I’ve been to many conferences, but the butterflies in my stomach arriving at the Environmental Grantmakers Association (EGA) Fall Retreat in Chicago made it clear that this was a first – my first time traveling for the Greater New Orleans Foundation, my first national gathering in the field of philanthropy, and my first opportunity to meet so many peers in the space. A month later, as I walked out of the Facing Race conference, l felt more deeply connected to my role in philanthropy and to my own leadership as the Director of Environmental Programs at the Greater New Orleans Foundation. And now, I’ve helped distribute my first round of environmental grants!
A hallmark of any professional gathering is learning from peers, and I had the opportunity to meet many people who helped grow my understanding of grantmaking, the history and evolution of environmental philanthropy through a racial equity lens, current frameworks for understanding the racial justice movement in these times, and so much more. Lucky for me, one of the leaders presenting at both conferences was a former colleague of mine, James Logan, who recently finished his tenure as a Program Officer for Environmental Programs at the Foundation.
One of my biggest takeaways from the EGA Fall Retreat and Facing Race is that the Greater New Orleans Foundation is a leader in the field, and I’ve got big shoes to fill! The reactions from audience members to James’ stories on the EGA panel entitled “Embedding Racial Equity in All Levels of Grantmaking” really drove home the novelty of the Foundation’s approach for me. He and fellow panelists discussed everything from the philosophical to the tactical, from high-level ideas like creating institutional culture that prioritizes equity to specifics like ease of applying and reporting for multi-year general operating grants and rapid disaster response support. At Facing Race, a group of us from New Orleans recounted the story of the Climate Action Equity Project, where funders and frontline communities have come together to successfully push for implementation of community-led climate solutions with equitable outcomes. At both gatherings, I was proud to field questions and positive comments about the Foundation’s work long after the panel presentations wrapped up.
The Facing Race presentation included an explicit passing of the baton for Foundation leadership on the project. After Monique Harden from the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice and Dawn Hebert from the East New Orleans Neighborhood Advisory Council discussed community leadership for climate action equity, James Logan was introduced with his new title – President and CEO of The Wege Foundation in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He explained the Greater New Orleans Foundation’s role in the project – from the work of Ella Delio, the former Director of Environmental Programs and his own. He then passed the mic – and responsibility for managing the Foundation’s role moving forward – to me. I’m feeling the full responsibility for continuing this impactful and forward-looking work of the environmental programs. I couldn’t be more excited to be in this leadership position!
Amid all this transition, I recently had the opportunity to put my pre-existing skills to use, alongside recent insights from new colleagues and these conferences, to successfully oversee my first round of grantmaking. I’m proud to report that the Foundation’s Environmental Programs has distributed $573,000 this fall, bringing the 2022 total to $643,000! The resources have flowed to 20 organizations that successfully build the movement to live better with water, support thriving coastal communities, and champion community-led climate solutions. Nearly half of the organizations receiving grants are led by Black, Indigenous, and people of color. Most of the grants are classified as general operating support, and over half of the total funds disbursed are payments that are part of multiyear grants. Many thanks to the Kresge Foundation for their support of the organizations in the Water Wise Collective, in partnership with us at the Greater New Orleans Foundation, and thanks to the Surdna Foundation for their long-standing support of our environmental efforts.
To me, curiosity and dedication to continuous learning are crucial to effective leadership. It’s been very exciting for me to be immersed in a new professional approach to solving challenges around sustainability and equity that I’ve long focused on. At EGA and Facing Race, I had many fantastic learnings and thought-provoking conversations:
- According to the Environmental Grantmakers Association “Tracking the Field” report, the Gulf Coast only receives 1% of the environmental philanthropic investment and the entire Southeast only receives 7%. Based on the amount of people, demographics, and long history of environmental exploitation in the South, this clearly needs to change
- Frameworks for analyzing and building power in society are also necessary within our own organizations.
- Early environmentalism and environmental philanthropy were rooted in white supremacy and many efforts to “protect” wild lands were thinly veiled efforts to keep Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) from enjoying them.
- Strategic communications is not the same thing as narrative change work. The dominant narrative creates the window within which decisions, and strategic communications, are made at any given moment in time. To support social movements, it’s important to shift the narrative through specific organizing techniques.
- One deep conversation between a few of us on a bus ride really dug into the role of white people who engage in efforts to further racial equity, grappling with what it means to truly trust and center leaders of color while maintaining faith in your own ability to contribute to the needed power shifts.
- Many stories we heard focused on the importance of coalition- and power-building to ensure that good policy wins actually translate into implementation with equitable outcomes.
LEADERSHIP THROUGH LEARNING
To be frank, coming to this arena from many years of seeking grants in the nonprofit world, many of the grantmaking innovations discussed at these events felt rather intuitive. However, I also gained a deeper understanding of just how meaningful creating these new approaches can be for long-established philanthropic institutions. Being able to now combine these mental models opens so many possibilities to explore!
In philanthropy, and this is very true here at the Greater New Orleans Foundation, we have a unique power to bring people and institutions from different sectors – advocacy, business, social service, government, and so many more – together for common cause. By setting the table, we enable nontraditional coalitions to come together and explore combining the best ideas, strategies, and frameworks to create new approaches. In my role, I intend to help build trust among various actors, and help provide resources, to confidently try out new ideas for collective action, objectively analyze results, and continue to iterate towards positive outcomes. In other words, leadership through learning!
A highlight of both conferences was the focus on mindfulness and how to manage our own well-being in order to stay with the hard work for the long-haul. When things seem so dire and the world is burning, it’s even more important to maintain a connection to oneself and to a positive, optimistic vision of the future that enables us to continue engaging in the joyful struggle. One of the activities I participated in at the EGA retreat asked us to list the values we intend to bring to our work. My responses included joy, humility, deep listening, transparency, collaboration… all in service to the values of equity and trust. Then we spoke of our organizations’ values, and it was uplifting to truly feel the deep overlap with the Greater New Orleans Foundation’s values of collaboration, responsiveness, equity, stewardship, inclusion, and integrity. As I embark on this journey of innovation and positive environmental impact in my role at the Greater New Orleans Foundation, I intend to stay rooted in my values and the organization’s values, to lead with humility and listen first, to always be learning, and to help build the power of historically oppressed communities in our region. Of course, we’re doing this in a place that embodies the idea of joy in the struggle, and I also intend to have lots of fun, happy, community-building times with my colleagues and collaborators along the way! Many thanks to James Logan and those who have come before for all they have done to set the impressive course for the Foundation’s environmental programs. I can’t wait to continue building the work towards creating a more just, sustainable, and vibrant region with all of you.