A Personal and Organizational Mandate for a Just and Equitable Future

Photo courtesy of Tree People

My 70-year-old mother recently told me about a friend of hers who started walking with a cane, not to steady her gait, but to fend off potential attackers. Though my mom isn’t quite ready to carry a would-be-weapon, she said she chooses her daily walking routes with more care these days.

As an Asian American woman, anecdotes like these make me incredibly sad and angry. I immigrated to the United States when I was nine years old but consider myself an American. My English is far more fluent than my Korean, and during hot summer days, it’s burgers on the grill that I crave over rice and kimchee. But the increasing violence against the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community is a painful reminder that I will always be an “other” in a place I consider home—subject to misunderstanding, mockery, hatred, attack, and even murder.

Sadly, this should not come as a surprise. This country was built on the exploitation, and yes, extermination, of Black and brown bodies. A little more than year ago, we were witness to the murder of George Floyd at the hands (or knees) of a police officer, thanks to a teenage bystander who captured it on her cellphone. This brutal act, and far too many other senseless murders before and since, have sparked a national reckoning for racial justice that is long overdue.

Against this backdrop, RLF’s commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)—in the workplace, with our partners and grantees, and in the policies we advocate for—take on greater importance, meaning, and urgency.

I joined RLF two and half years ago knowing that I was joining a team genuinely committed to doing environmental work in a way that advanced social equity. RLF’s track record speaks to that. Leading up to the 2018 California election, we worked closely with partners to help design and pass a public funding measure that secured $4.4 billion for parks and water in California with 40 percent allocated to urban and disadvantaged communities; and we are supporting Indigenous-led conservation of the Boreal forests in Canada as a model for the rest of the world. These are just two recent examples of many, which go back to RLF’s early work.  

In December 2019, RLF kicked off an 18-month engagement with DEI specialists, the Avarna Group. When we began our effort to embed DEI values and goals more comprehensively across the organization, this work was certainly a priority. But we didn’t know at the time how much more critical and urgent the work would become. In the past year and half of “doing the work” amid a steady stream of hate crimes in the news, I have been flooded with so many emotions, ranging from hope and inspiration, to despair and rage, and back again.

The series of trainings over the past year have helped our staff and board examine our own implicit biases and privilege, learn about the racist roots of the conservation sector, and develop vocabulary and skills to have difficult conversations with colleagues. We’ve started to roll out a series of workshops to help us become more effective partners to Tribal organizations and entities, starting with a cultural humility training led by members of the Yurok and Mountain Maidu Tribes. The same trainers are scheduled to present on additional topics including California’s history with Tribes, federal Tribal policies, contemporary issues in American Indian communities, and traditional stories and relationships with the environment. These trainings have been powerful and emotional, and helped to fill the many learning gaps left by classrooms and textbooks.

The board is in lockstep with staff in our DEI journey, dedicating time for trainings and discussions about how to deepen their commitment and support. A recent board statement summarizes this commitment. To ensure transparency and accountability between board and staff on DEI, one board member serves as a liaison and participates in the staff DEI committee; DEI staff committee members also often join the board’s quarterly DEI discussions to exchange ideas. In January 2021, we welcomed two new board members—Kevin Washburn and Chet Hewitt—both of whom bring a wealth of knowledge and experience. We will continue efforts to recruit new board members that reflect a diversity of racial, socio-economic, gender, and age representation that is at the core of our work.

This work has inspired us to reassess and redefine our purpose and organizational values. The self-reflection that DEI work triggers, along with last year’s 20th anniversary celebration, provided a good opportunity for staff to articulate our “north star” and ensure alignment on what drives us and how we are showing up for each other and for our cause. Our new purpose— building alliances that advance bold solutions to secure a just and resilient world for people and nature—provides a clear vision of the future we are working to achieve.

Over the past six months, we have been developing a DEI plan with clear goals and strategies, seeking input from all levels of the organization to ensure broad buy-in and excitement about the work ahead. It’s an ambitious plan, but we’re building from a solid foundation that has incorporated equity into many of the outcomes we have helped achieve in the past 20 years. We are already implementing  a number of the plan’s strategies, for example using interview rubrics and other tools to minimize bias in our recruitment practices, issuing public DEI-related statements, and exploring new and more flexible grantmaking approaches. Our DEI plan is intended to guide the workplans of staff and leadership so that we are more intentional, focused, and accountable to DEI outcomes. Our plan is also a living document that evolves as we do, learning from our successes, missteps, and challenges.

Of course, we recognize that a plan is just words on a page. It’s action that matters. The hard work of examining ourselves as individuals, our culture and practices as an institution, and our impact as an environmental organization and an intermediary, lays ahead. We are excited and humbled at the opportunity. And we will be unwavering in our efforts to build a more just and equitable future.