Transaction to Transformation

This post originally appeared on the Association for Baltimore Area Grantmaker’s Blog, Adventures in Philanthropy, on June 19, 2015: http://ht.ly/Ox6yH

Transaction to Transformation

By Stuart Clarke, ABAG Board Member and Executive Director, Town Creek Foundation

I was recently invited to speak at the Annual Meeting of the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers about the work we are doing at the Town Creek Foundation and how it illustrates one of the goals’ of the Association’s newly presented strategic plan.

ABAG’s mission is to maximize the impact of philanthropic giving on community life through a growing network of diverse, informed and effective philanthropists. As an ABAG Board Member, I was happy to speak about the foundation and about the strategic plan that I helped develop, which acknowledges the long standing roles of our Association as a convener and leader for collective and transformative action and how we will seek to elevate that role, maximizing our unique ability to convene a broad range of stakeholders, to be a voice, to lead public discourse and to influence governance and policy affecting the issues and communities we serve.

The new plan highlights four main goals, and I helped illustrate Goal #1:

“The Association will lead, with and for its members, efforts to influence critical issues and improve community conditions.” I discussed transaction to transformation and how the Town Creek Foundation thinks about our work and our collaboration with other members to encourage more systemic change.

Here are my remarks:

“It’s fun to be up here talking to you this morning, at least partly because – for at least two reasons – it’s sort of an odd place for me to be. First, Town Creek is a thirty-four year old environmental advocacy funder that, until pretty recently, has had a pretty low profile in Baltimore. Our more significant distinguishing characteristic, however, is that we are sun-setting. We are in the middle of the fourth year of a ten-year spend down. We plan to make our last grants, throw a big party, and bounce the caterer’s check at the end of 2021.

I’m here to tell you that self-imposed mortality can have an urgently clarifying influence on institutional thinking. Our decision to sunset was made in 2011, after a period of significant environmental progress in Maryland on issues of primary concern to us. This was a period that culminated in the establishment of relatively ambitious goals, strategies and plans to reduce the state’s contributions to Bay pollution and global warming.

Rather than basking in that glow, however, our decision to sunset prompted us to confront three questions about our work and our partnerships:

  • Is the scale and pace of change that we were seeing sufficient in view of the political, economic, and ecological headwinds that appear to be on the way?
  • Are the strategies that are producing incremental pollution reductions also building sufficient political power to sustain and accelerate those reduction sunder change political and economic circumstances?
  • Can we sustainably address Maryland’s major pollution challenges by reforming the practices that generate that pollution but leaving unchanged the purpose, logic, and structural relationships of the systems in which those practices are embedded?

It probably won’t surprise you that we emerged from this confrontation convinced that the answers to these questions are probably no. That we probably haven’t done enough of the right things to earn the self-satisfied retirement we’d been planning.

So we jumped into our last decade intent on encouraging our partners to augment their transactional strategies focused on incremental change with transformational strategies focused on systemic change.

  • We think we know what that means, but we know that we don’t know precisely how it works. We do think that five things are probably critical. The first three have to do with our grantmaking:
  • We think we need to invest in vision – in work that produces narratives of fundamentally different futures for the state and the region;
  • We think we need to invest in leadership – especially leadership with an appetite for boldness; and
  • We think we need to invest in examples, in pilot projects – real live pieces of the future that we need to build.

The last two things are about where we invest our time and our commitment, rather than where we invest our funds.

We need to be present with folks that are struggling with our toughest problems – not just environmental problems, but the full panoply of social and economic problems that we need to overcome. And, we need to engage that struggle in the state’s center of gravity, here, in Baltimore, where the challenges and the opportunities present themselves in the rawest and ripest forms.

So that’s why we are showing up at ABAG, and that’s why I am standing up for this strategic plan.”

A Challenge From A Pragmatic Environmentalist

As someone who works in the environmental field, I should enjoy Earth Day. Instead I actually find myself hating it more each year. For me, Earth Day has turned into an annual day of inauthentic concern and celebration for the planet.

