This week the PCEF coalition released an Executive Summary and full in-depth campaign report that details the coalition’s experiences of building trust within communities of color and with white-majority organizations; securing endorsements with unusual allies; and implementing innovative campaign strategies.
Although front-line communities led the initiative’s creation, it took strong relationships with mainstream environmental and labor organizations to create a successful campaign. These bonds will be critical in achieving the city of Portland and Multnomah County’s 2017 commitment to transition all energy sectors to 100% clean energy. It will take the unique knowledge and lived experiences of each group to ensure these funds result in projects in communities most impacted by climate change while ensuring that people of color can fully participate in the emerging green economy.
As grantmakers, we at Meyer are reflecting on what role our funding might have played in the success of this effort. The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) issued a challenge to foundations to target grant dollars to address the needs of underserved communities and empower them by funding advocacy, organizing and civic engagement. Meyer joined NCRP in 2011 and began supporting communities of color in their efforts to build capacity and expand collaborative power to develop their own policy solutions.
What we’ve learned is that our support can’t stop at the policy win. Meyer has funded multiple projects since 2018 so that the coalition can continue playing a key role in the implementation of the ballot measure as it is established by the city of Portland. Without strong participation by the groups that designed the policy concept, the community values and priorities that have driven this effort are at risk of being de-emphasized or lost altogether.
The grants that Meyer has awarded since the PCEF ballot measure passed include:
$143,750 to Verde for the coalition to support early program design work by the nonprofit organizations that led the effort to establish it.
$100,000 to the Coalition of Communities of Color to pay for a dedicated staff position to organize and support partner organizations to continue playing a strong role in supporting the implementation of PCEF.
$27,000 to Resource Media to develop a communications strategy and tools to share the success of PCEF with other organizations working for a healthy environment
The bottom line is that front-line coalition-led efforts require ongoing, long-term support to ensure that the implementation of their initiatives truly leads to stronger, more resilient communities that will experience the worst of our planet’s climate crisis. You can learn more about PCEF’s efforts in my previous interview with Alan Hipólito.
I look forward to following up in another blog as the coalition's efforts prosper.
ICYMI: Columbia River tribes gain new clout with major acquisition
On June 1, the Oregon Health & Science University transferred control of the Center for Coastal Margin Observation and Prediction—an information hub that acquires data through radio telemetry and a network of observation stations and buoys for use in conducting coastal-margin science—to the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, an organization that coordinates management policy and provides fisheries technical services for the Yakama, Warm Springs, Umatilla and Nez Perce Tribes.
The Oregonian recently published an article about the historic acquisition:
For the fish commission, acquisition of the nationally renowned coastal center builds on a growing capacity for world-class research. The center collects and analyzes estuary data that informs everything from Columbia River Treaty negotiations to industrial dredging operations to salmon recovery strategies.
“This is a tremendous capacity-building advance for the Columbia River tribes,” says commission chairman Jeremy Red Star Wolf. “Our professional river and salmon management staffs have wanted more ocean and river connectivity in research, applied science and management. CMOP will help deliver that.
Meyer’s Healthy Environment portfolio awarded a $350,000 capacity-building grant to expand the commission’s ability to effectively acquire, manage and oversee the Center for Coastal Margin Observation & Prediction program. You can read the full coverage of the story here.
ICYMI: Meyer Memorial Trust announces a new trustee
Yesterday, Meyer Memorial Trust announced the appointment of Amy C. Tykeson to its board of trustees. Tykeson joins Meyer board chair Toya Fick and members Charles Wilhoite, Janet Hamada, Mitch Hornecker and Alice Cuprill-Comas, rounding out the number of board members to six.
"We are pleased to welcome Amy C. Tykeson as a trustee at a pivotal moment in Oregon history and in Meyer’s work to serve all Oregonians,” said board chair Toya Fick said in a press release. “Her broad experience and understanding of rural communities adds an important dimension to the stewardship of Meyer Memorial Trust.”
