First Nations Leading Land and Marine Stewardship in the Great Bear Rainforest and Sea

Rachel Smith

The Great Bear Rainforest (GBR) stretches from Northern Vancouver Island to the Alaskan border and is the largest intact coastal temperate forest on Earth. Encompassing 6.4 million hectares of the British Columbian Coastline, the GBR and its adjacent marine environment has some of the highest biodiversity in North America, possibly the world. The region boasts healthy populations of sea wolves, spirit bears, humpback whales, old growth cedars, and rare glass sponges that are thousands of years old.  


It is understandable that a region as majestic as the GBR would host some of the world’s most significant conservation efforts. At the center of these efforts to maintain ecosystem health and biodiversity are First Nations communities whose ancestors have lived with and managed these environments for millennia. Twenty-six First Nations have traditional territories within the GBR, all with distinct languages, cultural practices, and unique connections to the landscape. Their cultural identity is inextricable from the land and water.

One of the highlights of my Environmental Fellows Program placement with the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation was accompanying my mentor to British Columbia (BC) to visit several First Nations grantees and communities:  the Kitasoo-Xaixais, Heiltsuk, Gwa’Sala – 'Nakwaxda'xw, and Nuxalk Nations. Our group spent much of the time on boats visiting the traditional territories and learning how each community is asserting their indigenous title and rights over their territories to develop and expand their local stewardship and resource management capacity. 


We were updated on the current work being done by the Supporting Emerging Aboriginal Stewards (SEAS) and Coastal Guardian Watchman Network, and were invited guests to the Nuxalk celebration feast for the community book release of “Alhqulh Ti Sputc,” or “Book of Eulachon.” Sputc, the Nuxalk work for eulachon (aka ooligan, or candlefish) are an ecological keystone species, as well as a cultural keystone species, for many First Nations in BC. The Sputc Book began as a research project to address the disappearance of sputc within the Bella Coola River. The project transformed into a book, specifically for the Nuxalk community, which included the customary use, management, celebrations and stories of sputc. The book featured traditional stories and vocabulary in English and Nuxalk, providing a single source holding all Nuxalk knowledge regarding sputc.

The sputc project, along with SEAS and Guardian Watchmen programs, illustrate how First Nations are working with philanthropies to utilize land and marine stewardship and reconnect younger generations to their traditional culture and territory. A new generation of First Nations environmental and community leaders are overseeing these stewardship programs that not only protect their land and sea resources, but also provide mechanisms for rising youth to reconnect with their traditional culture, language and stories. It was clear that land/sea stewardship is an effective vehicle for cultural revitalization and an expression of self-determination. This was a common theme throughout my summer of learning about environmental philanthropy to indigenous communities. During a Canadian Environmental Grantmakers Network (CEGN) panel of indigenous leaders and allies, there was a discussion of how philanthropies could serve as allies to First Nations. Merrell-Ann Phare, Executive Director of the Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources, commented that:

 “In all the work we have done, the framework or direct goal of programs have not been termed as environmental conservation. They are framed to meet other important community needs such as youth empowerment, supporting aboriginal women, etc. Environmental conservation is a means to meeting these goals.”

Many of the last pristine and biologically diverse areas are located within indigenous territories. Given my summer fellowship observations, to conserve these areas into the future, shifting philanthropic support to projects focused on indigenous self-determination and the durability of cultural identity will advance both justice and, ultimately, conservation outcomes.


I am in the process of completing my M.S. in Forestry at the University of Montana.  My graduate research focused on developing geospatial tools to assist tribal land managers in meeting their conservation goals.  I am interested in and motivated by ways in which tribal communities build capacity and develop movements to protect and conserve land, water, air, community health and cultural identity.  I am an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe of South Dakota.  Some of the things I love to do: explore hot springs, hike with my family, and travel to places near and far.  Feel free to email me at, or connect with me on LinkedIn.

Mental Health in Green Space and Beyond….

ValaRae Partee

This summer I was selected to participate in the Environmental Fellows Program (EFP) through the University of Michigan and the Environmental Grantmakers Association. It’s been a life-changing experience to be in the presence of so many like-minded, caring, and welcoming groups of people. EFP was literally a breath of fresh air. When I was with the other Fellows, I forgot about my personal struggles and I could focus on positive strategies surrounding the environmental issues of the world. It’s in spaces like these that I am most complete and can fully devote myself toward positively impacting lives. But, what happens when you run out of steam? Or when you aren’t constantly surrounded by people who help you recharge, like the Fellows? This year I was faced with overwhelming struggles: burn out, a redirected life plan, and mental health challenges. Through all of the mess, I developed personal tips that I hope will be useful for others trying to maintaining positive mental energy in green spaces and beyond.

From February to October, my tag-line for 2017 would have been “when it rains, it pours.” The year was full of so many significant personal, professional, academic, and let’s not forget, political challenges. But, it was also full of blessings! I had the tremendous opportunity to work at Earthjustice with real-life super heroes. They don’t wear capes and they won’t be featured in the next Avengers movie, but they fight every single day to protect us and the planet we call home. It was such a rewarding and fulfilling experience. But, if not handled properly, it’s a fast road to burn out (like any real super hero endeavor). At times, I found myself consumed with how deplorable some of the cases were. I remember one late night I ugly cried in my office because a company chose to knowingly poison a community (for decades!) instead of paying more to treat their mess. To make matters worse, the law worked in their favor. Mid-way through the summer, I felt more jaded, discouraged, and helpless than I had ever been. At the same time, my academic career seemed to be falling apart before my eyes and my mental health started to take a hit. I couldn’t figure out how some of the attorneys managed to stay sane after working on some of the biggest atrocities I had ever heard of! Why was I falling apart and everyone else okay?

The first thing I did after hitting a personal brick wall was reevaluate why I was doing the work. The answer was simple. I do the work because I care. It’s hard because the race toward a more equitable and healthy world never stops. And there’s no finish line that I’ll be able to see in my lifetime (issues like climate change and declining biodiversity will likely outlive everyone alive today). But I refuse to throw in the towel. I already know the journey is hard. All I can do is pace myself, rest when I need to, and keep pushing. It’s easier said than done, but here are a few things I live by that help me maintain myself when I get down.

