“Realizing as I do the uncertainties of the future, I want my trustees to be able to exercise broad discretion in shaping and carrying out charitable programs which can be tailored to fit changing conditions and problems."
When Fred G. Meyer established what we now know today as Meyer Memorial Trust, he offered what I consider to be a brilliant invitation — to think expansively and creatively about how to best address the greatest societal challenges of our time. Thanks to Mr. Meyer’s vision, we have been given the freedom to dream big from our very inception.
As the fourth person to lead this organization in its more than 40-year history, I benefit from the imagination and foresight of my predecessors. I am grateful for the work of Doug Stamm, who set Meyer on a path towards a vision of an equitable and flourishing Oregon, and for Michelle DePass, who built on that effort, pushing for a bold response to Oregon’s founding as a whites-only utopia. Through her leadership and with board support, we resolved to center communities of color in 2021, recognizing that eliminating race-based disparities was central to our collective dream of community well-being.
As a Trustee at Meyer for six years prior to my appointment as CEO, I’m so proud to have been a part of our evolution from equity towards an explicit commitment to racial, social and economic justice.
I’m especially grateful for the conversations Meyer has had with Oregon’s diverse communities, for the continuing wisdom gained through our launch of the Justice Oregon for Black Lives initiative, and all that we’ve learned through a robust strategic planning process.
While we have never stopped grantmaking throughout this time, we know that grant seekers have been waiting patiently to find out what all of this listening, learning and planning will mean for them in practice moving forward.
Familiar Issues, A New Way Forward
Those who are familiar with Meyer will recognize that many of the issue areas we funded in the past continue to be represented in Meyer’s new funding priorities.
Ultimately, we are working towards an Oregon that supports and advances:
Our Empowered Youth
Where our children have access to a fully resourced education that helps them to realize their highest ambitions.
Our Collective Prosperity
Where everyone is able to support themselves, their families and their communities while building wealth for the next generation.
Our Resilient Places
Where we care for our natural and built environments in ways that are rooted in culture and community.
Woven into our collective vision of the future is the belief that:
Together, We Rise. We all benefit when we ensureorganizations are effectiveand have the capacity to fulfill their missions, support strong networks of leaders of color and build community capacity to advocate for systems change.
In addition, we aim to deepen our focus and impact by increasing dedicated support for funder partnerships that serve Our Shared Purpose.
These last two funding areas, Together, We Rise and Our Shared Purpose, are key aspects of our new approach to funding. By working in coordination with peer funders, our business community and government, Meyer believes it can more fully leverage its resources towards efforts that improve the lives of Oregonians today and for generations to come.
I’ll be in conversation with many of you about Meyer’s new approach to grantmaking over the next few months, with special attention to learning more about where we might collaborate and partner.
Our program team continues to move dollars out the door through continuation grants and other means. We plan to share our open call application and guidance later this year. See our FAQ for more information and sign up for our newsletter to receive updates.
I am tremendously excited about the journey we are on and I am extending the invitation, as our founder did more than 40 years ago, to dream and think big with us.
After a year and a half at the helm of communications, Roy Kaufmann is leaving Meyer.
Roy joined the organization in 2021 and partnered with former CEO Michelle J. DePass, to guide Meyer to its new mission of accelerating racial, social and economic justice in Oregon. During his time with Meyer, Roy provided a steady hand as the organization navigated leadership transitions and a strategic planning effort. We will remember his commitment to the work, sense of humor and candid voice as he moves on to his next chapter.
Nearly two decades of working in nonprofits have acclimated me to restrictive, donor-directed funding. I can count the number of times on one hand that a donor has asked for input on strategy. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my first task as Meyer's director of grantmaking would be listening to community members to inform our new approach. I could not have asked for a better introduction to Oregon’s amazing leaders and organizations!
Over the summer and early fall of 2022, Meyer — in close partnership with community leaders — convened a series of community engagement sessions. Starting in June and continuing through October, Meyer hosted 16 group sessions and a half-dozen, one-on-one interviews across four communities (Latine/x/a/o, Native, Asian American, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander), as well as one thematic area (gender justice). The Justice Oregon for Black Lives initiative also held community listening sessions last year. Each group’s conversations took different forms, following the lead of the community and working to best fit their needs.