A third-generation Oregonian and leader in the telecommunications industry for 34 years, Tykeson brings extensive experience in business, communications and a legacy of mission-driven service to Meyer’s board of trustees. Tykeson began her communications career with Home Box Office (HBO) in Chicago and New York before taking over as president and CEO of BendBroadband, a family-owned cable and broadband company based in Central Oregon.
We are a far distance from ensuring opportunities for every Oregonian. I want to help all Oregonians thrive and work to improve the outlook for future generations. — Amy C. Tykeson
“I am thrilled to have Amy’s three decades of experience as a business leader, storyteller and long history of service to the state of Oregon on our board of trustees, said Meyer president & CEO Michelle J. DePass. “Her warmth and devotion to the human spirit is just what this institution needs as we manage new realities amid COVID-19 and the nationwide calls for racial justice and social equity. “
Currently, Tykeson serves as the managing trustee for the Tykeson Family Foundation, overseeing operations and contributions directed toward education for underserved young people, healthcare and health sciences and access to the arts.
Over the past few weeks, I joined staff and trustees of Meyer Memorial Trust in mourning the racist slayings of Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery and so many others by recklessly violent police and white vigilantes.
Billions of people around the world subsequently watched the slow, calculated indifference of Minneapolis Police officers as they stole the life of George Floyd, a Black father and nightclub bouncer. Like the death of Emmett Till in 1955, the murder of George Floyd has thrust the country to the brink of change.
Sixty-five years ago, the lynching of a 14-year-old boy spurred a movement that eventually spelled the end of Jim Crow laws that denied Black Americans their share of the American Dream. With the murder of George Floyd, we are again at a precipice of change. This time, my neighbors here in Oregon and across the country are taking on the very systems that largely remain unchanged from the Jim Crow era and slavery before that.
Philanthropy spends a lot of energy talking about systems-level change. It can seem a dull topic when cities are not on fire. But it should be the root of what foundations do. I often ask myself, to what higher purpose can philanthropy aspire? And I consider how a sector that was built on inordinate wealth and privilege can help shift the conditions that hold inequities and disparities firmly in place.
But I worry. And I am not alone.
Vu Le, executive director of RVC—a Seattle-based nonprofit that promotes social justice by cultivating leaders of color—is no stranger at calling out philanthropy on his blog, nonprofitAF. Like me, Vu has been re-reading Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which Dr. King warns of the white moderate, who presses for order over justice, for calm rather than for change. Vu asks, have nonprofits and philanthropy “become the ‘white moderate’ that Dr. King warned us about?”
It is the right question, and the answer is troubling.
Dr. King wrote: “I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality.“
Now is the time to push forward to change the broken systems that allow more than 1,000 people to be killed by police year in and year out, and allow those killers to face little more than slaps on the wrist.
This week, in a video town hall series and a pair of online essays, former President Barack Obama addressed the calls for culture change echoing across the country, saying the status quo cannot shift without pressure. “That’s why protests work.”
He, too, spoke of systems change.
“Most of the reforms that are needed to prevent the type of violence and injustices that we’ve seen take place at the local level,” President Obama said on Wednesday. “There is a change in mindset that’s taking place, a greater recognition that we can do better. That is not as a consequence of speeches by politicians. That’s not the result of spotlights in news articles. That’s a direct result of the activities and organizing and mobilization and engagement of so many young people across the country who put themselves out on the line to make a difference.”
Justice often isn’t orderly. Philanthropy can and should break down barriers to justice anyway.
Meyer is committed to investing in meaningful, transformative shifts in policies, processes, relationships and power structures. To upend generations old systems takes collective, multi-layered, long-game work and we do not do it alone. Our grantees and community partners stand on the front lines, moving the needle and advocating for measurable change. We hear their calls and we are by their side.
At this moment, when despair threatens every moment, Meyer celebrates their uphill work as the clearest path to create an equitable Oregon where all people can flourish.
— Michelle J. DePass
President & CEO
Meyer Memorial Trust
ICYMI: Meyer Memorial Trust announces relief efforts for small business
As we continue to adapt to the changing landscape of business brought on by the novel coronavirus COVID-19, we want to reiterate to our partners that: We're with you for the long haul.
