Oregon passed an Anti-Alien Land Law to prevent Japanese immigrants from purchasing land in 1923, which Japanese families were able to subvert by buying land in their children’s names. In 1942, the U.S. passed Executive Order 9066, which led to the forced removal of the Japanese community from Hood River and imprisonment in concentration camps during World War II. Many Japanese families had to abandon their businesses and personal possessions during this period. Some lost their land. After the war, parts of the Hood River community did not welcome the Japanese community’s return and tried to prevent families from returning to land they already owned.

The remarks and reflections of the speakers threaded together pieces of the history of structural racism in Oregon and its intersection with our relationship with nature today. There’s much more to unpack from this history. Understanding our shared history is an important part in addressing environmental justice issues and ensuring that all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender identity or expression, income, or citizenship status are able to access a clean and healthy environment where they live, work and play.

I encourage you all to tune into the full 90-minute presentation and join me in the fall at the Oregon Environmental Justice Pathways Summit.


 Ella and Devon Burke hold an Earth Day banner they made with their mom, Jill Fuglister.

Ella and Devon Burke hold an Earth Day banner they made with their mom, Jill Fuglister.

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These water stories are changing currents

Meyer is supporting the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians’ (ATNI) work with its member Tribes and Tribal communities to engage in important regional and statewide water policy discussions focused on quantity, quality, access, rights and cultural understanding. To encourage a broad conversation among the nine federally recognized Tribes of Oregon, ATNI hosted their first Water Summit in 2016. ATNI also connected with mainstream conservation organizations, such as Oregon Environmental Council (OEC), to find alignment around inter-Tribal water policy priorities.

To continue these dialogues and ensure Tribal perspectives inform mainstream initiatives, such as Gov. Kate Brown’s 100 Year Water Vision, ATNI and OEC partnered to create Changing Currents, a website that uses storytelling to explore how water relates to Tribal culture, governance, economic infrastructure and community health and wellness.

If you haven’t already started listening to the rich stories they’ve gathered, we recommend beginning with Shirod Younker’s exploration of the Coquille Indian Tribe’s canoe customs and the inter-Tribal healing that a single canoe can provide.


— Mary Rose

A mural of Chief Joseph by Toma Villa, an enrolled member of the Yakama Indian Nation, located in Arbor Lodge Park in North Portland.

A mural of Chief Joseph by Toma Villa, an enrolled member of the Yakama Indian Nation, located in Arbor Lodge Park in North Portland.

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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.

Learn more in the full PCEF report, here.

Mary Rose

Illustration by: Jess X Snow, Long Live Our Mother, Amplify

Illustration by: Jess X Snow, Long Live Our Mother, Amplify

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A pivotal year for the environment

This year marks the opening of our fifth year of grantmaking through the Healthy Environment portfolio. As this Annual Funding Opportunity kicks off, the portfolio remains committed to investing in organizations and partnerships that have a vision for change and an approach based on values of justice, ecological sustainability, cooperation and healing.

2020 is a pivotal year for the environment. The lack of action on climate change, a growing number of environmental policy rollbacks at the federal level, intractable structural challenges in our state budget and the intersection of white nationalism with opposition to environmental protections are among the weighty issues our grantee partners wrestle with daily. At Meyer, we invest in organizations and collaboratives that demonstrate an understanding of this political, social and economic context -- and how power operates within this context to create and maintain social inequality and environmental problems -- in rural and urban communities across Oregon. Understanding context and seeking structural changes that get to the root of these challenges are crucial capabilities.

There are many examples of inspiring work aimed at tackling these challenges: efforts to reimagine and redesign systems and structures for 21st century realities, projects to scale up successful models for enhancing community and ecosystem resilience, and initiatives that expand the political influence of those most impacted by environmental problems.

We hope you will draw insights about the kinds of solutions we aim to support through our grantmaking from this interview with Alan Hipólito. We see the work of the Portland Clean Energy Fund Coalition as an example of the kind of approach and creative, structural solution we need to advance Meyer’s mission of a flourishing, equitable Oregon. In particular, we want to point out the important coalition structure that they created, one that centers the lived experience of communities that are on the front lines of climate change. From PCEF’s inception, frontline community organizations have led its effort, guiding organizations that have traditionally held more power in Oregon’s environmental movement to step back in support roles. This is equity in action.

