Building Power with(in) our People

By: Namrata Chowdhary, Chief of Public Engagement @ 350.org

“Crocus blooms” by Katy Wrathall is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

As a society, the modern world tends to glorify the valour in ‘soldiering on’ through every dark emotion, past every traumatic event. Yes indeed, there is power in powering through, and in channeling one’s grief into positive, constructive action. But equally, there is wisdom and strength in honouring every emotion, and holding space for each.

As Rumi wrote,

“this being human is a guest house
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!”

Today, as I opened the door to my Sadness at losing yet another deeply-valued friend, it entered with an entourage in tow. I found myself also entertaining Relief — for I have the support of an empathetic manager, who encouraged me to use a ‘discretionary time off allowance’ to treat my Sadness with the respect it deserved. Gratitude came along too, because I have a supportive team who expressed heartfelt condolences even as they asked what tasks they could take off my list. And of course, I met Awareness of my privilege in the same moment: because unlike so many others, I have the security of a rewarding job with a progressive employer, one where policies for ‘People and Culture’ go well beyond words.

Being part of the Executive Team at 350.org, I have an insider’s view of what it takes to put both, thought and heart, into deciding policies that govern the organisation. Navigating these chaotic times, I have participated in discussions around just how we might meaningfully centre compassion for our colleagues — and critically, extend it to include their families — as we implement new institutional guidelines particular to our pandemic-altered reality. From a special allowance for time off to deal with covid-related changes to one’s life circumstances, through to signing on our unequivocal support of the campaign for a #PeoplesVaccine. It is gratifying to have my own convictions of the value of this work reinforced by a text from a colleague, expressing their relief and “gratitude for our generous leave policies”.

Making values-led choices, and building policies around our JEDI principles (Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) invariably takes time and effort, but the rewards are felt deeply. From a somewhat self-centred perspective, I can say how policies like these reinforce my original desire to be part of the team at 350.org, and help drive the shift towards a more global, truly inclusive organisation — both internally, as with our policy changes, and externally, through our work in the intersectional movement for climate justice.

350 has always occupied a unique space as a connector in the global climate movement. Working with communities is central to our organisation’s theory of change, because we recognise that the change we need won’t come from the top; this is the people’s fight.

The movement must embrace all the rich and complex identities we own: across gender, class, race, abilities, geography, age, or others. From the perspective of our public engagement, as I have the privilege of leading the engagement department, I can acknowledge how consistently we take the time to reflect, and how genuinely each one of us considers the impact of our work, on the various communities we represent and serve.

Last month, in May, for instance, we celebrated the fact that the latest IEA report (finally!) called time on the fossil fuel industry. But we balanced our joy with criticism of the continued net-zero rhetoric, because the implementation of ‘solutions’ and new technology without centring people and justice risks creating a new form of climate colonialism, and needs to be resisted. Through our work with partner groups we’ve witnessed the heavy toll exacted by offset-oriented projects, like in Kenya for example, where the Sengwer people were violently evicted from ancestral lands to make way for tree plantations they neither needed, nor wanted, much less been consulted on.

This lack of agency lies at the root of so much injustice. But equally, investing in the agency of our people: supporters, partner groups, allies, donors, and indeed, our employees, can deliver so many long-lasting wins. Sometimes they need to recognise and own the agency they have, while at other times it takes intentional effort to build, strengthen, and exercise the agency they have.

Internal to 350.org, we have data to track our progress; within the United States, for instance, where the roots of our organisation were put down by predominantly white male leadership, we have seen an intentional shift towards a healthier, more equitable balance. Our US team is now proudly led by a majority of Black, Indigenous, Women of Colour, and have appointed a JEDI Coordinator specifically to ensure this ethos is upheld through all of our work. I am personally part of a beautifully balanced Executive Team with complementary skills, lived and learned experience, and cultural identities representing most parts of the globe… although that does make for some very challenging coordination of our meeting times! Our perspectives are further balanced by another strong (and equally diverse) leadership body — the Global Strategy Council, with representatives from our regional teams and our operational teams, who are responsible for setting our programmatic priorities.

It has taken considerable time and effort to make these changes, and it has not been without its own set of challenges… And it certainly isn’t enough. We recognise that we have a fair way to go before we can celebrate a sense of accomplishment. As a global organisation, we need to uplift the work being done by communities, particularly in the global south; we need to be more multilingual and multicultural, and continue to ensure we are creating safe, inclusive spaces for our staff and our many partners. We are genuinely keen to hear: what else could we be doing? Are there other examples of great policies in place that help create greater equity across an intentionally diverse workforce? I’d love to hear from readers in the comments, or via a personal email, as there’s so much room to grow.

One thing we are sure of, though: as long as we stay committed to building power with, and power in our people, instead of wielding power over them, we are keeping our doors wide open to welcome the many valued ‘guests’ yet to come.

To close with Rumi’s words again, we shall:

“Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.”

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350.org

350 is a global org that's inspiring the world to rise to the challenge of the climate crisis. This blog is a look behind the scenes at how we do that.