As we at Meyer look toward the future of what is needed for community safety and justice for all, we know that we cannot forget about thousands of Oregonians and families that have been harmed by incarceration or jail.
We also know housing can be a powerful catalyst for individuals involved in the criminal justice system to transition out of the cycle of incarceration and back into the community or workforce, and it reduces the likelihood of an individual returning to jail or prison.
In July 2020, Meyer’s Housing Opportunities portfolio released an open request for proposals focused on interventions and supports that address housing stability gaps for people returning from state and federal prisons, local jails and juvenile facilities and those with past justice involvement and their families.
The goal of this strategy was not only to improve the living situations of 500 individuals but also to provide lessons and learnings to share with the broader housing field philanthropic sector around three crucial questions:
- What are the unique challenges and needs of Black, Indigenous and people of color who have been involved with the justice system and face community re-entry and reintegration?
- What ways can corrections and housing systems align to support individuals who have been justice-involved so they can reintegrate into communities successfully?
- What systems and policies need to be changed to improve rental housing access for people with conviction histories, especially for Black, Indigenous and people of color?
In service to these goals, organizations were invited to respond with proposals for a grant period up to two years with funding requests up to $150,000 for existing projects and expansion of existing re-entry programs. All projects were sought to directly support low-income Oregonians with conviction histories and to reduce barriers to housing access in the private market. In line with Meyer’s equity lens, there was a priority to fund projects with focused strategies to increase housing access for people of color and Indigenous people. We received 19 proposals and are excited to announce eight new grants totaling more than $1.1 million over the next two years to:
Cascade AIDS Project will receive $140,000 (Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties) for a two-year project to build CAP’s capacity to serve Black and Latinx people who have a past conviction, have extremely low incomes, live with HIV, are unstably housed or homeless, and identify as BIPOC. CAP will serve 100 people and place 40 people in private-market housing.
Central City Concern will receive $150,000 (Multnomah County) for a two-year project for CCC to expand the Flip The Script program by specifically serving Black participants to secure housing in private-market rental units. For this project, CCC will serve 20 people and place 20 people in private-market housing.
Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency will receive $149,000 (Marion County) for a two-year project for MWVCAA to expand its re-entry program to specially serve Latinx individuals exiting incarceration by opening a satellite office in Woodburn and offering housing navigation services in Spanish. MWVCAA will serve 100 people and place 80 people in private-market housing.
Portland Leadership Foundation; dba The Contingent will receive $150,000 (Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties) for a two-year initiative for The Contingent to support the stabilization of justice-involved BIPOC parents with children in foster care through community-based crews offering peer mentorship and access to long-term private-market housing. The Contingent will serve 70 people and place 55 people in private-market housing.
Urban League of Portland will receive $150,000 (Clackamas, Multnomah, and Washington counties) for a two-year initiative for ULPDX to provide intensive services to justice-involved Black individuals through a peer cohort model focusing on long-term housing success. ULPDX will create a peer cohort of 35 people who have recently exited incarceration and are experiencing homelessness or are unstably housed to secure and maintain private-market housing.
WomenFirst Transition & Referral Center will receive $132,101 (Clackamas and Multnomah counties) for a two-year project to increase WomenFirst’s capacity to support justice-involved Black women in a holistic and culturally specific approach to achieve long-term housing stability. WomenFirst will serve 8-10 people and place 4-8 people in private-market housing.
Umpqua Community DevelopmentCorporation; dba NeighborWorks Umpqua will receive $130,601 (Southern Oregon) for two years to develop a southern Oregon regional approach to build community capacity to permanently house justice-involved individuals through collaboration with local Tribes, rental tenant education and financial stabilization. NeighborWorks will serve at least 65 people by helping them to secure private-market housing.
Yamhill Community Action Partnership will receive $130,500 (Yamhill County) for two years to support YCAP to increase its capacity to support justice-involved Latinx individuals experiencing homelessness to access and maintain private-market housing. YCAP will serve 90 people and place 68 people in private-market housing.
Oregon passes a grim milestone this month: the anniversary of the state’s first recorded case of COVID-19. A year later, we find ourselves still in the throes of a global pandemic that is devastating our communities and deepening long-seeded racial, economic and health inequities. Though we’re looking forward to a science-based response in 2021 and widespread vaccine access, we know there is much work to do to ensure a just and equitable recovery for all. Meyer is committed to deepening support within our existing focus areas to meet this moment while continuing to align with longer-term strategies.
In March 2020, Meyer’s board of trustees swiftly approved the transfer of $1.3 million to relief efforts, including contributions to MRG Foundation’s COVID-19 Community Response Fund and the Oregon Community Recovery Fund at Oregon Community Foundation. Those awards were followed soon after by contributions totalling $600,000 to other pooled funds at Women’s Foundation of Oregon, Pride Foundation and the Oregon Worker Relief Fund.
