By Richard Woo
The Russell Family Foundation
“A sustainable and peaceful world for people, places and communities.” That’s the vision of The Russell Family Foundation. We’re driving toward this goal, with three principles: 1) taking a place-based approach; 2) embracing difference; and 3) being a learning organization.
An example of the interplay among these principles is the Foundation’s newly-launched Puyallup Watershed Initiative, a ten-year funding and civic engagement project to help steward the waters that run from Mt. Rainier to the Puget Sound in Washington State. The Puyallup Watershed—which takes its name from the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, who have lived along the shores of Puget Sound for thousands of years—is a meandering landscape of bio, geo, and social diversity. It covers roughly 1,000 square miles; includes more than a dozen governing jurisdictions; is home to the Puyallup Tribal government; supports rural, urban and suburban economies; and is host to communities that are growing more diverse by race, ethnicity, class and other social measures. Local county officials describe the watershed as a place with “nearly every land use imaginable.”
For the Foundation to have a meaningful impact in this area, we need to take equity into consideration. We must ensure that our grantmaking benefits the broad range of stakeholders connected to watershed because their involvement is critical to success. To set ourselves up to be equitable in the end, we have begun by being inclusive of those diverse stakeholders so they can inform our grantmaking decisions.
When the Foundation’s program team convened the first meeting of a community advisory group, the guest list reflected different and emerging local voices—not simply those historically tied to the watershed as an environmental platform. The list included farmers, business people, tribal leaders, sport fishers, scientists, educators, young urban artists, youth philanthropists, government officials, farmworkers union activists, and environmentalists. There was no one dominant group—much like the coming future of America.
One guest, a prominent water scientist who happens to be Caucasian, later told us how surprised he was not to know the majority of the people in the room as he’d been working on the issue for years. Since that convening, he’s been wondering how to make the work of his organization more meaningful to the new people he had met.
Another guest expressed initial skepticism about being invited to an “environmental watershed” meeting because he didn’t see a connection between the issue and the his work on a youth philanthropy board, comprised of mostly young people of color. But by the end of the first meeting, his eyes were opened. He said, “the youth I serve care about health, so if this effort is about the environment and its impact on community health, then this is important to our work.”
These anecdotes represent small steps toward embracing difference and building stronger ties so that ultimately the community’s collective voice helps direct the Foundation’s resources toward a Puyallup Watershed that is environmentally healthy, economically vibrant, and socially equitable.