The environmental community advocates 365 days of the year, with 364 of those days usually involving some sort of opposition and challenge. Earth Day is the one-day about us; where the media and the attention are focused on the planet. We do not have to “fight” per usual because for a mere 24-hours everyone seems to be a born-again environmentalist. We are given 24-hours where the opposition does not have an equal footing and environmental organizations and advocates let it be used for “happy” pictures and simple celebratory sentiments about the planet.

Maybe I would not be as frustrated with Earth Day if organizations used tactics to move the Earth Day “slacktivists” into more active advocacy roles. Instead, organizations and advocates allow for the annual day of born-again environmentalism to go untapped.

It is not enough to pick up a piece of trash or post a Happy Earth Day status.

Here is a reality check:

  • Municipal waste only accounts for 3% of total waste production in the United States.
  • Taking shorter showers will not stop the planet from running out of water. It will not fix drought stricken regions. Over 90% of water used by humans is used by agriculture and industry. The other 10% is split between municipalities and individuals.
  • If every person in the United States did everything Al Gore suggested in “An Inconvenient Truth,” U.S. carbon emissions would only fall by about 22%.

A picture of “happy trees” in honor of Earth Day will not make a difference.

In case there was any doubt, a “Happy Earth Day” post will not:

  • Secure the termination of the proposed Energy Answers incinerator in Curtis Bay. The hard, on-the-ground work, of United Workers and Free Your Voice did that.
  • Stand with concerned citizens in opposition to proposed mega-CAFOs, on Maryland’s lower eastern shore, threatening the public health of surrounding communities. Assateague Coastal Trust, Food and Water Watch, and the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project are doing that.
  • Improve the air quality of overburdened communities. Your zip code should not dictate your life expectancy. This is a reality that is very much within the confines of the state of Maryland. The Maryland Environmental Health Network is fighting for that.
  • Work long hours from January-April defending the right to a clean and healthy environment during Maryland’s Legislative Session. The countless advocates and constituents do that year after year.

Personal change is not enough. It is not a powerful political act.  Personal change does not equal social change.  

To the 24-hour born-again environmentalists: If you mean what you said or posted today, connect with your local environmental organization and get involved. The environmental community is fighting too many serious issues for you to hide behind a computer.

To the environmental advocates: Work to engage “slacktivists” in more active advocacy roles and utilize this day, and any where we are given more attention and leverage than the opposition, to its absolute fullest.

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“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

…but that means actually caring for the environment all 365 days of the year.

Town Creek Foundation Hosts Stakeholder Meeting to Explore “Avenues for Impact”

This post originally appeared on the Association for Baltimore Area Grantmaker’s Blog, Adventures in Philanthropy, on January 12, 2015: http://ht.ly/HkmfS

 

By Rebecca Ruggles, Director, Maryland Environmental Health Network

 
“We’ve always felt that as grantmakers, it is our responsibility to smartly deploy the full range of resources at our disposal, including grantmaking, communications, convening, and connecting. Like most grant makers, we’ve paid considerably more attention to grant making than we have to the other avenues for impact.”

With these opening words, Stuart Clarke framed the Town Creek Foundation’s stakeholder meeting on November 14, 2014 in Easton. Drawing over 100 Town Creek grantees and partners together was a deliberate investment – and Stuart might have said, an experiment – in exploring those “other avenues for impact”.

Town Creek, headquartered on the Eastern Shore, made the bold decision in 2011 to sunset in ten years. Among their reasons was a sense of urgency about achieving major gains in the areas of their investment – the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay, fighting climate change, and promoting environmental sustainability. Citing that sense of urgency, the foundation convened what it called its First Annual Stakeholder Meeting at Chesapeake College.