Meyer staff worked to be intentional in our approach. We read reports ahead of time and hired facilitators from the communities we were speaking with in an attempt to create a more neutral space. We offered collective and individual meetings. Mindful of how listening sessions require community members to give of their time and wisdom — an arrangement that can be extractive — Meyer offered every attendee an honorarium for their participation. And similarly conscious of the fact that honoraria are right and necessary, but not fully sufficient for showing our appreciation for their insights, we also told participants that we would share back with them what we heard from specific groups and collectively across all conversations.
I want to shine a light on the common themes that surfaced, the threads that ran through the different communities and gatherings we held. Though these themes may not be “new” and we saw each community interpret the themes uniquely, there are clear trends that resonated within the diverse BIPOC communities we spoke with.
Everything is interconnected. Everyone is connected.
The conversations we had with communities of color clearly underscored the truism of intersectionality: we are all connected and cannot address issues in isolation. Hearing tangible examples of this in the lives of community members further validated the intersectional focus of Meyer’s new strategic framework. It is a core pillar on which future grantmaking will be built. At the same time, we heard the complexity and nuance of this approach; we know we will need to stay in partnership to navigate this well.
Belonging means home and it also means healing.
We heard variations on this theme but the melody carried through: communities of color need spaces to authentically belong, in order to carry forward efforts to make Oregon a place where anyone can feel at home. Given the historic erasure and forced assimilation of BIPOC communities, there is a strong desire to retain cultural identity but this does not preclude unity in Oregon. The mindset of abundance reminds us that there is space for all.
Current investment in leaders and organizations is essential for future progress.
The pandemic and racial reckoning of the last two years have pushed organizations into new areas of service delivery with limited support to organizational infrastructure. On one hand, new needs and possibilities have emerged. On the other hand, there aren’t enough people to carry out the work. Moving forward on racial justice will require specific support to the organizations on the front lines of leading racial justice change for their communities.
In addition to the commonalities across groups, I also want to lift up some of the specific insights that surfaced during our time with community.
Data is helpful, except when it's harmful.
One of the key takeaways from the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (NH/PI) engagements was actually foreshadowed in our own engagement planning process. When Meyer's program staff first mapped out our summer of engagement, we planned to meet with the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, often abbreviated as AAPI.
But when we began introduction calls, we heard feedback that guided us in a different direction. Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders shared how the broad label of AAPI often skewed the data and invisibilized their experiences. As a first-generation Chinese American who has relative privilege in comparison to many others under the “AAPI” label, it was easy to see how harmful this lack of nuance could be. The mass aggregation of data told a very different story than what was being lived in reality. Even the NH/PI label encompasses incredibly varied experiences and needs.
As a starting point, Meyer could help rectify the invisibilizing history by engaging with NH/PI leaders in their own conversations separate from Asian American leaders. Disaggregating the conversation was one important component to build relationships with this community and better understand its strengths and needs.
The natural world is a part of — not apart from — Oregon's definition of community. It's time we think of it that way.
Our Native engagement team spent nearly eight hours over three sessions with two dozen leaders and representatives from Oregon's Native communities. In addition to echoing the themes of interconnectedness, belonging and building, they offered another essential insight — that our environment, our place is a part of our community. The water, the air, the wildlife, our wildlands and worked lands are as integral to our well-being as the schools we send our children to or the jobs we take or the businesses we support.
For us at Meyer, it validates why we chose to include the collective well-being of Oregon's lands and peoples in our new mission statement.
How We're Using the Insights We Gathered
After hearing from over 100 community members, Meyer staff mapped and synthesized what we learned. We saw convergence around the key themes named earlier and reported these findings to Meyer’s Trustees in October. We shared facilitators' notes and transcripts of the sessions to those who engaged in the process.
For those interested in a deeper exploration of those conversations, we invite you to review our synthesis briefto get a deeper, richer sense of the conversations we had and the focus areas communities lifted up.
Most importantly, we are integrating the priorities we heard into our new strategic framework, which will be fully shared in coming months. We are beyond grateful for the time, energy and passion from community members and we hope to be worthy stewards of what was shared.
