The exciting work of the Goldman Prize winners should be an eye-opener to environmental funders. They reflect a level of diversity and grassroots activism in marginalized communities that is sadly lacking in green philanthropy.
The environmental community rightly celebrates the annual Goldman Environmental Prizes winners each year, with the six recipients each receiving $175,000, plus widespread publicity and praise for their work in sustainability, ecosystems, environmental health, or other related causes. Winners often put their lives and livelihoods at risk fighting for their communities, and the awards place an explicit emphasis on grassroots activism while deemphasizing large NGOs.
The result is a diverse and vibrant array of work that environmentalist activists are performing on the frontlines. It’s also a picture of environmentalism that green philanthropy as a whole—with its lagging diversity, disproportionately high support for large green groups, and underfunding of grassroots activism in marginalized communities—could learn a lot from.
To get an idea of what I mean, here are a few of the winners this year:
- As a teen, Destiny Watford began fighting for the health of her community in an industrialized neighborhood of Baltimore. Watford started Free Your Voice, a student organization dedicated to community rights and social justice that organized against and ultimately stopped a giant new trash incinerator.
- Máxima Acuña is a Peruvian farmer who, with her husband, continues to resist a mining company trying to seize her land. She and her family have endured legal battles, bodily harm, threat of imprisonment, and harassment, but Acuña’s persistence has made her a hero in Latin America.
- Edward Loure was awarded the prize for his work leading a small, underfunded NGO in Tanzania fighting to secure land rights for indigenous communities. A member of the Maasai community, Loure’s group has secured protection of more than 200,000 acres of land.
Other past U.S. winners include a lawyer who provided pro bono defense to help towns in New York defend themselves against fracking exploration, and a single mother and community organizer in the southwest side of Chicago who led local efforts to shut down two coal plants.
Part of the reason the awards receive so much attention is just how impressive these stories are; the list of winners paints quite a different picture from what I suspect the average American has in mind when it comes to environmentalism.
But I would argue that the Goldman winners accurately represent what environmentalism looks like. The field is becoming more diverse and intersectional—just look at the People’s Climate March and the growinginfluence of Black Lives Matter.
The funders behind the movement need to catch up.
For starters, green nonprofits and grantmakers have remained very white even as the country becomes less white. The 2014 report, "The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations," found “racial composition in environmental organizations and agencies has not broken the 12 percent to 16 percent ‘green ceiling’ that has been in place for decades,” and “efforts to attract and retain talented people of color have been lackluster across the environmental movement.”
Environmental funders also heavily favor large NGOs over small grassroots groups. The Environmental Grantmakers Association’s latest report on its members’ giving found that a list of 22 major environmental groups like Nature Conservancy and NRDC received nearly 12 percent of EGA funding, despite making up only 0.4 percent of grantees.
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The report also showed a continued gap in funding for grassroots and equity work. Health and justice was the least-funded issue group in 2013 with just 6 percent of giving. Another report by NCRP in 2012, Cultivating the Grassroots, found that only 15 percent of environmental funding benefitted marginalized communities, and only 11 percent went to social justice work.
Grassroots activism isn’t the only form of environmental work. The work being funded by big grantmakers and executed by the big green groups is an important component, and these groups often partner with grassroots groups. There are also definitely funders taking the lead to change things. But the funding is skewed and the big foundations still act as gatekeepers.
I would wager that the panel awarding the Goldman Prize isn’t struggling to find recipients who work in marginalized communities and put themselves at risk to shift the balance of power. There are many small grassroots groups and deserving activists out there who badly need support.
It’s great that we celebrate the Goldman Prize winners every year, awed by their dedication and accomplishments, but if more funding went to the kind of work they did, we’d have a more vibrant, diverse, and powerful environmental movement.