Tips for maintaining self:

  1. Don’t ever let the work consume you. Sometimes it’s near impossible to pull your emotions away from the Flint’s of the world, but if you want to do the job effectively without going crazy, there needs to be some work-life separation
  2. Be kind to yourself. If you forget to return a call, accidentally sleep in on a Monday, catch a typo in an email, it’s okay. Breathe and remember to be kind to yourself. Don’t become complacent with mistakes, but know it’s okay to make them.
  3. Support groups of like-minded people who are also fighting the good fight (like EFP). They recharge me and help remind me why I’m working so hard!
  4. Rest. Take time for yourself. And take as much time as you need to feel balanced again. There’s no rush when it comes to your mental health. You can’t force a cut to heal faster than your body will let it. The same applies for your mind so be patient.
  5. Take stock of what you have already accomplished. Problems don’t go away overnight but it is so important to cherish the small victories. Completed a workout? Celebrate! Finally caught up on Game of Thrones? Celebrate (then mourn until 2019 haha)! Updated your resume? Celebrate!
  6. Hobbies! I have several artistic outlets that keep me sane. Find something that helps your mind relax and if you don’t have a hobby, you can make a hobby out of finding hobbies! Try new things, explore new crafts, travel, pick up a new book, or literally anything else
  7. Don’t ever compare your journey to someone else’s. People say this all the time but I don’t think we really consider it when we need it the most. There is no such thing as a perfect or painless success story. And we have no idea what struggles each other has or is facing. Appreciate where you are and do your best to prepare for the next steps. No one on Earth is like you. So why would you waste energy and time comparing your story to someone else’s?

ValaRae is a Project Engineer at Wilmot Inc., a sustainability consulting firm located in Nashville, TN. She received her Bachelors and Masters degrees in Environmental Engineering from the University of Georgia and Vanderbilt University, respectively. ValaRae recently worked at the largest non-profit environmental law firm, Earthjustice, as a technical expert. She has also conducted doctoral research on water quality with respect to urban runoff, agriculture, and climate change. Her career objective is to be a bridge between scientists, policymakers, community groups, and businesses to help inform decisions that improve human and environmental welfare. If you’d like to contact ValaRae, please email her at

Browning Big Green: What Does It Really Mean to Be Inclusive?

Cheryl Bennett

We all know the old adage of “use your words”. It has become synonymous for stop that inappropriate behavior and talk it out. But what if those words actually did harm although intended for good; would you still use them? Are we in the scientific community, or society as a whole, concerned enough? When we discuss diversity, equity, and inclusion we should take great care in recognizing different challenges, needs, and histories. To do otherwise would be egregious, a willful ignorance. It isolates disparities from a historical context resulting in an inaccurate understanding of the root causes of the disparity.

My placement with The Nature Conservancy allowed me to work closely on the Billion Oyster Project. I explored different methodologies of data collection and analysis while expanding my knowledge on marine ecosystems and bioremediation. The NYC program team at The Nature Conservancy was amazing to work with! I was made to feel like a true member of the team where my opinions and recommendations were valued and welcomed. Engaging in this atmosphere on a professional level not only emboldened me to speak freely but also revealed to me just how much words matter.

Selfie with BOP volunteer John, staff members Robina and Danielle.

Selfie with BOP volunteer John, staff members Robina and Danielle.

Early on, I participated in a science chat where several staff members gathered to discuss an article relevant to current ecological discourse. The article went to great lengths to state that the future of urban ecological research should become more interdisciplinary, and listed quite a few disciplines and theories that it interacts with: all of the social sciences, urban planning and design, plus the biological and environmental sciences. All of the mechanics but none of the nuances. Absent from the list and the article were history and, perhaps more important, a critical examination of society and culture intersecting race, law, and power—in other words: critical race theory. In a world where we seek to be inclusive, it is dishonest to leave out race. It is negligent to discuss ‘urban’ ecology without discussing race whereas, in any other context, urban would reference black people.

A colleague mentioned her experience of how words matter and how words can be a barrier to entry. She spoke about a parent not wanting to send her child out ‘in the field’ having spent so much time getting out of it. This opened my eyes to how the words that we often use to do this very necessary work may be a barrier to others participating. It also lends a more nuanced perspective as to why “black people do not participate in environmental work” as there have been a history of pejorative stereotypes regarding black people and the land in America because of their enslavement.

Courtesy of the Georgia Tree Company

Courtesy of the Georgia Tree Company

Nature has very different meanings for different people in America based on a brutal and problematic history regarding race. ‘Nature’ can be innocuous to some yet pernicious to others. With a beginning rooted in unequal freedoms and the unequal freedom of movement for persons based on the color of their skin, nature in America was at once a haven for those escaping enslavement yet also a dreaded place if caught. Woods and mature trees have been the site of many lynchings; are we sensitive to this history when we engage these communities regarding nature? Are we sensitive that ‘fieldwork’ has a very different meaning to the African American community? Or that ‘citizen science’ may exclude undocumented immigrants? Do we regard these “microagressions” that may trigger past hurt? Unfortunately, historicism never considers the ‘other’; after all, academia—the ivory tower—was never meant for others.

Words matter; not only its meaning but its use as well. Tackling these questions and ideas leads to understanding the underlying causes of outcome disparities and relationships within our society. And if we are tackling root causes then that also means tackling words and disciplines rooted in colonialism and the history of the pain embedded in them. There can be no environmental justice without social justice.

I’m a graduate student in the Environmental Policy and Sustainability Management program at The New School; my focus is on sustainable food systems as a driver of environmental conservation. I have a deep interest in bioremediation and agroecology, particularly in the Caribbean. I am currently collaborating with coffee farmers in the Blue Mountain region of Jamaica to start a cooperative in efforts of restoring ecosystems, mitigating climate change and building a green economy. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me at or find me on LinkedIn.