In March, Meyer Memorial Trust announced a decision to offer community lending partners 12-month forbearance on loan payments and extend the same terms on loans to borrowers in response to the pandemic.
Meyer Memorial is one of Oregon's largest foundations. Among other philanthropic activities, it loans money to nonprofits that use the cash to extend credit to small businesses.
This week, the foundation said Portland-based MESO and Springfield-based Community LendingWorks, two such partners, do not need to make any interest or principal payments for a year. In return, the foundation wants MESO and Community LendingWorks to extend the same terms to their borrowers.
Meyer will continue to reach out to our regional investment partners to better understand their needs. We will get through this together.
Earth Day 2020: An Unforgettable 50th AnniversarydarionWed, 04/22/2020 - 11:38
We will never forget spring 2020. The impact of and response to the novel coronavirus has been simultaneously saddening, enraging and inspiring. We are seeing heart-wrenching losses and immense health and economic fallout. We are being inspired by front-line workers who put themselves at risk to take care of the sick and keep essential services moving. People are adapting, innovating and showing kindness in so many ways. We are also coming together in one of the biggest collective actions ever by physically distancing ourselves from each other in an effort to stem the spread of the virus.
What’s also crystal clear is that although COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, is harming all communities, communities of color are the most impacted. A study released last week found that COVID-19 patients exposed to even a moderate increase in air pollution long term are at a greater risk of dying. Black Americans are dying from COVID-19 at higher rates partly because they disproportionately live in places with more air pollution. On Friday, Race Forward, which has a mission to catalyze movement building for racial justice, summed it up: “Let’s be clear: Coronavirus kills, and structural racism is its accomplice.” This is because the systems and structures that drive how our society operates in a pandemic are the same broken systems that drive how it operates in normal days.
At Meyer, we understand this. We know that structural, institutional, historical and systemic racism are components in the context in which we do our work. We also know that the exploitative mindset that underlies structural racism is the same mindset that drives and sustains the overexploitation of nature. Dominance of people and nature is the story of our nation and of Oregon.
Organizers of the Oregon Environmental Justice Pathways Summit postponed the in-person convening until fall 2020. However, the organizers decided to host a virtual summit “teaser” last week by engaging some of the speakers to share a preview of their presentations on what would have been the summit’s opening day. In honor of Earth Day 2020 and to elevate the need to strengthen and grow Oregon’s environmental justice movement, I wanted to share some highlights from the preview.
University of Oregon Professor and Ethnic Studies Department Head Laura Pulido moderated a 90-minute webinar on Oregon’s environmental justice history that included the following speakers.
In the opening presentation by David Harrelson, entitled “The Kalapuya and the Myth of Wilderness,” David spoke about the history of the Kalapuya people’s cultural management of their ancestral territory in the Willamette Valley since time immemorial. He also explained how one of our country’s core conservation laws, the Wilderness Act of 1964, has played a role in building the narrative around the idea of “pristine nature without humans” that is grounded on the removal of Native American people and has informed how conservation has been practiced in the United States.
He reminded us that the cultural practices of the Kalapuya people have shaped their ancestral lands in northwest Oregon for more than 500 generations and that there is no “untrammeled land” — a term from the Wilderness Act — in their traditional territories. This narrative of pristine nature and the practices driven by it have invisibilized the Kalapuya people’s history and created barriers to their ability to practice traditional cultural management of the land today. David noted that he sees the opportunity to learn from, understand and translate ancestral teachings about land management to have a much more holistic and resilient management regime in the future.
Gwendolyn Trice’s presentation “Oregon Timber Culture: Then and Now” opened with the story of Black loggers from Maxville, who were recruited to move to Oregon to work in the timber industry at a time when the Oregon Constitution prohibited Black people from residing in or owning property in the state. Gwendolyn shared how the Black families in Maxville lived in segregated housing, attended segregated schools and played on a segregated baseball team, as well as greatly contributing to creating a vibrant timber community.