After this initial round of emergency funds, members of our program team paused to listen and reflect on the most strategic and flexible use of COVID-specific funding. As a two-week stay-home order stretched over months, other crises emerged. The murder of George Floyd at the hands of police in May and the protests that followed in Oregon and across the nation brought the parallel pandemic of systemic racism, particularly anti-Black racism, into sharp focus. Black, Native and other communities of color shouldered disproportionate health and economic impacts from COVID-19. The worst wildfires in Oregon’s history began to devastate communities throughout our state in August.
We knew our approach had to shift to meet immediate needs while also sustaining our shared long-term vision for Oregon’s future.
Meyer awarded $500,000 of COVID-specific funding in September — including dedicated support for Native and Asian communities and a farmworker survey project — while simultaneously making emergency grants and committing longer-term funding for wildfire recovery. We also launched the foundation's largest initiative to date, Justice Oregon for Black Lives, in July with a $25 million commitment to make strategic investments in the lives of Black Oregonians. We heard from communities and partners who saw opportunities not just to build back, but to build back better.
We continued to center those most impacted by the pandemic and to support community-driven solutions with grants in December and January, including robust support for the Oregon Worker Relief Fund. This public/private partnership is a community-designed, community-led effort to support undocumented Oregonians who are ineligible for federal relief programs. In all, Meyer’s COVID-specific funding for the year totaled more than $3.6 million.
Throughout this time, Meyer staff listened to grantees and community partners, talked with peer funders and tuned into conversations across the country in an effort to better understand how private foundations like Meyer were best suited to contribute. A number of themes emerged.
Relief, recovery and rebuilding are not fully distinct from each other. Communities do not experience these as linear phases; rather the work can overlap, cycle and iterate as circumstances evolve. We see this in the ways that advocacy organizations like Basic Rights Oregon, PCUN and Rural Organizing Project among others have flexed to provide direct service for constituents this year. Organizers know that ensuring people are safe and well maintains trust. Creating systems of care to meet immediate needs involves adaptation, resourcefulness and creative problem solving. Mutual aid efforts that have organically sprouted across Oregon this year are, as adrienne maree brown would tell us, “fractals” of an emerging future, one characterized by interdependence and belonging. Offering robust support that is oriented toward relief does not mean taking our eyes off the long game.
The crises we are experiencing — a global pandemic, systemic racism and devastating wildfires, alongside alarming threats to our democracy — are interwoven and compound long-standing inequities. Although each presents unique challenges, a truly transformative recovery cannot untangle these from each other.
It is almost too obvious to name, but we know that people are tired! Organizations are doing impressive work under incredible strain, but the stretch and stress are not sustainable. This is particularly true for nonprofits led by people of color, many of which have been historically under resourced.
Although emergency funding has been helpful for filling gaps and keeping organizations afloat, accessing funds from multiple sources with different restrictions can be labor intensive, favoring higher capacity organizations. Additionally, the long-term funding picture remains highly uncertain. Many organizations received federal funding for the first time thanks to CARES Act relief but were underprepared for the program’s onerous tracking requirements. Tracking also deters some organizations from pursuing federal aid at all, wary of the potential security risks for clients who are undocumented.
The interwoven nature of the conditions Meyer is trying to impact points us to an integrated funding approach over the long term. We will maintain grantmaking through our portfolios to deepen work in those core areas of ongoing investment — each intimately tied to a just recovery — while also remaining flexible to add targeted support for other COVID-related needs or opportunities that emerge as conditions evolve.
We know, for example, that the importance of stable housing as a foundational element of healthy, resilient communities has only been amplified in a time of stay-home orders, but across the housing sector, organizations have struggled with reduced government contracts, slower and more expensive capital development, and strained fundraising capacity. Similar patterns continue across the education, environment and building community program areas for our grantee and community partners.
Meyer continues to listen and to integrate these lessons learned and emerging practices as we close out last year’s grantmaking and look ahead to our Annual Funding Opportunity in March. This pandemic is not the last storm that we will weather together with our grantee and community partners. We promise to keep leaning into community-led solutions for the revisioning and rebuilding to come.
A foggy winding road.
Healthy Environment program officer Mary Rose Navarro and Taren Evans with the Coalition of Communities of Color share news of an innovative new effort to advance climate justice.