Justice Oregon for Black Lives was born from the depths of overwhelming heartbreak — a response to the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and multiple other overlapping traumas that fueled a growing movement to end systemic and structural racism. The initiative also recognized the urgency and opportunity we had to transform institutions, systems and narratives in Oregon, a state founded on stolen lands and explicit in its constitutional exclusion of Black people.
As we began developing a set of funding priorities in conversation with community advisors across the state, issues of public safety, education and economic justice were clearly top-of-mind. We also heard about two other important priorities that Meyer had less experience in funding — efforts to promote healing and to increase Black joy.
In February, we announced our first round of awards from the inaugural Call for Proposals that addressed the first three priorities — Reimagining Public safety, Investing in Education and Economic Justice.
Now, it gives me great pleasure to share the names of the organizations that will be doing the equally important work of Addressing Trauma and Healing and Shifting Black Narrative through Arts and Culture.
I want to emphasize equally important because it truly is. We cannot rise out of the depths of a collective trauma without also committing to the work needed to restore and reclaim our souls and our stories.
Our team has been heartened by all the different ways that grantees have addressed these outcomes in their applications and we cannot wait to see the lift in hearts and spirits that this work will inspire. We also want to express our gratitude for the patience of these organizations, some of whom have waited a year for funding as we balanced our desire for urgency with our responsibility to design a community-informed, fair and clear process.
A few highlights of the awards:
Black Art/ists Gathering will realize their vision of increasing Black joy as they host an intergenerational convening of Black artists.
Bridge-Pamoja will have resources to promote healing practice to mend cultural rifts between African and African-American communities in Oregon.
The Community Doula Alliance will support Black doulas in practicing their cultural and traditional birth and postpartum models of care.
What could be more joyful than a brand new baby coming into this world, surrounded by love and caring? It’s our hope and our future.
In all, nearly $1.9 million will go to 17 organizations, including eight first-time awardees and four organizations that work outside of the Portland Metro area. We are excited to partner with so many new organizations — to connect with you and to connect you with one another, for an even more powerful and enduring impact on our incredible community.
Though August has been designated Black Philanthropy Month, we recognize that this work is ongoing and requires sustained commitment to thrive.
In that spirit, I want to note that our 2022 Call for Proposals is now live. One key thing to know is that we are accepting applications for all five community-identified priorities in this round. In response to feedback from our community, we have also extended the window for submitting an application from four to six weeks and will continue to accept applications prepared for other funders, as well as video applications as an alternative to written narratives. More information and resources can be found here.
Intentionally funding Black joy is just one step on a long road to true liberation. As we move forward together, let’s make this path a well-worn one.
After eight years at the helm of investments at Meyer Memorial Trust, I am stepping down as chief investment officer and departing Meyer.
I am incredibly proud of the work my team — along with our stellar advisors, managers and consultants — has done together, growing the trust's endowment from $700 million in 2014 to over a billion dollars in 2022, making it possible for Meyer to grant out $322 million in charitable funds to nonprofits across Oregon. Seeing the impact of our work on the place I've called home all my life has been a true gift, especially given that I directly benefited from Meyer’s philanthropy as a kid in Portland at the Girls and Boys Clubs in North and Northeast Portland and Self Enhancement, Inc.
I also take great solace in knowing how hard the investment team at Meyer has worked to move the needle on diversity, equity and inclusion in the investment world. We've used the levers at our disposal to diversify our pool of asset managers, to push for greater transparency and accountability from those partners, and to make sure our "walk" matches our "talk" when it comes to environmental, social and governance (ESG) principles guiding our investment decisions. I thank my colleagues at Meyer and my wise external counsel for tirelessly (and mostly cheerfully) rowing in the same direction.
Lastly, I am immensely grateful to the world-class team I had the privilege of building, leading and mentoring. Katherine Porras, Stacy Westly and Sohel Hussain are consummate professionals whose brains and hearts are equally invested in their work, because they know how their work shapes Meyer, Oregon and the investment philanthropy space as a whole. The team will remain at Meyer through this transition, with Sohel ably stepping in as interim director of investments.
Change is never easy, but it is inevitable and better embraced than resisted. After eight years, it is time for a change and I am ready.
Thank you for this opportunity to serve and to lead. I'm excited for what is to come.