As a Town Creek grantee, I had the pleasure of being among those whom Stuart tapped for advice as he planned the event. As an ABAG employee, I was also interested to see how a foundation that is spending up uses its “other avenues for impact”. ABAG members in attendance included staff from the Chesapeake Bay Trust, Keith Campbell Foundation, Abell Foundation and Baltimore Community Foundation.

After the intense social buzz of morning coffee, Town Creek President Jennifer Stanley opened the formal program with welcoming remarks and urged us to participate actively. The morning featured a keynote from University of Maryland professor emeritus Gar Aperovitz followed by lively audience dialogue. After lunch, small groups met to address questions posed by Stuart and then convened together as a full group to report out.

One part of the morning was an overview of Town Creek grantmaking philosophy and practice, presented by Stuart Clarke and Meredith Lathbury Girard. Stuart’s remarks, which I had the opportunity to read in advance, offered a framework for viewing environmental work as both transactional (rooted in the politics of what is possible in the present) and transformational (working at what Stuart called “the scale of the problem”, instead of the scale of what politics allows).

Though he claims no plans to publish, I asked Stuart to allow us to post his remarks on the ABAG website. If you are a student of philanthropy, an environmentalist, or a grantmaker concerned that incremental change is not enough, you may find this paper intriguing. The paper also offers insight into the thought process of a foundation in its final 7 years.

To attendees, Stuart posed the question: Can we address Maryland’s pollution challenges by changing practices while leaving unchanged the structures that allowed that pollution? A provocative question, it stimulated much discussion during the afternoon’s small groups about the role of Town Creek, of funders in general, and of the diverse sectors in Maryland that seek to be change agents.

Lynn Heller from the Abell Foundation tackled the daunting task of summarizing the reports from the small group facilitators. Among the conclusions were a resounding desire to be enabled to work “at the scale of the problem” through changes in grant-making practices that address building grantees’ organizational capacity, investing long-term, and supporting ambitious approaches to the root causes of societal woes.

The Maryland Environmental Health Network convenes diverse stakeholders in the fields of health and environmental advocacy, research, and community activism, to support cross-sector education, dialogue and action that results in better protection of both human health and the environment. MdEHN is a project housed at the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers (ABAG).

The Happiest Philanthropic Day of the Year!

#GivingTuesday is right around the corner!

For those unfamiliar with the day, #GivingTuesday was created as a philanthropic alternative to Black Friday and Cyber Monday – a global day to celebrate generosity and to give.  This year’s #GivingTuesday will take place on December 2nd.

If you have not started planning, now is the time to start!  The key to success is to start building an online buzz now and utilize the resources on the #GivingTuesday and #MarylandGivesMore websites to develop an effective online presence.  You can download a free e-book “Guide to a Successful Giving Dayhere.

New this year is the #MarylandGivesMore initiative.  Convened by Maryland Nonprofits and a committed group of partners, #MarylandGivesMore is the most ambitious state-wide #GivingTuesday campaign in the country.  #MarylandGivesMore is an expansion of the wildly successful #BmoreGivesMore campaign, which raised $5.7 million for the city of Baltimore on #GivingTuesday in 2013.

The #MarylandGivesMore campaign has set a goal of raising $12.2 million on #GivingTuesday.  This is roughly equivalent to every Marylander donating $2. For more information on ways to get involved with #MarylandGivesMore, contact Allison Albert, Membership/Marketing Director, at aalbert@mdnonprofit.org or 443.438.2346.

NGO Participation Ideas:

  • Use the #MarylandGivesMore goal and #GivingTuesday as a new way to communicate with donors and kick off your year-end giving campaign.
  • Promote your current projects on #GivingTuesday: Sign up to be a Partner on the #MarylandGivesMore website and report in dollars raised on December 2nd.
    • Organizations have the option to launch new projects to capitalize on the enthusiasm and online traffic on the #MarylandGivesMore Crowdrise page.
    • Volunteer hours are also eligible – they will be monetized and counted toward the goal.
  • Announce your participation to your community on Facebook and Twitter (@MDGivesMore).