It’s probably no surprise that quotes such as “When you need to innovate, you need to collaborate” and “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much” inspire community organizations and philanthropy alike. That’s why efforts that bring together people who live in different locations, face unique challenges and have different ways to influence the government decisions attract funding from foundations such as Meyer. What you may not know is that occasionally the three sectors — community, government and philanthropy — all roll up our sleeves to actively shape an initiative together. That’s certainly the case with Climate Justice Through Collaborative Design, a joint project with Coalition of Communities of Color, Multnomah County, the city of Portland and Meyer Memorial Trust.
build equitable and sustainable communities by pairing local governments with philanthropy to support sustainability projects across the U.S. and Canada. Meyer will provide the one-on-one matching support for this award and will invest staff time in fostering the long-term relationships needed to make our communities more prosperous, livable and vibrant.
The Climate Justice Through Collaborative Design project will bring together community-based organizations, community members, government and local funders with the intent to co-create intersectional and innovative solutions to advance climate justice. It is no surprise that the Multnomah County Health Department concluded that the communities that face the greatest and most immediate effects of climate change, known as frontline communities, “face extremely sobering disparities that lead to more illness, fewer opportunities and shorter lives.” These communities are disproportionately made up of Black, Indigenous, Latinx and immigrant populations. We see these disparities tragically playing out in real time in the way frontline communities are experiencing COVID-19. The project adheres to the principle that the communities most impacted are best equipped to develop solutions.
In 2015, Multnomah County and the city of Portland adopted the 2015 Climate Action Plan, recognized as the “best” plan in the world by C40 Cities for the breadth of its scope and its focus on equity. The effort to create the plan broke new ground through partnerships with frontline communities that applied an equity lens throughout the process. Although the effort was groundbreaking, the past few years have shown us that even more innovative approaches that give voice to and elevate community concerns from project inception to completion are necessary to truly shift power.
Climate Justice Through Collaborative Design will create a new space where frontline communities can work with local governments in a way that shifts power and honors community wisdom and lived experience. This isn’t exclusively a community organizing space or a space for agency staff to set an agenda and make decisions. It’s a “third space,” where both can bring their unique perspectives to influence a new mental model for climate justice.
Fundamentally altering the way that local government and community work together involves throwing old ways of engagement out the window. Rather than being in a reactive role, community members will be in a generative role, helping to co-create climate justice strategies. Community members will be given resources to fully participate to compensate for their time and expertise. This will help to level the playing field between community and paid government staff and demonstrate the value of community knowledge.
This effort will require all the partners to be more flexible, capture learning along the way, value the relationships more than the outcomes, and trust the leadership of frontline communities. The Coalition of Communities of Color and Meyer are excited to collaborate on this new endeavor beyond our typical funder/grantee roles and look forward to sharing our experiences as we design a new space in which to envision a climate-just future.
— Mary Rose & Taren
Climate justice through collaborative design
As I embark on this journey as director of Justice Oregon for Black Lives, I cannot lose sight of celebrating Black History Month. Growing up in Portland with family ties to Oklahoma, I was taught about Black wealth and the resiliency of our people. I learned about Black Wall Street and how an entire Black community in Tulsa worked to create a FUBU — for us by us — network and build structures to support community prosperity and economic success, all during a time when Black people couldn’t use the same drinking fountain as a white person. A similar history is woven between our Black community here in Oregon and the former city of Vanport.
Black people have lived through countless atrocities and survived historical injustices from the start of the transatlantic slave trade to the current criminalization of Black bodies. These inequities inform the way I approach grantmaking and how I will do my part to right historical wrongs in Oregon.
I love this state deeply, and with such strong adoration comes an equally high level of expectation for improving the lives of Black Oregonians. I often think about the events of the past month and how white nationalism has tested our nation’s belief in democracy, equity and justice. When I have felt anguish about racial injustice, I’ve found relief through the leadership of young Black activists and Black-led organizations and the positive impact they have within our nation — holding our passions and voices and taking responsibility to disrupt unjust systems that perpetuate hate and marginalize Black and Brown people everywhere.
In my first nonprofit job as a program manager at House of Umoja — an organization that combated gang violence in Portland while strengthening social ties in the Black community — I learned firsthand the crucial role that culturally specific organizations play in neighborhoods, schools and churches as well as with law enforcement and government. I carried these lessons with me and embedded them throughout a 15-year career at Casey Family Programs, learning how philanthropy can better serve the most vulnerable populations and those adversely impacted by systemic racism.
As I’ve settled into my role at Meyer, I’ve reflected on my plans for the initiative, ideas for co-creation of grantmaking in partnership with the Black community and ways to structure the foundation’s funding to meet the needs of all Black folks in Oregon’s 36 counties.
So far, I’ve learned during my time at Meyer that we envision a future in which Oregon becomes the antithesis of its original design as a white utopia in which Black people were not welcome. We envision a place where racism, particularly anti-Black racism, is acknowledged and long-term systemic racist policies are dismantled. A place where Black people feel they belong no matter where they travel and reside in the state. We envision a state where centering the work of Black liberation ultimately creates just conditions for all Oregonians.
