In the wake of the grand jury decisions regarding the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, and the rise of the #blacklivesmatter movement, the Will Steger Foundation joins the chorus of voices calling for systemic change, and a deeper understanding of the connections between racism, oppression, and the degradation of clean air, water and wild spaces. We stand with our friends at the Sierra Club and their public stance against systemic oppression. As Executive Director Mike Brune wrote in his recent blog post, “Fighting injustice — knowing the difference between what is right and what is wrong — must be at the heart of our work.”
We believe it is critical that the mainstream environmental movement better address the inherently intersectional nature of climate change in order for any large-scale, just and sustainable solutions to be reached. Youth, particularly youth of color in impacted communities, are at the forefront of a groundswell calling for a more inclusive theory of change. We hear this call to action on a daily basis from a wide cross-section of young people engaged in our youth programs. They are challenging us to explore the connections between science, public health, public policy and social impact.
Minnesota is home to some of the greatest racial, social and economic disparities in the country. The achievement gap between white students and students of color is staggering. The impacts of climate change and environmental injustice will be and are already falling most heavily on low-income and communities of color. All of these issues intersect. It is imperative that young people coming of age in Minnesota take a comprehensive systems-based approach to problem solving – and that educators working with these students have the tools they need to foster this kind of thinking.
As a predominantly white organization that has historically engaged a largely all-white audience, WSF is taking preliminary steps to address our own institutional racism and identify the barriers to participation in our programming. This includes all-staff anti-racism training, and establishing a paid position for an Equity Consultant to provide guidance on organizational growth and accountability on equity deliverables. As part of our goal to build a more inclusive program, WSF has instituted a year-long progression of white privilege and anti-racism workshops for our YEA! MN youth steering committee, and actively engaged youth leaders in environmental and social justice campaigns. We are proud of our recent Youth CAN! Conference, a youth-driven event planned by and for high school students, exploring the intersection of climate change and social justice. Our Education Program has a long relationship with the urban school districts in Minnesota and worked with them to help them make our curriculum more culturally relevant and accessible to all students. In addition, our newest education program’s public engagement project, Minnesota Stories in a Changing Climate, is deliberately working to make sure public outreach events represent the demographics of the communities we serve and include solutions that resonate with all people.
While we are proud of these accomplishments, we also realize we are still in the early stages of authentically integrating equity and inclusion into our programs and organizational structure. We have learned a tremendous amount in the past two years since committing ourselves to this work – but above all else have learned that the road is made by walking. We cannot wait until the horizon is clear, or until we feel comfortable and safe. We recognize that waiting and comfort are privileges that many cannot afford. The urgency of climate change and the lives that are at stake demand we take action to address the problem by changing the system. We will not be able to adequately address climate change and identify just solutions until we do. We count ourselves in the numbers of allies standing with the families of Michael, Eric, and Tamir, and with the countless Americans marching in the streets, organizing for a better world. We hope you will join us on the journey. #blacklivesmatter.