River Network



Read Center for Whole Communities 2004 Statement on land, race, power and privilege.

How do environmental and conservation group set clear intentions around their power and privilege and hold themselves accountable to making those changes? I’ve spent the majority of the last two decades working on this from the origins of Center for Whole Communities in 2003 to supporting a path of change for now almost a hundred conservation groups to helping my colleagues at River Network to focus the lens of equity and inclusion and be leaders in changing themselves and modeling a new river movement in our country.

I’ve seen so many organizations strive to shift what’s visible about themselves (boards and staff that are primarily white) without trying to change what’s less visible, the dominant culture that keeps them locked in certain perspectives, privileges and story. You’ve seen this, too: organizations who think change is about quotas of people rather than about evolving mission, behavior and program. I know this because I’ve worked in privileged spaces and made these exact mistakes myself. Creating more diverse boards and staff is a good thing, but not if they arrive into cultures that don’t see them fully or into cultures where they alone are expected to be the voices for change. I’ve found that real organizational change in conservation culture arises through 3 steps:

  1. Declaring Intentions and how you will be held accountable: Who is your conservation work for today? What is the role of equity, inclusion, diversity, justice in your conservation work?  How is equity and inclusion central to achieving your mission, or not? Who in our organization agrees and who disagrees and why? To what ends are you working? If this is so important, how do you wish to be held accountable?
  2. Building organizational competency and emotional intelligence: After setting clear and public intentions comes the time for humility and learning: understanding organizational biases in how you think, work and behave; developing an organizational analysis of power and privilege around conservation issues; understanding history, the past and present conditions that create land loss and degradation in our country, coming to terms with your organizational role in that history.
  3. Learning journeys to your organizational borders: When intentions have been expressed and competencies expanded, it’s time to travel, connect, collaborate with those who are different in order to learn more deeply from those who know more than you. Every organization and movement has its own boundaries: the far edges of its relationships, understandings and turf.  Examples include:  core city social justice groups travelling to learn about rural issues and people, non-Native conservationists devoting months to understanding needs and life experiences of Native conservationists, Rural river advocates living and learning alongside core city water advocates.

    Going to those edges and boundaries for the express purpose of learning in reciprocal ways leads to powerful transformation because it’s about real work in specific places.

In 2017, the board and staff of River Network, a national association of hundreds of water advocate organizations, asked me to design and implement an inclusive process around step one: developing their own intentions around this change. The year before their board had adopted a Statement on diversity, equity and inclusion that, while powerful and on the right track, needed a deeper level of exploration and commitment internally and with their community. The organization and its members needed a process to dialogue, disagree, and – if possible – align around who it needed to become and the role in that of diversity, equity and inclusion.

River Network’s process was led by a team of board and staff, co-chaired by board member Beth Stewart, and staff member Diana Toledo. I interviewed almost all the staff and board, facilitated a conversation among the full board and a listening session among 30 of their member organizations. We drafted a statement based upon the themes, language and real aspirations.

My work is always guided by inquiry, and the powerful questions that arose at River Network were these:  where does our disquiet rise up in all of this? To what extent are we willing to be uncomfortable and to take greater risks? We think we know how to protect rivers and water but are we willing to have that redefined for us? There’s a willingness to listen and learn from people who don’t look or think like us – engage difference – but this will ask us to partner with orgs we’ve never worked with before – are we ready for that? Doing this work well might lead us to question our entire premise, our model.

It’s never my role to answer these questions, but to keep the questions blazing in front of each organization. Some organizations will turn away from them, unable to stand the heat or to make the time, unwilling in the end to change. But others will face their compelling questions of why, understanding full well that the difficult answers are core to innovation.
I honor the challenges that this work presents for any organization, and I’m grateful to River Network for their honesty in expressing the obstacles. There’s a fear about losing their core base - fear that they won’t be for the rivers – that they will lose the balance between people and ecosystem. River Network’s greatest challenge around its EDI work may come in balancing sense of urgency with a sense of intention. Time is often the enemy of equity. EDI work needs time and intention, to slow the process down so things happen in the right order, to ensure that board and staff have the dialogue they need. In many environmental organizations, the scarcest resource of all can be time and patience.

There’s a fear on not being able to fully engage all the people who need to be at the table. What happened if the invitation is rejected? “Why weren’t we all at the table writing this statement?” There a fear to fill the seats, or sense of urgency that make a process happen too fast. There’s a fear of needing to get credit for doing the work, and a natural defensiveness that arises that gets in way of progress and keeps some conversations from happening. There’s the fear of doing this work without funding.

As River Network grapples with prioritizing its own time and standing alongside its stated intentions, here’s what’s possible for them in the near future: expanded personal perspectives, talking and learning with new people and organizations, seeing in the years ahead the whole country in a water conversation, talking about drinking water safety in ways they never did before. In time and resulting from work on the ground, River Network will earn a more diverse staff and board and much bigger impact on ground and recognize a moral authority that arises from being real to the grassroots while connected to the national conservation community. In time, there will be a transformation in who they work with and why. Philanthropy will follow. Most important, they will have the satisfaction of pursuing their mission with less cultural bias and filters, to deliver on their hope for abundant and clean water for all people, to be fearless about going where there is need.

Facilitation Type:

Culture Change in Conservation

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