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.

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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.

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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.