CONNECT CONSERVATION, JUSTICE, AND EQUITY IN THE WORK
Iris : I've seen the two of you play a leading role as key connectors between conservation groups within CEER and the issues of social justice and equity. This concept of community conservation has been a part of the drum beat in the conservation world for a little while. How did you first make the connection between conservation, justice, and equity in your work?
Mary Anne: I have an urban planning degree, so I’ve always been very interested in cities and people — how they interact, what they do, why they do it. I think that I've been informed by both my own background and the fact that I grew up in a family that didn't have a lot of access to land, but we had open beaches and lakes that we could go to for fun.
Jordan: As a Houston native, I grew up around the bayous, nature, and urban sprawl that make up our city. When I went to college, my honors thesis focused on environmental justice as a human right, which led me to New Orleans, working with the Sierra Club to establish the Louisiana Beyond Coal campaign, and utilizing that lens of community justice and the environment.
In 2017, I moved back to Houston as waterkeeper and director for Bayou City Waterkeeper, with my first day starting the Monday post-Hurricane Harvey. BCWK wanted to demonstrate as a watershed organization focused on water quality, that we weren't just concerned about what was in the water, but how that water was affecting the people that were living with water: in the floodplain, as part of the economy, and, unfortunately, literally in the water.
Iris: How is equity and racial or social justice named in any of your mission statements or strategic plans?
Jordan: BCWK has a diversity, equity, and inclusion statement on our website that guides our work, as well as benchmarks within our strategic plan to improve our staff and leadership diversity.
Mary Anne: Our strategic plan outlines how we will be inclusive, and we’re always looking to address a more diverse audience.
The ability for CEER to approach recovery with intersectionality has immense value in our region.
Iris: What attracted you to CEER?
Jordan: The ability for CEER to approach recovery with intersectionality has immense value in our region. It’s in the best interest of our non-profit community to work with organizations of different missions to further our collective effort to become more resilient and sustainable. As a region surrounded by water, our resiliency lies with working with nature at all levels — floodplain management, affordable housing, solid waste, etc.. Unfortunately, this puzzle piece has been missed in our policies and practices.
Mary Anne: When I came to the conservancy, I was focused on saving land. I don't think that I necessarily thought about how many people have to be on the land enjoying the benefits (either directly or indirectly) versus just making sure that the wildlife had room to thrive. But land trusts haven’t necessarily been involved with diverse groups. Sure, they have bird watchers and hunters and outdoor enthusiasts, but the idea is land trusts should be protecting land to make sure that they benefit the community at large and all members of that community. Scenic viewsheds and being able to see the mountains are nice, but shouldn’t we also know that protecting land improves water and air quality and provides local food production and can even help young farmers?
One of the reasons that I thought CEER would be good to be involved in, and I’ll be really very honest about this — KPC must be relevant to our community if we are to survive. Sure, we have a strong base of supporters but most of those people are older and whiter than the general Houston population. We need a broad support base. When I started going to CEER meetings there were times in which I thought, what am I doing here? I worried because the land KPC protects is largely a very conservative, very white community, or so it seemed. It’s because we never really dug deeply to realize that there was a large population that was just invisible. They were hidden.
Iris: Who did you discover was hidden?
Mary Anne: As much as I think the whole Katy area is pretty monolith and overall white, it isn't. It's got a large Asian, African American, and Hispanic population. But you would think in our little world, most of the people who come to our events, unless they are education and outreach events, are white and old. Yet our pocket prairie program and our educational and outreach programs offered a very different reflection of the community that was younger and diverse.
Jordan: If you looked at the general membership of conservation organizations and said, “This is what America looks like.” Everyone would be 65, white, and male.
Mary Anne: Exactly. When KPC started our pocket prairie program for schools, we found that kids in certain neighborhoods were not aware of the impact that their ancestors had on the community at large. They didn't really know about the history of their own people. It might have been the African American cowboys or the Hispanic vaqueros who made up the early settlers to the region. They didn't know that their folks were an integral part of Texas' beginning. We were able to use the pocket prairies to teach science, math, cultural and historical lessons. It started making us not just relevant, but helped us ensure that the students recognized that their stories were an important part of not only who they were but how their ancestors had shaped the development of the greater Houston region. It also made those histories more visible to their peers in school.
Iris: How do you create a board that is reflective of the community you serve?
Mary Anne: I think by aiming to make sure that your board, your supporters, your volunteers, and your staff reflect the diversity of the community in which you are working.
Jordan: With the CEER network, I can reach out to my partners, and now friends, and ask, “Who is a leader who cares about our issues? Who has a different lens than we are using today?” I’m then able to seek these people out and build them into leadership roles within our organization.
Mary Anne: It's not easy especially when you might have not that entrée into the community that you want or need. But if you start with one person, that person is going to know people and then you have a whole community of people who are helping share their vision and thoughts and making your organization better and stronger.
Iris: I think part of the magic of CEER is bringing together different types of organizations to the same table to figure out that hard stuff of “You see the world this way, and I see the world this way.” That's our biggest leverage point, and also our biggest potential fracture line because it can be difficult to bring organizations with a different perspective to the same table.
Mary Anne: I’ve been impressed by the collegiality of CEER and the fact that we can agree to disagree. We also tend to move the needle closer one way or the other together. We don't say, “You are never going to understand that.” Instead, it’s “Let me try to see if I can help you understand why maybe you need to move a little to the left or a little to the right or why perhaps I need to to think about your suggestions in a different light.”