Foundation Participation Ideas:

  • Lend your stature and leadership to the effort, join the #MarylandGivesMore campaign by signing up to be a Partner on the #MarylandGivesMore website and reporting in donations on 12.2.14.
    • Announce your year-end grants on 12.2.14, #GivingTuesday, to contribute to the statewide goal.
    • Invite your grantees to participate
  • Spread the word about the #MarylandGivesMore initiative, and your involvement or support, via traditional and social marketing (find us on Facebook and Twitter @MDGivesMore).
  • To encourage generosity in donations on #GivingTuesday, provide matching fund grants to the overall #MarylandGivesMore campaign. Contact Heather Iliff, Vice President, at hiliff@mdnonprofit.org or 443.438.2348.
  • Support your grantees directly with matching grants on #GivingTuesday.

 

I encourage everyone to participate and bring this global day of giving to their local membership.  Happy Fundraising!

Meeting the Public Where It’s At

“We don’t see the world as it is, we see it as we are”  – Anaïs Nin

In the short time I have officially spent in the real world, I have observed the public health frame provide considerable strength to environmental initiatives.  This frame engages audiences in ways the environmental frame does not.  Lets face it; the environment is not of inherent concern to each and every one of the 7-billion people on this planet.

The effectiveness of the public health angle was most apparent to me when the Star Democrat published an article on the high presence of Vibrio on the eastern shore.  With 825 likes and the exposure of 220 shares on Facebook, the article received an incredible online response.  I combed through each and every comment and share that I could within the limits of Facebook privacy settings.  Surprisingly, at their core, the comments and shares were all the same – general alarm and concern for public health.  It is not uncommon for environmental articles to get the comment wrath of the Negative Nancy’s of the community, but those dissenting views could not be found for this article.  The community even went so far as to say the article did not go far enough.

I monitored social media in the days following the article’s publishing.  For an article that received so much online attention, there was not a single peep, like, share, comment, smoke signal, or carrier pigeon from any of the local NGOs.  This was such a great opportunity for engagement and it went ignored.

Fortunately or unfortunately, public health threats from water quality are popping up left and right in the news.  The coverage is creating what appears to be an opportune time for a greater dialogue on the health and water quality nexus.  Just last week 500,000 people in Toledo, Ohio were left without drinking water due to a harmful algal bloom (HAB) contaminating their water supply.  This bloom was a direct result of excess phosphorus caused by pollution sources like agricultural runoff, stormwater runoff, overflowing sewers, failed septic systems, and lawn fertilizers.  This specific incident may have happened in Toledo, but HABs derivative of excess pollution are nothing new.  Vibrio even received national media coverage for its rise in Florida and other southern states.

The Star Democrat’s article may have gone un-leveraged by local NGOs, but the issue of Vibrio continues to attract attention from other organizations and media outlets across the state.  The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, South River Federation, and West/Rhode Riverkeeper have all weighed in on the bacteria, pollution, and public safety.  The Chesapeake Bay Foundation even reissued their 2009 report on the rise of infections from flesh-eating bacteria that threatens both ecological and public health.  This opportunity should not go un-leveraged.

When it comes to the nexus of water quality and public health, I often think of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition (WVRC) and their demonstrative success with the public health lens.  Responding to a water contamination crisis, the public health frame connected WVRC more deeply with their community.  WVRC gained the support of community members with close ties to the fossil fuel industry who, before the crisis, never supported WVRC’s efforts.  WVRC leveraged their strong base of community support to resolve the specific contamination incident and successfully pass new clean water legislation for the state.

There might not be an obvious call to action when it comes to naturally occurring Vibrio, but it does not make the opportunity for engagement any less real.  Taking advantage of natural opportunities to engage and educate  the community sets the stage for support when emergency issues arise.  After reading the Star Democrat’s article, the public wanted more information.  Local organizations could have filled this information gap and connected this citizen base into a larger conversation on water quality and threats to public health.

