"The path is made by walking." ~Antonio Machado, Spanish poet
Since 2015, I have served as the executive director of Northwest Earth Institute (NWEI), a nonprofit organization founded in 1993. NWEI began its regional work on the heels of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, in a time before sustainability and “going green” were buzzwords and business strategies ... before #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and Standing Rock ... before smartphones and social media. This is all to say that 25 years ago, the pace, complexity and psyche of mainstream society (and the environmental movement) were quite different.
I share this historical context because it has proven to be a key point of reflection during NWEI’s participation in The Intertwine Alliance’s (TIA) Equity & Inclusion Cohorts. The Nonprofit Association of Oregon’s Multi-Cultural Inclusion Mindsets (a reference from the cohort I use often) states:
Historical contexts inform the way we behave, understand systems, and build relationships. By not only honoring the current and future context, but also historical narrative, we can better understand systems and cultural behavior.
Examining the historical context of our work has helped us identify the culture of our organization and the unconscious decisions and blind spots that come with it. It has also been a point of reflection for our staff and board as individuals. For myself, I wasn’t invited to consider my privilege until I was 27 years old in graduate school. Since then I have become increasingly aware of the multitude of implications that come with being white, heterosexual, male, six-feet tall, non-disabled, middle class, Buddhist, and part of the Xennial generation.
As we enter our third year of participation in the TIA equity cohorts, here are some quick and honest reflections on our experience and process.
- Time + patience
Deep individual and collective transformation takes time and a great deal of patience and understanding. There are moments of meaningful insight that can sometimes inflate expectations or rush outcomes. I have found the healthy doses of humbleness and perspective from the skillful and trusted facilitators to be the best remedial response.
This could be a symptom of being a smaller organization, but it has been challenging at times to completely follow through on institutionalizing the changes we’re making. Too often we lean on employees, who quickly adopt new perspectives and behaviors, rather than formally committing the changes to long-term policies. We’ve addressed this challenge through an annual action plan that specifically states the policies we are looking to develop.
- External communications
We have remained relatively conservative with any focused external communications we’ve made about our process and transformation. The key reason behind this approach is that we have valued integration (see Success #3 below) over proclamation and the potential “box checking” that goes with it. That said, our values and desired outcomes are evolving, and we owe it to our community to authentically communicate those values. We have responded to this challenge by emphasizing it in our rebranding and messaging project this fall.
Surprised to not see budget on the list?
It’s rare to say this, but budget has NOT been a challenge, thanks to foundation support attained by TIA to subsidize the program fees. The cost of the cohort has been very affordable for us (our organization’s budget is just under $500K), and it has provided a huge return on that modest investment.
- Organization-wide buy-in
After hearing the stories of some of the other participating organizations, it’s clear that having everyone on board is essential for generating momentum and creating lasting change. Our staff and board needed no convincing of the cohort's value organizationally and individually, and were supportive of investing resources into it.
- Stretching dialogues
As our work in the cohort progressed, a clear need emerged for us to go deeper into the meaning of our words. We’ve used rhetoric like “a just, sustainable future” for years, but what do we really mean by that? Extended dialogues on this question generated many insights and brought our team closer together to clearly identify the meanings of our words, our vision of equity, and the tangible actions we are taking to create it.
- Program + partnership lens
One of the most exciting outcomes of our cohort participation is its impact on our development of programs and partnerships. In our most recent publication, Choices for Sustainable Living (2018), we clearly articulated our vision for sustainability and carried that perspective through the entire book. In our April Drawdown EcoChallenge, we inspired 539 donations to environmental and social justice organizations.
If you'd like to explore more of our work in action, please considering joining our October EcoChallenge – a fun and social way for your family, organization or school to take measurable action on the environmental and social issues you care about.
As our organization’s journey continues into year three, we hope to build on our successes and continue to address new challenges that arise, recognizing that there is no destination in this work. Actions and systems of injustice run deep in our world, and it’s our individual and collective commitments to ongoing learning, transformation and practice that will help create a brighter future.
I hope to connect with you and your organizations in this year’s equity cohorts. In the meantime, I love to hear about your challenges and successes with DEI work; please feel free to comment below!