She talked about the significant role of the Ku Klux Klan in Oregon in the early 1900s, describing it as the the biggest social club in the state that played a key role in connecting the dominant culture at the time. It also played a prominent role in Oregon politics. Gwendolyn also talked about Vernonia, another small timber community, as a place where different racial and ethnic groups lived and worked in segregated and substandard conditions until the NAACP stepped in to advocate for improvements. Beatrice Morrow Cannady, who was the first Black woman to graduate from law school in Oregon, was a key leader in this movement.
Ramon Ramirez grounded his presentation about Oregon farmworkers in the history of the agriculture movement in the U.S., which is rooted in exploitation that began with slavery and shifted to the sharecropping system and now excludes farmworkers from national labor laws, which were first passed in the 1930s.
Ramon shared that 70% of the farmworkers who work for piece rate in the Willamette Valley are members of undocumented and Indigenous communities. Their exclusion from labor law protections, poor living conditions and legal, but dangerous, industrial agricultural practices expose them to significant health risks. Ramon shared startling information gathered from a Marion County clinic that over half of the farmworker women they serve have had miscarriages. He also shared that the average life expectancy of a farmworker is 49 as compared with 78 in the U.S. and that 25% of farmworkers get cancer.
He ended his comments by highlighting the brutal reality that even though farmworkers are deemed “essential workers” during the coronavirus crisis, most of these workers will not be able to access benefits from the recently passed CARES Act because of their citizenship status.
Linda Tamura shared how Japanese immigrants came to Oregon and how racism impacted the Japanese community for generations in the state. Japanese workers were drawn west to work on the railroads’ expansion. In the early 1900s, a strong community of Japanese immigrants grew in Hood River and gained property in exchange for clearing land for white property owners. They grew strawberries and asparagus, while establishing apple orchards.
Linda recounted how after a number of attempts, Oregon passed an Anti-Alien Land Law to prevent Japanese immigrants from purchasing land in 1923, which Japanese families were able to subvert by buying land in their children’s names. In 1942, the U.S. passed Executive Order 9066, which led to the forced removal of the Japanese community from Hood River and imprisonment in concentration camps during World War II. Many Japanese families had to abandon their businesses and personal possessions during this period. Some lost their land. After the war, parts of the Hood River community did not welcome the Japanese community’s return and tried to prevent families from returning to land they already owned.
The remarks and reflections of the speakers threaded together pieces of the history of structural racism in Oregon and its intersection with our relationship with nature today. There’s much more to unpack from this history. Understanding our shared history is an important part in addressing environmental justice issues and ensuring that all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender identity or expression, income, or citizenship status are able to access a clean and healthy environment where they live, work and play.
I encourage you all to tune into the full 90-minute presentation and join me in the fall at the Oregon Environmental Justice Pathways Summit.
Equity Blog: Why equity still matters during a pandemic
On the street where I live in Portland, neighbors within two blocks have shared an electronic document that lists our names and contact information, resources we have access to and can share, and a way to notify each other if we need or can provide help for things like household supplies or trips to the grocery store. The collective caring has been incredible and it feels so much better to know that we are in it together.
Our collective health depends on our individual knowledge and actions. What we do for each other matters, and a vulnerable link in our shared chain can break the protective barrier keeping the virus at bay and make us all vulnerable. I so appreciate Gov. Kate Brown’s executive decision to require us to “Stay Home, Save Lives.”
It’s pretty normal in a crisis to go directly to what is known and familiar. For more than 100 years, what was known and familiar in philanthropy was funding mainstream groups that had little or no connection to communities made most vulnerable by systemic racism and other forms of oppression. It’s really just been in the last decade that mainstream philanthropy has begun to more deeply understand equity concepts and more equitably fund organizations serving communities that are also the most vulnerable during pandemics. But circumstances of today will call on philanthropy to make a critical choice to redouble its efforts to fund equitably.
Eleven years ago, Oregon and the rest of the nation faced a similar, but less severe, pandemic: H1N1. When that pandemic was over, public health researchers studied population-based disease outcomes. What did we learn? How has that learning changed what we do now?