Last summer, our board of trustees made it clear that racial justice was central to Meyer’s mission by publicly condemning anti-Black racism and prejudice and giving our president and CEO, Michelle J. DePass, license to outline the foundation’s strategy for the work of Justice Oregon and how it will affect Meyer’s grantmaking and culture and deepen the institution's commitment to serving Black communities.
To elevate the needs of Black Oregonians within philanthropic and business communities, my role as director calls me to build stronger relationships with Black communities across the state and create spaces and opportunities for Black people to steer the strategic direction of philanthropic dollars in Oregon. It is my responsibility to convene private and public partners to support Black Oregonians and foster innovative practices that drive outcomes related to Black resilience and liberation.
Defining my work and Justice Oregon at Meyer
Over the next six months, I plan to learn from and build relationships with Black Oregonians across the state. In February and March, I will be offering more specifics and focusing on our strategy for deepening Meyer’s commitment and connection to the Black community. I recognize that to get this thing right, we need input, direction and support from Black folks, so I will also be connecting with community members and private, public and business organizations through a series of virtual and in-person (when possible) meetings and events.
Justice Oregon will host virtual community information and connection sessions on Feb. 22 and March 4 to share our framework for the initiative and gather feedback and insights about where Meyer’s funding is needed. We will share the registration link online next week. Sign up for our Meyer Mail newsletter for more information and updates about the virtual events.
Grants, funding priorities and award timelines don’t exist yet because they will be set in collaboration and partnership with community. We do know that Justice Oregon will operate differently but in partnership with Meyer's existing portfolios so that organizations will not have to select between the initiative and applying for portfolio-specific funding through the Annual Funding Opportunity. As a result, Justice Oregon will not be apart of Meyer's AFO this year but we will actively seek opportunities to bolster the efforts of organizations that come through the annual funding opportunity process.
As we design the funding approach for this initiative, a primary focus for me will be maintaining flexibility in between funding cycles to fund innovative projects as they arise. I will also seek to partner with other philanthropic organizations, public entities and businesses to leverage our collective resources to provide multi-year funding opportunities to support strategic investments in the lives of Black Oregonians.
I know most philanthropic partners have adopted diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) vision statements and goals. It is not always clear how philanthropic organizations are funneling resources into Black communities to create sustainable change and to dismantle racism and anti-Blackness. I hope this initiative further encourages our partners within philanthropy and abroad to enter into this space as we learn how to do this better at Meyer.
Philanthropy is uniquely positioned to work across all systems to address institutional racism and anti-Blackness throughout our communities. I believe this initiative — centered on the idea that making strategic investments in Black lives in Oregon will better the lives of all Oregonians — will allow Meyer to be more fluid as we think about our funding cycles and processes to ensure that Black people and communities have what they need to thrive. I hope you will journey alongside me in this effort.
The African Adinkra symbol Sankofa, emphasizing revival and wisdom.
Meyer Memorial Trust heartily embraces the Donors of Color Climate Funders Justice Pledge as a benchmark for foundations dedicated to a thriving environment.
As a regional funder in a state with demographics that still reflect Oregon’s founding as a white utopia, a pledge to reach a 30 percent goal of BIPOC-led environmental organizations feels both inspired and aspirational. In some parts of the country, such a threshold is achievable in short order; in Oregon, where 76 percent of residents identify as white, we may fall short of the target, despite our deep commitment to racial justice. But we believe in the necessity of goals that keep funders reaching forward, in partnership and in pursuit, and accept the challenge to give even more thought and creativity to mobilize for environmental justice right in our backyards.
Considering the pledge, we took a look at Meyer’s environmental grantmaking in 2018 and 2019. At present, we don't have demographic data from many of our grantees and it’s not yet a requirement that they submit this to get a grant. We have taken the approach of encouraging and supporting their movement toward adopting this practice by discussing the issue with them and sharing best practices information, etc., so that more groups that we fund will collect demographic data on their board and staff over time. In taking the DOC Climate Funders Justice Pledge, we aim to be transparent about our own status as an intentional equity funder.
- Meyer made 199 grants totaling $15 million to organizations through our Healthy Environment portfolio and Willamette River Initiative during these two years. A quarter of the grants went to organizations, including Tribes, where people identified as BIPOC made up 50 percent or more of the staff and/or board. Fully half, 100, went to organizations that did not have demographic data to share. The remainder went to organizations with staff or board makeup of less than 50 percent BIPOC individuals.
- Meyer already uploads all its grants, including environmental/climate ones, through the Candid eReporting portal.
- Although we are committed to increasing the percent of environmental grant funding to organizations that are run by, serve and build power for communities of color, we do not have complete data on this, particularly which ones have a majority of BIPOC and executive staff, although we do maintain some similar data. This is a longtime work in progress.
