FMR's (ongoing) equity journey

River scene

We can all agree on this truth: water is life. And here in the Twin Cities, the Mississippi River is our wellspring. No matter your background, race, or circumstance we all depend on the Big River. 

At FMR we believe that the Mississippi River belongs to us all, and its gifts should flow equally to everyone in our community. Furthermore, we know that environmental problems disproportionately burden communities of color, indigenous peoples and low-income communities. (Just one example: Northern Metals metal recycling plant on the North Minneapolis riverfront may have violated air quality standards for years, contributing to heavy metal poisoning and high asthma rates in the area.)

With these truths in mind, we explicitly addressed issues of equity when we developed our strategic plan in 2016. With input from our board, staff, advisors and partners, we made big goals to better engage the region's diverse communities and internally become more inclusive of cultural and racial diversity.

While we know how critical it is for FMR and other mainstream environmental groups to be diverse and inclusive, we understand that there's much we don't know, that we're learning as we endeavor to address equity and justice issues in our work. This is an overview of our intentions, actions and process so far — our ongoing journey. We share this transparently with hopes that we can continue to connect with others in this work and build on our first steps together.

FMR's diversity, equity and inclusion working group

Our first step was to set intentions, to envision what our part in environmental justice work might be. 

While many goals in our strategic plan rely on a certain department to lead their implementation, every part of our organization needs to take action to meet our equity goals. Concerned that no one was tasked with guiding us toward this piece of our strategic plan, a few of our advocacy and education staff asked to meet with our directors.

As a result of that meeting, representatives from every level and department of our staff and from our board formed our diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) working group.

This group researched diversity and equity in mainstream environmental work, environmental history and justice, structural racism and more. (We've listed some of their favorite resources here.)

And they got to work. They updated our hiring manual to try to reach more diverse candidates, address implicit bias, and implement equity training as a component of onboarding new staff and board members. 

The working group knew that while setting intentions is not enough, publicly stating our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion is an important part of being visible and accountable. With our Executive Director Whitney Clark, the working group drafted our equity statement and recommended adding "equity" to the organization's list of core values, which the board passed unanimously in 2017.

"I can’t think of a single instance of pushback from our board and staff," says Sara DeKok, FMR Associate Director and DEI working group member. "When we looked each other in the eye and said, 'This is what we have to do,' everybody said, 'Absolutely, this is what we have to do.'"

The working group also knew that we needed help; they raised funds and reached out to consultants to learn more about what approaches our organization might make to advance our equity goals.

And they introduced FMR to the work of Dr. Dorceta Taylor, whom we subsequently invited to be the keynote speaker at our fall event in 2017.

How Dr. Dorceta Taylor helped us deepen our goals

Dr. Dorceta Taylor at FMR
Photo by Anna Botz for FMR.
 

When we found out Dr. Taylor, one of the nation's preeminent environmental justice scholars, was willing to speak at our annual "Evening Celebrating the River" event, we knew we had a special opportunity.

In 2014, Dr. Taylor authored a landmark national report that spelled out what we can easily observe if we step back enough: mainstream environmental organizations are mostly staffed, directed and supported by white people. This isn't because people of color don't care about the environment, but because unconscious biases, barriers and practices affect inclusivity in everything from hiring practices to partnerships.

The report states, "Despite the professed interest in increasing diversity in environmental organizations, there is a gap between the desire to see diversity initiatives developed and actually supporting such activities once they are in place."

We wanted to learn from Dr. Taylor about how to address that gap, and we wanted our colleagues at community and environmental organizations, our funders and organizers to be able to engage with her too.

With generous funding from the McKnight Foundation and the strategic support of the Public Policy Project, Dr. Taylor facilitated a community conversation with people from 50 metro organizations. At the "Growing Beyond Green" forum, Dr. Taylor helped us ask what we, as mainstream environmental orgs, are doing to advance social justice.

