A whole-hearted reveal of our organisation’s exploration of values.
By: May Boeve, Executive Director & Namrata Chowdhary, Chief of Public Engagement @350.org
2022 is well begun. We have entered (another!) ‘decisive year for climate justice’, and the urgency for action is pressing down upon us harder with every heat wave, blizzard, and cyclone we experience or hear about. Yes, the start of this year was weighed down by a sense of fatigue. Dampened by despair at the seemingly unending impacts of an unequal fight against the pandemic. But pay closer attention, and you’ll hear something else growing louder, more clear as well: a call for community, an invitation to rally together for restoration, a commitment to care — for oneself, and one another. A determination to do more, together.
At 350.org, we firmly believe that climate justice needs to be at the heart of the better future we want to build; without a focus on justice, we risk perpetuating the inequalities and abuse of the fossil fuel era. A just transition (as distinct from a merely ‘green’ one) is one that identifies and addresses the whole range of privileges and inequities upholding the power structures of our current systems. There’s no escaping the reality of the hard work that lies ahead; of the new strategies and new partnerships we will need, as we keep up the fight for real climate justice. It will take a determined focus on what we refer to internally as JEDI: Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. And as anyone who has spent time reflecting on these four words would agree — this calls for Courage.
The original definition of courage (coming from the Latin ‘cor’, or heart) is to ‘tell the story of who you are, with your whole heart’. Woven into that story is an implied encouragement to be imperfect, and a reminder to act with compassion towards oneself and others. So we breathe in deeply, remind ourselves of our hard-earned place in the movement, and invite you to join us as we map what progress we’ve made on our JEDI journey. Fair warning: this is a really long piece, but it has been a really long journey with several important choice points, and a number of learnings to harvest and share.
If the past few years have taught us anything, it is that we need to embrace vulnerability and flexibility when building an intersectional foundation. We have certainly made many mistakes along the way but we want to share how we’ve got to this point: prompting greater reflection internally, across the movement, and indeed, with other organisations on a similar journey. We’re doing this with courage, and this straightforward affirmation for the road ahead: our JEDI principles will be held firmly at the heart of everything we do.
Our current context: 2022 marks the start of our next ‘strategic cycle’; it is a chance for us to re-examine our strategies for building and supporting the movement, and global community campaigns for climate justice. Our desire to change the world requires that we be honest about the need for changes within our organisation too. We know we are not the only ones searching for answers to the big questions on climate justice, on how we ought to build our work around the central idea of Justice, rather than just paying lip service to the principles. So we offer up this reflection as part of our series revealing the inside workings of 350.org.
Our story: 350.org was founded in 2008, in the United States, by seven white students and writer Bill McKibben. We were one of the early organisations to focus exclusively on climate change, in the mostly White-led environmental movement of the US at that time.
As we grew into a bigger team in the US, we were simultaneously setting up teams in other countries too. Our staff began to get more diverse, but more organically than intentionally, with many Black and/or Indigenous People of Colour (BIPOC) brought onto staff worldwide. Our very first organiser in Africa (who has since taken on a leadership role, as Regional Director for the Africa team) was hired in 2009 and whose leadership was central to organising the first Global Day of Action.
Pitfall #1: Inconsistent application of JEDI work internally and externally. What we have learned: To build a strong intersectional foundation, JEDI work needs to be interwoven with strategy. HR policies, training, and clear documentation are needed to support internal and external JEDI work.
We were still a predominantly white team, though, particularly in our teams in the Americas and Europe, and as our non-white staff flagged to management at the time, there were few systems in place to support non-white, or even non-American staff placed in an organisation frankly dominated by western perspectives. For instance, when we hired a non-white organiser and asked them to support an action that may have led to an arrest, were we doing enough to ensure their safety? Were we even considering this when we were in countries where the police were disproportionately violent towards People of Colour? The answers, quite frankly, were often just no. Or not enough. Or not consistently enough.
Pitfall #2: Myopically focusing only on increasing diversity. What we have learned: We need strong policies and procedures to ensure a diverse staff are supported, with justice, equity and inclusion all prioritised equally.
One of the major commitments we made to ourselves as an organisation early on was a decision to grapple with intersectionality — we stated clearly a desire to take everyone into account, in the fullness of their identities. We knew we needed a framework for Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion to be the foundation on which to build all of our work. But before putting in that foundation, we had to survey the land and orientate ourselves. As an organisation that originated from the US, many decisions were still being taken through an American lens; even within the US, we were not yet pushing beyond the layers of privilege with any consistent, intentional effort. On one hand, the Keystone XL campaign, for example, saw us working very closely with frontline Indigenous communities. 350 followed the lead of frontline organisers and ensured strategic support, following the lead of frontline needs. On the other hand, many on staff were increasingly expressing their concerns about the disconnect they saw between our values and how 350 was operating both internally and externally. We had been focusing on Diversity and Inclusion — we had made systemic changes to ensure we were hiring more BIPOC staff by 2013 — but we were still not getting Equity or Justice right.
