Earth Day 2020 is an opportunity for a new philanthropy
Water flowing in my cornfield, like a hundred miniature rivers all at once,
carrying a simple message for a complex world.
I clearly remember the first time I heard about Earth Day and someone mention the word ecology. Back then, in 1970, ecology was connected to a hip idea that I understood as “don’t litter.” The movement to clean up the environment was emerging, and many were moved by the Keep America Beautiful (Crying Indian) PSA — the one in which a noble-looking Indian paddles through an industrial wasteland and ends up shedding a single tear on a litter-strewn beach. (One thing we didn’t know, back then, was that “Iron Eyes” Cody, the “Indian” in the ad, was an Italian-American actor who had made a career out of portraying Native Americans in films.)
When I was about ten years old, my grandfather taught me how to whistle like a meadowlark so I could have conversations with them. By varying the pitch, rhythm, and tone of my whistle, meadowlarks would respond to me, and we would toss our calls back and forth until my mouth became too tired or dry to whistle any longer. The language of the meadowlark is theirs alone, but I knew they were trying to communicate with me. Later, in college, I learned that our planet and the universe are incredibly complex, yet in that field with the meadowlarks, the world was a simple and beautiful place. It was Albert Einstein, I think, who said: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” I couldn’t agree more.
The COVID-19 pandemic is causing even the biggest players in philanthropy to rethink and readjust their strategies and forcing them to come to grips with unexpected forces that could threaten the stability of our society and the planet. It’s enough to make one cry, but if we think of Earth Day 2020 as a new starting line, there are several things we can do to get us moving forward with renewed vigor.
Reject a return to normal. A large part of the globe is trying to look past the pandemic and is hoping for a return to normal. But most of us know “normal” has not been satisfactory or adequate, especially for marginalized peoples. As a result of deliberate policies, millions of people around the globe are subject to living conditions that unfairly aggravate their efforts to obtain nutritious food and clean water, particularly in times of crisis. Truth be told, too much of the global population is not resilient, and far too many of us exist on the edge of a precipice. If nothing, the coronavirus pandemic has taught us that the global economy is dangerously fragile, and when it is disrupted, panic, anxiety, and anger ensue. When systems fall out of balance, as they have over the last three or four decades, significant human and financial resources must be deployed to restore the balance.
Communicate a message of compassion and reciprocity. We live in a world filled with damaged people and people who have been left behind. We also live in a world of environmental limits. We cannot continue to take from the planet without giving back, and we must not continue to neglect vulnerable people. You and I know this to be the case; now is the time to share the message widely and from a place of compassion.
Take justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion in your grantmaking seriously. If your board and staff and those of your grantees are not ready for change, you need to let them know that the time for change is now. It is up to you to use your grantmaking to confront asymmetries of power. And it makes sense this should be so. We need the broadest spectrum of skills and talents if we are to develop solutions to the complex problems we face.
Direct your support to local and regional philanthropic channels. Let’s be frank: community foundations and other local organizations know their social, cultural, economic, and political contexts better than you do. It’s up to you, therefore, to build their capacity to do more of what they’re doing. It’s an efficient and effective strategy that you need to invest in, if you aren’t already.
Native peoples have long known that land and water conservation is inseparable from food security and is the responsibility of each of us. I am also firm in my belief that preserving Native languages as vessels of traditional knowledge is a critical component of social and environmental resilience, not only in reaction to a crisis but as a human right. What has been happening in Native communities around the world for many years now is just one more example of the “canary in a coal mine.” It’s time to pay attention.
Against the backdrop of COVID-19, Earth Day 2020 is our chance to start anew. It’s an honor for me personally to be a part of the environmental community during this challenging time. We are principled and moral people. We sometimes make mistakes, but we learn from those mistakes and move forward. We walk toward challenges, not away from them. We commit to do better because we want to make the world a more beautiful place.
Recently, standing beside the spring that waters my property, I understood that the water was speaking in a language I had known all along. Not a language of words, but of sound, a simple abstraction of the glory of the natural world, a world we must love and protect for generations to come.