Together, we identified ways we could do better. One idea was to develop effective career pathways for youth of color in the environmental field. Another was to reform systems that funders use so that environmental justice issues are more highly prioritized. 

We pledged to do this work together. Since then, attendees from that forum continue meeting both in subgroups and as a whole to advance these specific goals.

FMR worked with a subgroup on identifying actions we can take as a community to develop more opportunities for youth of color in our field. At FMR, our education program now includes a summer Youth Empowerment Program to address the gap between environmental education and a career path in the environmental field.

Assessing ourselves

Motivated by these experiences, and with generous support from the McKnight Foundation, we contracted with consultant Lisa Tabor of Culture Brokers in January of 2018 to assess our own organizational and individual inclusivity and cultural competencies. 

Every staff and board member participated in the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) and consultation with Tabor. Each person then created a personal plan outlining ways they could move along the continuum of cultural competency in their work at FMR.

In these plans staff also reflect on intercultural stress points to be aware of as they work toward their goals. Executive Director Whitney Clark's plan includes a goal to increase diversity on our Board of Directors. Clark lists ideas about how he can work better in culturally diverse communities: come to each relationship and situation with humility; listen more, speak less; and let others lead and support their leadership. 

As we bring on new staff and board members, we'll ask them to take the inventory and develop their own plan. Staff reflect on these personal goals and set new goals for the coming year at their annual evaluations. Integrating these plans into our annual evaluation process keeps us accountable and helps move us forward.

Assessing FMR

To find out how we were doing at an organizational level, with Tabor's guidance, we undertook the Diamond Inclusiveness Assessment (DIA). The DIA provided us with a baseline understanding of how well our organizational policies, practices and situations support cultural inclusiveness. It identified our organizational strengths and opportunities for improvement.

FMR staff and board didn't do this assessment alone. We reached out to over 75 close supporters, volunteers and partners to participate. Allan Tokuda, FMR Super Volunteer and DIA participant said of the process, "I think the effort was good to see. My hope is that FMR can work to reach a broad and diverse group of people in volunteering and activism initiatives." We owe this group of participants enormous gratitude.

Our Equity Strategic Action Plan

Tabor worked with us to interpret the aggregated results of the DIA, and use the results to develop goals that would meaningfully shift the culture and practices of FMR to be more equitable and inclusive as we work to protect, restore and enhance our river.

We chose to focus our goals on two dimensions of equity where we felt we had the greatest opportunity to improve and have an impact — financial investments and social capital:  

  1. We make financial investments to achieve clear and measurable diversity and inclusion goals.
  2. We have strong, mutually beneficial intercultural relationships with individuals, organizations and institutions.

With Tabor, we developed our Equity Strategic Action Plan (ESAP), which outlines concrete action steps, timelines and needed resources for achieving our equity goals. 

Our next steps

Every staff and board member continues to work on their individual equity goals. Our DEI working group meets regularly and shepherds the action plan forward, engaging all staff in its implementation, and tracking our growth.

To date, we have overhauled our system for tracking and managing staff time and program expenses to ensure our financial investments in equity work are aligned with our values. With this information, we can strategically increase our investment over time. We have developed new policies for how we choose vendors, prioritizing supporting people of color-owned businesses and institutions with an expressed commitment to equity. And we're sighting a critical eye on the cross-cultural networks with which we work, challenging ourselves to deliver equitable outcomes that are representative of a diversity of voices.

We recognize that these steps are small, and a drop in the ocean of change that needs to occur to achieve equity and justice. But our aim is to incrementally build a strong foundation for a meaningful and intentional shift in the culture and inclusivity of FMR.

This is a journey with no end. We'll continue to learn. We'll continue to make mistakes. But we know that we must do our part to make sure every person can benefit from our river, regardless of race, ethnicity, culture, language or economic status.

Learn more about our equity work.

We'd love to learn from you and with you as we continue this work. Have thoughts or ideas? Let us know via our comment form.