The Sustainability, Equity & Community Democracy Connection

October 31, 2016

The presidential election has hijacked America's attention. We have much at stake, of course, but this highly polarized atmosphere has distracted us from our common goals and alienated too many potential partners. If we look more carefully at communities around the Pacific Northwest, regardless of political preferences, we see that constructive conversations, solutions-oriented initiatives and community-based approaches have taken root and will bear fruit long after Election 2016.

This collaborative spirit was wonderfully evident at the recent Philanthropy Northwest 2016 conference, Under One Sky, where several hundred representatives from foundations, nonprofits and corporate giving programs actively engaged in conversations about important and innovative community projects across our six-state region. I was most impressed by how many feature diverse stakeholders identifying their similarities, overcoming their differences and finding ways to work together.

As Philanthropy Northwest's Sustainability Catalyst Fellow, I have an opportunity to take a closer look at some of these projects. My assignment is to profile the people and communities promoting sustainable solutions, to describe the special qualities that contribute to their success, to explain why they matter and how they make a difference — and to share my findings with our network.

I also have an ulterior motive: I’m concerned that the term "sustainability" is often misconstrued, evoking stereotypes of recycling, solar panels and "save the planet” messages in hotel rooms. If we look more deeply at the concept, however, it encompasses a much broader range of factors essential to community well-being and human flourishing — including Philanthropy Northwest’s core values and Under One Sky conference lenses of democracy and equity. Green building, resource conservation, climate issues, and biodiversity also have everything to do with social justice, affordable housing, accessible transportation, collaborative decision and thriving, multiracial communities.

Eight Projects On My List

Here’s some very good news: There are dozens of projects in our region that focus on this broader scope of sustainability. We see them everywhere — from urban to rural, from Alaska to Wyoming — typically organized and conceived by an extraordinary cohort of committed, engaged and thoughtful leaders from every conceivable background.

Through Philanthropy Northwest's network of place-based funders and partners, I've begun investigating eight projects that stand out as exceptionally engaging, at the intersection of sustainability, equity and community democracy. Their compelling stories have much to teach us and deserve the widest possible audience.

  1. The Yesler Terrace Project in downtown Seattle is an effort to revitalize and rebuild a downtown community by catalyzing investment in affordable housing, job training, and educational opportunities.
  2. The Puyallup Watershed Initiative in Pierce County, Washington is a region-wide program that brings diverse communities of interest together so as to invest in environmental quality, economic opportunity, and culturally specific solutions, with a special emphasis on community-wide deliberation and autonomy, launched by collaborative, grassroots decision making.
  3. Living Cully in Portland, Oregon is a consortium, founded by the Native American Youth Center, Verde, Hacienda and Habitat for Humanity, working together to revitalize the Cully neighborhood with a community-based focus on affordable housing, anti-displacement efforts, green building, park development, and employment opportunities for neighborhood residents.
  4. Walla Walla’s Community Leadership Program is linked to multiple community engagement initiatives designed to promote local leadership and training, community investment, environmental quality, social capital and educational capacity.  
  5. The Blackfoot Challenge in Ovando, Montana builds coalitions that bring conservationists and ranchers together to construct long-term sustainable solutions in a natural resource extraction economy.
  6. Garden City Harvest in Missoula, Montana uses small-scale organic agriculture and gardening as a means to provide healthy food for low-income communities and a way to engage disenfranchised youth.
  7. The Center Pole at the Crow Nation in Montana works with youth on food sovereignty, tribal culture and educational opportunities.
  8. Sustainable Southeast Partners in the Tongass region of Coastal Alaska is building sustainable initiatives in a variety of traditional communities, integrating novel approaches to conservation with local knowledge.

These projects have different histories, cultural settings and ecological matrices, but they also have much in common. All eight emphasize building environmental wealth, while expanding on the meaning of the concept, addressing the relationship between sustainability and equity.

I shared some of my notes on the Puyallup Watershed Initiative this summer. More recently, I've spent time learning about the Cully project in Portland, Oregon, Yesler Terrace in downtown Seattle and the Community Leadership Program in eastern Washington.

Cat Martin of JPMorgan Chase described the Yesler Terrace project as “interested in small business growth outside the ring of prosperity, those people who lack access to capital, and underserved business communities.”

Marcelo Bonta, a Philanthropy Northwest Momentum Fellow at Meyer Memorial Trust explained how the Meyer-supported Living Cully project provides new meaning for green development. “Cully is a great example of what it means to create a green neighborhood from the ground up, with meaningful contributions from the Native American and Latino communities, demonstrating how the green economy can provide for the whole community," he said.

“Environmentalism can be more than a pretty landscape," added Cameron Herrington, the Living Cully anti-displacement coordinator. "It can provide you with a job. It can build community. It can improve public health.”

The Community Democracy Connection

But if there's one theme that's the resounding connector, it’s community democracy. It links all of the qualities described above with the challenging, time-consuming work, of building collaborative practices in the places where people live. Multilayered solutions, community engagement, strong partnerships, multigenerational leadership, grassroots action and public education are key features of all of these programs. Sustainable communities flourish when community democracy, environmental quality, equitable solutions and collaborative process converge.  

I recently spoke with Jock Edwards of Sherwood Trust, which has invested in the Community Leadership Program based on curriculum developed by The Ford Family Foundation and Rural Development Initiatives, Inc. Jock explained that community democracy will only happen after spending years working on the ground, developing relationships and a level of trust among residents. Then a community may enter a virtuous cycle. “You convene residents, enter conversation, help articulate their priorities, work side by side with them, celebrate early victories, and then repeat the cycle," he said. "The result? A neighborhood of owners.”

All eight of these magnificent projects have already had great impact in their communities, although most are still in their early days. The funders and partners behind each one understand that building sustainable solutions and investing in community democracy takes time; these projects are constructing a suite of collective narratives that are inspiring, tangible and replicable. I look forward to conducting more interviews and visiting each of these projects in the coming months, and sharing my findings with Philanthropy Northwest's network in 2017.

Mitchell Thomashow is one of Philanthropy Northwest's Catalyst Fellows, focused on sustainability.