Paul Sabin, Environmental Leadership Program
Wednesday, 14 Aug 2002
What a fabulous reception! The event was held on the 35th floor of Smith Tower, which was built in 1914 and, on yesterday’s clear evening, boasted a spectacular 360-degree view of Seattle and the mountains. Over 100 people showed up and the place was buzzing. Denis Hayes spoke about the need to invest in leadership development and to reach out more effectively to middle America, as well as the importance of bold risk-taking. ELP fellow Jonna Higgins-Freese, from the Prairiewoods Franciscan Spirituality Center, described the transformative impact that the ELP fellowship program has had on her life over the past few years, crediting it with keeping her inspired and active in her environmental work.
Jonna told two stories about how the ELP experiences had created opportunities for collaboration with people quite different from her. By learning to work with a private sector fellow of whom she had been dismissive at the first meeting, she gained access to a valuable source of advice on business and marketing, which she used to strengthen a local wine- and grape-purchasing program for Iowa churches. And by learning more about environmental justice issues, she was inspired to co-author, with Jeff Tomhave, an article for a spirituality magazine on the environmental challenges tribal communities face today and the diversity of Native American spiritual beliefs.
Though she did not speak about it, Jonna has also broadened the horizons of her ELP colleagues by introducing them to faith-based environmental action. Jonna’s experience within ELP illustrates the creative ferment that comes from the incredible diversity of the ELP fellowship community. Many leadership programs in environmentalism work with narrow subsets of the field — a training program for state-based wilderness advocates, for example, or for field organizers, or for academic scientists. By contrast, ELP strives for diversity in the recruitment and selection of ELP fellows. We seek to weave together the different strands of the environmental movement into one complex fabric.
I’m pretty sure that the ELP fellowship community is unique in the environmental field. I can’t imagine where else you’d find environmental justice activists, corporate environmental managers, conservation biologists, historians, tribal managers, labor organizers, and faith-based coordinators working together over a period of years. Our fellows are split fairly evenly among four major sectors of society: nonprofits, higher education, government, and the private sector. They are also geographically diverse, drawing from more than half the states in the first three years. The community is balanced by gender, and almost half the fellows are people of color.
This diversity reflects the fundamental ways the environmental movement is changing. Environmental leadership is found increasingly beyond the Beltway and across the country. In addition, environmentalism has penetrated every sector of society, and people are striving to transform our major institutions (including corporations, government agencies, and universities), often from within.
What it means to do environmental work also has changed. For instance, Alan Hipolito, an ELP fellow, has spent much of the past few years developing a credit union for a Latino neighborhood in Portland, Ore. The idea is that a vibrant community with opportunities for local capital accumulation and economic development can make “smart growth” also be “just growth,” meeting the needs of low-income communities of color. This broadening and redefining of environmentalism is increasingly important as we begin to try integrating ecological sustainability with economic development and social equity.
The heterogeneity of the ELP fellowship community is a key asset in helping ELP fellows conceive of their work in broad terms, develop new networks, and deepen their insights. In our efforts to stimulate collaboration across sectors and profound social divisions, we don’t expect the fellows to change who they are so much as to learn to communicate and build coalitions across divisions, and to understand where others are coming from.
Today, I am heading off with four staff members for the Sleeping Lady retreat center at 7 a.m. The rest of the fellows and staff will follow later, but some of us need to arrive early to check out meeting spaces and make last-minute arrangements.
Before I started directing ELP, I didn’t think much about whether a meeting space or time would be particularly conducive to a good discussion. I also paid relatively little attention to group process — team-building and all that stuff. But I’ve grown more humble about my own learning style. I’ve come to recognize that we need to craft agendas that include ritual and ceremony, plans that will work for abstract, conceptual thinkers like me, as well as impassioned, visual “doers.”
I wonder whether a little more attention to the culture of how we do our work might help the environmental community enhance its appeal to a greater number of people. The gap that we bridge among ELP fellows seems like a microcosm of the larger gap between lawyers, public health professionals, scientists, and grassroots activists.
This afternoon, we’ll begin by introducing the different fellowship classes to each other and getting people comfortable with being together at the retreat. We’ll do some team-building activities. We’ll have a healthy block of free time, since some of the most important conversations are the impromptu ones. And we’ll end the evening with a contra dance. I haven’t contra danced for more than a decade, but I used to love it. I can’t wait.