One more note: An advantage of Oregon's unique demographic makeup and Meyer’s funding is that we are able to provide support to and partnership with Indigenous organizations, as well as the nine federally recognized Tribes in the state. We are grateful to be able to amplify Native voices and support sovereignty in a state that is home to people descended from more than 380 Tribes.
And we are driven to apply the spirit of the pledge to our other portfolios — Building Community, Equitable Education and Housing Opportunities — as well as initiatives related to immigrants and refugees, public education and our most recent initiative, Justice Oregon for Black Lives. Justice Oregon, a $25 million, five-year commitment of dedicated funding to deepen support for Black-centered organizations, invests in long-term lasting strategic change and uplifts a just system of community well-being to improve conditions for all Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) in Oregon, and in turn, for all Oregonians.
With knowledge and intent comes power and deeper impact.
Organizers at the 2017 People's March for Climate, Jobs & Justice in Portland.
Last month, I had the honor of talking with Klamath Tribal Chairman Don Gentry; Mark Buettner, Klamath Tribes' biologist; Jay Weiner, an attorney who works with the Klamath Tribes; Brad Parrish, Klamath Tribes water rights specialist; Roberta Frost, Klamath Tribes Council Secretary; Willa Powless, Klamath Tribes Council Member; and Jana DeGarmo, Klamath Tribes Grant and Contract Compliance Officer about their work to protect and restore Tribal fisheries in the Upper Klamath Lake and throughout the broader Klamath Basin.
Jill: Could you start off by telling us about the Klamath Tribes’ relationship with the Upper Klamath Lake ecosystem and particularly the endangered c'waam and the koptu (two species of sucker fish)?
Chairman Gentry: The fish are so important to our people. Our people are here because of the resources that were here. The suckers were a big part of how our people survived, and because of that we have a strong link to the suckers, both culturally and because they are subsistence species that we’d hoped to have forever to harvest.
Mark Buettener: Unfortunately, even with protection under the ESA (Endangered Species Act), the fish have continued to decline over the last 30 or so years. We’re really worried about the potential total loss of the species.
There’s been an effort recently to propagate the suckers. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service started experimenting about five years ago, and over the last couple of years the Klamath Tribes have also started a fish propagation program to prevent the suckers from going extinct and hopefully release enough fish of a large enough size that we can start seeing better survival. There’s also been restoration work, including marsh restoration to help improve habitat. Of course, our long-term objective is to improve the overall health of the system.
Over the years the biggest problem has been poor water quality in Upper Klamath Lake. Unfortunately, it takes a long time to improve water quality conditions. There’s got to be a basin wide effort to reduce some of the nutrient and sediment loading that occurs as a result of poor land-use practices. A lot of the tributaries to the lake are surrounded by agricultural land, so there’s a lot of impacts from agriculture and cattle grazing, which has degraded the water quality, and we’re working with state and federal agencies and private landowners to implement best management practices and habitat restoration in the watershed.
Since Upper Klamath Lake is the major irrigation source for a 200,000-acre federal irrigation project we are dealing with ESA consultation activities where their operations affect how the lake is managed in terms of water levels, and water levels impact not only fish habitat but the water quality conditions in the lake.
Chairman: That also brings to mind how complex this is, because there are federal agencies, state agencies, multiple ownerships, property owners. ESA is a part of it, but ESA only goes so far as to try to stop the fish from going extinct. We really need to have harvestable fisheries.
Jill: What are the new tension points related to climate change that you’re already experiencing or that you see coming that are impacting your efforts to protect and restore the basin.
We are in a real dry period, and have been, and that affects how we approach the reinitiation of consultation on the [federal government’s] biological opinion. Climate change must be considered and addressed when we look at future management related to the biological opinion.
Jay: We’re really seeing climate change problematizing the planning models that the Bureau of Reclamation uses [to manage the lake]. The climate is based on planning models that use basically a 40-year retrospective period that dates back to the early ‘80s. One of the things that we’re seeing in the course of over the past 5 to 10 years at least, is the year-to-year variation.
The frequency of low water years has increased. It is no longer responsible to make planning decisions based on a retrospective record because of how rapidly the climate is changing around us.
Jill: What are the points of progress and challenges or setbacks this year?
Chairman: I believe we’re holding our own. We’re pushing as hard as we can using the available science and trying to use all of the tools at our disposal to push for what we think is important for the fish. I think there’s recently been a little bit of a turn — I’m not sure how far it goes — with the Bureau of Reclamation in their engagement with us. We’re having more frequent government-to-government meetings and we will be looking for meaningful response to our input.