Part of successful organizing, particularly online, requires letting the community be the driver (Ward, 2011).  The community was there, galvanized and ready on their own.  Activism via social media does not stop at a “like” or a “share.”  It is up to the NGOs and other related organizations to provide the right asks that move a community into more active roles both online and offline.

Groups should think of “likes” on Facebook as virtually raised hands (Ward, 2011).  There were 825 people raising their hands concerned about the increase of Vibrio in the Talbot County watershed; 825 hands that went ignored.

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project studied “the Social Side of the Internet.”  The project found that being social online means it is more likely you will be social offline.

  • 68% of all Americans said the Internet has had a major impact on the ability of groups to communicate with members.
  • 62% of all Americans said the Internet has had a major impact on the ability of groups to draw attention to an issue.
  • 59% of all American said the Internet has had a major impact on the ability of groups to impact society at large.
  • 49% of all Americans said the Internet has had a major impact on the ability of groups to impact local communities.

This is significant.  Based on this research, it is clear the online response to the local Vibrio article presented an opportunity for deeper engagement.  A chance to move those 825 “raised hands” into offline action.  I doubt those 825 people would be ignored if they showed up at an organization’s doorstep.

The stars are aligning around the water quality and public health nexus.  The public cares about this issue; they raised their hands.  Now it is up to the NGOs to meet the public where it is at, acknowledge their interest, and leverage the opportunity that naturally presented itself from utilizing a public health lens.

Resources:

 

 

Citizen Enforcement: Preventing Sediment Pollution One Construction Site at a Time

This post originally appeared on the Center for Progressive Reform’s Blog on July 15, 2014: http://www.progressivereform.org/CPRBlog.cfm?idBlog=3A431B61-9E6E-DA18-17184C8108DA344D

 

I will never look at a construction site the same way again.

Certain types of pollution—mostly sediment, nitrogen, and phosphorus—run into the Chesapeake Bay and fuel algal blooms, creating dead zones where crabs, oysters and other Bay life cannot survive. Indeed, the Chesapeake is on track to have an above-average dead zone this year.

Construction sites are a major source of sediment runoff. When mud washes from a single construction site, it can damage three miles of downstream waters. Recovery can take up to a century. Maryland has rules that construction companies are supposed to follow to minimize runoff. These rules pay off: For every dollar spent keeping mud onsite, taxpayers save $100 or more in damages avoided.

That’s why I spent last Wednesday driving around Baltimore with four others checking to see whether constructions sites were following the rules.

I learned that the most effective measure to prevent runoff is to quickly get disturbed soil under a dense blanket of straw mulch, then grass. Other measures, like the black fences you see at most construction sites, can’t keep enough mud on the site to prevent pollution. Simply put, exposed soil equals pollution. Whenever you see exposed soil on a construction site, pollution will occur come the next rain.

Under Maryland law, to begin work at a construction site, a contractor must first clear only a narrow strip alongUntitled the downslope edge of the site’s perimeter. Within this swath, the contractor installs a fence to capture runoff and deliver it to traps also built within the perimeter swath. These fences and ponds, however, trap less than half the mud. Once fences are installed, the perimeter must then be mulched and seeded within three days [COMAR 26.17.10.07B(f)(i)]. If the mulch blows away, the contractor must re-mulch. If the grass doesn’t reach 95 percent coverage within eight weeks, the contractor must reseed.

Once the perimeter is stabilized, the contractor can start work on the interior of the site. The company uses bulldozers to level the ground so construction can begin. Once the ground is level, known as “rough grade,” the contractor has up to seven days to stabilize all exposed soils. Paved areas are considered stabilized; all other “erodible” (i.e., non-paved) areas must be mulched and seeded.

The only way to determine that contractors are properly stabilizing construction sites is to go out and take a look. Government agencies, in this case the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), are tasked with inspecting sites like these, but MDE has gradually lost funding and staff while its responsibilities have increased dramatically. When writing environmental laws, Congress envisioned a strong role for citizens—Congress placed citizen suit provisions in virtually all of the federal environmental statutes, for example, enabling citizens to “stand in the shoes” of regulatory authorities and bring suit to enforce the law. Citizen enforcement is vital when bureaucracies stumble or polluters skirt the law.

