Advancing Equity

Posted by Lissa Widoff on Wednesday, September 6 2017


Lissa Widoff

Events last month in Charlottesville were barely processed and understood in terms of their racial, social and political dimensions, when Hurricane Harvey jolted the country to shift its attention to Houston and the Gulf coast. But these two events have some important parallels. Charlottesville symbolizes the damage that can be caused by racial hatred and fear that lies unacknowledged in our midst. New complexities surface as we seek to reconcile our nation’s past with a new future that many (more) of us wish to create. Similarly, increased exposure to natural disasters such as hurricanes is an indication that public denial of climate change will only lead to a lack of preparation when disaster hits. In both of these events, those who hold the least power in our communities bear the brunt of damage and harm– whether to the social fabric of their communities or to the ecosystems and infrastructure along a heavily populated coastline.

The Switzer Foundation focuses on environmental leadership. Our 30 years of experience in this field have taught us that scientific expertise alone is insufficient to tackle complex environmental problems, because many of our environmental concerns are also rooted in social problems. We have learned that while we need to support leaders in all disciplines, we must also cultivate leaders who can work across boundries and differences. Fostering interdisciplinary and cross-issue connections has become a hallmark of our approach, as we learn to speak each other’s “language” specific to our fields. It is also essential to work across our social and economic differences, and especially our racial and cultural differences and biases. For environmental solutions to be effective, they must be equitable. Understanding and applying principles of equity is fundamental to successful leadership. Considering who benefits and who is harmed by our environmental policies must be part of a leader’s commitment to positive solutions.

The Switzer Foundation aims to contribute to a pipeline of environmental leaders who are reflective of the changing demographics of the country. We have examined our own implicit biases and are working harder to reach schools and students who can benefit from investment in their leadership who might not have considered our program as inclusive of their needs. We are working with Fellows and alumni to learn how we can bridge diverse perspectives, backgrounds and leadership so that we can all forge a positive future. Connecting as leaders, networking across issues and supporting shared learning will help us continue to grow and develop as leaders who are committed to environmental improvement that benefits all of us.

You will be hearing more about our Foundation’s effort to better integrate equity into our vision of environmental leadership as we develop a new rationale and framing for our work. The Foundation Board and our newly re-constituted Fellows Advisory Committee has been hard at work in recent months. We don’t foresee any major changes to our programs on the horizon, but we do want to be at the forefront of investing in a new generation of environmental leaders who can create a just and sustainable world as our environmental issues become linked to every dimension of our social, political and ecological lives. Feel free to contact me if you wish to participate in the review of our draft materials and process. We thank you for all you do!

See below for useful resources for organizations seeking to build racial equity in their organizations and work. Thanks to our partners at Rockwood Leadership Institute who compiled these and more listed in the first link. 

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