From the woods to the streets to the living room: A homecoming
First, into the woods
I remember lying on my cot each night, my mind wracked and heart broken by the stories I had heard that day. Stories of how the last of the island’s forest resources were disappearing as a result of pressure from non-local companies on the communities to sell off their wood. It was 2010. My six-month research mission involved investigating the relationship of two island communities in the Indian Ocean outside of Zanzibar, Tanzania with their diminishing forests.
While living in those small island communities, I learned much beyond the research. I learned that my hosts were fighting more than climate change and species extinction. I learned that they were plagued by well-intentioned foreigners like me that had been taught that the only way to ‘save’ forests was to erect fences and pay governments. I learned that conservation was often just a new form of colonization. And I learned that to tackle climate change, I had to start by trusting those who have the greatest stake in protecting the ecosystems on which they depend.
I struggled with my awakening to the complexities of foreign ‘aid’ and the exploitation of developing countries by multi-national corporations. What was my role in addressing these problems, as someone who has never depended on the ocean for my next meal or lacked for an energy source for my livelihood or life pursuits? After wending my way through an environmental consulting firm, an academic research institute, and many non-profit settings, I struck out on my own journey completely.
Then, into the streets
I will never forget sitting with a young man in Miami who had lived and breathed the changes in his neighborhood over the last decade. He didn’t talk about climate change, but he talked about developers buying up the main street in his neighborhood because it sits away from the coast. He didn’t talk about movement building, but he talked about how art empowered youth to speak up and out. He didn’t talk about ‘root causes’ or ‘systemic injustice’, but he talked clearly about how being black prevented him from achieving many of his dreams.
It was 2016, and I had co-founded the organization Blue Heart. The first four months were spent learning from community-based organizations on the frontlines suffering from disastrous effects of climate change across the U.S.
From those months I learned that the organizations most effectively addressing the impacts of climate change on people and places right now are those deeply embedded in poor, black, and brown communities in the U.S. and around the world. My decision to leave my traditional science and policy jobs to create an organization that politicizes millennials and funds scrappy organizations building real political power and creative solutions was validated.
Finally, into the living room
I recall many living room conversations with friends and family as Blue Heart progressed. I had tried on the combined role of environmental NGO professional, academic, and weekend activist, consistently being guided by the question: “How do I best use my power and privilege to advance climate justice?” Now, with each conversation, I became downright fascinated with the contradictions inherent in how money serves as a proxy for our health and humanity.
Nonprofits seeking to advance environmental justice often replicate the racially-biased, growth-fixated dynamics of the wealthy because they are largely governed by the ‘generosity’ of those same people. Philanthropists make their money from an extractive economy and then are only required to shell out 6% of that wealth through foundations to address the external ‘costs’. As I burrowed further into these contradictions, I have become more and more curious about how we could rewrite the rulebook.
My homecoming to the CLIMA Fund
I feel a cultural, intellectual and activist home with the CLIMA (Climate Leaders In Movement Action) Fund, formerly the Grassroots Climate Solutions Fund. As the new coordinator, my goal is to dramatically increase funding for the community-led organizations advancing climate justice across the globe. These organizations are confronting the root causes of climate change and building local resilience to meet an uncertain future.
At the Fund we are mobilizing resources, yes. But even more, we are working to change the story. Increasingly, the climate crisis is a crisis of power. The politically powerful have the greatest interest in maintaining the current paradigm. Their story is that the only way to ‘solve’ climate change is to double down on profit-driven, false solutions (e.g. “Buy Green!”) – approaches that created this problem in the first place.
The Fund is a collaboration across four primary grant-making organizations that support locally-rooted climate justice work globally. Through their reach, and 100+ years of collective experience, we have the opportunity to provide a continuum of support to climate justice leaders – from rapid response grants to environmental defenders whose lives are being threatened, to decades-long organizational support required for movement building. We are also striving to be ‘greater than the sum of our parts’ and attract new dollars from funders that have never sat down with grassroots leaders before (because so rarely are the people most directly affected by climate change invited to philanthropic tables).
I’ll admit, there are a lot of questions embedded in this grand experiment. How do we hold funders who have undermined grassroots solutions accountable while inviting those same funders to our table? How do we create an inclusive and just re-definition of what constitutes a ‘climate solution’ that funders can get behind? How do we connect funders with the human stories that we know sway hearts, yet also utilize the hard numbers that we know influence pocketbooks? And, perhaps most importantly, how do we listen and respond to frontline communities that embody a politic of reciprocity and reverence?
Landing at Thousand Currents and the CLIMA Fund feels like not just coming home, but finding my family. With this team, I feel emboldened and re-inspired to envision a different world – a world where imagination is our cultural currency instead of greed, a world where a more powerful, public form of love is our benchmark for well-being, rather than economic profit.
Together, we trumpet the grassroots solutions we know are the seeds that will nourish a more livable future. Join us!