The tour of construction sites I took last week is true citizen enforcement. Our knowledgeable guide, Richard Klein who leads Community & Environmental Defense Services, made the process easy by preparing a simple questionnaire for us to fill out. We visited 11 sites over the course of three hours. The result? About two of the 11 were even remotely stable. Not an unusual result, according to Richard who has tracked this problem for years.

In addition to Baltimore City, Richard is leading tours of Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford, and Howard counties. With the help of volunteers, he’ll compile data on hundreds of construction sites across Maryland. He encourages the volunteers to write thank-you letters to construction companies that are following the rules and letters encouraging companies without proper stabilization to do better.

Richard’s overall goal is to provide the public support needed to bring all jurisdictions up to the point of full compliance with the stabilization law. After surveying the counties, he’ll send the data he and the volunteers compile to the MDE. By showing MDE that citizens strongly support the agency’s efforts to inspect construction sites and take enforcement actions when necessary, he aims to channel this public support into getting enforcement agencies the resources and political backing needed to maximize compliance.

You can learn more about the tours and report a violation through Richard’s website. Another great way to track pollution is through the just-released Water Reporter app, a crowd sourced, interactive app that allows citizens to share information and flag pollution problems in their communities.

Anne Havemann, Policy Analyst, Center for Progressive Reform

 

Anne_HavemannAnne Havemann, J.D., is a CPR Policy Analyst. She joined the organization in 2013 to work on its Chesapeake Bay program area.

Havemann has nearly a decade of experience working on environmental issues at the regional and national scale. From 2005 to 2010, she was the communications director for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, a nonprofit organization working on clean energy issues in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. She focused on the Clean Water Act during clerkships with U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) and at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Her article on debarring BP in the wake of the 2010 oil spill, co-authored with CPR president Rena Steinzor, appears in the William & Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review. Her second article, which won the Joseph Bernstein prize and was published in the Maryland Law Review, considers whether Maryland’s renewable energy laws violate the dormant Commerce Clause.

Ms. Havemann received a B.A. in environmental science from Colorado College in 2004. She received her law degree with a certificate in environmental law from the University of Maryland Carey School of Law in 2013, where she graduated magna cum laude. While at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law, she was editor in chief of the Maryland Law Review. In that position, she hosted a symposium in conjunction with CPR that brought together scholars from the environmental and financial fields to discuss regulatory enforcement. She is a member of Order of the Coif and a recipient of the Alumni Association Award for contributing most largely to the law school through her character and leadership.

Contact Information:
202.747.0698

Email: ahavemann@progressivereform.org

Has Exhaustion Hurt Our Advocacy Efforts?

In our world of metrics and indicators are we missing something?

When we talk about the obstacles to transformative success (for whatever issue that may be) we talk about things like political power and corporate control.  We do not usually talk about the role personal exhaustion plays in success.  I recently came across a Huffington Post article on ending burnout in social change movements and our inability to build a thriving future on a platform of exhaustion.  Which got my wheels turning a bit.

Has exhaustion and burnout impacted the advocacy community in Maryland – specifically that of the environmental community?  Can exhaustion be linked to to the lack of success on bay and climate efforts?

“Overwork is a near-pandemic amidst people who are devoted to making the world better, whether you’re paid or volunteer, an organizer, educator, artist, entrepreneur or any other kind of change-maker.

It’s the conversation we’re not having, and we need to.”

I completely get where the author is coming from.  Advocacy work does not fit into a neat little 9-5 box.  Exhaustion can result in poor work performance and ill-planned campaigns.  I would easily wager that exhaustion in advocacy has risen with the evolution of the internet, wifi, and smart devices.

