Talking equity, diversity, and inclusion with Tualatin Riverkeepers

Tualatin Riverkeepers joined Waterkeeper Alliance in 1995 and has since been a leader in community-based restoration, education, and recreation in western Oregon. We asked them some questions about their progressive organizing and dedication to equity, diversity, and inclusion.

Tualatin Riverkeepers does a lot of work on education, restoration, and recreation. What are some highlights of your work?

We have strived to work collaboratively with partners, such as Community Partners for Affordable Housing and Adelante Mujeres, to co-create environmental education programming. We just celebrated our 13th year of Rumbo al Rio with Adelante Mujeres which is focused on providing young Latina women and their mothers a chance to experience and explore the Tualatin River. We have been awarded over a million dollars in restoration grants to restore hundreds of acres throughout the Tualatin River watershed with multi-layered partnerships, meaning we have projects that include other NGOs, municipalities, utility companies, private industries, and neighborhood groups. We have also been the main advocate for opening more access points on the river and to find areas that not only work well for recreation, but also for restoration.

You created an urban forestry jobs training program with Centro Cultural and the Muslim Educational Trust in 2016. Why was that program created and how did you come to partner with those organizations?

The program was created as a way for organizations that historically had not worked together to join forces while still supporting our individual missions and goals. Centro Cultural and Muslim Educational Trust bring decades of expertise in engaging culturally specific communities in educational programming. These partners recognize that immigrants and people of color often possess skills in fields such as botany, science, engineering, architecture, etc. They also understand the barriers these constituencies face to securing employment and further education. It seemed like a natural fit for the partnership because of our organizations’ shared commitment to education.

We’ve seen unanticipated success from the program; we learned that a few students from Centro Cultural’s cohort were receiving paid reimbursement from their landscaping employer for attending these trainings because the employer found value in the betterment of their employees’ skill sets.

You have a vibrant staff including women and immigrants in leadership roles that bring rich and diverse perspectives to the organization. Has that staff development been intentional? If so, why?

Tualatin Riverkeepers has traditionally had women in leadership roles since our founding in 1993. The work of hiring staff that represents the whole community has been intentional and part of the fabric of this organization for a decade. A partnership in 2008 with a people of color-led organization called Center for Diversity and the Environment (CDE) started the journey. CDE led us through defining what equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) was, and staff and board members went through extensive training to discover their personal reasons for doing this work. To be able to create a system where all voices are heard and opportunities given, leadership must be given to the oppressed. This work needs to happen on a personal level before systematic changes can happen.

To create a diverse workspace and authentically serve diverse populations, the work must be intentional. We have made mistakes, made things uncomfortable, and failed. But this is all a part of it. When Tualatin Riverkeepers started to make EDI a part of the strategic plan for the organization, we had to look at what barriers existed in order for the desired state to be accomplished. Most times those barriers existed because all staff and board members were white, and did not have a more diverse experience to draw from. There needed to be more voices at the table.

What does environmental justice mean to you and/or Tualatin Riverkeepers?

As an organization, we believe that environmental justice is the intersection of social justice and environmental racism. One issue we work on in a variety of ways is providing access to environmental resources, natural areas, and green spaces for people who have historically been underserved. As Tualatin Riverkeepers is a collective voice for clean water, those voices should come from everyone who lives, works, and plays in the Tualatin River watershed.

For Tualatin Riverkeepers, the intersection of race and the environment means changing strategies on how to involve people and not depending on traditional methods to create partnerships. As an organization, it means training and beginning a dialogue with our board, staff, and volunteers on what inclusivity means, and having people start with looking at themselves (e.g. What is privilege? How do you hold power?). It also means being vulnerable and uncomfortable.

Do you have any advice for other environmental organizations that would like to forge relationships and partnerships with under-represented groups in their communities?

Do more listening than leading. Ask questions, try to understand. A partnership is an act of trust and understanding that benefits both parties. Without this as a base, it is not a partnership. Staff, volunteers, and board members need to understand cultural trauma surrounding environmental involvement. So many times I have heard that we should be included only if it fits the mission of clean water or healthy environments, but this approach doesn’t recognize that in order to have a healthy environment or clean water, the whole population must be involved. Demographics are changing rapidly and organizations that serve the community need to be ready.

EDI work must be treated like any other area of study—like water quality, you need to dive a little deeper than the surface to get what you want. You may have to wade through some sewage; it will not be pretty and it will take a long time. And even after the time and effort, you may still not have the results you want. There is no finish line or end.

Anything else?

Tualatin Riverkeepers is in no way an expert on this topic nor claims to have all the answers. We have had successes and failures. EDI is ongoing within our organization and continues to be an intentional act to incorporate it into our program areas. Feel free to contact Tualatin Riverkeepers if you have questions, need clarification, or would like to chat about some of the lessons learned.

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