Paul Sabin is executive director of the Environmental Leadership Program and a lecturer in American history at Yale University. He is presently completing a book on California oil politics for the University of California Press.

Monday, 12 Aug 2002


I am off to Seattle today for a five-day retreat, and I’m tingling with anticipation. I’ll be joining three classes of fellows in the Environmental Leadership Program. Each year, we select about 25 extraordinary individuals from across the environmental movement. Coming from nonprofits, higher education, business, and government, these ELP fellows are “emerging leaders”– people with roughly three to 10 years of environmental experience who have begun to establish themselves in their field.

ELP fellows, staff, and board members at the August 2001 retreat.

Tomorrow, for the first time, all three of our classes of fellows will gather at the Sleeping Lady Conference Center in Leavenworth, Wash. I’m looking forward to this extended chance to build relationships across the environmental field — from environmental justice activism to conservation biology to corporate social responsibility. I’m always curious to see what will come out of the mix. We’ve seen two ELP fellows begin work on a documentary film about the health effects of hazardous waste on a tribal reservation in California.

I also am interested to see the results of the community-wide conversation about diversity that we have been undertaking for the past year. Since we met last August, we’ve been meeting, talking, and thinking about the social dimensions of environmentalism, exploring how differences in race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, and faith influence our work as environmental activists and professionals. And since environmental politics also should be fun, we’ll host a festive “no-talent” show, hike in the nearby mountains, and swing our partners at a contra dance. I’ve been working towards this moment in ELP’s development since I first started envisioning the organization six years ago. I can’t quite believe we’ve reached this point — or that we’re ready to pull it off!

When I first dipped my toes in these waters, I was a graduate student in environmental history at Berkeley, just beginning a dissertation about California oil politics. At the time, I struggled to link my personal commitment to public outreach and social change with my training in American history. I knew that my study of how politics and public policy had shaped the California oil economy had direct implications for current energy policy. In the past few years, the California electricity crisis, the Enron debacle, the National Energy Plan, and climate change negotiations have underscored just how intertwined are energy and politics in the United States. Understanding the history of these politics, and how they helped get us where we are today, will be crucial to dealing with our current predicament.

ELP fellows discussing Activity Fund projects at August 2001 retreat.

Despite these clear connections, I didn’t feel trained, as most young academics don’t, to develop a public voice on pressing environmental issues or to link scholarship to policy. To the contrary, our relatively cautious academic culture and the tenure system force fledgling professors into a period of relative conformity, public silence, and isolation. By the time we come up for air post-tenure, many of us have lost social and professional connections to people outside the university and have been socialized to view pragmatic or political activities with great skepticism. I certainly felt this happening to me. Nor is it just academics who feel isolated. My peers at nonprofits and in government complained about burnout, lack of mentoring and connections to people outside their area of expertise, and an absence of opportunities for serious reflection, personal development, and leadership training.

While I struggled personally with these issues in the mid-1990s, on a broader scale progressives and environmentalists had grown increasingly aware of the role that public thinkers play in advancing economic, social and environmental policies. An influential 1997 report by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, Moving a Public Policy Agenda: the Strategic Philanthropy of Conservative Foundations, documented how conservative donors had mobilized a powerful network of right-wing thinkers to influence national policy debates. One of the distinctive attributes of this strategic philanthropy was the long-term investment made in relatively young activists and thinkers. What were progressives doing to harness this kind of energy for their own causes? Progressive politics seemed too issue-based, short-term, and tentative.

With seed funding from the Nathan Cummings Foundation, I worked with 10 colleagues to design a new fellowship program for emerging environmental leaders. We sought to invest in the future of the environmental movement by training a new generation of leaders to shape the policy debate. We wanted to foster a community of risk-takers in different fields, people who would cross-fertilize the broader movement and support each other in their efforts to innovate. In the process, we sought to work with our fellows to develop new models for environmental leadership, ones that would emphasize diversity, collaboration across sectors, personal sustainability, and effective communication. We also sought to move beyond an elite, Washington, D.C., focus to develop leaders throughout the nation — people who could speak from a base of expertise, rather than as disconnected talking heads.

The colleagues with whom I launched the Environmental Leadership Program, who now serve mostly on the Board of Trustees or staff, were all in their late twenties or early thirties. We designed ELP around needs that we felt ourselves, and over the past three years, the staff and board have stayed closely involved. The retreat this week, when ELP will “graduate” its first class of fellows, is also a “coming of age” for the entire organization. And so I fly to Seattle to celebrate the first three years of our work, and to get ready to take the next steps.