At the end of June, Meyer Memorial Trust gathered an amazing group of 30 housing advocates, organizers and community leaders in Lincoln City for the Oregon Housing Justice Forum. For most of us, it was the first time in over two years we had been in a room full of people we hadn’t met in person before — and in a way that was the whole point. When Meyer’s Housing team started thinking (back in 2020!) about a multi-day gathering of housing advocates from across the state, our central focus was on providing space and time for people to connect, share what they are working on and identify new allies.
COVID-19 has made creating and sustaining relationships much harder for all of us and we knew people were craving an opportunity to step away from Zoom calls and day-to-day challenges to share visions, plans and hopes for housing justice. The last few years have been full of urgent housing challenges, tireless and smart advocacy, dramatic victories in public policy and new resources for housing needs. The forum was designed to serve as an important occasion for advocates to gather together, take a breath, step back and think about what’s next: how do we all contribute to sustaining and growing broad and resilient movements around equitable housing outcomes? We were particularly looking to center the conversation around the needs and priorities of communities of color and to nurture and promote emerging leaders working with those communities and others that have been historically neglected, marginalized and deprived of the ability to secure suitable housing.
In planning the event, we were fortunate to have the help of three savvy and experienced community members active in the field: Julia Delgado from the Urban League of Portland, Jenny Lee from the Coalition of Communities of Color and Loren Naldoza from the Oregon Housing Alliance. Their perspectives and advice as part of the planning committee helped us shape the event, refining the goals and intent, recruiting and selecting participants and the facilitator, I and actively engaging with other participants during the forum.
By centering BIPOC leadership, authentic allyship, relationship building, belonging and racial justice, the Oregon Housing Justice Forum will have:
Increased our understanding of the historical and current impacts of systemic oppression on housing policies, programs, collaborations and initiatives across sectors that lays a foundation for healing from housing injustices.
Formed a housing justice network (composed of BIPOC leaders, people who have experienced housing insecurities and committed allies) that is relationship-based, expandable, cross-sector and has the potential to become influential and sustainable.
Reimagined a housing justice ecosystem that launches a bold, inspiring and just housing future in Oregon.
Co-created key housing justice initiatives that build on past housing justice victories and learning and are designed and shaped by the insights and experiences of BIPOC communities and/or people who have experienced housing insecurity.
Felt inspired and more prepared to take bold action that fosters relationships and confidence in backing and centering BIPOC leadership and communities in the housing justice space that moves Oregon closer to a vision of housing justice for all.
We decided to limit the size of the event to a group where everyone could engage in the same conversation and connect meaningfully with each other. That meant that we invited only 35 out of the more than 130 people who applied to participate. That roster of 35 was one of the most diverse and dynamic groups of housing advocates the state has ever seen, with notably only about one-third of attendees coming from Portland Metro. All participants brought deep community connections and more than two-thirds identified as indigenous or people of color. Some were familiar to us and connected with current Meyer partner organizations we know well; some were people we had not known of before the event. Core issues and passions represented ranged across the spectrum of affordable housing advocacy, from determined advocates for the houseless to people focused on increasing minority homeownership; from grassroots organizers to people with strong policy expertise to coalition-builders.
Over two-and-a-half days, this extraordinary group dug into the roots of Oregon’s overlapping housing crises, shared their plans, visions and fears around the work in front of them and bonded with new allies in conversations.
Meyer has a long track record of supporting advocacy and organizing work, particularly in affordable housing, and this event was both a natural culmination of that decade-long engagement and a bridge to our new focus built on centering impacted communities, supporting positive systems change and building movements and grassroots power. And the Forum is just the latest chapter in that critical work: we will be engaging with both participants and a wider circle of voices in the next few months to inform how we can support community-driven agendas for housing justice at both the local and statewide levels.
Meyer recently engaged in a strategic planning process that led to a number of changes in our grantmaking process and the values we hold at the center of our work. As part of this effort, Meyer is working with CEI to design and build a learning and evaluation practice within Meyer. This is the latest in a series of conversations about Meyer’s developing strategy.
Last month, Kaberi Banerjee Murthy, Meyer’s chief impact officer, spoke with Chera Reid, Ph.D., co-executive director of the Center for Evaluation Innovation, about the foundation’s focus on learning and listening, how traditional evaluation in the philanthropic sector has created and maintained an unjust status quo, and ways in which a new approach to measuring impact and gathering feedback can help build equity and shift power. They also talked about Lizzo.
