I gave a “virtual guest-lecture” this week for Liz Shapiro’s class on community-based environmental management at Duke University. The class is part of one of the more appealing distance learning programs I’ve come across in a while. The students are environmental professionals from various parts of the globe who are earning masters degrees in Environmental Management while continuing their careers. Our class session had students participating from California, Hawaii, Chile, Texas, North Carolina, and who knows how many other places.
About two minutes before our time was up, someone asked for advice on how to work with environmental justice groups. There is often tension between environmental groups and environmental justice groups, so it was an important question. I did my best to answer it, but a question like that deserves more than 120 seconds worth of response time. Here’s a slightly longer reply, drawn from things I’ve seen, done or heard about:
Find out about their experience with people like you. Whether you are a researcher, a planner, a scientist, an elected official, or some other kind of professional, it is likely that the environmental justice group will have had experience with someone more or less “like you” in the past. Environmental justice groups make a point of claiming the expertise that comes from their lived experience of the issues, and don’t take well to professionals who try to talk over them or pull rank based on their professional credentials. Learn from the successes and mistakes of these prior experiences.
Don’t hurry the getting to know you process. Don’t approach a community group you don’t know with a project right before the grant proposal for it is due. Take time to build strong relationships and meaningfully discuss how to collaborate before jumping into a new project.
Make time for face-time. Especially in the beginning, make an effort to meet and talk in person instead of on the phone or by e-mail.
Plan meetings that people can attend. Hold meetings on their turf rather than yours, in their language, at times of day convenient to them. Provide child-care and food when possible. If you are asking people to travel a long distance to attend, reimburse them the cost of getting there.
Be willing to change your plans. If you aren’t willing to actually change your plans based on their input, there’s no point in trying to work with environmental justice groups in the first place.
Don’t compete for funding. Prioritize applying for grants that the environmental justice group aren’t eligible for. Apply for grants they are eligible for together.
Communicate, communicate, communicate. Don’t start a project and then leave them wondering what came of it. Seek input on your plans and activities as much as possible.
Don’t be afraid to get personal. Knowing the people you are partnering with personally makes it a lot more likely that you will trust each other, work well together, and overcome the inevitable bumps in the road. Plus, it’s a lot more fun!
Don’t use, co-opt or tokenize. Successful partnerships are built on a sincere desire for collaboration, not a belief that it is something you need to do just to get the grant, the political good-will, or to look good.
The environmental justice advocates that I’ve gotten to know in my own work over the last few years have enriched my life enormously, and seem to be willing to forgive me when I make mistakes (I hope some of them will send in suggestions to improve this list!). I wish you luck in your own endeavors!