One study in particular sought to understand the racial disparities in exposure, susceptibility and access to health care that contributed to higher rates of H1N1 illness and death for people of color. The study found that people of color were more likely to live in crowded living conditions. They made up more of the service and wage labor force and were less likely to be able to work from home, thus increasing their exposure. They were more likely to have a chronic condition that increased susceptibility to the virus. And, finally, they were less likely to have health insurance coverage and experienced greater systemic barriers to accessing care, from lack of plain-language information and interpreters to differential treatment.
This should all sound familiar and not be surprising. New York Times magazine reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones shared a tweet stream highlighting the disproportional impact from the novel coronavirus on Black people in places where officials aggregate the data by race. We haven’t learned the lessons from H1N1, yet.
What would be surprising is if we don’t use the opportunity we have in front of us to act based on lessons learned about barriers to equitable outcomes from the past. When I was an organizational development consultant, I once worked with a nonprofit whose mission was to prepare a coastal community for the potential “Big One” earthquake and subsequent tsunami. This volunteer group was highly organized: They had a team of ham radio operators, heavy equipment (think Caterpillar) drivers and even a team responsible for rounding up lost pets. They had thought of everything, almost. What they hadn’t planned for was the small but growing group of Latinx people in their community who were fairly segregated by geography, income, language and culture. This community didn’t have information about the potential natural disaster in their own languages, didn’t know about the emergency preparedness efforts — and didn’t know where to go to be safe and accounted for, should a tsunami strike.
Unfortunately, many of the conditions that existed during the H1N1 pandemic haven’t changed. In a society that remains segregated by income and race, it’s easier to forget those whom our usual approaches (unintentional or intentional) make invisible. These systems have yet to truly address the challenges and barriers of a mere decade ago that communities of color still face. To their credit, the coastal volunteer group, once they realized their oversight, acted quickly to get linguistically appropriate information to their Latinx community members in culturally appropriate ways. Is that happening now in your community?
In the future, let’s hope that the data show that equitable outcomes were achieved even during the coronavirus that is, in itself, indiscriminate. I, for one, do not want to look back at data from today’s crisis and ask why we didn't act upon what we already knew. Meyer’s vision is a flourishing and equitable Oregon. We will only flourish if all of us, our collective Oregon, stays healthy. That’s why we will continue our commitment to prioritizing funding to our partners serving communities that remain the most vulnerable. The collective is only as strong as its most vulnerable member. The knowledge is there.
Building Community reopens with a narrowed focus on priority populations
Today, Meyer’s Building Community portfolio is pleased to open our 2020 Annual Funding Opportunity (AFO) for applications. Our approach is both new and familiar, carrying forward important elements of our work from previous years and refining them based on our learning over the past year.
Last spring, our portfolio announced that it would have a year-long invitation-only funding call rather than an open funding opportunity while we explored ways to make this portfolio more effective. Over its first three annual funding cycles, Building Community received about 1,000 applications, well over half of what Meyer received across all four portfolios, funding just over a fifth of them. We asked key direct-service nonprofits focused on systemic-level change to complete requests for proposals while we considered how to make this competitive process more clear and more clearly focused on equity. These activities as well as others gave us an opportunity to both support key organizations while also learning how to advance community based on connection and belonging.
Leading with race
We’re back for the 2020 AFO with the clarity we were searching for: the best way to achieve the broad goal of creating and sustaining justice for everyone is to focus work and resources where injustice is most concentrated. This is why the Building Community portfolio’s priority populations are people of color, Indigenous communities and Tribes and immigrants and refugees. We will only consider funding requests from organizations that have implemented strategies designed specifically to benefit at least one of these populations.
We recognize that injustice is complicated and that other aspects of a person’s identity have impact as well. We are interested in supporting work that recognizes such complexity and is designed to support members of our priority populations who experience intersecting oppressions related to gender, race, gender identity, disability, sexual orientation or economic status.
