Brandon Hayes earned a reputation for creative, hands-on, grounded communications and strategy solutions during his 20 years in the nonprofit sector. In 2019, he launched Bold Bison to provide forward-thinking communications services, strategy consulting, and facilitation support to the conservation movement.
Previously, he was Director of Communications at Openlands, Chicago’s regional land trust and leading conservation organization. Brandon was Manager of Communications and Development at Marwen, which provides high-quality visual arts training to underserved Chicago youth. He was a publicist at Goodman Theatre, Chicago’s leading regional theater. He has also directed operas and plays in Chicago and metropolitan Detroit. He serves on the boards of Chicago Artists for Action and the Institute for Conservation Leadership.
Brandon is an essayist and photographer who has written extensively about the National Parks on AsTheyAre.org, where he chronicles his and his husband’s journey to visit all the US National Parks. His photographs of the National Parks are available on OutInTheParks.com, with a portion of proceeds benefiting each park’s associated friends group.
This interview was published on September 3, 2020.
Tell me about Bold Bison and how you came into this work.
I came to this work a little bit circuitously. I’ve had the opportunity on occasion to speak to communications classes at Loyola, DePaul, and the University of Illinois and I’ve always eventually had to come clean that I don’t have a communications degree. I have a BA in Humanities with a focus in Art History, History, and English. If you told me when I was getting my degree that I would eventually work in communications and publicity, I would have said you’re crazy because I am way too shy and a natural introvert. But something I’ve discovered is that you can do it if you’re passionate about what you’re talking about.
I started Bold Bison Communications and Consulting in 2019, almost exactly a year ago, after being at Openlands forseven years. Openlands was my big entrée into formal conversation, although I’ve always loved nature and the outdoors. I think that it was healthy to come to conservation after a dozen years in other nonprofit areas.
During your workshop at River Rally, you mentioned a few social media accounts that are bringing diverse voices to the conservation movement. I remember Pattie Gonia (@pattiegonia) in particular. How have you seen the value of social media shift in recent months?
We were all stuck at home because of COVID-19 when the George Floyd protests began. The protests might not have captured the nation’s attention to the level that they did had we all been running around in our pre-COVID lives, commuting and distracted. In this moment, so many folks are experiencing the world mediated through social media and online sources and you just can’t escape it. I think it was powerful in the way that these events struck a chord with the nation via social media, because that’s where many of us were living.
It was also interesting to see, in the immediate wake of COVID-19, what people were trying to do with their influence. Pattie Gonia, for example, had one really affecting post where he described going to Utah at the beginning of lockdown then realizing that he was part of the problem by going to the small community of Moab and potentially contributing to demands on their health system. He used his influence to say No, we really need to stay at home.
Then, so quickly after COVID hit, we were seeing all our accounts react to the murder of George Floyd. Individuals and organizations began to consider what they could do and how could they be of value. Many organizations chose to make a statement condemning the murder and standing in solidarity with the Black community and, to be honest, I saw a lot of statements come out that were pretty lame in terms of actually doing something or even committing to do something.
I was talking to an executive director recently whose organization was a little behind the curve in making a statement, and I said, If you’re going to say something, be LEGO. All these brands and organizations are making statements, but if you’re going to publish a long, flowery statement, back it up with some action. Better yet, be brief and back it up. LEGO’s statement was just a few sentences and pledged $4 million to Black Lives Matter causes. Of course, not every organization can pledge $4 million, but one thing everyone can do is amplify the voices of people of color in your community and do what you can to lift others up and get them into the space.
What advice would you give to an organization that is reckoning with their internal culture and how to respond and show solidarity during this time?
I think we are well past the point that any organization can simply decide to make equity, diversity and inclusion a priority in their next strategic plan over some number of years. That moment for inaction through slow action is gone, and we need to act decisively. Let me tell you a story. Way back in 1986, Goodman Theatre in Chicago hired a new artistic director, a straight, white guy, who to his great credit said that he could not alone lead a theater representative of such a diverse city. So he created an artistic collective that looked like Chicago: Black, white, Latinx, gay, straight, male, female. And that collective has been in place for 34 years. Decades after that bold move, Timeout Chicago published “Why is theater in Chicago so white?” taking the theater community to task for issues exactly like those plaguing conservation. Right after that article, turn the page and there was a spread on the Goodman Latino Theater Festival. Not only was the Goodman not part of the diversity problem, they were boldly and successfully living in diversity. Crucially, that artistic director did not say in 1986, we’ll start a strategic planning process to create an advisory council to address issues of diversity by 2010. He relinquished some of his power to make it happen immediately. I always think about that when I hear conservation organizations talk about how hard it is to become more diverse.
