Everyone in the Room

June 3, 2013

By Richard Woo
CEO
The Russell Family Foundation

“…a sustainable and peaceful world for people, places and communities.”

That’s the vision of The Russell Family Foundation.  We’re driving toward this goal, with three principles:  1) taking a place-based approach; 2) embracing difference; and 3) being a learning organization.

An example of the interplay among these principles is the Foundation’s newly-launched Puyallup Watershed Initiative, a ten-year funding and civic engagement project to help steward the waters originating on Mt. Rainier and running to the Puget Sound in Washington.  The Puyallup Watershed is a meandering landscape of bio, geo and social diversity.  The watershed takes its name from the Puyallup River, the area’s main waterway, and the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, who have lived along the shores of Puget Sound for thousands of years.  The watershed covers roughly 1,000 square miles; includes over a dozen governing jurisdictions; is home to the Puyallup Tribal government; supports rural, urban and suburban economies; and is host to communities that are growing more diverse by race, ethnicity, class and other social measures.  Local county officials describe the watershed as a place with “nearly every land use imaginable.”

For the Foundation to have a meaningful impact in this area, we need to take equity into consideration. We must ensure that our grantmaking benefits the broad range of stakeholders connected to the watershed because their involvement is critical to success. To set ourselves up to be equitable in the end, we have begun by being inclusive of those diverse stakeholders from the beginning so they can inform our grantmaking decisions throughout.

The watershed initiative offers a confluence of place, difference and learning.  When the Foundation’s program team convened the first dinner meeting of an initial community advisory group, the guest list reflected different and emerging local voices—not simply those historically tied to the watershed as an environmental platform.  The list included farmers, business people, tribal leaders, sport fishers, scientists, educators, young urban artists, youth philanthropists, government officials, a farmworkers union activist, and environmentalists.  People of color were represented across many of these groupings.  There was no one dominant group—much like the coming future of America.

Consequently one of the guests, a prominent water scientist who happens to be Caucasian, later told us his greatest surprise was just how few people he knew upon entering the event when originally he fully expected to know everyone in the room.  He acknowledged that since that convening, he’d been sitting in meetings with professional colleagues wondering to himself how to make the stuff they’re working on more meaningful to the new people he had met over dinner.  In a similar fashion, another guest took me aside before dinner to express his genuine puzzlement at being invited to an “environmental watershed” event when his day job is leading a youth philanthropy board at another local foundation.  This fellow is a twenty-something Asian American working with 18 young philanthropists, 80% of whom are youth of color.  By the end of the evening, the guest said to me and I paraphrase:  “The youth I serve care a lot about health and basic needs, so if this effort is about the environment and its impact on community health, then this is important to our work.”  This tone of mutual curiosity and expansive thinking has permeated the advisory group convenings over the last six months.

These anecdotes represent small steps toward embracing difference and building stronger ties so that ultimately the community’s collective voice helps direct the Foundation’s resources toward a Puyallup Watershed that is environmentally healthy, economically vibrant, and socially equitable.  Over the long term, we expect these stories will lead to a “watershed experience,” eventually gaining momentum and force in downstream thoughts and actions both at the Foundation and in communities all around the Puget Sound.