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Leveraging Conservation Finance to Advance Equity & Justice, Part Two: Methods – Conservation Finance Network

In Brief

Land trusts that primarily focus on conserving high ecological-value natural resources can focus on projects which intersect conservation to begin sharing the benefits of land protection more equitably and intentionally.

Engaging in good-faith partnerships around community conservation requires spending more resources in the learning and planning process, engaging community members early with cultural sensitivity, and building openness to co-creation.

Equity considerations should be made consistently throughout a land trust’s acquisition, stewardship, programming, and operations processes.

Taos Land Trust budgets listening time and consideration into all its projects.

With structured attention to all stakeholders, land trusts might not move mountains- but they can move perceptions. (Courtesy the Taos Land Trust.)

Traditionally, the conservation movement has fought to protect land, air and water, but it has not served all communities equally. Leah Thomas describes intersectional environmentalism as an inclusive perspective that protects both people and the planet, recognizing the interconnections between injustice to the most vulnerable communities and harm to the environment. Bringing an intersectional lens to conservation clarifies how access to a healthy environment affects public health, food security, community vitality, education, and local economy. These points of connection can anchor new perspectives and approaches for advancing equity and justice in conservation.

So what does a cash-strapped conservancy need to know about conservation and financing to allow it to do more equitable, intersectional conservation work? Part 2 of this series shares tools and teachings to help organizations institutionalize equitable conservation through financing and programming, including during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. A conversation with land trust leaders in the Mountain West highlights planning and development, while an interview with a community foundation professional in the Pacific Northwest outlines replicable practices to apply across projects.

Taos Land Trust: Listening to the community to uplift the community

“It’s been part of the ethos of the land trust to ensure that indigenous voices and voices of the Hispano communities are part of the work we do since long before I started,” says Kristina Ortez, Executive Director of the Taos Land Trust (TLT). Ortez joined the organization in 2014. In the following year, the organization deepened its ethos when it embarked on a community conservation planning process. “The land trust had fallen on some hard times,” says Ortez. “We shuttered the office. When we got grant funding to reinvigorate and in some ways reinvent ourselves, the tack the board and I took was to focus on community needs and priorities.”

They began hosting meetings to hear about the issues and places that mattered to community members across Taos. “It was very clear early on that participation in those meetings really reflected only the people who could go to meetings,” says Ortez. “You can’t just hold a charette and have people come put dots on maps” – a traditional way planning has been done in Taos and many communities. “Real exchange of information happens over many cups of coffee, bizcochitos, really digging in and having a conversation. It takes longer, it’s more expensive, you need more staff [because] those kinds of conversations happen over a fence and not just in a community center.”

Like other land trusts, TLT once focused extensively on land protection. “Bucks and acres: that was how we defined ourselves and that’s how a lot of land trusts still define themselves, and that can be fine,” Ortez says. But in Ortez’s early years of inquiry, the organization completed fewer land protection projects. “We had to spend a lot of time building trust in the community again.” To sustain trust, they treat what they learn through community conversations and engagements as origination points for new funding and project goals. “You never know where it’s going to go,” Maya Anthony, Community Outreach Coordinator, notes. “Our job is to listen, and put our focus on what people are asking us for.”

In 2017, TLT received a grant to purchase the parcel which would become Rio Fernando Park, a well-known 20-acre property in the center of Taos. They decided to take on the project after hearing from multiple community members that this property was special to them. TLT first tried to structure a partnership with the Town of Taos to purchase and conserve the property jointly, but conversations stalled. Instead, with full support from the LOR Foundation, a foundation focused on livability in the Mountain West, TLT purchased the property. With a six-figure grant from the National Recreational and Park Association and the Coca Cola Company split for master planning and wetland restoration, they focused specifically on engaging communities of color, acknowledging that people of color are often carelessly asked to educate majority-white institutions around racial bias – its presence, effects, and remedies. “I say this as a person of color … Stop asking us for free advice,” summarizes Ortez.

“Equity,” she emphasized in an article featuring TLT’s NRPA grant. “Building a park has to be about equity.”

With the park as meeting space, TLT hosted over a dozen events throughout the two-year master lanning process, along with surveys, interviews, focus groups, and other local events with the entire community in mind. From beginning to end, programming centered on thoughtful engagement with Native American residents, the legacy Hispano community members, and recent Central American and Mexican immigrants. Representatives from the granting agency came to participate in the planning exercises and saw the emphasis on food, family, enjoying the outdoors, and building community.