The Healthy Environment team is eager to work with you on your upcoming grant applications, so please get in touch with us to discuss your ideas. We also are committed to exploring new ways to partner, across philanthropy and other sectors, to imagine what’s possible, build the capacity of Oregon’s environmental movement, back resilient communities, share stories about solutions and manifest a more equitable vision for the future.


Illustration by: Peter Pa, Climate Justice Now, Amplify

Illustration by: Peter Pa, Climate Justice Now, Amplify

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By and About
ICYMI: Our Story on Our Territory

The Chinook Indian Nation recently bought Tansy Point, an impressive ten acres of land on the Tribes' ancestral homeland and serene enclave of forests, wetlands and habitat for elk, deer, bald eagles and other native creatures. 

Enrolled Chinook Indian Nation member Leslie Ann McMillan wrote about the Tribes work to purchase the Tansy Point treaty grounds in a new article published by Oregon Humanities:

"During the past two years, we have been stunned by the outpouring of generosity from tribal members, old friends, new friends, foundations, trusts, and others that have learned of our Tansy Point treaty grounds purchase and preservation.

We completed our reacquisition of the modest yet monumental ten acres in 2019. We look forward to stewardship; flora, fauna, and fish counts; stream and habitat revitalization; and historical, environmental, and cultural preservation in partnership with others who care. On our tidal shoreline property far downriver, anything occurring anywhere in the Columbia River estuary ecosystem concerns us."

Read the entire piece here.

View of the Astoria-Megler bridge from the Tansy Point treaty grounds. Photo credit: Oregon Humanities

View of the Astoria-Megler bridge from the Tansy Point treaty grounds. Photo credit: Oregon Humanities

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Meet our newest team member, Mary Rose!

Mary Rose Navarro recently joined Meyer’s Healthy Environment portfolio as the portfolio’s first program officer. In September, Communications & Engagement Specialist Darion Jones interviewed Mary Rose about her background, experience and what keeps her grounded in environmental equity work.

Darion Jones: So, Mary Rose, tell me a little bit about yourself.

Mary Rose Navarro: I moved to Oregon in 1990 from Indiana, but my family moved quite a bit when I was young, so I like to say that I am from five suburban towns in four Midwestern states.

My father was an ambitious businessman. I’ve been thinking about him since he passed away three years ago. I mainly thought of him as this entrepreneur, but when I really look at how he lived his life, I believe he worked so hard so he could make things better for his family, his friends and his community. While he wanted to be valued as a businessman, he really lived his life being of service, always warm, hospitable and welcoming.

He was someone who leaned in wherever there was an opportunity. For example, he was the president of our neighborhood association, and I remember building a float for the Fourth of July parade in our garage with neighbors. He stepped up at church where he was involved in the Knights of Columbus. In more recent years, he got really involved in Project Healing Waters, which is an organization that helps veterans heal from the trauma they’ve experienced through flyfishing and fly tying. He was proud of his involvement in that organization.

Over these last three years, I have come to realize that my own ambition and hard work is also rooted in the desire to be of service to others and lead a meaningful life.

Darion Jones: Yeah, that sounds like a phenomenal kind of community-building and dedication. I now understand a little bit more about what drives you.

Earlier you said you were from four Midwestern states. How did you make the shift from where you are to Oregon?

Mary Rose Navarro: It was a little by accident.

I was attending Purdue University in Indiana working toward earning an engineering degree. I shifted course when I realized I wanted a career with a more creative outlet. Landscape architecture was an attractive option.

Darion Jones: Wow, that is quite a different place to end up.

Mary Rose Navarro: When I made the switch, it wasn’t because I was concerned about the environment. I just wanted to design cool gardens, but then I took a required forestry class. That’s where I read Aldo Leopold and learned about the interconnection of ecosystem services and reflected on people’s connection to nature.

