THE DEMOGRAPHICS OF top leadership in environmental organizations, grant makers, and their boards continue to favor white men, despite the fact that approximately three-fourths of their workforce and volunteer staffing roles are occupied by women. Earth Island Institute’s (EII) network of projects is an instructive anomaly. More than half of the nearly 80 projects that currently enjoy EII fiscal sponsorship, including mine, are led by women. I spoke with six of these women to glean insights on their leadership styles and experience and to understand the unique power of women in the environmental movement.
“Women,” Plastic Pollution Coalition co-founder and director Dianna Cohen tells me, “are the superheroes, even though they are often unacknowledged. They work together; they are great multi-taskers by necessity. Women have to operate at a level way above the expectations that exist for men, in order to hold up the world.”
A multimedia visual artist, painter, curator, and fearless activist, Cohen herself is a prime example of a woman working beyond expectations. She leads an alliance of over 800 individuals, organizations, businesses, and policy makers working towards a world free of plastic pollution and its toxic impacts on humans, animals, waterways, oceans, and the environment.
“Women have to operate at a level way above the expectations that exist for men.”
Cohen was first inspired to tackle plastic pollution when she learned of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the vast area of floating debris in the Pacific. She wanted to tap celebrities, artists, and friends to publicize the “plastic island” in an effort that would take on the crisis of consumption, advertising, and so-called convenience. But, as Cohen quickly learned, plastic was everywhere, and dismantling the “island” was only a small part of the work that needed to be done.
So she took on the much larger task of organizing and educating people on the alternatives and solutions that are available right now to reduce their exposure to environmental toxins from plastic pollution, and to reduce waste. “When we started the Plastic Pollution Coalition,” she says, “We never imagined that we would move so many organizations — from National Geographic to Greenpeace to the European Union — to take up the issue of eliminating single-use plastic, disrupting the status quo, and pulling the curtain back on the corporations responsible for the proliferation of plastic pollution.”
Plastic will become a pariah, Cohen is certain, because young people are stepping up to hold corporations accountable. “The language is changing, the messaging is changing. The opportunity of the Trump administration is that it has empowered citizens to speak out and take action,” she says.
SHANIECE ALEXANDER, director of the Oakland Food Policy Council, is one of those young people stepping up and speaking out. “I don’t make myself smaller or hold back what I know,” she says, when talking about the impression she makes when she enters a room of funders or government officials, who tend to be older and, often, male.
Before moving to the San Francisco Bay Area, Alexander worked as a social worker at an urban farm that served as a re-training ground for the previously incarcerated, the homeless, foster children, and substance abusers. She chafed under the unrealistic expectation that a three-month stint as a farmer would result in successful employment. But she learned that food could be a powerful tool for social justice.
In her current position, Alexander is working to establish an equitable food system for Oakland. Describing her challenges, she says, “Food is something so normal that people might miss its importance. But,” she adds, “food — especially the growing of food — is so politicized for people of color, given farming’s connection to slavery. We have to illustrate the connections to economic growth and health.”
She echoes Cohen’s optimism that things are changing: “There are opportunities to grow around honest conversations about what is happening. We can’t remain passive. As horrible as things have become, the current situation has created space that didn’t exist before for these difficult conversations.”
Alexander’s work on systems change may ultimately include a run for public office. “Politics can seem like an intimidating space for a young woman but it’s a big opportunity,” she says. “The population is changing — it’s a super exciting time — and that change needs to be reflected in the makeup of our politicians.”
DANA FRASZ, THE FOUNDER and director of Food Shift, also learned about social justice and equity through food. She was just out of high school when a stint with a volunteer project in Southeast Asia offered a stark contrast between the American practices of discarding food and the hunger experienced in much of the world. When she returned home, she could no longer normalize the food waste all around her. She founded Empty Bellies, a student-run organization at Sarah Lawrence College, to work on solving the problem.
Frasz later moved to the Bay Area and founded Food Shift, an organization that works collaboratively with communities, businesses, and governments to reduce wasted food and hunger. In this political moment, the work is gaining momentum. “People are now seeing the link between food waste and climate change — this is new,” Frasz says.
“I feel so strongly in my bones that white men have had their chance. Women, and more specifically women of color, need to take the lead. We care about the planet, we care about each other, and we know what is possible. Everyone could have their basic needs met. Men have created a huge imbalance. We need a complete reframe of the planet and of each other.”