Micro, But Not Minor: Communities Choose Clean Energy

Soli Shin[1]

As an Environmental Fellow placed at the Environmental Defense Fund, I earned the opportunity to serve the Clean Energy team in my hometown, New York City. In my position, I am able to interface with multiple programmatic touch points of city- and state- level efforts to bring all New York communities to a cleaner, more efficient energy landscape.

The main policy framework that guides clean energy efforts in New York state is a roadmap called “Reforming the Energy Vision” (REV), proposed by Governor Andrew Cuomo. The first place to look for when it comes to REV is their filings with the New York State Department of Public Service. All states have their own public utility commission, whose duty it is to regulate rates that companies can charge consumers for electricity and gas service. In any policy filings associated with changing the utility rate structure or about how the utility receives compensation for grid upgrades, your handy-dandy state docket is the best resource. Out of the many filings associated with REV, there is one case concerning Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) that holds enormous potential for disenfranchised communities to reclaim market power when it comes to their utility bill and electricity consumption.

Expanding the market to include stakeholders in low- and moderate-income (LMI) households has the ability to signal to the larger economy that renewable generation will continue to grow. Attracted investors can end up financing more projects thus, deepening the pipeline of tax dollars in-state, as well as providing economic system benefits such as specialized job training.

So what exactly is CCA? According to New York’s Public Service Commission, it is “an energy procurement model… which has been implemented in at least six other states, involves local governments procuring energy supply service for their residents on an opt-out basis”[2]. In a nutshell, here are the potential benefits of CCA:

  • Bargaining power for communities; ability to negotiate better (i.e. cheaper) rates from utilities
  • Customer education and engagement on energy issues facing New York
  • Allows municipalities to set their own energy goals based on local input, which could focus on:
    • Price stability
    •  Increased clean energy generation
    •  Support of local generation
    •  Inclusion of distributed energy resources

However, the proceedings under CCA have been complicated by the fact that municipalities would have to solicit bids and negotiate with energy services companies, or ESCOs, on behalf of their residents. ESCOs have had a disorderly and often, exploitative history with New Yorkers. The simplified story involves customers being promised a lower flat rate for their electricity, compared to the variable rates of traditional utilities, then realizing that the flat rate offered by the ESCO is higher during off-peak periods of the year when rates drop to a more affordable rate. The process of evaluating an ESCO offer may impart a costly burden for customers who have little to no expertise on these matters.

Despite the risks involved, the CCA model holds promise. Community governance has been further planned out to allow eligible municipalities to combine with others to operate joint programs. This enlarged scale of customer participation can lead to wielding more bargaining power when negotiating rates, as well as “obtaining favorable financing options for locally-owned distributed energy resources [DER]”[3].

This brings me to an important element of what CCA enables for a newly organized community--the chance to develop and store locally generated power through a microgrid system. For LMI housing developments, developing a microgrid can not only be a physical asset to the residents, but allow them to participate in the technological innovations of the energy industry.

Marcus Garvey Apartments is one such example. The housing development has joined the ranks of hospitals and universities, whose similar campus structures adopted a microgrid solution to meet their energy needs. With a solar and storage system installed among their rooftops, they have become a microgrid, capable of “islanding” the same way a hospital would in the light of an emergency. Islanding is a huge component of a notion called energy resiliency. Resiliency is metric of reliable, uninterrupted service of electricity to a utility’s consumers throughout the year. The microgrid’s ability to keep the lights on in the case of an extreme weather event is the main benefit; if you are not reliant on the main grid for your energy needs, you are less at risk when it comes to experiencing outages. This is part of a wider strategy called energy resiliency, and the Marcus Garvey Apartments isn’t the only property that is catching on.

Image courtesy of Demand Energy.

Image courtesy of Demand Energy.

The use of solar panels is just one option in a grab-bag of cutting edge microgrid energy resources, like combined heat and power (CHP). In the Marcus Garvey application, solar energy will be used in conjunction with energy efficiency retrofits to maximize benefits. With the addition of lithium ion batteries, the apartments’ needs are met with a hybrid system providing clean and reliable power. 

Besides the cutback of greenhouse gas emissions, such as carbon dioxide, the buildings’ renewable energy generation means more than environmental benefits. This embrace of technological innovation provides the affording housing community with the potential electrical power savings from low-carbon and renewable sources.

In the future, the CCA framework, coupled with investments such as microgrids, will undoubtedly increase the options available to residential customers and help them access the same benefits that were previously limited to higher consuming customers.

Soli Shin is completing her Master’s at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, where she is focusing her career to tackle energy problems. She believes that the answer to climate change lies within an interdisciplinary approach to energy solutions that incorporates quantitative data analysis through qualitative language, visuals, and multimedia.

[1] Disclaimer: Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer.

[2] Case 14-M-0224; Order Instituting Proceeding and Soliciting Comments.

[3] Case 14-E-0224; Order Authorizing Framework for Community Choice Aggregation Opt-Out Program.

Expanding Environmental Education Through a Lens of Inclusion

Karina Herrera

I recently attended a summit where summer fellows from the Alliance for Watershed Education presented their capstone projects. The Alliance for Watershed Education, funded and supported by the William Penn Foundation, consists of 23 environmental centers in the Delaware River Watershed aiming to build capacity and increase their collective impact within the watershed through center collaboration. As part of this Alliance, the centers launched a fellowship this summer for youth aged 18-23 to increase center engagement and action.  The room was filled with excitement and community as the fellows shared their summer experiences. For many of these fellows it was their first time diving into environmentalism. The group represented vast academic interests outside the realm of environmentalism, but they brought to the fellowship their own personal stories of interacting with the environment, whether that be forested or urban.

The majority of the fellows were both people of color and members of the centers’ local communities. Through interactions with visitors and trail users, surveying local residents, and community outreach, many of the fellows' capstone projects revealed that communities were unaware of the vast programming and resources readily available at these nearby centers. Beyond increasing general center visitation, the fellows and centers have begun to look at what subgroups of the community are underrepresented in center visitation and more broadly, environmentalism.