Overarching criteria remain
For several years, the Building Community portfolio has shared key factors that guide our review of funding requests. Those overarching criteria remain firmly in place. We continue to look for track records of:
Operationalized DEI — understanding of structural oppressions and at least initial investments toward embedding equity in the organization’s operations
Connection to systems-level change — working to address root causes or underlying issues that create the need for a service or program
Community engagement — meaningful guidance or leadership of clients and communities shaping an organization’s work, with accountability to the people engaged
These criteria, along with strategies to support priority populations, are all deeply interwoven. An organization cannot effectively work to shift systems toward justice without centering impacted communities, particularly the priority populations noted above. Likewise, an organization that aims to effectively work with and for priority populations without causing unintended harm needs to have solid grounding in principles of diversity, equity and inclusion. When that grounding comes first, community engagement follows.
Continuing focus on systems change
While a connection to systems change is listed alongside our other criteria, it may rightfully be considered the foundation of all that Building Community does. The concept of systems change has always been present in this portfolio’s work and has become ever more important over the past four years of grantmaking. But systems change is a big idea, one we have found challenging to pin down and describe well.
This was a key part of our work in 2019 — to get clearer about what systems change is and how it’s done. With the help of grantee partners who do the work, we have come to understand that “systems change is about advancing equity by shifting the conditions that hold a problem in place.” Our funding goals for 2020 are designed to address conditions at different levels.
Our first goal, Civic Engagement, Policy and Leadership is designed to address explicit and semi-explicit conditions of systems change, while our second goal, Connection and Belonging, is focused at the implicit level.
We know that changing deeply rooted systems is long-game, non-linear, complicated work. It’s not a one year grant project, though small efforts can be part of a great whole. We’re continuing to learn from grantees and others about how to gauge the effectiveness of systems change strategies, how to collaboratively set long term goals while remaining responsive to changing conditions and how to think differently about what success looks like.
Ongoing learning with service providers
Another area of continued exploration is how direct service providers can be an essential part of systems change efforts.
In July, we opened a request for proposals from service providers who were early in this work but eager to go deeper. We selected twelve organizations to participate in a Learning Circle before submitting plans for projects to advance their capacity for systems change work. Funding for those plans has just been awarded, and we will continue to learn alongside these organizations through 2020 as we consider how Building Community can better support this type of work going forward.
Thanks for your interest in what the Building Community portfolio does — and is trying to do. We look forward to hearing from you, applicants, current grantees and the merely curious.
These water stories are changing currentsdarionTue, 03/31/2020 - 16:46
Meyer is supporting the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians’ (ATNI) work with its member Tribes and Tribal communities to engage in important regional and statewide water policy discussions focused on quantity, quality, access, rights and cultural understanding. To encourage a broad conversation among the nine federally recognized Tribes of Oregon, ATNI hosted their first Water Summit in 2016. ATNI also connected with mainstream conservation organizations, such as Oregon Environmental Council (OEC), to find alignment around inter-Tribal water policy priorities.
To continue these dialogues and ensure Tribal perspectives inform mainstream initiatives, such as Gov. Kate Brown’s 100 Year Water Vision, ATNI and OEC partnered to create Changing Currents, a website that uses storytelling to explore how water relates to Tribal culture, governance, economic infrastructure and community health and wellness.
If you haven’t already started listening to the rich stories they’ve gathered, we recommend beginning with Shirod Younker’s exploration of the Coquille Indian Tribe’s canoe customs and the inter-Tribal healing that a single canoe can provide.
Climate justice: Front-line communities are transforming the environmental movement darionTue, 03/31/2020 - 16:28
It seems like not a day goes by without new information emerging about the state of our changing planet.
Reports and data, such as the evidence presented by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), continually show how increases in pollution and carbon emissions are warming our climate, causing sea level rise and affecting the earth’s water supply. Although the science is sound, arguments over climate change divide our nation and fracture relationships in the communities that call this state home.
As we look toward a flourishing and equitable future for Oregon, we’ve begun to ask ourselves who is by our side and who is missing? Where both trust and relationships are most strong? And recently, how have or haven’t we addressed mistrust?
