Negotiating Generational Change


Juneau, Alaska

Southeast Alaska Conservation Council

The work of conserving places and communities is never-ending and ever-changing. It’s a bigger “project” than timelines and strategic plans can hope to convey. It’s longer than board terms, congressional cycles, and political careers. It is longer even then individual human lives. 

When a mission lasts decades and decades, how does an organization evolve its definitions of what conservation means to be relevant to the present? How does an organization negotiate its meaning and values between generations? When does one generation’s strength and force of understanding the past make it hard for the next generation to look squarely and honestly at the present? How does one generation, on fire with purpose and vision, allow the next generation to see the world through their own eyes?

In the winter and spring of 2015, I had the honor of collaborating with the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) to help them grapple with these questions and formulate a new theory of change that reflects a new generation’s approach and meaning.

Between 1969 and 2010, SEACC was the premier conservation organization in southeast Alaska because of their fearlessness in addressing the destruction to land and people caused by industrial logging of precious old-growth forests. They took on the hardest fights, often at great personal sacrifice to staff and board members, and won. They were scrappy, grass-roots, smart advocates for good that were steadfast in taking on anything that hurt the region’s environment. They accomplished truly critical things for the people of Alaska, and because of their work the Tongass is a fundamentally better place today than it was 25 years ago. For example, the conservation of Tongass rainforest ecosystems has resulted in southeast Alaska's unique and unusual sustainable wild salmon fishery which now provides $2 billion annually in fishing and tourism revenues.

SEACC’s identity was so closely associated with Alaska’s “timber wars” that it became difficult for them to operate with the same effectiveness in the new world that was emerging in southeast Alaska because of their successful past work. More conservation groups entered the region to take on different issues, pulp mills closed down, larger American values about conservation began to shift, and the dominant story shifted in Alaska from “how do we stop something that’s very bad” to “how do we want to live together in this still beautiful place?” In 2011, if someone asked SEACC who they were, the organization likely wouldn’t have known how to answer.

Most people (and the organizations we create) default to doing what we know how to do best. This makes organizational change hard; change and innovation happens because of either unintentional disaster or the intentional influx of new ideas.  Last spring, SEACC started a very thoughtful intentional effort at bringing in new ideas and creating a new strategic direction. They asked themselves difficult questions:

What parts of our legacy around the timber wars serves us and what parts keep us from becoming something even stronger? What is the right balance between defending communities and helping to nurture communities? Who sees themselves in the story of our conservation and who doesn’t? Why do we start with stories of loss rather than stories of love?

And to those critical questions, the next generation added these:

How might we remake conservation into a humanitarian objective where we are fighting not just for pristine wilderness but also for an underdogs relationship to place? How do we empower local people to act? How do we respectfully ask for the honor to be allowed into their story?

Out of these powerful questions and answers came their organizational pivot to water and nurturing “salmon strongholds” that are are healthy places for both nature and people, and to social justice and to the clear understanding how “we need healthy communities to protect these places.” 

The tenets of this future direction were then unanimously adopted by SEACC’s board at a second facilitated retreat. Through this process SEACC was able to engage in honest self-reflection and achieve real alignment between staff and board that is ongoing.

SEACC Values Statement for 2015:

  • Our approach is fundamentally about advancing a positive vision of healthy places and our unique way of life in Southeast Alaska. When we defend, we defend that vision.
  • We believe in the interdependence of healthy communities and healthy wild places and waterways, and we seek to reflect this value in our organization’s decision-making and resource allocation.
  • We seek a conscious balance between fighting problems and creating solutions, and will ensure this balance is maintained as we budget our programs and tell our story of SEACC.
  • Our work is relevant when it is meaningful to people in our communities, including young people, Native Alaskans, and others. We want a great diversity of Alaskans to consistently see themselves within SEACC’s story.
  • We draw tough lines chosen with and alongside the people and communities with whom we are in relationship.
  • We love this place, and we value its biological richness and intact nature. We foster an ever-growing awareness and sensitivity about what this place means to all Alaskans. Today, these values are best served through our efforts to advocate for clean water and salmon strongholds.
  • Our work originates in communities; these relationships of trust and respect give us our unique strength as an organization. To honor and build those relationships, we are committed to a strong, positive presence in Southeast Alaskan communities.
  • We prioritize listening to local people and seek to empower local people to act on behalf of what they care about.
  • We commit to offering programs at a scale of implementation we can do well even if this means doing fewer things. Doing fewer things very well will grow the organization, as well as strengthen partnerships.
  • Our vision and work needs and derives significant resources. We will be most effective with increased local and unrestricted funding, giving us independence.
  • We commit to making time for honest self-reflection, occasionally slowing down so that we may consciously evaluate our path. We also commit to measuring our progress so that we can evaluate and redirect as necessary.
  • We take to heart the core necessity to address climate change in all we do.

Facilitation Type:

Culture Change in Conservation

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