According to the U.S. Census, Philadelphia is 44.2% Black or African American and 14.4% Hispanic or Latino and 7.4% Asian.[1] For environmental education to be a community priority, it needs to a priority for communities of color. Yet people of color are typically underrepresented in both environmental recreation and the environmental field. The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations report by Dr. Dorceta Taylor found that not only are ethnic minorities severely underrepresented in the environmental workforce, but also as members and volunteers of environmental organizations.[2] The disconnect between communities of color and the natural environment resonates with my own childhood experience. I grew up in a community primarily of Mexican, Central American, and Southeast Asian immigrants. My parents, a homemaker and a laborer, were often too tired and too economically constrained to plan family trips. But I remember taking weekend trips to the park where family friends would get together to play soccer. This is, in part, where I discovered my inadequacy in sports and my dissatisfaction with our neighborhood parks. The parks were often simply empty grass lots with a few trees on the edges. I was unaware that I was a couple of hours from giant sequoias and redwoods and didn’t start exploring them until I was a teenager. While just a short two hour drive, my parents have yet to see the breathtaking Tunnel View of the Yosemite Valley.

For me, all it took was one trip into the Sierra Nevada to love the beauty of nature. People of color represent a growing portion of the U.S. population. Their lack of engagement with the environment does not need to represent an unchanging disinterest or indifference. For my dad, the majority of my life his adventures were limited to the commute to work and back home. The environment interacted with our family through the water in our tap and the air surrounding us. But camping in the Sierras was a luxury too complicated to coordinate.

As next year's summer fellows continue to examine how to increase the environmental centers' engagement with the community there needs to be a keen awareness of what barriers prevent communities of color from engaging with environmentalism. While it took me years to realize I have the entire Sierra Nevada in my backyard to endlessly explore, the natural world has always played a role in my life providing me and my community with drinking water. The connection between any community and the environment already exists. As communities become more aware of what fits into their definition of "my environment" I see engagement with environmental education being included in that definition.

Karina Herrera is a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science specializing in Water Resources Management. Before graduate school, Karina served as an AmeriCorps member engaging Fresno State undergraduates in science and mathematics in research and internship opportunities and managing a volunteer program to increase early education literacy rates in the Fresno Unified School District. Her interests include groundwater quality and management, sustainable development, and environmental justice.

[1] “Quick Facts”. United States Census Bureau.

[2] Taylor, Dorceta E. “The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations: Mainstream NGOs Foundations Government Agencies” Green 2.0. 2014.

Gems from the Emerald City

Alexis Cureton

“Pursue a career where you will always be in demand and have the ability to help those who are less fortunate than you.” These are the words of my father, a man who selflessly dedicated himself to not only his family, but also to his patients on a daily basis. This dedication to his family and community imprinted on me. Growing up, I would always talk about how I too would be a medical doctor like my father, but my academic interests never aligned with medicine. Fortunately, this did not stop my pursuit of academic excellence within the arts and social sciences. An early introduction to the works of scholars and authors such as Nikki Giovanni, W.E.B. DuBois, Ayn Rand, Chinua Achebe, and Malcolm X helped develop my intellectual curiosity. This curiosity led me to study the conditions of people of color from different academic perspectives and helped me decide which path was best for me to take.


The study of different academic disciplines enabled me to discover what career path would best fulfill my purpose in life and empower me to serve communities of color. The challenge was finding an issue that affected my community and could be analyzed within a sociological framework. It was not until my first semester of graduate school that I would stumble upon this issue, energy. I was not just interested in the production and sale of energy, but the societal impacts of energy policy and decision-making. I focused my study on the latent effects of the extraction of oil and natural gas in the Permian basin and the development of new nuclear power plants in Georgia and the impacts of these projects communities of color.


As I studied these energy projects, I came across Dr. Robert Bullard’s work in environmental justice and had an epiphany. Transitioning to a renewable energy future could relieve the damage caused to rural and low-income communities as a result of the country’s current energy portfolio. This awakening led me to pursue an opportunity that would be paramount to my future success in developing solutions for the communities that I studied. My experience at Spark Northwest was that opportunity. As a young man of color studying an interdisciplinary topic such as environmental justice, I sought vehemently to be in an environment that was conducive to learning. Spark Northwest fulfilled that yearning and gave me access to scholars and change agents within the field from diverse backgrounds. They stretched my understanding of sustainability, energy justice, and equity. This engagement was even more important to me because I have seen that the current federal government will not take the lead on issues like Environmental Justice. I believe the work, the effort, and the momentum to tackle this challenge must come directly from the communities impacted by energy justice issues, and must be led by them, not those who are not affected directly by these issues.


Alexis Cureton recently graduate from Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs focusing on energy and policy analysis. He has an interest in energy burden and efficiency issues in minority and low-income areas of the country. Having received his undergraduate degree from Clark Atlanta University in sociology, Alexis hopes to bring topics of sustainability and renewable energy to the forefront of Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Understanding Power: Lessons Learned through the Environmental Fellows Program

Kassandra Hishida

I spent the summer at Toxics Action Center, a non‐profit that works side-by-side with communities to prevent or clean up pollution throughout the Northeastern United States. Participating in Toxics Action Center’s (TAC) community organizing work taught me to recognize, understand, and redistribute power. Most importantly, the Toxics Action Center model taught me to facilitate change by building power in local communities in order to support solutions grounded in the collective knowledge and lived experiences of those most directly impacted by the issues at hand. I observed how TAC organizers facilitated meetings in ways that created space for community members to share their stories and ensure that they held and maintained power in regards to driving conversations and decision-making. As their Environmental Health and Justice fellow, this meant spending the summer learning to constantly practice active listening and equitable facilitation to ensure that I was truly following the lead of our community members and actively amplifying their voices along the way.