When I graduated, I received an offer in Dayton, Ohio, for a firm that did typical land development kind of projects … and an offer in Portland, Ore.

I had sent my resume to a firm here in Portland that was supporting community groups that were organizing around a system of parks and green spaces. Honestly, I had no idea what that meant, but it sounded closer to my interest in ecosystem health.

It was eye-opening. I had never even thought about the services government provides our communities until I found myself in this room of conservation advocates and “friends of” groups. They were advocating for a long-term plan that would direct more intentional funding into environmental protection. It wasn’t just the idea of a planning document that attracted my attention. It was how many small community groups were actively taking care of a small natural area in their neighborhoods. I was amazed with their interest in connecting with and learning from each other.

Coming from the flat farmlands of the Midwest to the rich natural beauty of Oregon; learning about government services and planning practices alongside passionate community members; experiencing the power of collaboration — all at the same time — really pushed me toward the path that I’ve taken.

Darion Jones: What drew you to nonprofit work?

Mary Rose Navarro: When I completed my masters program at Portland State University, I thought of myself as an environmentalist and somebody who was mainly concerned about trees and habitats and birds (which I do deeply care about). Then I landed a role at Friends of Trees. There I learned that I wasn’t really in this work for the trees ... I was in it for the community-building.

So often, when people come together early on a Saturday morning, it can be cold and rainy. They’re all bundled up and elbowing their way to the coffee pot. By the end of the morning the energy has shifted. There’s a buzz of accomplishment while people eat lunch with new friends and reflect on what they were able to achieve together.

There is also the less visible part of the work. Each neighborhood had a volunteer coordinator who invested many hours of work getting people to sign up for trees, collecting orders and organizing volunteers. My role was simply supporting them.

Their experiences were so inspiring and revealed the more hidden relationship building that was happening.

As I’ve been learning more about the systems that have created the disparities in our world, I’ve wondered “Where do I want to affect change?” What I've come to understand is that it’s one interaction at a time.

Darion Jones: How so?

Mary Rose Navarro: There was one coordinator, who knocked on the door of a particular house over and over and over again. This house was on a big corner lot with room to plant many trees, and we really wanted to plant trees. However, the woman that lived there was very reluctant to open the door. When she finally came to the door, the coordinator learned that she was afraid of the teenagers who hung out on the corner, “They’re hoodlums,” she would say. Ultimately, she did agree to plant trees and guess who planted them? The kids that she had been afraid of. This is the way new friendships are seeded and trust is built, one interaction at a time.

Darion Jones: Wow, it is truly amazing to hear that story come full circle.

Mary Rose Navarro: As we more authentically connect with one another, we will become more courageous to face the internal conditioning that gets in our way. This allows us to then work more courageously together toward equitable and just social change.

In my work at Meyer, I hope to always bring that level of caring. I know that there is a dynamic of wanting to put a funder on some pedestal. But Meyer can’t accomplish our mission without the vision, the passion and the dedication of the people working in community-based organizations and the people they are empowering. That’s where the root of social change is.

Darion Jones: Fighting the good fight, what do you do to relax? Where do you find catharsis and how do you recharge?

Mary Rose Navarro: My practice of taking care of myself and recharging is also a practice toward self-awareness.

By nature, I’m an extrovert, but I find that I need space to be silent and reflective.

I have been practicing mindfulness for over 15 years now. One practice that is really important to me is what we call a “Day of Mindfulness.” My spiritual community practices days of mindfulness once a month at an abbey in Lafayette. I try to attend six to eight times a year. It’s a beautiful setting where I can feel very connected to the earth and connected to the trees. By collectively taking care of ourselves, we can then support each other as each of us brings more intention and awareness to the work we do for the world.

Darion Jones: It sounds like a wonderful and calming place to get centered. Thank you for chatting with me today, Mary Rose. I’m glad you’re here at Meyer.

Mary Rose Navarro: Thank you, Darion.

Interested in reading more about Mary Rose? Check out her staff bio.

Meet Mary Rose Navarro
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