Is the exhaustion the author discusses a baseline exhaustion that has always existed in nonprofit work or is this a new level of exhaustion from our inability to disconnect from work?  Or, as I suspect, is it exhaustion derivative from decades of the same lax-luster campaign plans and voluntary efforts?

“The world does not need your 13th or 14th or 15th hour each day. It does not need more email blasts or campaign plans written with bleary eyes.”  

The above statement is very true, but I would add that the world does not need your 13th or 14th or 15th poorly planned email that is a part of an equally as poor strategy.  It is understandable to me how movement burnout could result from decades of the same voluntary approach and groups silo-ing themselves.  These strategies do not produce the desired end goal and just compound one another as organizations continue to apply them over and over in hopes something will change.

I believe burnout is a side effect of continuing to engage in the same ill-producing strategies and the lack of transformative success.  I think this is what we have seen in Maryland.  The tides do seem to be turning though.  Groups are becoming more cognizant of diversifying their alliances and breaking their silos.  Strategies are evolving and strengthening, but it is a slow process and will take time to permanently separate from the same lax-luster strategies we have been deploying for decades.

In a commencement speech given this year, Jim Carrey addressed the graduating class and shared “I learned many great lessons from my father, not the least of which, was that you can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.”  I could not agree more with this statement.  If you put your energy into the same strategies that have been ill-producing for decades and lax-luster at best, you will be successful, but only in producing the chronic exhaustion the author attributes to the lack of transformative success.  I firmly believe in doing what you love, but you must take a 30k foot view to understand if what you are doing will ultimately achieve your end goal.  If not, re-strategize and change course so as not to fall into the rut of exhaustion and underperformance.

Can We #Hashtag Our Way to Transformative Change?

Shonda Rhimes, who basically controls Thursday’s on ABC, gave a commencement speech at Dartmouth College this past year.  Among many of the thoughtful and encouraging words she read to the graduating class of 2014 was her comment that a hashtag is not a movement.

“And while we are discussing this, let me say a thing. A hashtag is not helping. #YesAllWomen #TakeBackTheNight #NotAllMen #BringBackOurGirls #StopPretendingHashtagsAreTheSameAsDoingSomething.

Hashtags are very pretty on Twitter. I love them. I will hashtag myself into next week. But a hashtag is not a movement. A hashtag does not make you Dr. King. A hashtag does not change anything. It’s a hashtag. It’s you, sitting on your butt, typing into your computer and then going back to binge-watching your favorite show.”

If there is anything that drives me nuts it’s slacktivism and only participating in social change issues behind the safety of a computer.  Her words were music to my frustrated ears of online activism.  Opinions are like @$$ holes, everyone has one – but not everyone will get off the computer and take more impactful action.

I didn’t realize Ms. Rhimes’ comment got so many people in a tizzy until I saw a Buzzfeed article on it – specifically on if hashtags count as activism.  Buzzfeed reached out to “a number of people who use hashtags and social media to enable social change by email and asked them all the same question: Do you think hashtags count as activism?”

As much as I love Buzzfeed, their question misses the core of Ms. Rhimes’ comments.  She said #hashtags are not a movement.  She never said they don’t count as activism.  Instead of asking this seemingly one-dimensional question of if #hashtags count as activism, I would be more interested in learning from the respondents what role they feel online organizing, social media, and #hashtags play in movements to effect transformative change and how are they actually seeing that play out in their work.

#hashtags are a component of activism.  They help bring attention to issues.  They help build a groundswell of support to push an issue, to build a movement.  They, in and of themselves, are not a movement.  A “like” or #hashtag is not a powerful move, it will not itself alone create meaningful change. People need to stop believing their “like” is making an impactful difference and organizations need to start providing the right “asks” to get people more engaged.

