Staying the Course

November 29, 2017

The following is excerpted from a Nov. 15 presentation by Kathy Sessions, HEFN executive director, at the organization’s 2017 Annual Meeting, “Rewriting the Rules: Opportunities for Environmental Health and Justice in Disruptive Times.”

In these disruptive times, it’s not always easy to know where the right balance is between staying a course and responding to changing realities, or between focusing on “our issues” and forging alliances across issues when there are so many challenges around us.  

These are disruptive times, but I think HEFN and its extended community are on the right track and on solid ground. We’re working for a uniting and positive vision: everyone should have the opportunity to live in conditions that support a healthy life. Everyone.

We know the scale of environmental health challenges is big. Last month, The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health linked pollution to nine million premature deaths in 2015 alone. Another recent Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change said that responses to climate change could be the greatest public health opportunity of the 21st century.

We also know that a lot of the death, disease, and disparities people suffer from unhealthy environments is preventable. Last year, we published a paper about how foundations have been investing in solutions and showing that, when impacted people and environmental health are part of decisions, we can improve health and equity outcomes.

In 2016, HEFN adopted a new, ten-year strategic direction, spurred on by the evidence of how much damage unhealthy environments are doing to people, knowing a lot of this is preventable, and having an abundance of great examples of ways to do better. We oriented HEFN’s mission and priorities around this, mobilizing philanthropy to accelerate solutions.  

When we launched the new plan, we didn’t know how much the world was going to change. Over the past year, the context for our work has been anything but usual. We’ve seen dramatic changes in the U.S. politically, with lots of social upheaval, and climate-intensified hurricanes and wildfires hitting many communities.

Like many others this year, we reconsidered HEFN’s plans and programs, talking to lots of members and field partners about where we could be most relevant. If anything, we’ve gotten more grounded in HEFN’s strategic plan.

The big-picture goals still fit:  HEFN is working to build knowledge, tools, and power for environmental health and justice. Mobilizing resources for solutions. Expanding giving to groups organizing in and serving those most impacted, including people of color, women, low-income and young people. Sharpening HEFN’s focus on concrete projects where we can make real contributions.

And this community – HEFN’s staff and members, grantees and field partners -- has a lot to contribute that can help others. We have knowledge about how health and the environment and equity are connected, and about doable changes to improve them all. Everything that reduces pollution and toxics reduces health, economic, and other burdens on people.

Philanthropy may be newly focusing now on equity and the grassroots, but that’s really the deep history of environmental health and justice movements. In every story about a neighborhood or workplace hazard there are people realizing their health and quality of life are being affected and they get organized to do something.

Race and racism are fundamental to the stories of how segregation and discriminatory housing and political disenfranchisement turned zip codes into disparities. And exposure to an environment of prejudice is itself literally biologically toxic, just like air pollution.

In planning HEFN’s 2017 Annual Meeting in Detroit, I came across scores of pictures of murals throughout the city. So many creative people have been turning abandoned or run-down buildings into something beautiful.

In these days of ugly turmoil around white supremacy, the environmental health and justice community can do better, build models of how to do better, and we will all be better for it. We have work to do, to detox from racism and sexism. But we will all be healthier and stronger for it. In fact, a lot of the dynamism, innovation, and sheer power-building in this field is coming from building relationships across race, gender, and class.

We can build strength in connections. Environmental health and justice issues are so cross-cutting that they can help build relationships and bridges like we did in the  November 14 Climate, Health, and Equity meeting. I’ve seen HEFN members support such great models of collaborations of organizers, advocates, researchers, business, policy. That’s also a part of building power, within this field and with allies.

And, as we set out to do in HEFN’s strategic direction, we can mobilize philanthropy around problem-solving and solutions. It wasn’t hard to find a day and a half of inspiring speakers and ideas for this meeting; we could have filled up many more days.

So yes, these times aren’t easy. But our members are focused on things that really matter. And HEFN is here for you to use as a platform to get engaged, solve problems, find partners, and make beautiful things happen.

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