As we all go through the world’s worst pandemic in modern history, some might believe that addressing issues of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) should be moved to the back burner as we battle the threats of the coronavirus. Friends of the Columbia Gorge began a DEI process last year and the past few months have simply further demonstrated that issues such as racism and economic inequalities only grow in times of crisis. The coronavirus is impacting and killing communities of color at staggeringly disproportionate rates. Now, especially in the time of coronavirus pandemic, we need to dive deeper into the inequities we see, ignore or perpetuate in our society.
Friends of the Columbia Gorge, like myself, was born of privilege. This organization and I were born 18 years apart, but each of us came into the world surrounded by supportive environments. We each were cared for and fed but rarely coddled. Through the years we learned to work hard, not take things for granted and show gratitude for what we had. That led each of us to develop a scrappy, boot-strap narrative that became our life stories. But the struggles and prejudices that other children and other non-profit organizations faced were never our problems. Those problems were mysteriously cleared away and we were set up for success whether we knew it or not. For me, the invisible safety net was my family structure as well as my white, male luck of the draw. For Friends of the Columbia Gorge, it was a web of generous and influential people who created a safety net for our organization.
A few years ago, the boot-strap narrative that played within my head and our organization’s culture began to fray. As the inequities that fill our world continue to be brought to the forefront, we have to acknowledge the privileges we have, the injustices we see and the systems that perpetuate these problems. Merely looking away and assuming they aren’t our problems only compounds past and current injustices. For Friends of the Columbia Gorge, there will be no more looking away as we work to ensure the Columbia Gorge is a vibrant and accessible place for all.
The Pacific Northwest has a disturbing history with discrimination and issues of race. Discrimination began against the native peoples who populated this entire region prior to westward expansion by European settlers. Discrimination proliferated with Asian-American communities and Latinx communities. Oregon even approved black exclusion laws in the 1800s that restricted African-Americans from living in the state. While the conclusion of the Civil War and the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution negated these laws, it was another 60 years before the laws were formally removed from Oregon’s Constitution.
The environmental movement also has its issues with exclusivity and inequities. Land protection efforts over the last century were often made for the benefit of the wealthy. But a saving grace came out of those efforts – public lands – a uniquely American concept that everyone owns these lands and they are there for the public benefit of everyone.
All these factors converge as Friends of the Columbia Gorge continues a DEI process to challenge staff, board members, and our supporters to look at and within ourselves as to how we work, think, and act --examining our biases, both conscious and unconscious. It is an opportunity to see our workplace and work under a new lens, with open eyes looking ahead rather than constantly checking the rear-view mirror that holds the thinking from the past.
We are undergoing this DEI process for several reasons. First, it is the right thing to do. Our mission calls on us to protect and preserve a landscape loved by people of all ethnicities and income levels. If you question that love, I encourage you to visit the Gorge on a sunny, summer weekend. You will find a place filled with an array of people, cultures and languages in parks, on trails and along the water. Yet has Friends of the Columbia Gorge created an environment where those same people feel welcomed to volunteer to help steward our lands or advocate for an issue we both care deeply about? Do they see themselves within our communications and at our events? Likely not and this needs to change.
We are also undergoing a DEI process because it is the smart thing to do. Our world is changing and Oregon and Washington are becoming more and more diverse. Younger generations are already more diverse and more passionate about creating equity and inclusion for all people. These same younger generations are also motivated to act on issues like climate change and nowhere does the big-picture implications and on-the-ground impacts of climate change hit deeper than in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. Conservation groups like Friends can't be effective if we don't find ways to bring younger and more diverse voices and perspectives to the table. The Columbia Gorge will be a healthier, more vibrant place when a diverse and inclusive collection of advocates, stewards, and volunteers are at the table.
I’m proud of the work we have done to date as we journey through our DEI process. After decades of a nearly all-white makeup of staff and board, we have now added several staff and board members who identify as people of color. These steps are reverberating into outreach and programmatic work. Building off of our legal and advocacy work to work with various tribal partners, we have launched new efforts to broaden and deepen our public and community engagement work. We also captured the most donations in the 35-and-under category for environmental organizations in Willamette Week’s 2019 GiveGuide! Campaign. Those younger, more diverse individuals understand the value we bring to preserving something they care deeply about. We still have a long way to go, and a lot to learn. But we're committed to the road ahead.
What will be different at the end of this DEI process? Well, first, there is no end. This is a bumpy, difficult journey that has no final point. But I am confident that as Friends of the Columbia Gorge evolves in the makeup of staff, board leadership and eventually membership, it will make us a strong, more effective advocate. For 40 years, Friends has had a strong reputation as a protector and visionary capable of extraordinary things. Over the coming years, we will do more to ensure that all people who care about the Columbia Gorge feel welcomed to consider themselves a “Friend.” The Columbia Gorge deserves nothing less.