In some ways, the lessons I learned from my time with Toxics Action Center were echoed by the Environmental Grantmakers Association’s (EGA) approach to their 2017 Fall Retreat. Throughout the retreat, EGA created space for local indigenous leaders, grassroots activists, and people of color to share their stories on the main stage. Many speakers at EGA used their time on the stage to describe creative, community-led solutions and call on funders to move towards a more just, equitable grantmaking system that is responsive to grassroots organizations and frontline communities. Their words were powerful and gave me much to consider regarding my approach to fighting the interrelated issues impacting our environment and our communities. It was equally powerful to observe funders attentively listening and thoughtfully engaging with speakers and grassroots activists throughout the retreat, especially as my Environmental Fellows Program (EFP) cohort took to the stage.



Each fellow was allotted two minutes to share lessons learned from their summer placement as well as discuss their recommendations for the future of environmental philanthropy. As soon as the first round of fellow flash talks began, I was in awe of the way that my peers commanded the stage and held the attention of hundreds of people. During each round of flash talks, EGA members continued to show genuine interest in our stories and calls to action regarding the interconnections of racial, economic, reproductive, and environmental justice. As we continued presenting, it became increasingly clear that our audience was not only hearing us, but that they were truly listening to what we had to say and responsive to our vision for the future of environmental philanthropy.  Many people came up to us afterwards to ask questions, introduce us to colleagues with shared interests, and thank us for calling attention to a particular issue.

As the retreat continued, I experienced a significant shift in my understanding of power at the 2017 EGA Fall Retreat. Initially, I had been overwhelmed by the significant financial and political power represented by the hundreds of funders in the room. However, as I listened to the stories of grassroots activists and my EFP cohort, I also began to recognize the power we held during our time on the main stage as well as in the work to which we have dedicated our lives. I looked into the crowd and saw funders typing up notes to take the lessons learned from our presentations back to their organizations. I heard EGA members asking what they can do to better support existing grassroots efforts and critically reflecting on the ways in which they need to change their approach to facilitating change. I engaged in conversations with funders who wanted to know what they could do to support EFP and continue the work we began through our fellowship placements. Throughout the retreat, it became increasingly clear that funders were recognizing the knowledge held by impacted communities as well as the activists, academics, and changemakers working alongside them. With this observation, I began to more clearly understand that without people power, political and financial power will never be enough to make meaningful, transformative change. While I genuinely felt that funders wanted to hear what we had to say, the listening cannot stop now that EGA is over. We need to continue creating space for critical conversations about environmental philanthropy and the issues facing our communities. The message underlying many of the presentations I heard at EGA was to ensure that those who are most impacted must be driving decision-making, informing our approach to grantmaking, and leading our collective efforts to effect change in the world. Moving forward, this means we must learn when it is time to listen, to relinquish power, and to move beyond inviting people to the table to ensure that it is those most impacted who are at the head of the table.



Seeking to better understand the interconnectedness of social and environmental injustices impacting her community, Kassandra earned her M.S. in Environmental Studies with a Graduate Specialization in Food Studies from the University of Oregon. After graduating, she served as the Environmental Health and Justice Fellow at Toxics Action Center in Massachusetts as part of the Environmental Fellows Program. Kassandra is currently seeking opportunities to draw upon these experiences to work alongside community members fighting environmental injustices throughout California's Central Valley.

Transportation Planning as an Opportunity for Climate Justice

Sindhu Bharadwaj

Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago and Boston, transportation was essentially synonymous with cars. Every trip relied on access to a vehicle, from dentist appointments to seeing friends to picking up dry cleaning. The only things within walking distance were other homes within my family’s subdivision and the only nearby buses were the ones that belonged to school districts. Zoning ensured that single-family homes, schools, and commercial areas were neatly separated, creating the type of inefficient sprawl that requires more resources and carbon emissions to sustain. This type of auto-oriented landscape is the norm for the majority of Americans, with the exception of those living in the country’s older, denser big cities and the neighborhoods immediately around them.


The implications of sprawl and auto-centric urban design only dawned on me when I got to know one of these exceptional places. Moving to New York City at age 18 came with many lifestyle changes, the most impactful of which was incorporating public transit into my daily life. In a city where personal vehicles are more of a burden than a necessity, the ability to walk or ride the subway to school, work, and practically anywhere else 24 hours a day provided a compelling alternative to what mobility could look like. While no place seemed far out of reach from the transit-rich neighborhood I was lucky enough to live in, my experiences of transit and land use was far from the full story.

The way we build our communities, both physically and socially, has major implications for equity and the environment. The emergence of suburbs like the ones I grew up in was due largely to federal housing policy in the mid 20th century encouraging home ownership outside the urban core while concentrating public housing within it. This pattern is inextricably linked to racial segregation and the need to draw a contrast between wealthy, predominantly white suburbs and crime-ridden, blighted majority-black inner-cities. The federally-funded highway system facilitated mobility to outlying areas while their construction divided and isolated urban black communities. Public transportation, particularly bus systems, was simultaneously dismantled or underfunded leading to infrequent, unreliable service where it existed at all. From the post-World War II period onwards, public and private investment drove a growth pattern that locked people into car-dependent, fossil fuel-intensive lifestyles while stratifying home ownership and economic opportunity along racial lines.

Fast-forwarding to the present-day climate crisis, we see transportation accounts for 27 percent of all carbon emissions - the majority of which comes from household vehicles. Smart growth advocates are rightly calling for a shift away from land and resource-intensive development patterns towards a model of more compact, walkable communities. This comes at a time when the suburbs no longer hold the promise of economic prosperity that they once did - poverty rates are growing in suburbs as people are increasingly isolated from education and employment opportunities and social services. Recent news about the “death of the suburban shopping mall” further points to this decline. The suburbs are also no longer as racially homogenous as they started out as people of color make up the majority of population growth in 78 percent of the nation’s largest suburbs.

