And it wasn’t just my family and ancestors who raised and taught me, sometimes family transcends blood. From a very young age, I learned from a community of people. From gospel music to Nina Simone, reading Octavia E. Butler and Audre Lorde to listening to Outkast, all of these experiences shaped me into the solutionary I am today.
2. What is currently bringing you joy?
Through the work at The Solutions Project, it’s been exciting to see local communities that have been building power for decades getting recognition and resources that begin to honor their leadership, voice, and stories. To see Black, Indigenous, immigrant, women, and other people of color create intersectional climate solutions from the ground up and change the world brings me joy.
At The Solutions Project, we are building a passionate team and community with our grantee partners that’s disrupting the traditional philanthropy model. We are creating a blueprint for what solidarity philanthropy looks like. I am committed to life-long learning, and it’s inspiring to learn from grassroots organizations working on the ground all over the country.
I also know from my own personal experience as an organizer for over 16 years in South Central Los Angeles that we are constantly innovating, winning, moving through traumas and crises often without the recognition or resources we need. That takes a toll.
So rest and space to regenerate protects our joy. As activists trying to dismantle the system and fight against structural inequities, we need to take care of our own health – emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually – in order to sustain ourselves and our movements. I love spending quality time with loved ones, camping, going to the beach, and reading.
3. Can you give a brief snapshot of milestones for The Solutions Project from its founding to recent programmatic investments?
The Solutions Project launched the field’s first intermediary climate and equity fund in 2015 and through our relationships with grantees, we were inspired by the full power of intersectional, multidimensional, and intergenerational strategies led by the grassroots. Black, Indigenous, Immigrant, and other people of color who have been at the frontlines of climate impacts are also on the forefront of climate solutions. In fact, I was an inaugural grantee of The Solutions Project and joined the Board in 2017 to help evolve a more movement accountable strategy at the organization and was recruited to become the CEO to lead this next phase.
We recognize that the vision of 100% renewable energy came from the grassroots and our organization played a key role in accelerating and amplifying the clean energy revolution by bringing the power of science, business, and cultural influencers behind the power of community through our grantmaking and media programs. Today, 1 in 3 people in the U.S. live in a place already committed to transitioning their electricity to 100% renewable energy. President Biden’s recent commitment of reaching 100% by 2035 with 40% of the benefits from clean energy investments directed to environmental justice communities wouldn’t be possible without the vision and strategies of grassroots organizers we support.
We strive to intentionally listen, learn, and center those closest to the impacts of the climate crisis by using media and culture to showcase their work and direct funding to BIPOC-led groups. Through our grantmaking and also other positions in philanthropy and public funding I hold, I’ve been a part of teams moving $112M in grants to frontline climate justice organizations this past year as part of the broader effort to ensure that the climate justice innovations are amplified and supported.
4. How have the geographies of environmental racism shifted (or not) over the past couple of decades and how has this shaped your strategy?
For too long, environmental racism and injustices have harmed Black, Indigenous and People of Color, and our experiences were dismissed by governments, prominent climate leaders, philanthropy, and industry. We are living in survival mode: wildfires, hurricanes, major heat waves, and the global pandemic have only added to the inequities. Millions of people are living on the edge of eviction and poverty, while the system continues to exploit and extract from communities and our mother earth.
The climate movement is intrinsically connected to social justice issues; it’s about agriculture, access to water and clean air, public transportation, housing, labor, and we are collaborating with communities on the ground level to tackle these issues together and create a just future that’s sustainable for everyone.
Coming from community organizing, I have seen Black and Brown people denied access to food and medical treatment, and communities dying from police and state violence and the lack of clean air. Environmental racism isn’t new, it’s only been increasingly illuminated after a global pandemic and another wave of racial awakening. COVID-19 shed light on the realities of inequities within the U.S. and between the Global North and South. Prior to this, there had been little to no media coverage or investments in these communities. Media plays a critical role in revealing the truth, and in the past it covered up what racism looks like in the most impacted communities and didn’t tell the authentic stories of injustices. Now, BIPOC communities and journalists are calling on media outlets to tell the real stories; we are demanding that our voices be heard and be front and center in the media, because our lives depend on it.
Despite the critical landscape we’re in, this moment is also calling for all of us to reevaluate the society we live in and shift away from a system that continues to value profit over both the planet and people. 2020 and 2021 has shown us that we are rejecting a system that doesn’t serve people of the global majority and we are innovating our own solutions.
The Solutions Project is investing in the solutions created by BIPOC communities, recognizing their innovations today, and honoring their practices cultivated through relationships with all life for centuries.
5. What lessons did you learn in 2020/2021 about setting big, audacious goals?
The biggest takeaway from 2020 and 2021 is that a better future is possible and impactful work is being done – the solutions are here and underway. So, there’s no goal too ambitious when we’re talking about the health and safety of people and the planet. I truly believe that because I am here. Despite 400 years of set-ups for me not to be here, my ancestors and angels made my time here possible, and that guides me to be purposeful and powerful in my goals. I center with spirit; I bring forward an analysis of power and I am clear about my own; I am clear about your power and our power; and I set goals at the scale of what’s needed.