Pitfall #3: Providing much of the content and training in English. What we have learned: Accessibility and understanding terminology are very important to getting to a “shared language” around JEDI. At a global organisation, training materials and events need to be multilingual and terms need to be translated early on in the JEDI journey, so that everyone has the same understanding.
Here’s another example of something we got wrong despite our best intentions: as we were growing globally, we were setting up teams of grassroots campaigners led by members of their own communities (not expats parachuted in from HQ!) and we were celebrating all they were able to achieve. But were we creating ways for these talented staff from countries other than the US/UK to participate in important organisational conversations when English wasn’t their first language? Were we making our training tools, our organising and campaigning platforms, or even our internal communications available in languages other than English? Until fairly recently, we weren’t doing so consistently enough.
Pitfall #4: Rolling out JEDI training to all staff at the same time. What we have learned: Management needs intensive training up front to be able to actually hear staff concerns and understand how to address them. The learning curve is steep and this needs to be accounted for.
Up until a few years ago, these issues seldom became visible to management. Many of us lacked the vocabulary — literal and/or emotional — to talk about these things at all. Most often, staff with fewer privileges either did not feel safe enough, or simply didn’t wish to undertake the additional emotional labour needed, to make their experiences visible to others. When they did take on the burden of communicating their challenges, they weren’t always met with understanding. Our lack of varied identities and insufficient experience on these nuanced issues, when combined with the urgency we were experiencing in the climate movement, meant that we as management failed to recognise the nuance behind the problems that were being experienced.
As a result, even in the U.S., where arguably management focus on JEDI issues was the sharpest, People of Colour, especially Black women, reportedly experienced being tokenised in quite a typical manner, resulting in a high turnover of non-white staff in the U.S., and frustration about what felt like ‘tokenistic inclusion’ of colleagues from the Global South. By 2018, we were intentionally bringing in a more diverse workforce to our U.S. team; including several senior BIPOC-identified U.S staff steering the U.S. leadership team, and a senior staff member focussed on JEDI, who led on the creation of a Toolkit on Centering Equity in Hiring — this protocol ensured that no hiring process could move forward without close to 50% BIPOC applicants. But we were not yet doing enough to retain them. It’s only fair to also acknowledge that when these issues were pointed out, we didn’t always respond with the urgency and/or rigour required. Quite often, the responsibility for fixing things was left on the shoulders of people of colour.
Pitfall #5: Relying on consultants to provide training. What we have learned: JEDI work is a deep investment, and relying entirely on consultants can be limiting. It is worth hiring staff who can support an organisation throughout it’s JEDI journey, to provide consistency and help build trust.
But even before that, we were seeing a growing demand from staff: they wanted the tools to frame these issues and learn how to conduct these difficult conversations in their teams. Over the years, we engaged a variety of consultants to share their expertise on anti-oppression practises and conduct JEDI trainings. In early 2019 we hired consultants and had three training sessions: one for the leadership team, one for senior leaders in the organisation, and one for staff in the Global South. While these trainings received mixed reviews from staff, there is no denying that they helped open up conversations internally. Staff started talking about accountability, recognising and naming the inequities between teams and types of roles in the organisation, and questioning how decisions were made. While we did the right thing to bring in experts when we did, it proved hard to build sufficient levels of trust in strangers to have the deeply uncomfortable conversations that were so necessary at the time. In hindsight it is clear: we should have invested in internal expertise much earlier than we did.
And yes, we needed more. Our staff wanted to develop some concrete outcomes, and decide collectively how we might centre our JEDI values in our culture-building work.
Following these training sessions, we convened an all staff-retreat in 2019 with one key goal: to centre JEDI in our culture at 350. There was space for staff to talk about why, and how, they interpreted the importance of JEDI, and interpreters to support expression in languages other than English, but of course, creating the space was only half of the equation. Not everyone felt safe to voice their concerns and opinions. There were many difficult conversations, and much blame cast about where we were falling short. We had a big discussion about how privilege and identity showed up very differently in various countries. Perhaps the hardest learning of the time was when people pointed out how the real burden of the JEDI work was being carried by BIPOC staff, and those from the Global South.
Pitfall #6: Rapid growth and/or expansion geographically. What we have learned: Part of JEDI work is providing a stable and safe place for staff. Rapid growth and sudden cutbacks can affect trust. Ensure there are strong financial systems and governance systems in place before growth.
Later that year, we experienced another major setback. After plans of ambitious growth fell short, 350 was plunged into financial uncertainty and had to lay off staff across the board. These layoffs really impacted 350 staff around the world and felt like a big step backward for people who had just started to build more diverse teams, only to lose some of those members. This understandably impacted the morale of staff, led to further staff departures, and made it hard to implement a positive team culture. Trust in leadership was severely damaged and much of the progress with the JEDI work was put on hold to stabilise the organisation.
What we learnt: diversity, equity, and inclusion requires the setting up of strong systems (including financial systems to back the types of transformations we want to make) and deeply investing in culture work in order to sustain a diverse team.
This openness led to some deep discussions about intersectionality inside our team. We have benefitted from an expanded vocabulary with which to have some difficult conversations, and teams are beginning to understand how to weave JEDI priorities into their annual planning, and build strategy with these values at the heart of all our work. As a result of the trainings and retreat, we were doing both things: starting to understand how to have these conversations, and acknowledging that we needed to stay in these conversations until we saw real outcomes.