“WE SHOULD CELEBRATE ourselves more,” Sarah Diefendorf, the executive director of EFC West, says of women in leadership roles.
Diefendorf joined EFC West — an organization that teaches and develops innovative leadership curriculum, builds organizational capacity, and empowers disadvantaged communities in the US and abroad — to pursue her interests in environmental defense using the levers of the economy and technology. By the time she was promoted to director, she had become disenchanted with the idea that business could make the difference, so she turned to fighting toxic chemicals. Many of the organizations she worked with were Black women’s groups addressing the hazardous chemicals in popular hair products. As she puts it, “The work started in my mind and moved to my heart.”
Her team happens to be all female, but this is not by design. In the field, however, the EFC West team often works with the mainly white men who are elected to serve rural communities and supervise water systems. Diefendorf admits to making certain adjustments in her working style when interacting with these men. “I pay more attention to tone of voice, tell more jokes, am more aggressive,” she says. “I need to find a different approach from the one I would use in working with women that resonates with a male audience.”
As to why women are often singled out when it comes to discussions on leadership, she says, “We know that everywhere women are considered second best. Parity — in income, leadership, etc. — is an elusive goal, and it’s worse in emerging economies than in the US. We’re making space,” she offers, referring to her own work with EFC West. “The women of color we’ve worked with have made space for us despite the privilege we enjoy. We are returning the favor, women working for women. No one else will do it.
“Power never says, ‘I want to share my power,’” Diefendorf adds. “But we change things — we share the tools, power, and education that women are asking for to increase their power.”
ACROSS THE US BORDER, 108 miles north of Mexico City, Viva Sierra Gorda has a track record of sharing and building power among local women. Project Director Laura Perez Arce’s work is driven by the courageous leadership of Pati Ruiz Corzo, who founded the Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda (GESG) in 1987. The organization successfully pushed for creation of the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve, a federally recognized protected area dedicated to inclusive community stewardship of the land and sustainable use of the region’s rich natural resources for the benefit of the local inhabitants.
GESG has 50 field staff with many women holding leadership positions. “In the early years men predominated,” Perez Arce says. “Every new innovation or idea pioneered by women was, at first, brushed off. But,” she laughs, “we are tenacious. Initially we only found acknowledgement in the back rooms, not in public. But now women’s achievements have earned government recognition. If it were not for the example of women such as Pati, the rural women would not be included in civil society participation. Now they hold real cards in the game.”
“We must see challenges as opportunities,” Perez Arce continues. “Since we are already at the tipping point for the earth, we are finally forced to consider alternatives to the way we are treating our planet, the way we are doing things. Women are taking amazing leaps forward but the next step isn’t restricted to a gendered space.”
AS PEREZ ARCE PREDICTS a new kind of non-gendered leadership in the future, rising Harvard senior and Brower Youth Award winner Lynnea Shuck reflects on the women leaders who have informed her remarkable trajectory. Early in her teenage years, a volunteer experience at the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge motivated her to create a program to connect children with public lands. Shuck founded the Junior Wildlife Ranger project, which provides experiential programs for kids that teach important lessons about conservation, habitat restoration, and civic responsibility.
More than half of the nearly 80 Earth Island projects, are led by women.
It was a set of extraordinary women at the Don Edwards refuge — Tia Glagolev, Julie Kahrnoff, Genie Moore, Jennifer Heroux and Anne Morkill — who guided Shuck’s path. These managers, with their distinctive poise and grace, provided formative examples for Shuck’s own leadership. They taught her that women belong in outdoor spaces, just as everyone does. “In nature,” Shuck learned, “we see ourselves as part of a whole.”
Shuck sees safe space as a critical issue that has been raised in the current “dark moment” for many women. The #MeToo movement, she says, highlighted the vulnerability of women in many spaces, including in the wild. “It was a cathartic moment and an opportunity to identify a problem and address it,” she says.
My conversations with Cohen, Alexander, Frasz, Diefendorf, Perez Arce, and Shuck left me with more wisdom and knowledge than can be contained in one article. These women come to the work of environmental leadership with infectious optimism, strength, and humility. They prize relationships and collaborative efforts. They are deeply thoughtful about the lasting impacts they can catalyze. Finally, they reinforce that there’s an inexorable wave towards leadership equity in the environmental movement and beyond, and that Earth Island women are creating the space for all to come on board.
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