On the other end of the spectrum, transit-rich big cities like New York and San Francisco are capturing the largest shares of population and job growth. However, deep inequality continues to define the space within and around urban centers in terms of income, quality of life, and the demographic profiles of city neighborhoods. In fact, the gentrification resulting from the expansion of transit service may even fuel the displacement of marginalized populations to more isolated, outlying parts of large metros. As the dual crises of climate change and inequality demand a break from the status quo, crafting transportation policies that serve all people and support sustainable communities is essential.

As an environmental justice researcher, addressing climate change is a more complex undertaking than simply reducing emissions by any means necessary. The knowledge that climate change does not affect all communities equally, just as its historical causes contributed to the continued marginalization of vulnerable people, demands that future solutions account for past harms. For city and transportation planners, designing communities to mitigate and withstand the impacts of climate change presents an opportunity to correct the inequities underlying climate change’s origins.

My work on transportation policy with MassINC this summer tackles many of the issues raised here: how best to get more use out of alternative transportation infrastructure, create more walkable, vibrant spaces near outlying cities’ transit centers, and most importantly, create inclusive economic growth across the state. A strong public transportation network and an emphasis on equity in the development of smart growth policies is a critical step towards defining a vision for the sustainable future.

Sindhu is a second-year MS student at the University of Michigan studying Environmental Justice and Planning. Her work focuses on urban sustainability, transportation policy, and climate adaptation. For her Environmental Fellows Program placement, she spent a summer with MassINC, a Boston-based think tank, researching the potential for transit-oriented development across Massachusetts.

The Peer Mentor Mindset

Mary Jones

As part of my Environmental Fellows Program placement with the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program at the University of Michigan (also known as DDCSP) this summer, I was charged with designing and leading a peer-mentoring program among our undergraduate scholars.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the program, DDCSP is a two-year-long summer fellowship that connects undergraduate students to research opportunities (in year 1) and internship placements (in year 2) in the environmental field at the University of Michigan and in the greater Ann Arbor area. Like the Environmental Fellows Program, it focuses on students from under-represented backgrounds in the field, including people of color, first generation students, and low-income students from colleges and universities around the country. 

Based on feedback from past participants, the peer mentor program aimed to strengthen support systems for incoming scholars while providing additional leadership opportunities to returning students. Through the program, ultimately we hoped to cultivate a vibrant network of University of Michigan DDCSP scholars and alumni that participants can draw on for guidance and support for years to come as they begin to enter the professional sphere.

Logic Model for DDCSP Peer Mentor Program

Logic Model for DDCSP Peer Mentor Program

As someone that loves structure, I wanted to make sure that we laid out clear expectations for the responsibilities of our first cohort of five peer mentors. I found myself fixating on numbers, including how many community events the peer mentors would lead, how many one-on-one meetings they should have with their mentees, how many times they should meet together as a peer mentor group, etc. As I watched the program unfold over the summer, however, I was reminded that the magic of mentoring often happens outside of these forward-facing tasks, shining in the most everyday circumstances. Take the following story: 


The scene:

It’s the evening of the first day of our all-scholar weekend retreat at the Battle Creek Outdoor Education Center. All 40 of our DDCSP scholars, including first-year and second-year students, are lining up in the mess hall after a long day of activities in the hot sun. The room holds a dozen circular tables and is filled with the smell of newly-warmed beef and veggie patties. The students are exhausted, staring longingly at the hot food as the line inches them forward towards the counter.

As people start to sit down, they follow paths of least resistance, choosing seats with familiar faces. Almost like clock-work, the weary group seamlessly divides along predictable lines, self-sorting into the social cliques that have been slowly emerging. First-year students sit with first-year students, second-years with second-years.

Softly, one of the peer mentors boldly breaks ranks and plops their tray down at a table otherwise full of new, first-year faces. They smile, and despite the tired mood permeating the dining hall that evening, they initiate a conversation.

End scene.


DDCSP Scholars successfully complete low ropes team building activities at their summer retreat in Battle Creek.

DDCSP Scholars successfully complete low ropes team building activities at their summer retreat in Battle Creek.

On first inspection, this instance hardly seems noteworthy. Observing this moment at the retreat, however, reminded me of that it is in the simplest, most commonplace of actions that we show what it means to be a mentor. Often, these choices are small, so small, that they don’t even register on our radar screen as acts of leadership. But their impacts can be huge. In the case of this peer mentor, as the retreat continued more students began to follow their example and seek out new people to interact with both at mealtimes and beyond. By the end of the weekend, the staff noticed that the ridged boundary between first-year and second-year of students had started to erode, and the group began feeling like a more cohesive whole.

One person, of course, cannot take all the credit for this shift, but they did make small, intentional choices that facilitated this building of community between the scholars. Unlike their “official” responsibilities of being a peer-mentor that I had spent so much time developing, these actions occurred out of the spotlight, behind the scenes.

This realization has prompted me to reflect on the fantastic peer mentors I have had in my own life and who have supported me from behind the scenes this summer as I navigated my fellowship and re-entered the job market. When I consider my own peer mentors, I think about the office mates I had at the University of Michigan who always wanted to know how I was doing, readily volunteered to help run our larger events and field trips, and would bring donuts to share during particularly busy weeks. I think about two of my good friends from graduate school that made sure the three of us Skyped every month to check-in about life, even when we kept needing to reschedule the conversation. I think about my own cohort of 2017 Environmental Fellows, sharing highlights and low-points of their summers on our group text-chain, always followed by a deluge of messages of affirmation, support and love.

Like the moment in the mess hall, all of these acts were simple gestures, baked into the everyday life. They involved people being attentive to the needs of others within hectic circumstances where it is so easy to be lost in your own experience.  More importantly, they required awareness, humility, and a willingness to step outside of personal comfort zones and bare-bones expectations of what it means to be a colleague, supervisor, and friend. 

As I wrap up my fellowship and provide recommendations on the peer-mentor program for next year, my mind keeps returning to Battle Creek, watching this student pick up their tray with a veggie burger and chips, deciding on a table to join at dinner. I am struck by the fact that their actions in this moment were likely not prompted by the prescribed list of peer-mentor responsibilities that I had so carefully crafted and communicated. More likely, it came from an internal drive to support others and build relationships.

