What’s Next? Meleah Houseknecht leaves a lasting legacy and offers questions to ponder in her final blog

  • February 22, 2021
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  • Meleah Houseknecht

If there is only one thing that we—and I mean everyone—can likely agree on, it is that this past year has been extraordinary, in the most literal sense of the word. It’s been a year of tumult, pain, isolation, and fear for many of us. People we knew got sick and some died. Our cities and state have been forced to reckon with a shameful legacy of racial disparities and injustice. This last year taught us to slow down and appreciate what we might have considered in the past to be smaller joys. Personally, I learned to live for walks through the park with my children, to bake homemade bread, and to delight in crafting something beautiful for those I love and have been kept away from by COVID-19 (wow did my knitting skills take off in 2020!). Like many people, I travelled less and took a year off of constant activities, and all that extra time close to home gave me a chance to think about what it is I’m here on Earth for.

For me, all of that existential angst and hard-earned personal growth have led me to the decision that now is the right time for me to move on from Environmental Initiative to explore what my next chapter will hold and where I am being called to next. Over nine amazing years of transformation at Environmental Initiative I have had the opportunity to work with over a dozen state government agencies and offices, as well as several local governments, to engage diverse perspectives in developing recommendations for public policy, programs, and spending. I planned more than 40 events and hundreds of meetings on environmental policy, public health, and corporate sustainability and got to take a deep dive into topics that ranged from air quality to pollinator habitat to urban design and development. I’ve had the chance to learn from some of the most incredible people in Minnesota: commissioners and community organizers, environmental engineers and artists, youth activists and retirees. I’m grateful to the hundreds of people who have taught me a new way to look at a problem—or what it might mean to “solve” it—somewhere along the way. I’m proud that, as EI moves into its next era, it does so with a stronger sense of its own principles for effective and inclusive engagement, as well as clarity about the intention to transform both people and institutions though that engagement.

There is exciting work ahead for Environmental Initiative as the organization continues to live into a new identity and explore the unique role that it can and must play in creating the more just, healthy, and resilient world that we dream of. I look forward to staying connected to the work as I head on to new adventures. At the heart of every nonprofit is its mission, and I believe that there is incredible potential for EI to find its essential and unique role by deeply embracing and following its new mission to “catalyze collaboration across perspectives, power, and systems for social equity and environmental health.” Anyone who has worked with me knows that I love thorny and provocative questions, so here are a few that I would like to leave Environmental Initiative and its partners with:

  • How can EI be rigorous in its focus on catalyzing unexpected relationships, not just amongst seeming adversaries, but across issues and ways of thinking that can spark equally unexpected ideas and imagination?
  • What would EI’s projects, programs, and partnerships look like if every piece of the work showcased and leveraged the value of difference and diversity in perspective?
  • What can EI make possible by openly acknowledging who has historically had power, the damage done to those who have been systematically denied power, and the innovation and liberation that can come from making decisions based on new perspectives? What new solutions can we unlock if “collaboration across power” leads to a meaningful shift in who has power?
  • How can EI’s work to “catalyze collaboration across…systems,” also serve to illuminate the systems that hold injustice and environmental exploitation in place?
  • What will EI’s work look like and include when every project, program, and partnership is designed to, first and foremost, advance both social equity and environmental health?

As for me, I’m excited, after this long, hard year, to take a few months to catch up with myself and to take advantage of a rare chance to know and be with my children while they are still little. I plan to stay involved in environmental policy and local environmental justice issues. I want to spend my time working to build a thriving democracy that values plurality and cultural diversity, contributing to systemic and transformational change, and centering and intentionally building community. In short, I’ll see many of you around. You can find me on LinkedIn, so please don’t be a stranger!