We believe that all of the federal agencies have a trust responsibility because of our treaty to give us greater or at least the same consideration they give the irrigation project, especially given the dire condition of the fish, which is a treaty resource. It seems like we’re always pushed to the very minimum habitat needs for the fish so they can provide more water for agriculture.
I’m not going to say we have some lasting significant victory on the litigation front, but we’re currently holding our own and treading water. My hope, honestly, with the different administration coming in is that things would turn around a little bit and be a little more positive in response to needs for the fish
Jay: As Mark indicated, this was an incredibly challenging year on the water management standpoint and I think for the Klamath Tribes, we had a strange year, in terms of a shift of revolving alliances. (The Bureau of Reclamation’s) default seems to privilege irrigators beyond everyone else. One of the ways that we’ve seen that play out is — actually we’ve seen it play out pretty aggressively — is in pitting the upper and lower basin environmental and Tribal interests against each other. We ultimately found ourselves in the uncomfortable position this spring and actually joined with Reclamation to defend against a suit that the Yurok Tribe was bringing because of their [Yurok Tribe] desire for high, early-season, flushing flows, and because of how the incoming flow has been dramatically dropping for the upper basin during the middle of the spawning season. This was just existentially important for us (to protect water levels in the upper basin).
Ultimately the judge agreed with the side for which we were advocating. This reduced the amount of water coming out from Upper Klamath Lake for downriver flow. It was not at all comfortable for the Tribes to be opposing the Yurok and instead aligning with Reclamation and irrigation interests. But because of the paramount importance of the fish to the Tribes and because the Tribes continue to go where the science takes them, that’s where we found ourselves this spring.
One of the positives that came out of that, from about May to early August, is they managed early water releases from Upper Klamath Lake for both agriculture and lower river diversions based on a more conservative set of influences as compared to what they had done before. While Upper Klamath Lake ran uncomfortably low this year, they did stay above the scientifically established minimum, and we were very lucky not to see major fish dies.
Unfortunately, we come to mid-August, late August, and the end of the irrigation season, and the Yurok Tribe made a request for flows to Reclamation that are built into the operations plan to support a critically important Tribal ceremony. The Klamath Tribes said, “You know what. We support this as long as they can do it in a way that doesn’t hurt the lake.” Reclamation ultimately in mid-August turned around and said, “Yurok, we can’t do that this year. The flow is too low, and we’re worried about our Endangered Species Act [requirements], and we’re concerned about refill going into 2021. We can’t give you this one.”
The Yurok were ultimately able to get that water from Pacificorps and have that ceremony, which was fortunate. What was most galling to us in that situation is that it’s an indicator to us that Reclamation really hasn’t changed its order of priorities and continues to have this strategy of pitting the Tribes against each other. Literally, two weeks later, after declining to supply this water to the Yurok for their ceremony, they announced that they were increasing the project allocation of roughly the same amount of water that Yurok was asking for from Upper Klamath Lake and gave it to the irrigators instead for the end-of-season operations.
Mark: Sen. Jeff Merkely (Oregon) has been able to secure substantial funding to support our fish rearing program and to backfill some of the water quality and restoration activities that we’re involved with.
Jill: What else didn’t we cover about your work in the basin that you think is really important for folks to understand?
We feel the general community doesn’t have a good understanding of who we are, what we stand for, or what the real problems are with the fisheries. Unfortunately, there is greater a focus on supporting the agriculture community in the media rather than the Tribal fisheries needs. We are taking steps to bring the whole community along to understand our issues, so we’re not characterized as the bad people getting in the way of the agricultural community.
I think people really need to understand where we’re at, and the fact that what we [the larger society] have been doing isn’t sustainable. It’s obvious by the fact that we’re trying to fight to protect fish that have been here for thousands and thousands of years and trying to restore salmon that were once here for thousands and thousands of years. Now we’re facing climate change.
I just hope that the community will come to a better understanding of the complexities of what is affecting the fish- where the real problems lie. It’s not because the Tribes have treaty rights.
Jana: There are a lot of newer people coming in here and it’s been so long since we’ve been able to harvest our tribal crop. They don’t understand the importance of that [practice], not only to the Tribes but to the community as a whole and past history.
Jay: This isn’t just about the Tribes and the Tribes’ rights or some paper exercise or some abstract idea of sovereignty. This species that we’re talking about here, as the Chairman said, is both of critical importance to the Tribes but also, they’re suckers. They are extraordinarily hearty fish, and the fact that we are now talking about the extinction of two such sucker species, the fact that that is not a five-alarm fire for the sustainability of the environment of the entire ecosystem of the basin is mind-boggling to me from the outside.
You can’t go in the Upper Klamath Lake in the summer because it will kill you. And it will kill your dog. There were questions on whether we could continue to water crops with this water or if you’re going to sicken consumers, and so the Tribes end up having to bear the brunt of this [reality], when it is ultimately self-defeating for the entire community because they are functionally poisoning the environment around them.
