Friday, 16 Aug 2002

LEAVENWORTH, Wash.

I can’t believe I’m writing this column right now. Who persuaded me to do this? I’ve got a foundation program officer to say goodbye to and a session to plan for this afternoon. I also want to snoop around the sector caucuses to see what they’re saying. I called my Grist editor to request a brief reprieve, but still, I’ll have to bang this out quickly.

Discussing diversity at the spring 2002 retreat.

Yesterday’s diversity discussions went as well as one might have hoped. No big blow-ups, some frustration, some small steps forward. We have to manage our expectations here in ELP and, by extension, in the environmental community. People often come to these discussions hoping that something cathartic will happen, that we will arrive at the other side cleansed, united, and with a clear plan of action. Needless to say, that’s a lot to ask from a one-day discussion.

I measure success by the conversations that come afterwards. It’s clear that the group discussions opened up the topic. People were up late socializing and rehashing the day’s events. This processing, revisiting, and note-comparing is crucial to our learning to talk about these challenging issues. This morning, the different groups represented here — education, nonprofits, business, and government — were having lively discussions, including a lot of personal story-sharing about people’s work. As we talk about diversity, we’re also learning about each other’s workplaces, strategies for change, and personal experiences and world views.

As I walk among the different small-group discussions taking place outside in various shady spots, I am reminded of my first attempt to start a leadership program. The summer after my first year in college, I returned to the Boys and Girls Camps organization where I had worked for two summers as a counselor for kids from Boston and Cambridge. The camp director asked me to develop a “Leaders-in-Training” program for young people who were too old for camp.

What a summer! The tents flooded the first night, drenching everything. I remember taking my kids on an overnight hike to see a lunar eclipse — only to find that all they wanted to do on the mountain was play Truth or Dare. I laugh at the memories, and at myself. We had a lot of good times, but by the end of the summer, I was so burnt out that I dropped out of activism and channeled my energies into academics. Today, with our continued diversity work, I feel proud to have come full circle in a sense, returning to leadership development with greater maturity and skill, again in the context of integrating environmental concerns with questions of race, class, and privilege.

This afternoon, after we conclude the structured diversity training, we will move into concurrent sessions. I’ll moderate a three-hour double session on the history and future of environmental politics in the U.S. University of Wisconsin historian William Cronon, along with three academic ELP fellows, will talk about land conservation, public health, urban planning, and the relevance of history to our current politics. A communications trainer will lead sessions on using reports to influence public debate about the environment and to develop communications plans. Three fellows will present their Activity Fund project, which explores the role that intermediary experts play in the environmental justice movement. And tonight we’ll have a campfire discussion and screen the ELP video documentary. Still two more days left, but I’m relaxed and feeling good about how the meeting is going.

I just might try to squeeze in a dip in Icicle Creek before the next session.