Social media has created a platform where individuals, elected officials, and reporters can follow issues in real time.  We have seen this unfold in Maryland within the environmental community.  The Smart on Pesticides Campaign has thoughtful metrics and a strong online presence to push their issues.  They use their metrics (which are not a simple measurement of likes) to understand what their audience cares most about.  They give them directives and ways to get involved beyond a computer.  They keep them up to date on relevant issues.  Their social media presence is incorporated into a larger strategy and has help achieve the success they have seen in the 2014 legislative session.  The Smart on Pesticides Campaign is the movement.  Their #hashtags and online content are the tools to make the effort successful.

When social media presence is not well thought out or strategic it will plateau or fizzle out.  When I think of these issues,  I think of organizations who simply measure “likes” as a sign of impact or the immediate support that floods my newsfeed in the wake of a tragedy.  #YesAllWomen created a great dialogue, but weeks after its creation where do things stand?  I had a friend who was incredibly shaken up and upset about the shooting that inspired the #YesAllWomen conversation.  She started reading and sharing articles and making comments online.  As with most, her public concern for the issue died as quickly as it had emerged.  The movement and conversation that was created was great, but there isn’t/wasn’t a next step, a directive, and end goal to push supporters to.  It has just seemed to fizzle.

Shonda Rhimes was 100% correct.  #hashtags are not a movement.  #hashtags will not achieve anything from their simple existence beyond creating an online conversation.  But if the online presence is built into a strategic campaign or effort, it could create the base of support and awareness to create the transformative change we want to see in the world.

F is for …

…another failing waterway.

The 2013 Healthy Harbor Report Card has been released and Baltimore’s waterways are not doing so hot.  To be exact – they are failing.

The report card was released at a press conference held at Mill No. 1 on the Jones Falls.  Attendees included representatives from the Waterfront Partnership, Blue Water Baltimore, Baltimore City Department of Public Works, UMCES, Abell Foundation, Rauch Foundation, Baltimore Community Foundation, UMD Environmental Law Clinic, MDP, MDE, Choose Clean Water Coalition, National Aquarium, Brown Advisories, and a yellow-crowned night heron.

Blue Water Baltimore’s executive director, Halle Van der Gaag,used the release as a call to action for improving local water quality and harbor health – reminding attendees that we need to move faster and get more done.

I admired Halle’s speech for using the press conference to speak on the reality of water quality in Baltimore City and the need for change.  Instead of attempting to paint a pretty picture.

Our waterways may not currently catch on fire (thanks to actions like the Clean Water Act), but that does not mean our watershed health issues are any less important or serious.  Water quality is not just an environmental health issue, but a public health one.  An F is simply unacceptable.

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Southern MD Food Council: Foodways Community Networking Event

On Wednesday, May 7th I made the trek to Waldorf, Maryland for an evening surrounded by the most diverse group of folks brought together by their interest of local foods issues.

The Foodways Community Networking Event was held by the Southern Maryland Food Council to create cross-sector connections between people interested in food-related topics.

There were representatives from

  • Local K-12 Schools
  • Farmers
  • Hunger Community
  • Health Department
  • St. Mary’s University Students
  • Prince George’s Food Equity Council
  • Accokeek Foundation
  • Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission
  • Southern Maryland Food Council
  • University of Maryland Extension
  • Watermen

The night was comprised of “speed dating” round tables focused on specific topics related to the food system, e.g., distribution, environmental impacts, agriculture, food labeling, healthy food budgeting, natural foods, food waste, and community gardens.

After three table break outs with conversations no one wanted to end, we came back together as a group to share some final thoughts.

The group had an overwhelming interest in …

  • Food hubs
  • Hunger
  • Education
  • Legislation
  • Transportation

The evening concluded with the group agreeing on the importance of “voting with our forks.” The present day industrial food system is overwhelming and unnecessarily complicated. But the market is driven by demand and although it will take time and commitment, we can refocus our food purchases by “voting with our fork” to support local, sustainable farmers.

Do we need industrial agriculture to feed the world? No. And with dedicated citizens, like the ones in Southern Maryland, coming together around local food issues, we can permanently transition to a more local and sustainable food system.