Joy Jackson at the Institute for Conservation Leadership has a great short piece that cuts to the heart of the matter for conservation organizations and offers some ways forward.
What are some challenges people are facing right now regarding amplifying voices in their communities?
I think the problem is structural in a lot of ways. Conservation and environmentalism is a sector that is often underfunded with staff who are underpaid and programs that are under-resourced. Since at least the early 1970s, there has been a tension between building a movement and working within the confines of the formal nonprofit sector. You see this tension in the impulse to invest in development staff long before communications staff. Twice in my career I was the first full-time communications staff person at long-lived organizations. You see it in the natural impulse to build careers with job security and solid retirement accounts. You see it in the disinclination of senior leadership to step aside and make space for the next generation. We need to look honestly at how that limits what we do as organizations. This sort of focus on careers, professional advancement, and the survival of individual organizations distracts us from listening to new voices, evolving as a movement, and connecting genuinely with new audiences and communities. We need to consider what we do as a sector versus what we could do if we thought about our work more as part of a larger movement.
Many organizations right now are reckoning with this question of “who do I really serve in my community?” In your River Rally presentation, you broke down the demographics of who cares about water, and it’s often not the person that local groups reach out to.
It’s stunning how often organizations all but ignore research that shows time and again how broad support for environmental causes is, and how much support there is for conservation issues in Black and Brown communities, and simply turn to audiences and tactics that speak to the same aging white demographics that make up our leadership and our boards. It’s easier. But it’s cowardly, and it doesn’t rise to the moment.
There was one remarkable exchange during that workshop where folks were describing their more traditional marketing campaigns, reminding people to get outside during COVID-19 and putting up signs in neighborhood parks. A gentleman from Atlanta chimed in and talked about how his organization pivoted to feeding hungry people in their neighborhood. That is movement-building and that is the work. That is really understanding how you fit into your community, particularly where there’s been divestment from your waters. It’s considering how the river, the park, the woodland, or the land connect to what is needed in the community at this moment.
All sorts of organizations are pivoting based on community needs. The Chinese American Service League in Chicago, for example, is getting food to hungry seniors and realizing that they’re part of the local food system and that’s good for the environment and has positive ramifications for the future, but they’re doing it because they people are hungry.
How would you respond to a person or organization who is hesitant to take on this work for fear of mission drift? I can imagine that funding commitments and accountability to donors prevents some from pursuing the work that is really needed.
Having honest conversations with funders, if you have that sort of relationship with them, can be really crucial. There’s also competition with organizations who have divided up the same work in a local space. For example, organizations in a local coalition might have very clear “lanes” they need to stay in to distinguish themselves from similar organizations. These roles, and also scarcity of resources in the sector, prevent organizations from going where they’re needed. I think it’s getting better and environmentalism across the board is beginning to realize that people are a key component to healthy communities in a healthy ecosystem. Organizations and funders are beginning to realize that a mission to preserve a local waterway and the people are interconnected and communities often need to be invested in first.
It’s nonsensical to try and separate the work we do to care for our planet, for our land and for our water, from the true and everyday experience of how we live on this planet—whether we live in a rural community racked by opioid addiction or an urban neighborhood decimated by disinvestment.
It is certainly true that you can’t talk about water quality without also talking about access to clean water and environmental justice. What advice would you give to an organization who is trying to cater to a funder or donor who is interested in their conservation work but not their social justice work?
Let’s get into it. I came to conservation from youth arts in Chicago and from a theater background. It just blows your hair back how white conservation is and how myopic conservation can be. This is really a self-defeating cycle because if the only people who fund your work are interested in the conservation piece and nothing else, you can’t break through to any other funders or donors.
Take, for example, the duck stamp and how much conservation has been funded by the idea that we can use fees from hunters to finance conservation work. Hunting is on the decline. We bemoan the hesitancy of communities of color to experience the outdoors, yet for nearly a century at the state and federal level we’ve relied on revenue from a very specific—overwhelmingly white, most often male—demographic to finance large portions of our work. The conversation is often around how we keep going after this demographic and bolster hunting to bolster revenue instead of finding a new revenue streams based on new audiences and the things they care about.