At Meyer we use the phrase “centering front-line communities,” which is a blanket term to refer to neighborhoods that are most vulnerable to the detrimental effects of climate change because they lack things like shade, air conditioning, access to parks, nature and clean air.
In reality, these words have much more meaning.
Last summer, Momentum Fellow Denise Luk sat down with Alan Hipólito, who represents Verde — a nonprofit organization that works to secure social and economic benefits for low-income people and people of color through social enterprise, outreach and advocacy — to discuss the creation and passage of the Portland Clean Energy Fund (PCEF) and why front-line community leadership was key to building the relationships needed for success.
Below is an abridged transcript of their conversation edited for clarity.
Denise: Who developed the Portland Clean Energy Fund? Where did the idea come from?
Alan Hipólito: It started with a conversation between Jo Ann Hardesty, a civil rights, social justice advocate who was then the director of the Portland NAACP (and is a now Portland City Commissioner) and Brent Foster, an attorney and environmental advocate.
In the summer of 2016, front-line communities were already doing a lot of work together on climate policy issues, whether that was Oregon’s cap and invest proposal, The city of Portland and Multnomah County’s 100 percent renewables, or just building capacity within front-line communities around climate change issues, for example the Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA), Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO), Verde and the Coalition of Communities of Color (CCC). The NAACP reached out to say, “Hey, do you want to come and sit and talk with us and a couple of environmental organizations, mostly 350PDX, to talk about this idea (the Portland Clean Energy Fund)?”
Denise: How did this group expand?
Alan Hipólito: Jo Ann and Lenny Dee from 350PDX, a longtime Portland activist and organizer, were out talking to different organizations, environmental, small business, social justice, environmental justice and the trade unions about the concept of PCEF, seeking endorsement or a willingness to work on the campaign. Simultaneously, those of us at Verde, APANO, NAYA and the Coalition of Communities of Color began doing our own outreach into the front-line communities.
That whole year, summer 2016 to summer 2017, was really about building relationships and trust across the core organizations — NAACP, Verde, APANO, CCC, 350PDX, Sierra Club — so that we could ultimately build a kind of collaboration and relationship that was necessary to be successful.
A key watershed moment was in the summer of 2017. We had a two-day planning retreat for the front-line community organizations, where we learned about ballot measures and what it would take to run a campaign. We set some common values about how we wanted to work together and most importantly the agreement that front-line communities were going to lead the effort. After that, things started to really pick up speed.
Denise: At what point did more mainstream environmental groups get involved?
Alan Hipólito: Portland Audubon’s entry into the coalition was really important. They’re a well-respected, long-standing environmental stakeholder, have a strong membership base and influence with local policy makers and other environmental organizations.
When they came to our meeting, they said, “We want to be involved: first, because we like the initiative; and second, (and even more importantly), we want to support the movement that you’re building.” They’ve been in many campaigns where it’s solely about getting 50.1% of the vote and therefore don’t include front-line communities. They saw PCEF as a chance to change the status quo of campaigns. “Win or lose, we want to help grow a more inclusive, front-line community-centered environmental movement.” While they wanted to contribute their experience to the decision-making and bring our resources to the table, they did not need to be in charge. “We’re ready to support the leadership of front-line communities in this campaign.”
That was a really big moment.
Denise: Since this effort, have there been other types of environmental ballot initiatives led by front-line communities — in partnership with mainstream environmental groups — in other places?
Alan Hipólito: Obviously, front-line communities lead all sorts of things, all over the country, including environmental measures. But this was the first of its kind in Oregon in terms of the partnership that was formed by front-line community-led leadership and then bigger mainstream groups signing on. That was a rare thing and hopefully changing.
Denise: What was the power dynamic like within the steering committee and then within the smaller subsets of PCEF? How was the decision-making process?
Alan Hipólito: It was pretty harmonious. There were obviously points of tension and stress because none of us had ever really worked on or run a campaign like this before.
We maintain a distributed leadership structure. We didn’t have, unlike some campaigns, a bunch of paid core staff. Our field team was paid, but our campaign manager, communications colleagues, fundraiser and the point person for our political endorsements committee were all volunteers or staffed and funded by partner organizations. It didn’t make sense to have a rigorous, centralized, decision-making model. It meant that we had to free folks up to be creative and use their best judgment in the day-to-day work they were accomplishing.
