An Update from River Network’s Staff Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee
Over the course of the past decade, River Network’s work on equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) has deepened significantly, focusing on both internal aspects of our organization and external programming. Initially, much of that work happened organically and, admittedly, somewhat haphazardly. A staff person tweaking one aspect of a program here (often in response to a suggestion from a partner organization)… an internal process being made more transparent there.… When River Network’s board approved an EDI working group made up of board members and a staff liaison in 2015, we had a new “container” for this work. Members of that working group, which would be re-established as a full-fledged committee in 2017, led River Network’s board and staff through many conversations that would help build a strong foundation for our EDI efforts, helping us clarify our vision, commitment, and intent to becoming a more inclusive and more equitable water conservation organization. (To read more about the evolution of the board committee, explore our organizational history here.)
It was only last year – nearly a decade into this new chapter at River Network – that we recognized the need to increase staff’s ownership and connectivity in this work. As a result, in December 2019 we formed an internal EDI staff committee to complement the board’s efforts. Co-led by two staff, this committee includes 7 members – nearly half our staff – and meets twice-monthly. This new “container” for our EDI work has become an invaluable structure that’s helping us move forward various initiatives aimed at building a more inclusive and welcoming staff culture, increasing the diversity on our staff, and putting equity at the forefront of our work in community and with our local partners.
The Work: Creating Structure
We’ve taken several actions to “operationalize” our commitment to justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. Internally, for several years we’ve collected demographic data for our staff so we can evaluate the progress we are (and are not) making on increasing the racial and ethnic diversity of our staff. This year, we have also begun to collect this data for our board. We continue to modify and adjust our recruitment and hiring practices to encourage a more diverse pool of applicants and new hires. But we recognize that this alone, is not enough, and are also adapting and adjusting our staff policies and practices to create a more supportive and inclusive internal culture, and increase staff retention. This includes attention to how we work together and affects how we structure our meeting agendas and the agreements we adopt for how we will interact with each other.
Looking externally, we developed an equity tool to help us assess how and if new projects and programs align with our equity goals. We have incorporated equity considerations into our decisions on who receives training scholarships, who is included in our learning cohorts, and who receives grant dollars we administer. This year, we created a structure to compensate our partners for their labor and intellectual property when we ask them to support our programming, including providing stipends to partners who participate in informational interviews and co-present alongside our staff at conferences, workshops, or webinars.
The Work: Building Culture
Much of the content of our twice-monthly EDI committee meetings focuses on internal culture and an honest evaluation of how traits of white supremacy culture are represented in our organization. The EDI committee gives us the space to discuss with openness and authenticity how we might adjust our tendencies toward perfectionism, urgency, paternalism, and a more-is-more mentality in favor of a more flexible and equitable workplace culture. We also consider our role as an EDI leader for the network, recognizing our obligation and responsibility to examine and change our internal culture first, and share our experience and lessons-learned as we grow and evolve. This work builds on previous trainings on these topics with the Avarna Group, Marcelo Bonta, and Center for Diversity and the Environment (read more in our full organizational history here).
In the committee’s first few months, we grappled with how to facilitate a widespread culture shift across our staff. We have found Kim Scott’s book Radical Candor to be a wonderful resource for empowering staff at all levels to give and accept honest feedback and creating a space where staff can bring their whole selves to work. Time for reflection was provided over the course of multiple monthly staff meetings to review content and discuss how actionable steps could be weaved into how we work with others, both internal and external to River Network.
This spring, River Network began work with the Avarna Group to examine our internal culture. Using staff surveys and interviews, we are evaluating how newcomers are welcomed and valued, how power dynamics influence decision-making, and how ideas and feedback are heard and considered. This information will inform the agenda for a virtual staff retreat, facilitated by the Avarna Group this fall.
As we continue down this path toward incorporating EDI and racial justice into our work and organizational culture, we recognize that what lies ahead is an iterative and dynamic process that will continue to be shaped and informed by the shifting context of our world. As our work of examining our own organizational culture continues, so too will our process for identifying and acting on opportunities for change – from our hiring and retention practices to our contracting and partnerships. We know that this work must be transformational and touch every part of our work. Here are some pieces we’re examining in the next few months:
- White supremacy cultural assessment and targeted conversations. We will continue working with the Avarna Group, beginning to assess and unpack the ways in which our organization actively participates in white dominant work culture and how to realign our work processes to create a more inclusive and anti-racist space.
- Values statement and assessment for vendors. Who we contract with matters. We are taking some lessons learned from our friends at Resource Media and developing our own principles and protocols for vetting potential contractors and attracting or soliciting vendors from a more diverse pool to expand our network of contractors and collaborators.
- Learning from our past and increasing our capacity to engage, honor, and support Indigenous network members. At River Rally 2018 in Olympic Valley, CA, we had a public learning moment, when unknowingly using the common yet derogatory name for the ski resort just outside of Lake Tahoe (in August 2020 the resort announced it would be renamed). As part of the work to grow and learn from this experience, we have revisited the practice of land acknowledgments to understand and highlight the history of the land we occupy.
- EDI and River Rally 2021. Though it feels like our first–ever Virtual River Rally was just yesterday, we are already busy planning for River Rally 2021. While we are still determining the mix of virtual and/or in-person programming, calls for workshops and award nominations are live. Our committee has taken on the task of identifying opportunities for incorporating our EDI principles into each step of the River Rally process, from proposal review, to the make-up of award selection committees, to accessibility of the event. This is part of our deeper internal work of ensuring the structures and systems we have in place align with our commitments.