And as I mentioned before, finding moments of joy and rest in the movement is important to me. In the words of Tricia Hersey of the Nap Ministry, “Rest is resistance,” – it is an active, regenerative, and spiritual way to fight against systemic and capitalistic norms and one must be well rested to continue doing the work.
6. Can you briefly speak to the support of the Bezos fund in 2020-2021 and share what motivated you to insist that the fund expand its commitments in the EJ field?
In the beginning, The Solutions Project and climate justice weren’t on their radar for investment, so I began organizing and reaching out to people I knew who might be in a position to influence the Bezos Earth Fund plans to spend $10 billion to fight climate change. Philanthropy has a track record of resourcing organizations that are already well funded, while underinvesting in frontline grassroots groups that are closest to the impacts of the climate crisis. One study showed that only 1.3% of environmental funding went to environmental justice organizations. So they got in touch with us and as a public foundation amplifying our grantees, we wanted to showcase that climate justice work needs and deserves investment at a far greater scale.
But it’s about equity in the climate justice movement – so in our conversations, we talked about what is needed to level the playing field, the importance of funding grassroots organizations directly, and that means overinvesting after years of philanthropy staying silent on these issues. I am the CEO of The Solutions Project, but it’s not just about me and our organization, it’s about how I can play a role in supporting and uplifting others in the movement, so I brought other equity funds to the table. Together, we collectively received $151MM over three years, which I later learned doubled the total amount of annual U.S. Climate Philanthropy dedicated to equity. Now, a year later we see more than six of our grantees receiving seven-figure multi year grants.
7. How did this bridge conversations around environmental justice, equity, and funder accountability?
What I appreciated about the engagement was the open dialogue. Bezos, himself, and the foundation’s team came to the table wanting to learn, which allowed us to have a transparent and open conversation about where philanthropy is and where it needs to go in 2022 and beyond. While a majority of the money still went to bigger NGOs, it was a good first step in the direction of where we see equity and how funders can play a pivotal role in helping us achieve environmental justice. With a well-known name like the Bezos Earth Fund investing a humble amount in environmental justice groups, I hope it opens the doors for other foundations to follow and rethink where they should be distributing their money.
We also want to make sure that we hold ourselves accountable, so transparency is a key factor in the work The Solutions Project does. We do this by acknowledging and respecting history, connecting and measuring impact across systems, listening and learning from our grantees because they are the experts in their fields, and continuing to work on evolving our grantmaking model. Transparency and accountability go hand in hand, and it’s important that we are open to learning from each other to continue building the movement. So when we were considering a grant at a scale we felt got us closer to our $100M milestone, in addition to calling those we are structurally accountable to – our grantee partners, philanthropic trustees, and board members – I personally called nearly 30 labor leaders, from across the country, to remain accountable to our values and relationships, particularly given the source. We moved with movement.
8. In 2022-23, how can grassroots leaders deepen their engagement with issues of resource mobilization and climate justice at the highest (or most technical) levels?
While philanthropy, government, and the industry all have a critical responsibility and opportunity to shift practices and priorities to support grassroots organizers, and their respective organizations and communities, we know that power concedes nothing without demand.
My advice to grassroots leaders is to ask for what you need and to not limit yourself by philanthropy’s limited imagination or resistance to grantmaking at the scale of impact that’s possible, let alone needed. Negotiate your deadlines and agreements by asking for what you need to stay true to your values and mission in ways that educate funders about grassroots principles, practices, and power.
And while I think it’s important for grassroots organizations to ask for the resources they need to achieve their goals, it’s also critical to reiterate to major funders that move millions to the same big green NGOs, that BIPOC and women-led organizations are already delivering scaled impact. That’s why everyone wants to pick our brains! So own your expertise and stand tall knowing that the strategies and solutions created by grassroots communities deserve to be funded. We are in 2021 and philanthropy has an opportunity to come to the source; when there’s so much at stake and so much evidence of frontline success, resisting this shift is nothing more than climate justice denial.
9. How has your own increased capacity for leveraging philanthropic dollars translated into growth in the organizations you fund?
The increased funding has allowed us to grow our team from three to ten, grow the number of grassroots grantees we fund from 30 to nearly 150, and increase the number of organizations receiving dedicated media services from 15 to 55. But just as much as we have grown, we have strengthened our relationships, and our grants are bigger, from a range of $2,500-$30,000 before I took the helm, to now $30,000-200,000 annually. After organizing our funders to commit at a greater scale over a few years, we also moved to multi-year commitments, which means that organizations are getting double or triple the grant amount – some up to $600,000 over the three years.
While our growth in grant making and media attracts additional funding for our grantees, we are also proactive in matching other funders we think would be excited to invest in the organizations we support. We will now have the staff capacity and systems to really track this ripple effect in our relationships going forward so we can set goals with our grantees, who can then hold us accountable. All of these outcomes are what inspired me to pursue Solidarity Philanthropy as an approach that builds on Trust-based Philanthropy. I envision The Solutions Project as a key piece of movement infrastructure that scales resources and collaborates with grassroots organizations in growing their power and shaping the future.