Denise: What were the key takeaways from this coalition and how the partnership worked?
Alan Hipólito: A lot of folks would say there would be no way to build and hold this kind of coalition together unless it was front-line community-led. Progressive efforts that bring mainstream environmental groups together with construction, labor and trade unions don’t often happen. However, everyone understood the need to center this kind of community leadership if any kind of progressive change was going to happen.
This kind of broad coalition building can win elections, especially when it comes to addressing the more traditional arguments against such initiatives. To arguments like, “This is going to kill jobs” or “This isn’t really an environmental solution” or “How is this going to affect poor people?”
The answer simply is: Environmental organizations have been putting in a lot of work and investment to build their understanding of equity and what it means to operate from a justice framework. Audubon’s posture in coming to the initiative was a testament to the growth and diversity, equity and inclusion work that they’re doing. The trades are the same way. They know where future workers will be coming from, that things haven’t been fair and just in the past or even today. They saw that a front-line community can put together an initiative that will make a difference in the things they care about.
Another takeaway is that I would certainly want to provide to the next group that tries this sort of coalition building is to not have to nickel-and-dime-it the way that we did. That was really hard to manage from a budget standpoint. At the same time, not being well-resourced required creative energy and distributed leadership. Without having a heavily centralized staff, organizations ended up putting in their own staff time. This is critical to the success of the movement we are building. However, those organizations need to be funded, too.
Denise: What’s it been like after the measure passed and is now in place? I understand the coalition is still working together.
Alan Hipólito: That’s correct. The PCEF coalition’s work did not end on election day, it shifted from winning an election to successfully and faithfully implementing the initiative. To do that, we’ve used the same front-line community-centered practice that we’ve talked about. This has allowed us to work in strong partnership with the city of Portland on key implementation issues like staffing the program, seating the PCEF grant committee, launching communications platforms and outreach efforts as well as building front-line community capacity to develop strong applications to the PCEF grant program
So I think we can feel good about all the work that we’ve done since election day, feel good about the collaboration that we built with the city bureaus and the elected leadership … and moving forward we need to make sure that the coalition has the resources needed to not just implement this victory but to solidify the power and endurance of the coalition. Organizational-level infrastructure such as internal communications will allow us to not only defend the win, but to also figure out how to move forward and build on this initiative.
And there’s still the need to fund the nuts and bolts of the work among the many organizations who developed and led the initiative, especially the front-line community-serving organizations. One of the things that we’ve learned the hard way is that the opposition doesn’t run out of money. They see this initiative, and any future initiatives, as a threat to their control over resources and political power. They are going to keep coming after us, trying to weaken or overturn PCEF at the city and state levels. The big challenge is to have the strength and resources as a coalition to counteract that consistency.
Denise: Do you feel that sense of power-building and power-sharing is still part of the implementation piece?
Alan Hipólito: Absolutely. This coalition, if it’s viable and enduring in the way that we want it to be, will inevitably decide or be asked to get involved in other things. How are those decisions going to be made? Who makes them? On what criteria, if any, are they made? How do new groups come to the table? All of these questions are where the extension of power sharing and practice of front-line community leadership is going to grow.
The story of the PCEF coalition demonstrates the unique position of front-line communities in the environmental justice movement and illustrates the way lived experiences of the communities most impacted offer solutions and innovative strategies — across interests — that transform campaigns and accomplish wins. In this way, front-line communities are transforming the environmental movement and allowing more people to see it as relevant to their lives.
Mainstream conservation organizations are important partners in this work. With established credibility and influence with local officials and the broader community, their endorsement can activate many and shift perspectives. As new approaches to climate justice emerge from the front line, it will be important for mainstream groups to explore new and innovative ways to contribute their resources, time and established reputation.
This doesn’t always mean taking a visible lead, but instead backing the proposals of those whose voices are new to the movement and allowing for new possibilities in our shared future in the face of climate change.