This summer has reaffirmed for me that mentorship is not just about being a designated advice giver or leader of group activities. Instead, it is all about having a mindset towards serving others that underpins whatever required activities are laid out by any peer-mentoring program. It is this mindset that gives us courage to be kind through small, everyday gestures that lay the foundation for authentic, lasting support systems and relationships. Like so many things in life, it really comes down attitude.

Mary Jones graduated with a M.S. in Natural Resources and Environment (Environmental Justice) from the University of Michigan in 2017. She recently accepted a job offer at the Toxics Action Center in New England as a Community Organizer

Applying the Academy

Janae Davis, 2016 Fellow

So I’ve been hearing from various sources within and beyond the halls of the higher education that the academy is losing relevance in the applied arena. Some have suggested that there is often a disconnect between what decision makers want and what academics can offer. I’ve also heard from academics and professionals alike that this misalignment of interest combined with many academics’ lack of engagement with issues on the ground have reinforced the perception of the academy as an “ivory tower”, an elitist institution that is detached from and out of touch with the real world. As a result, the contribution of academics is often seen as irrelevant and sometimes even unwelcome in some spaces of the applied arena.   

While I’m not planning to join the academy upon graduation, it is undoubtedly my background at this point and the dominant perspective I brought to my fellowship at the National Wildlife Federation Great Lakes Regional Center (NWF-GLRC) in Ann Arbor, Michigan. During my time there, I had the opportunity to learn about some of the ways my studies can make a difference in conservation advocacy.  One story in particular stands out to me and I’d like to share it with you.

As a political ecologist, I study the intersections of society, the environment and forms of sociopolitical power that impact both humans and nonhumans. A major topic in political ecology is the ongoing power dynamics inherent in environmentalism – power dynamics that are rooted in historical struggles tied to race, class, gender and a variety of other social categories.  As I began my fellowship, I wondered how this knowledge could inform my work at the NWF-GLRC. As it happened, my fellowship coincided with a time when NWF-GLRC staffers were beginning to address the lack with racial diversity in their staff and networks. NWF is just one of numerous environmental organizations that have been criticized over last twenty years for its neglect to engage people of color.  Recent events in the US showing that racism permeates our social institutions (ex. police shootings, voting rights discrimination, environmental injustices) have dramatically increased attention to the issue. Dorceta Taylor’s 2014 groundbreaking report exposing the meager progress environmental organizations have made toward reflecting the racial diversity of US in their staffs served to highlight the role of the environmental movement in perpetuating systematic racial exclusion. 

At NWF-GLRC, staffers were just beginning to grapple with issues of race and white privilege in a concerted way.  It was a somewhat emotional time because some staffers were passionate about dismantling long-held biases within the organization’s work while others felt uncomfortable with the ways that engaging diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) might challenge some of the most fundamental premises that guide conservation advocacy.  For an organization like NWF that focuses on protecting wildlife, social problems and the environmental needs of humans (ex. clean drinking water) are not a priority.  The challenge for environmental organizations pursuing DEI is for them understand that their whiteness is a social problem that directly affects conservation outcomes.

As I began talking to staffers, I realized that most of them knew little about the racial and class biases that shaped the early environmental movement and how they continue to limit the participation of racial minorities today. During a meeting with my supervisor, I offered to give staff a presentation on the topic.  He thought it was great idea and immediately arranged for me to present at the next staff meeting.  During my presentation, I explained how the modern day environmental movement’s racial and class homogeny can be traced back to the movement’s inception. I also discussed why engaging DEI was critical to the NWF-GRC’s strategic vision and future viability.  At the end of my presentation, staff members commented on how it gave them some context for the changes they were being asked to make. One staff member put it succinctly.  He stated, “Everyone is telling us that we need to do this work but no one has ever told us why we should do it, until now”. 

At that moment, I realized the value that an academic perspective could lend to the applied field.  Until then, I also had my doubts about academia’s relevance to professional organizations like NWF.  Like many of my colleagues, I too have been disillusioned by many academics’ disengagement with the world.  However, my experiences this summer have shown me that this is just one way of pursuing a career. I have decided to straddle the fence. In this time of rampant ecological degradation, climate change and social injustice, academics and those working in the applied fields cannot afford to be segregated. Current problems require thinkers and doers from all fields and backgrounds to work together.  Collaborators must approach this work with humbleness, openness, curiosity, patience and an expectation to learn about “the other” and their perspective.  The beauty of all of this is that I get to return to my academic life with the knowledge and experiences I gained this summer and help scholars consider the view from the ground. There so much work to be done.  Let’s find a way to actually do it.

I’m a PhD student in the Graduate School of Geography at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts studying equity and inclusion issues in international conservation.  Before working with the National Wildlife Federation, I collaborated with the National Park Service and American Rivers. I would describe myself an activist, outdoor enthusiast and spiritually-minded woman who loves to dance. If you have any questions, feel free contact me at or find me on LinkedIn.

Breaking down Barriers and Building Bridges: A community approach to research

Teona Williams, 2016 Fellow


If it is inaccessible to the poor, it is neither radical nor revolutionary. Those are the words that proudly cover my Facebook timeline photo. I start with this because I have always seen myself as a “woke” academic. For those of you unaware of that terminology, “woke” refers to a person who is aware of inequalities and inequities that happen all the time in the world, and works to dismantle them. Being a “woke” academic allowed me to engage in my first passion, historical research, while still feeling directly engaged in my own community of S.E Washington D.C. In essence, I could spend all day in the National Archives, and all night protesting gentrification in my neighborhood. Being a “woke” academic also allowed me to avoid the negative connotations rightly placed on academic research. In Decolonizing Methodologies by Linda Tuhiwai SmithI learned how research as currently practiced today has legacies of exploitation among marginalized groups. As a proud African American woman from one of those low income communities that to some would be a perfect sociological experiment, I could avoid all the pitfalls associated with academic research because I was aware of those issues. 