There is just such a perception gap. There’s this notion that “This is just the tribes and they’re making issues for us. Now if they all went away, we could farm and be happy.” That’s just factually wrong and somehow that is not breaking through to the wider public.
Chairman: I think one of the big disconnects, too, is the fish should be every bit as important to everyone as the economy. Those fish are important to us because they’re a part of our culture, our history, and traditional subsistence economy. We want to harvest them again, and we have a federally affirmed Treaty right that should be employed to make it happen. But many folks say, “The lake is dying and the fish are dying, so big deal. We need agriculture and money and just those things have value.”
The efforts to marginalize the Klamath Tribes and almost demonize us and our concerns about the fish just blow me away. We want to change that thinking and want people to understand how important the fish are. Period. Just because they’re there and they should be there.
 A biological opinion is the document that states the opinion of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as to whether or not the federal action is likely to jeopardize the continued existence of listed species under the Endangered Species Act or result in the destruction or adverse modification of critical habitat.
Meyer is grateful to partner with the Klamath Tribes on their work to protect and restore the suckers in Upper Klamath Lake and hope to continue supporting their efforts.
C'waam spawning in Klamath Lake.
“The dawn is ours before we knew it.”
The brilliant youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman declared these words today from the U.S. Capitol, continuing, “Somehow we do it. Somehow we weathered and witnessed a nation that isn't broken but simply unfinished.”
As we usher in a new administration today, I am sitting with the dualities of this moment. We are at once grateful for new (and historic!) leadership and the policy opportunities that give shape to so much of our work, and aware that while hands of leadership have changed, the inequities that our public systems are designed to produce and uphold have not.
The white nationalist insurrections we have seen at our capitals these past few weeks, both in D.C. and in Salem, demonstrate not only the great dangers facing our democracy, but also the threats and realities of violence that impact our work and our communities. We know that what happened January 6 at the U.S. Capitol, and what we’ve seen in Salem and at statehouses across the country, represents not just an inevitable consequence of the past four years, but the past four hundred years of white supremacist violence in our society. This is no anomaly or aberration. The ongoing suppression of full representative democracy is a recurring refrain of our American history. We must reckon with this reality if we ever hope to change it.
Part of our shared work at Meyer is to strengthen and sustain the grassroots power needed to do just that. The communities we partner with have the vision, experience and solutions needed to create a truly equitable Oregon. We know that this is hard work and that these are hard times.
And those continuing to do this crucial work here in Oregon are not alone.
As the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, less than two miles down the National Mall from the U.S. Capitol, “We cannot walk alone, and as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back."
We at Meyer are right here beside our grantees and allies. And we will not turn back. We will continue to push forward into this new chapter for our communities, and for an equitable Oregon. And we know, because of the power, the passion and the unyielding, unapologetic persistence of our partners, the dawn is ours. And our work together will not stop until we are finished.
In community and solidarity,
Youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman speaks at the 2021 inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC.
The beginning of this new year is a time to reflect, but also — more importantly — a time to act.
As we pause today to honor the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., we must also take a moment to think — and be real — about the dreams we have for our shared nation. Dr. King once wrote, "Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle."
Although it’s taken our country more than 230 years to elect its first Black, South Asian and woman vice president and the state of Georgia its first Black and Jewish senators — we did it. This is a historic moment. Not because identity and representation are qualifiers for success, quite far from it, but because they show our nation that change is indeed possible, even for America.
James Baldwin famously wrote, "Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced."
As a nation, we can't begin to dream about desegregating our education and housing systems or advancing environmental justice or reimagining safety and our criminal legal system, without first facing hard truths about racism and white supremacy that have taken root within our democratic institutions. Only then can the hope and joy that I know we all dream about in our shared future be actualized.
It is written on the Statue of Liberty that America is a home for exiles. It doesn't take us long to realize that America has long been the welcoming, safe and free home of white exiles from Europe, a home that has not evinced the same kind of maternal care and concern for Black people stolen from their homelands and forced into transatlantic slavery. It is no wonder that in one of their sorrow songs, Black folks could sing out, "Sometimes I feel like a motherless child."
What great estrangement and sense of rejection to cause a people to emerge with such a metaphor as they looked over their lives.
Nearly 60 years ago in Oregon, Dr. King came to Portland to advocate for desegregation. In the morning, he spoke at a Civil War centennial event at Portland State College, now PSU; in the afternoon, he delivered a speech at Lewis & Clark College. Then he met with community members at the home of Urban League President E. Shelly Hill, attended a gathering of Black faith leaders at the Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church parsonage and closed the evening with a speech entitled "Facing the Challenge of a New Age," before 3,500 people at the old Civic Auditorium.