Below is a transcript of their chat, which has been edited for length and clarity.
Dr. Chera Reid, Center for Evaluation Innovation: For over a decade, Meyer has defined itself as an equity-centered organization. You recently named a move from equity to justice as your guiding frame. What does this look like in practice?
Kaberi Banerjee Murthy, Meyer Memorial Trust: Fundamentally, given all the challenges inherent in philanthropy — namely, the ways in which it was created by and still rewards unaccountable systems of great inequality — if we're not actively and deliberately moving toward justice, we're only trying to slightly improve conditions within a fundamentally broken system. We need to be working with partners and communities to reimagine and create a new way of being. Otherwise, we’re rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. To move toward justice, it’s been important for us to think about our active stance — to be anti-racist, to center gender and reproductive justice, to heed BIPOC wisdom — as opposed to believing we can get there via a passive stance. We are working to get into deep alignment internally with our mission and values.
Chera: What are you learning as you practice anti-racist behaviors as a justice-centered organization?
Kaberi: First, I should begin by clarifying that we are still aspiring to become a justice foundation. We know that by stating our intent, we won’t magically become one overnight. It’s a process, for sure. But we’re also very aware of how incrementalism can be the enemy of substantive impact, so we are committed to ensuring something meaningful emerges from every step we take. It will be through our everyday choice points that we are practicing how we live our mission.
And it’s a learning journey in all the things that we will get wrong along the way. We are learning to be transparent and honest about that.
One of the things I was thinking about last month was how Lizzo responded to being called out for using ableist language in her new song “Grrrls.” She was called into the difference between intent and impact. She didn’t use her intent as an excuse, but acknowledged her lack of awareness in using an offensive term. Her apology was not only about the words but also about action and transformation. The artist not only apologized but also re-recorded the track with new lyrics. At one of our recent Impact team meetings at Meyer, we talked about how Lizzo’s mature and thoughtful reaction is an example of modeling learning for accountability.
This accountability can happen at the organizational level but also in ourselves. For instance, I know and acknowledge that I’ve personally made mistakes, specifically by internalizing pressures and moving too fast. With feedback from my co-workers and reflecting on one of Dr. Shawn Ginwright’s Four Pivots, I realized that I was more hustle than flow. As individuals, and as an institution, what we can say is, “We will not get this perfect right away. We will make mistakes.” And what we can offer is a genuine desire to be in a listening and learning stance and not shy away from saying, “We got this wrong. We learned something. We listened to the feedback we received. And here’s how we pivoted or changed as a result.”
One of our key indicators about learning for accountability has to become how we respond to feedback, how we meet moments for transformation. Not being afraid to say “mea culpa” because that allows us to have a growth mindset. It’s not about trying to avoid risk or avoid mistakes; it’s about taking away the standard of perfectionism, which itself can be a symptom of white supremacy culture. We are learning to be brave enough to lean into our mistakes so that we can change.
Chera: I love the Lizzo example and want to go back to the accountability question. What’s on the horizon for how Meyer intends to learn with its partners?
Kaberi: When I started at Meyer, the institution collected a ton of data through the Meyer Outcome Reporting Charts (otherwise known as MORCs), and our team read every single evaluation report. We were taking in so much information, but we didn’t have a system for making collective meaning of the data coming in. So that’s one piece: We are moving from episodic or annual engagement to building our own internal muscle to have more meaningful feedback loops. That’s why we’re creating a new role here at Meyer — Director of Learning — and we’ll be posting a job description and accepting applications for that soon. To all those reading this: If bringing innovative approaches to evaluation is your thing, please consider connecting with us. This position will also have the opportunity to build a team, so that’s an exciting part of all of this, having the resources and capacity to get this right.
And the second piece is about making sure evaluation isn’t just in service to Meyer alone. Instead, we are working toward being able to speak to what we’re collectively learning — nonprofit leaders, our staff, our trustees — about how to partner and seek the change we want. We will be in conversation with community to ensure their feedback and wisdom informs our strategy framework, including our priorities and outcomes. We will say: Here’s where we’ve come to, how does this land, what are our blind spots, what did we miss?