Enter my work with the Environmental Fellows Program. I was placed in Flint, Michigan during the aftermath of the turbulent water crisis, which the city will be dealing with for decades to come. I was an outsider in every sense of the word. I was not from Flint or Michigan. I attend an elitist institution that many Flint residents will not have the opportunity to attend, a lesson I learned painfully at one of the community events I attended. In my mind this was all okay because: I had an environmental justice background; I was “woke”; I was from a similar community. These elements of my identity shielded me from a truth I denied in myself for years: that I was trained as a “formal” academic. I was cultivated in the Ivory Tower. I am ashamed to admit this out loud, but I used jargon.

 It wasn’t until I was held accountable to a community that I really had to start wrestling with my own privilege. In academia our work is judged by institutions, it rarely is judged by the people we research. We produce to get into major publications and conferences. While the issues we highlight are important for the world to see, rarely do we have to return to that community to start working on solutions. In this community I was out of my element. I was sitting in a meeting with two Flint residents presenting my proposal, spewing out my jargon, ready to receive a standing ovation for how articulate I sounded or compliments on my well thought out proposal. Instead I received question after question, challenge after challenge. I was pushed to think in new ways. I knew whatever I produced could not be for my own gain, it had to be for the neighborhoods who would use it.

Rarely, as academics, do we have to go back to that community we spent so much time “working with” to help move beyond having a dialogue about the issues and working to find solutions.

 This project is for the community based organization that went out of their way to help me connect to residents. It is for the woman who told my friend she wanted to take her “babies” to the park, but she didn’t feel safe. It is for the grandma who told me she tries to organize trips to take her grandkids up north to swim because the water in Flint is dirty. It is for the single mother who spent 25 minutes diligently completing my survey, because she was going back to school for urban planning, and thought park development is so crucial to a neighborhood.

 My research was not my research; I was merely a vessel who had been “trained” to do it. The data and the project belongs to the neighborhoods. It was a very humbling and introspective moment for me. I realized very quickly how ingrained I was in the Ivory Tower, and how insecure I feel about my own place as an academic. I realized that I rely on jargon and theories, because I want to present myself as a “credible” researcher. I don’t want people to hear the “poverty” in my own voice. During my undergraduate years, I was immediately forced to do more than code switch, I had to assimilate so people would look at me and not see an affirmative action baby.

 Having the privilege to be accountable to a community helped me realize that I never had anything to be ashamed of. My upbringing is my strength. Doing research with a community versus for a community is my passion, and jargon is left best for those journals no one ever reads. I want the world to read and understand my work, because it is not my research, it is for my community, my family, my people.

 This blog post is dedicated to the 100 or so residents that my team and I had the honor to speak with, and for the community organizations that took the time to nurture me this summer.

Teona Williams is a second-year Master's degree student at the School of Natural Resources and Environment. Her field of study is Environmental Justice, where she researches the nexus of race, class, gender, and nature. Her master thesis focuses on African American university students' attitudes towards outdoor recreation. After graduation, she plans to pursue a PhD in environmental history in which she hopes to focus on race and protected areas. Before moving to Michigan, Teona spent two and half years working at The Pew Charitable Trusts as a Communications Assistant in their international environment program. She is also a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship alum. As a Watson Fellow, she received funding to conduct research in India, South Africa, and the Caribbean for a year.

Public Health Leadership Still Needed in Climate Planning

Mayra Cruz, MPH

Before starting my fellowship at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC), I read Mailman School of Public Health’s oath out loud with my 400 fellow graduates. Health is a human right...I will work to ensure that people have the chance to live full and productive lives, free from avoidable disease, injury, and disability and supported in their pursuit of physical, mental, and social well-being. I promised to uphold these words throughout my career and for many years to come.

To me, climate change is the biggest threat we will face as a human race. People will not be able to live full and productive lives if they must contend with polluted air, warmer and longer lasting heat waves, and intensifying storms. The public cannot be supported in their pursuit of physical, mental, and social well-being if they must decide whether or not to evacuate their homes due to rising waters or cannot seek refuge from scorching heat for their children due to high electricity costs. If we do not address the health impacts of climate change and connect that a healthy planet means healthy people, we are failing people everywhere. Without fighting climate change, public health cannot and will not improve.

I thought about this constantly this summer as I worked to create a Net Zero Guidebook that will be utilized by the 101 cities and towns in the MAPC region who aim to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in a holistic manner. I read through countless toolkits, handbooks, and climate action plans to garner best practices to include in my work. While doing my research I noticed that public health was not a priority in relation to climate action planning. I looked at many committees and taskforces that are in charge of planning and without fail did not see someone who was in the health care realm represented. I grew more frustrated as I tried to find plans that addressed the need to improve public health through climate change action, but the plans generally did not explicitly enumerate public health as an outcome or area of improvement. This needs to change. These are missed opportunities to ensure that actions not only reduce emissions, but improve the health of everyone including those most unfairly impacted by climate change.

It is difficult to not connect the need for public health amidst climate action planning while watching the catastrophic effect of Hurricane Harvey on Texas and Louisiana. The majority of my family lives in Houston and has witnessed the devastation brought on by a 1-in-1000 year storm. Sprawling urban development, climate change, and poor city planning all contributed to the destruction of Harvey. Public health leaders will be needed in the recovery process for years to come and can help affected areas rebuild better and smarter. As a field public health identifies vulnerable populations, analyzes the health impacts of initiatives, and works across fields to ensure positive changes to people’s lives. We are a key and crucial player in the fight against climate change. We cannot be forgotten and we must ensure we are included in important conversations taking place all over the country discussing how we aim to fight climate change.

We as public health practitioners are taught that health is a human right for everyone no matter what their sex, race, resident status, or socioeconomic status may be. It is time to also recognize that a healthy planet is a human right as well.

Mayra Cruz is a recent Master of Public Health in Environmental Health Sciences graduate with a Certificate in Climate and Health. She is an advocate for public health and environmental justice within climate change action. She is living in New York City currently, but originally from Houston, TX. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to email her at