Working to Be the Change We Seek: Our Ongoing EDI Journey
Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
The phrase above intermingles with the images, smells, and sounds in my memories of growing up in the Bay Area of the 1970s – the Black power fist, the peace sign, rainbows and tie-dye, tear gas, and every kind of music. Pride of identity was part of the fabric that made this intellectually, culturally, and racially rich environment come alive. This is the space I am most at home in and in continuous search of, a space that has proven surprisingly elusive to find.
When I was about twenty years old, someone asked me what my plans were for my future. I answered passionately, “I want to make sure wild places are there for the next generation and that all people have access to clean water and clean air.” Lofty words for a college student studying economics and ecology, yet I was determined to be the change I wanted to see in the world. What disappointed me most when I started working in conservation, besides the low pay, was the whiteness of my peer group, particularly in the United States, and the tendency towards routine conformity.
Fast forward twenty plus years, being the change you want to see in the world is at the heart of our journey here at River Network. For the past six years, we have been exploring and reframing our value proposition, intentionally setting our sights on what we can do to build a more inclusive and diverse movement for our nation’s rivers. Our work is both internal (defining how equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) relate to our mission; recruitment practices to help our team become more diverse; staff and board professional development related to EDI) and external (integrating equity considerations across all of our programmatic deliverables; seeking diverse speakers for our trainings; and delivering storytelling and visual imagery that capture the essence of the network of the future). You can find this commitment reflected publicly through our mission, vision, and values, our priorities, the network itself, and our team, including the following reflections from Amy Boal and Sheyda Esnaashari.
Amy Boal, Marketing and Communications Manager
You can’t be what you can’t see.”
-Marian Wright Edelman
Joining River Network last summer, I came back to the nonprofit environmental world after the better part of a decade in for-profit digital publishing, looking for a position with meaning at a smaller organization where I could really belong, feel valued, and make a difference. My first days coincided with River Rally (quite the introduction to the network!), and I knew I was in the right place. Where in past positions conversations around representation and inclusion happened around the edges, these values were front and center at River Network and immediately became my work, not an afterthought.
Much of this work involves elevating the many diverse voices of the network. In doing this we are intentional about whose stories we tell, and visually representing the network we seek to become. This is not an aspect of my role I take lightly, reflecting on my own experiences, which have primarily fallen along gender lines. As a young adult I was fortunate to have role models and examples of women who led successful careers, most visibly in my mother. She was our family’s primary breadwinner my entire childhood, successful in high-tech finance, a world dominated by men. Seeing her both struggle and succeed gave me perspective and confidence to imagine a future in which I was self-sufficient and capable of career success. I have reported to female supervisors and CEOs in all professional positions, save for one, and each has helped me see myself in new professional lights and encouraged me to explore avenues I might not have otherwise. Through River Network’s storytelling, imagery, and videos, I hope to give to others the perspective and confidence I found, building on the work we have done in envisioning the network of the future. Whether it’s sharing stories from leaders of color in the network, promoting the work of local groups who are engaging underserved youth in their communities, or offering visuals across our platforms such that everyone fees welcome and included, helping ALL see themselves in our work only makes the network stronger.
As we encourage inclusion and promote a sense of belonging across the network, we are also making efforts internally to lead with empathy and vulnerability. These efforts have empowered my life and work in ways I didn’t even know I needed. I have struggled my entire life with perfectionism – and having the space at River Network to practice, be vulnerable, and learn from both the history of the organization and my own contributions so far has been invaluable, both professionally and personally. From practicing Radical Candor and sharing learnings with each other, discussing what “authenticity” means to each of us, and spending valuable time to check in personally at the beginnings of staff meetings, I’m grateful for internal structures that promote a sense of belonging and validate each other’s worth.
Sheyda Esnaashari, Great Lakes Drinking Water Program Manager
Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
I joined River Network in August 2019 – still fairly new to the conservation space, but around long enough to know issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion were pervasive among “Big Greens.” River Network’s commitment to EDI has been public for some time now, including our statement on why this is at the core of our mission and our principles for equitable work. It’s one of the reasons I was drawn to the organization before I officially joined the team – I had admired River Network’s direct and intentional communication around these issues in a space that continues to grapple with their role in this movement.
My personal and professional passions have always been rooted in working toward a socially just and equitable society. The way we communicate publicly about our values and commitments is just one small piece of the work that is needed to begin building the world we want to see. Recognizing that this work starts on the inside, River Network has taken several steps to ensure these values are internalized and centered in our day-to-day operations and work. Staff and more recently, board members, use our equity tool to assess and inform the development and implementation of new projects and programs. While River Network’s Board has long had an EDI committee, we have recently convened an internal staff committee focused directly on this work. The internal committee covers a wide swath of issues with representation from all levels and teams, including ensuring a workplace that is not only equitable in structure, but that we have an organizational culture that supports those goals.
As with most things, River Network’s work in this space is a work in progress – it is iterative and approached with an openness to learning, sometimes failing, and getting back up and learning some more. I have found a home at River Network where I find deep alignment between my personal values and purpose. I am grateful to be a part of the ever-changing landscape of the conservation space and our world and am excited about what’s next.
We know that if we are going to be the change we seek, then we need to continuously deepen our experience and our commitment, both as individuals and as an organization, so that we can see the influence of bias, institutional racism, and other factors that limit our ability to breakthrough to new solutions and approaches. For those who are watching us, know that it is messy and not a straight line. What we are building is the ability to go courageously where we haven’t been before, to have the confidence to get up when we fall, to listen with an open heart, and apologize when we make mistakes. We hope you will continue to push us forward and that we will inspire others too.
To learn more about River Network’s equity, diversity, and inclusion work, please explore the following additional resources:
- River Voices October 2015 – Bridging the Divide
- 2016 Trends Report: Our Water Our Future and associated press release
- River Rally 2016 Opening Remarks from Nicole Silk
- 2017 webinar series: The What, Why, and How of Relevancy, Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity
- October 2018 blog post by Nicole Silk: Bridging the Gap in Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion: River Network’s Journey
- 2019 webinar: Ensuring Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in Your Programs
- July 2019 article by James Edward Mills: Beyond Equity – The 2019 River Rally
- December 2019 blog post by Sheyda Esnaashari: Centering Equity – River Network’s Drinking Water Guide