Specifically, we’re using the three questions from the Trust-Based Learning and Evaluation Framework to guide our learning approach. As we “Learn for Accountability,” we’re asking how Meyer can continue building a foundation and practice of trust-based philanthropy, participatory grantmaking and intentional community relationships in alignment with our anti-racist, feminist values. As we “Learn for Decision-Making,” we’re asking how we are supporting our nonprofit partners in meeting their goals and adapting our processes to meet our partners’ changing needs. And as we “Learn for Long-Term Impact,” we’re asking if our funding is moving the meter on racial, social and economic justice for the collective well-being of Oregon’s lands and peoples.
Now, Chera, you’ve actually done this very thing in your previous role at Kresge. So I have a question for you. As you think about the future, what are your thoughts on how evaluation and learning benefits grantees? Both of us have been in philanthropy for a bit, and so much of what I’ve seen was around attribution – what did this one grant “buy” – instead of contribution – how did a grant help support work as part of an ecosystem of partners.
Chera: I really appreciate that question, Kaberi. In terms of evaluation, if you will, I grew up in the attribution world, too. If what you learn necessarily is meant to influence federal spending, which certain program evaluation often was designed to do, it has a place.
The way most foundations operate, that’s just not what you do. In philanthropy, we can think both short and long term about change and how change happens. Much of philanthropy works in place and is across complex systems. Social change is far from linear.
Plus, because philanthropy has this protected tax status, it has a bit of financial accountability, but it is not held to any particular standard when it comes to formalizing how we understand impact or to whom we’re accountable. Philanthropy must be motivated to shift accountability, for instance, the way you’re speaking about Meyer’s motivation being the pursuit of justice. Anti-racist practice is necessary, including in evaluative approach. Then philanthropy can share accountability with its nonprofit partners. Because transforming toward justice is for us all.
Kaberi: Can you say more about that?
Chera: One of the things that's unfortunate is that in the professionalization of evaluation, we’ve created an industry that has many of us, and I say this as a person who does a lot of consulting, inside a business model where many are dependent on selling a product called “evaluation.” At the end of the day, what we all want is learning, which isn’t something to possess. We want our learning to be data rich, robust with context and examples from practice. Learning is a capability that is in all of us. We’ve formalized it in such a way that it can lead us to forget that we actually know something about learning.
What energizes me about CEI’s partnership with Meyer is that we are starting from an intent to embody anti-racist practice. We are thinking together about multiple ways of knowing, [and about] how we will understand Meyer’s contribution to a larger system of change around dimensions of justice. Moving away from possession and toward shared learning is key. We will have more robust evaluative thinking — we will get clearer and learn more — with this approach.
Kaberi: And we will be open and vulnerable about the missteps we make along the way, to go back to our Lizzo example. I’m grateful that philanthropic spaces are in the process of shifting. We can and need to be honest and transparent about our journey.
At Meyer, we’re excited about the new Director of Learning and Evaluation role. It’s a long time coming and will really expand our ability to make good on what we know we need to do to better serve our community.
Chera: Yes, it’s a big job. One thing that I came to see early on in my time as the inaugural director of strategic learning, research and evaluation at The Kresge Foundation is that the job isn’t about possession, about being the holder of learning. It’s more about how we give it away, that is, stewarding so that learning is shared.
I’m thinking about a few of the enduring lessons I learned going through this same process at Kresge:
First, the work is about both learning and unlearning. This is about being curious about the assumptions and mindsets that are in our work and that are invisible until we make them visible. The Equitable Evaluation Framework™ uses the language of orthodoxies, for instance, to help us unsettle often unspoken assumptions that govern our efforts.
The second lesson and enduring anchor is about experts and expertise: We are experts in equal measure. This goes to inviting multiple ways of knowing, and trusting lived experience as a teacher. Together, the Trust-Based Philanthropy project and CEI have begun naming what we see as the emergence of a trust-based approach to learning and evaluation practice — aspects of which you’ve already mentioned, Kaberi.
Third, learning is for everyone. When we bring an equity or justice lens to our work, learning isn’t a “nice to do” but a “must do.” All heads, hearts and hands are on deck. At Kresge, for example, you will see that in 2019, the foundation adopted equity as its sixth value. This move reflects years of learning across the organization, and it exemplifies the kind of openness to be moved that we all must hold as possible.
