“What are you willing to give up?”: Reflections on 25 years as Executive Director

I was blessed many years ago to be asked a powerful question by someone I had only just met. We were talking about Environmental Initiative’s emerging focus on social equity and racial justice, and she surprised me by asking, “What are you willing to give up?”

It’s an understatement to say that this job has been a good gig for me. I know it is a gift to have found my life’s work at the age of 26, and now again to have been given the opportunity to change myself and my leadership as the organization’s understanding of itself has evolved, deepened, and become more transformative. Through these recent organizational shifts, I have asked myself, “What is required of me as a leader? Specifically, as the white, male, urban leader who helped build Environmental Initiative?”

I recognized change was needed for the organization and for me. Still, I was not ready for the question, “What are you willing to give up?” Why should I have to give anything up? Isn’t the aim to gain more? More impact, more partners, more power, more recognition, more progress, more money? That question, “What are you willing to give up?” haunts me. I ask it of myself and others every chance I get.

Today my answer is inspired by our new organizational vision: Relationships foster an inclusive, thriving and just world for all beings.

For all beings.

I believe in our organization’s vision and I want to be in service to achieving it. Systemic change is required to see our vision realized. The motivation for change first comes from the heart and is followed by the mind in those who work on environmental issues. I, and many white environmentalists, are coming to see we have built a movement that serves those of privilege and further marginalizes those who are most impacted by environmental issues, including communities of color, tribal nations, and rural communities; and women, young people, and trans and nonbinary people.

This organization can and is embracing a truer, deeper, and more impactful version of itself by committing to a radical inclusivity and working to ensure that those most impacted are included in decisions affecting them and the communities where they live. I do not see this as a radical departure for an organization that was founded on the power of convening across difference. Instead, this shift is a radical living into our own deeper potential.

As Environmental Initiative has embraced these changes, I have come to understand that no matter how much I look forward to a better future, I must wrestle with this question about what I need to let go of in how I see myself and my work. No matter how much better off I believe I will be in the future I imagine, I have come to accept that the process of change requires me to accept loss as a necessary step on the journey.

What this means for me as a leader is that I am now clear about my answer to the question, “What are you willing to give up?”

I am willing to give up my comfort. I believe that this is what is most needed for me to be a useful ally to the most impacted people and communities. It is also what is needed to see the vision of Environmental Initiative unfold —an inclusive, just, and thriving world for all beings. I can now admit that over many years in this job I had settled into staid ways of seeing myself and the difference I can make, and that this became very comfortable for me. I am not alone in finding comfort in experiencing job clarity and success accompanied by rewards, promotions, and praise. I recognize that these same dynamics became part of our organizational culture over time. I know my desire for and belief of my right to comfort will prevent me from being useful in the work of dismantling and disrupting harmful systems.

This is also true for Environmental Initiative as an organization and for the environmental movement. If we give up our comfort, we can be much more successful in combating climate change, ending environmental injustice, and building an economy and society in which all beings can thrive.

I want to be a part of this work in my next twenty-five years and beyond.

I extend deep gratitude for the people who have been a part of Environmental Initiative’s story and my story. I want to specifically acknowledge our founders; Judd Larson whose leadership of 17 years gave us a strong financial foundation upon which to build; and the staff, board, consultants, and community members who have been a part of our shift in the past six years. I also want to acknowledge that Ellen Gibson returned to this organization to catalyze this transformation, and I know I could not have made these changes without her, most importantly the changes in me. I want to acknowledge and celebrate how Ellen and I have worked with Sacha Seymour-Anderson and Bill Droessler, as a four-person management team, to provide co-leadership of the organization through this time of deep and unsettling transformation. Offering gratitude reminds me once again that I am one of many and together we are stronger.

I end with this invitation for reflection: As you think about the world you envision and the part you want to play in making it a reality, what are you willing to give up? How have you experienced letting go in your life and in your work? How can you build your own resiliency so that you can better let go of what is required of you to achieve your greater impact in the world?

I’d love to hear your answers, and I offer my support to you on your journey, just as so many of you have done for me.

In partnership,

Mike Harley