The differences in our work

Like many in this time of COVID-required isolation and election-inspired connectedness, I spent time on November 3 talking with friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers to help myself make it through what I knew would be a long day. Around 9:30 p.m. on election day, many of the people I was communicating with around the country hit a wall of emotional exhaustion, stopped paying attention to returns, and chose instead to go to sleep for the night. What I have heard since from many of them is that they felt a heaviness of heart about the divisions in our country and despair for what those divisions might mean for our future together, regardless of the election outcomes. Real differences in experience and identity are leading Americans to make very different, diametrically opposed decisions. In a time when many of us long for together, what a lot of us felt was apart.

Now, a few weeks later, it is clear that race, gender, and the rural-urban divide held the most significance on how people voted and how they feel about the outcomes of the 2020 election. I suggest that these three aspects of identity are also the biggest differences impacting and influencing the work of Environmental Initiative, and that the same is true for the environmental movement as a whole.

Success tackling climate change and other pressing environmental and public health issues depends on our recognition of the centrality of race, gender, and the rural-urban divide in our work. That represents a new way of seeing for me, for our organization, and for the movement. Remaking the world that is better for people and better for the health of all living beings requires creative ideas, hard work, and all of us. We need the engagement of all, especially those on the margins of our current systems, if we aspire to bend the arc of those systems toward justice and sustainability. We need to be in this together, not despite our differences, but because of them.

I was not so clear about any of this five years ago, when our staff and board members first began reorienting ourselves to understanding our work as taking place at the intersection of social equity and environment. For more than a quarter century, we have understood our work as bringing people together across differences to build relationships, to forge shared commitment, and to catalyze collaborative action. We understood that some differences make a bigger difference in this work than others. Subsequently the differences we focused on were “stakeholder sector” – the public, private or nonprofit sectors – and political affiliation.

Certainly, sector and political affiliation have made and continue to make a difference in the work of an organization that aims for a healthy environment for people and planet. At the same time, we have come to see that race most reliably determines the environmental quality any of us experience, and, along with gender, race most reliably determines who has the greatest impact on the decisions that affect people and their communities. We also know that rural and urban people have come to see their interests and their needs as being in deep tension and in competition, and we know in reality our differences and similarities are far more complex than that any simple storyline. Division and separation do afflict our country, harming both people and planet, and these are the divisions that we must attend to as we work for healing and unity.

We at Environmental Initiative now see environment and equity as inseparable. We now see ourselves building bridges across differences in perspectives, power, and systems. We now see that our relationships to those most marginalized and in disproportionately impacted communities are just as essential as our relationships to the businesses, government, and nonprofit leaders who have been the source of our power for almost 30 years. We now see our work through the lenses of systems change and advancing justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion – JEDI. And we know that this organization is uniquely positioned to facilitate the movement of environmental thought leadership, planning, and practice toward a JEDI-centered and systemic approach.

I do not see any of this as a fundamental departure from our path of the past decades, and what has made Environmental Initiative a powerful and valuable partner and convenor. Instead, I see this direction as a truer, deeper, and more complete expression of the original insight of our founders – that the way to a better world comes through working across the differences that matter the most. Tension is not a sign that our steps are mistaken, but instead that we are in the right place, bridging the most meaningful differences, and tapping into our greatest source of power.

This renewed understanding of our work led us to the five-year strategic plan our board of directors adopted in September. I see many reasons for hope throughout our communities, including in many parts of Environmental Initiative’s work. As one example, our board of directors has taken steps in recent years to more meaningfully include differences in race, gender, and rural and urban identities. This diverse group worked together virtually during this time of COVID to wrestle with the questions of sustainability and justice most material to our work. Their commitment to each other and to intercultural understanding is what powered this groundbreaking strategic plan.

In the coming months, we look forward to inviting Environmental Initiative staff to share more stories from their work which offer hope for the world that we envision.

I hope that you are inspired to join us as we live out our mission – catalyzing collaboration across perspectives, power, and systems for social equity and environmental health. We know we have a long journey to fully embody a new way of understanding and implementing our work. I would love to talk to you about your own experiences, our direction, and how we might become closer collaborators for an inclusive, just, and thriving world for all beings.


Mike Harley