We’ve been experimenting with ways to expand our language diversity; externally, with our work supporting the climate movement available in a variety of languages, and internally, in how we connect our teams within 350.org. We are also using our power as a global organisation to work across regions and expose neo-colonial practises like how financial institutions in Global North countries like Europe and the US fund fossil fuel projects in the Global South throughout Africa and Latin America and the associated injustices to local communities.
At the 2019 retreat, staff had asked for a more diverse leadership team; as of early 2021, that is complete, with half the Executive Team and Board comprised of BIPOC leaders from the Global South. Workers set up a “parliament” body to speak on behalf of workers, called the Workers Council. This is a step in the right direction, however it is still seeking ways to ensure active participation, at equal levels, from workers all around the world. Resource allocation and power distribution across the organisation was identified as an issue, particularly to rectify the disparity between funds allocated to teams based in the Global South. A year later, plans to make this more equitable were written into the organisational strategy; as of 2021, we have begun — and are committed to continue — doing so as an annual process.
Pitfall #7: Letting a fear of failure hold you back. What we have learned: We need to embrace vulnerability and flexibility as we undertake a new journey. There is no clear roadmap for this work, it means experimenting with things and seeing what works.
The results have been gratifying: we’re learning to be more experimental, and this willingness to try new things allows us to move more quickly in response to both crises and opportunities. For example, the U.S. Team put our JEDI agreements to use, responding swiftly and meaningfully to the racial justice uprisings of 2020, and hosted a climate and racial justice webinar attended by 5000 of our supporters. When COVID hit, for instance, we were quick to spot the similarities between the climate crisis and the pandemic, and rallied our global community behind the Just Recovery principles. In response to the deeply-felt need for continued connection across communities forced into isolation and lockdowns, we were able to organise and host one of our most successful, most inclusive global events ever, the tremendously accessible Global Just Recovery Gathering — and came out of that experience with several ideas to make it even more so. In 2022, we are working on creating a more equitable, movement-friendly platform to make future such events even more accessible.
We still think of ourselves as having made a good start, but we underestimated the time and attention it takes to cement the strategic connections between ‘our programme of work’ and ‘our JEDI work’, for it to be embedded in everything we do. As a young organisation, the work of committing to JEDI means we must try, try harder, get it wrong, and get better. We recognise the effort it takes to keep this work ongoing and get it right; and we’re up for the challenge. It took a lot of sustained effort throughout 2021 in the lead up to the COP26, to bring ‘People to the Front’ to Glasgow in November; it was, as many reported, the ‘least representative COP of all time’, and we did well to focus the bulk of our efforts & energies on lifting up the voices of people from communities whose opinions are typically marginalised, in mobilisations worldwide and with creative actions in Glasgow to (quite literally) bring their voices into the plenary halls where their futures were being negotiated.
Pitfall #8: Approaching JEDI from a singular geographic perspective, and then trying to apply the same formula to other countries. What we have learned: Each country and culture is unique, and has its own JEDI language and lens. Each one needs to work to a broad basic framework, but then adapt it further to customise their own JEDI procedures. For example, racial dynamics might be the biggest part of US equity work, but be less relevant in other parts of the world.
Aside from the effort it takes to centralise JEDI values in our campaigning, we also underestimated how much time different teams and countries would need to customise their plans and approach to JEDI. Indeed, we are still discovering and learning to appreciate just how different this work looks from one community to another, one country to the next. For a global organisation like ours, the work simply carries on.
It is a little daunting to acknowledge that there is no clear, single roadmap for this journey. We are grateful to receive support from several peer organisations, our funders, and other social movements that we know are engaging with the same challenges. We continue to learn from others’ work, and share our own with gratitude for how we have benefitted from similar experiences shared by others; but we also know that it will take consistent courage to try new things.
We continue to apply our learnings as we strategise for the future. This year we will be highlighting the amazing community-led solutions, championed by people all over the world, as a counterbalance to the inevitable doom and gloom when the IPCC reports are released. Later this year we’re looking forward to showcasing voices from across Africa at COP27 in Egypt. And continue to spotlight the injustice of how financial institutions from Europe and North America are propping up dangerous fossil fuel projects like the East African Crude Oil Pipeline through Uganda and Tanzania, and Vaca Muerta in Argentina. Throughout, we expect to keep learning, re-learning, and challenging ourselves to adjust to changing realities and new expressions of privilege and power.
Ultimately, the lesson we learnt was that you can diversify a team all you like, but the accompanying culture change needs to be consistently championed by leadership, and supported by clear systems to support all staff. As we embark upon hiring new staff in 2022 and build our next multi-year strategy we are committed to continue learning from our own experiences and others’, focussing on what didn’t work well, as well as a framework of appreciative inquiry; especially learning from our colleagues in community-centric societies, where inclusive practises are the norm. Only then can we move forward as an organisation rooted in justice at all levels, in all of our activities, and in all of our teams worldwide. That determination allows us to mark 2022 as the start of a hopeful time ahead in our fight for climate justice.