Dr. King’s speech at Lewis & Clark, which he called "The Future of Integration," declared, “We have come a long way toward making integration a reality, but we still have a long way to go," adding, “If democracy is to live, segregation must die. Segregation is a cancer in the body of democracy that must be removed if the health of the nation is to survive.”
Swap out racial injustice for segregation and Dr. King’s words are just as relevant today as they have been for generations.
We live in a participatory democracy. To upend centuries old systems of white supremacy takes collective, multi-faceted, long-game work and we don’t have to go in alone. I came to Oregon because equity is my struggle, that principle for which I agitate. This beautiful state, with a deeply complex and contradictory history, was created with an explicit purpose of racial and Indigenous exclusion. It still needs agitation.
For Meyer Memorial Trust, equity — which in essence is agitation — is at the heart of everything we do. Last year, we leapt forward to be more explicit about acknowledging that racial equity is central to our mission of a flourishing and equitable Oregon. We also created Justice Oregon for Black Lives, a five-year, $25 million initiative aimed at making strategic investments in the lives of Black Oregonians and hired its first director, D’Artagnan Caliman.
As a philanthropic institution, we understand that our nation has taken countless positive steps to actualize racial justice and racial equity. But over and over again, we trip and fall backward — by way of white supremacy, anti-Black racism and prejudice in all its forms.
Agitation is how we reconcile the distance between where we are now and living our ideals of equity.
In this moment, when despair threatens each day, I reflect and draw inspiration from Dr. King’s famous “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” speech at New York’s Riverside Church, in which he declared that “we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values,” adding later that “Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism and militarism.”
P.S. This year The Skanner Foundation will host its 35th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast virtually. You can register to attend the event for free here.
The Martin Luther King Junior Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Many of us that have come through the public education system know very little about the nine federally recognized Tribal nations who have existed since time immemorial in this place we now call Oregon. It’s no coincidence: The invisibility of Native people is intentional and systematized. We’ve also been fed a steady diet of biased stereotypes and indoctrinated to colonialism, which allows us to overlook how the control and exploitation of Indigenous lands impact how we relate to one another and the natural world.
Unlearning these biases and dismantling colonial systems are critical if we are to move forward in building a just, multicultural, democratic state where all people can thrive.
Meyer and other organizations will never have the formal, government-to-government relationship that federal and state jurisdictions are required to forge with Tribal nations. For us to have a productive, voluntary relationship with Native communities, then, we need first to challenge ourselves to build a solid foundation for partnership. One that seeks authentic and deliberate relationship-building, cross-cultural learning, and an understanding of Tribal history, governance and current Tribal community priorities. Only then can we be ready for productive partnership.
Meyer staff and trustees have taken this challenge to heart. We worked to develop a base understanding of Native American sovereignty, to understand that Tribes are the original stewards of the land and waters and how rich traditional knowledge can inform our collective practices. We’ve invested time to meet with each of the Native nations in our state and listen to their unique histories, customs and wisdom as well as their current priorities and how we can partner with them. And we’ve started to decolonize our language and processes. Indigenous staff members at Meyer shape the culture of the organization, provide leadership around relationship-building with Tribes and remind us of the areas where more learning is needed.
One important partner in Meyer’s journey is the Institute for Tribal Governance (ITG) at Portland State University, which has helped us acquire knowledge of history as well as current Indigenous world views, Tribal politics and tribal community priorities. After two program directors (Jill and Theresa) participated in the yearlong Professional Certificate in Tribal Relations program at the ITG, we came away enthusiastic that other organizations could benefit from cross-cultural learning and intentional relationship-building.
In early December, Meyer is experimenting with ITG to bring a Tribal Relations workshop to a group of Meyer grantees in the Housing Opportunities and Healthy Environment portfolios whose work connects with Tribes or serves Indigenous people. Over two half-day sessions, the group will receive a condensed version of Tribal history and sovereignty. It is not nearly enough time for deep understanding, but it will serve as a springboard for more learning and create connections for nonprofits to figure out together how to build a strong foundation and show up as better partners with Tribes.
If the experiment is successful, we can help folks begin to move away from transaction-focused relationships and form relationships based on Indigenous understandings of reciprocity and kinship with humans, other organisms and living systems. Together, we must learn from and honor our past, include all voices at the table in our present, and build the foundation for a thriving and inclusive future.
Interested in learning more about building a foundation for partnership and decolonizing your workplace? Here are some resources for more learning:
- Tribal Nations and the United States: An Introduction, National Congress of American Indians.
- Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance, by Edgar Villanueva.
- The First Oregonians, edited by Laura Berg.
- Institute for Tribal Government at the Hatfield School of Government, Portland State University.
Meyer staff in front of the Chachalu Museum in Grand Ronde.
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.