Kaberi: Thanks, Chera, for all of this. It’s great to be in partnership with CEI around this and move from the ways evaluation has been done in philanthropy in the past to shift into a new way of partnering and learning with community.
We, the trustees and staff of Meyer Memorial Trust, are devastated and infuriated by the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. Even as we knew this travesty was coming, it is still shocking and the anger we are feeling needs to be named. This will have serious life-threatening implications on the collective well-being of people in Oregon and around the country. This decision is clearly rooted in a long history of white supremacy, misogyny and patriarchy.
As terrifying as a loss of abortion rights is, we also need to be clear that this is not just about choice, it’s about justice. This is about controlling the bodies and realities of those who are most vulnerable and will not stop with a focus on people who can become pregnant, but affect many other bodies, including trans bodies. As one reads the majority opinion, it is clear that the conservative majority believe abortion is only one of a number of rights that should not be protected. What is next? The right to interracial marriage? The right not to undergo forced sterilization? The right to contraception?
As Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor have written in their dissenting opinion, "'people' did not ratify the Fourteenth Amendment. Men did. So it is perhaps not so surprising that the ratifiers were not perfectly attuned to the importance of reproductive rights for women’s liberty, or for their capacity to participate as equal members of our Nation.”
We join Justices Breyer, Kagan and Sotomayor in their dissent. A fundamental, constitutional human right has ended with today's decision. But tomorrow is another day. We have more work to do and we — along with our partners, friends and allies — are committed to doing it.
“If we want a beloved community,” the late bell hooks once wrote, “we must stand for justice.”
In 2020, amid a once-in-a-century pandemic and the largest popular uprising for racial justice seen in this country in generations, Meyer established the Justice Oregon for Black Lives initiative. It was immediately our biggest single project ever, funded at twice the amount originally suggested, and imbued with goals and guiding principles that we have adapted over time, but never abandoned.
We are thrilled to announce that, in our second round of funding to date, Justice Oregon is granting $4.8 million to 49 state-based and local organizations, including 14 organizations that will receive multi-year funding.
In her recent message on Meyer's new mission statement and the work ahead, outgoing CEO Michelle J. DePass, whose vision and voice brought Justice Oregon to life, wrote, "Justice goes beyond building a flourishing and equitable Oregon. It is a commitment to correction. Our commitment to repair and restore."
Recognizing institutional philanthropy’s role in perpetuating current systems of power, we’re determined to transform this dynamic and ensure our grantmaking honors the values that we’ve set forth. That means holding ourselves accountable to our community and our values, and it informed the participatory grantmaking approach that got us to the vibrant group of organizations we’re supporting through Justice Oregon.
Over the past year, we have engaged in conversations with dozens of community members all over the state, representing every sector from agriculture to the arts. Supported by Meyer staff, our mighty team of two held 10 bi-weekly community conversations with Black facilitators to come to consensus on how to make incremental progress toward Black liberation through five priority funding areas. The list of grantees below represents the first three priority funding areas: economic justice, investing in education, and reimagining public safety. And we're excited that tomorrow we open our invitation-only process for the remaining two funding areas: changing the Black narrative through arts and culture; and, addressing trauma and healing in the Black community.
These conversations reinforced our personal understanding that Black people across Oregon are not a monolith — our needs and vision for the state are informed by the lived experience of our many intersecting identities. What we are all committed to, however, is a vision of thriving Black communities free from the constraints of white supremacy.
As Black History Month comes to a close and Women’s History Month begins, Meyer’s Justice Oregon team is celebrating Black hope and optimism by announcing this inaugural round of grants made with deep input from Black communities and in support of leaders and movements helping to shape Oregon’s future. We are honored that many of this grantee cohort are organizations led by Black women and Black-led and serving organizations of all sizes in our communities.
Throughout the grantmaking process, we’ve worked with a rotating grant review committee of 10 Black leaders — both from the world of philanthropy as well as other sectors — who’ve candidly shared their visions of justice, the needs of Black Oregonians and ways that philanthropy can help right systemic wrongs and be a transparent partner to them in support of a liberated Black future. Their input was integral in determining our 49 Justice Oregon grantees.
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.