Even the formulation of the question—their conservation work but not their social justice work—demonstrates divisions that only exist in how we artificially construct approaches to the work. In reality, rivers run through communities where real people live and we can’t separate concern for one with concern for the other.
I think that often the attitude of organizations coming into a community with explicit conservation goals can be a mindset of “white savior” because of the way organizations and the sources that fund them look. Cleaning up a river or getting kids outside could be the mission of the organization, but often people don’t stop to listen to what their communities actually want and need. For example, reducing violence in a neighborhood can be statistically connected to increased canopy cover, so planting trees could be part of a solution for neighborhoods with high rates of violence. If there’s a piece of your work that can help contribute to such a solution for a neighborhood, that’s the point at which to engage with the neighborhood and propose ways your organization can help further their goals. But if they don’t want or need your help, be humble and back off.
I am hearing you say “worry less about mission drift and more about serving your community in whatever way you can.” That seems like a really powerful and almost counter-intuitive statement.
One way to look at it is in the framework of power dynamics. We can go to Congress, city hall, the state house, etc. and influence legislation that protects our waters or lands. That’s how we’ve made change for more than a century. The problem comes when the political winds change radically and the law is overturned. For so long, environmentalists took a regulatory approach, but there is so much power in movements and people and communities and democracy.
What I’ve been noticing over the last four years and beyond is a sort of realization among organizations that they worked for these regulations and then all of a sudden they’re gone and there’s no outcry for the protections from the community because we were so focused on working the congressional cloakroom. We worked so hard to make these protections happen that we forgot to bring along the hearts and minds of people. And even though most Americans support clean water and healthy air and protected wildlife, those concerns fall below concerns about poverty, social injustice, healthcare, and access to jobs because we haven’t made a case for how interconnected these issues actually are.
How could an organization start to really listen to what the immediate needs are in their community? In the time of COVID, I think a lot of people are in tune with their communities through social media. What is the best way to monitor the pulse of the community as a whole and figure out where you could be most impactful?
The happy thing about this moment is that there’s never been a better time to refocus your attention on your local community or to jump into what’s going on in your town or city from your own home. So many organizations approach social media as a generative tool. They talk about their issue and put out amazing content, but they don’t spend enough time listening to where conversations are happening. I said this in my Rally workshop: “social media is like a high school dance; don’t be the kid in a corner talking to himself.” I think that’s how a lot of organizations spend their time on social media, instead of poking around and following others in the community. If you see that an interesting account follows you, check them out. Who are they connected to? Where is the movement happening? Social media is really a cheap and easy chance to listen and absorb new ideas.
Something else to remember is that people are interested in more issues than just conservation. I talk to a lot of young people who are passionate about their conservation work and environmental justice, but they’re also interested in affordable housing, LGBT issues, Black Lives Matter, poverty, etc. If there isn’t a place for them to make their voices heard in conservation because we’re in one lane, they’re going to go elsewhere. Even your own staff are interested in more than just what they’re paid to be passionate about. Figuring out what else they’re passionate about can be another easy way to figure out what issues are pressing in your community.
You talked a lot about building a movement versus an organization. What is something an organization can start doing right now to start shifting their internal thinking towards the movement?
I closed my River Rally workshop with this same piece of advice, which is stop giving up rhetorical ground. Take climate change over the last 40 years. We moved from “global warming,” because it was attacked as alarmist, so we retreated to “climate change,” but even that retreat turned off donors for a long time. We keep retreating in our language and getting nothing out of it. You are never going to give up enough ground for the opposing side to be with you. That’s something we learned from the Civil Rights Movement, the women’s movement, the AIDS crisis, gay rights, etc. It’s nonsensical to keep giving up ground in the hope of continuing to appeal to one audience and ignore other audiences that are with you. Seventy-two percent of Americans are personally concerned about climate change, but we obsess over the 9% we’re never going to win over. Not only are we on the right side of history, we’re on the right side of American public opinion. So let’s start acting like it.
As we’re all sitting in our nonprofit offices wondering how to move our work forward, none of these issues, particularly racial justice, should be off the table. Are we as organizations able to rise to this moment? Are we actually prepared to lead a movement or are we just trying to lead a funding campaign?