Since then, Rio Fernando Park has played an integral role in providing space to grow more food locally and employ more local people – two locally determined priorities. Using the second half of the NRPA funding intended for wetland restoration, TLT employs 15 Youth Conservation Corps members and other employees of all ages to assist with annual restoration. They continue to partner with other community stakeholders like the Vista Grande High School. Together, they employ high school students to provide fresh produce to Taos families and school lunch programs while offering paid technical training via by the school’s Career Technical Education and Community Schools grants.

It’s a consistent trust-building exercise for the organization and the community, engaging in conservations and then acting over the long term on what they heard. “We have a saying in Taos called ‘Taos time,’” says Anthony. “This means making time for people and not putting them on your timeline.”

Responding to inequalities exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis

This year, TLT had planned to open Rio Fernando Park with a celebration and a renewed fundraising campaign. When the pandemic delayed those plans, the trust reflected on how it could use its skills and resources to meet urgent community needs. Ortez agreed to join the Enchanted Circle COAD (Community Organizations Active in Disaster) and lead the food and agricultural sector. “That was the biggest community need outside of housing and jobs,” she says.

DIgging in to the hard part at Rio Fernando Park

Rio Fernando Park is a work in progress and a work on progress in Taos. (Courtesy Taos Land Trust.)

They went on to further align it with their work. “It felt pretty natural. If we need to build food sustainability in our community, we need to protect land.” Taos is a historically agricultural community, characterized by a deep querencia (rootedness in place). But with few well-paying jobs, rising property values, and the cost of living outpacing wage growth, there is a fear that Taos is becoming inaccessible to local people. Food insecurity is embedded in that threat.

“Among the many existing structural inequities that COVID-19 cast into the light is our community’s deeply insecure relationship to food, exacerbated by the crash in the tourism and hospitality-driven economy in Taos that has left many without work,” writes Chyna Dixon, TLT’s Working Lands Resiliency Coordinator. “The number of families receiving nutrition support from local food distribution centers has dramatically increased, as has the need to support students whose primary access to food is through schools.”

Taos’s largely service-based economy caused many to look elsewhere for work even before the pandemic. Without younger people to help on the land, some elders have had to sell. “That’s where we see development trends,” says Anthony. By working to revitalize agriculture as a viable career in Taos and continuing to conserve priority parcels, TLT is meeting intersectional community needs, both land-based and economic.

With food security in mind, Dixon and the land trust created the Community Garden Box project this spring, offering 4×8 foot planter boxes with soil, irrigation equipment, hoop house coverings, and seeds free of charge to interested community members. “We thought we would build and distribute 10 boxes in total,” writes Dixon. “As word spread about the project, community members and leaders quickly reached out — eager to know if we might be able to produce just a few more.” The organization soon gave out over 80 boxes, reaching over 250 individuals, including 150 children, many elders and grandparents, at least 10 families impacted by incarceration. TLT now plans to continue the Community Garden Box project in future years.

By focusing on food security and agricultural resilience, and informed by their link to community health, socio-ecological resilience, and cultural integrity, TLT is creating a path and plan for community food security.

Oregon Community Foundation: A partner’s perspective

Beyond Taos, all conservation organizations need to build strategic partnerships with many stakeholders. This year, the Land Trust Alliance has committed to bringing an equity lens to its grantmaking. Having made more than $4.2 million in grants to land trusts in 2019, it can redirect distribution and nature of new projects. Considering the specific role foundations and grantmakers can play in advancing equity, Carlos Garcia, Environmental Grantmaking Officer with the Oregon Community Foundation (OCF) emphasizes that vibrant communities, a strong economy, and a healthy environment all go hand in hand. “The issues that people are facing and environmental issues are inextricably linked,” he says. “Where we see the environment isn’t doing well, typically people aren’t doing well, and vice versa.”

With this in mind, Garcia and his team help foster communities of support and practice like OCF’s Climate Change and Healthy Habitats Giving Group. This community of donors learns and gives collectively, year after year. “I tend to ask a lot of questions,” continues Garcia. “How might the project benefit [underserved] communities? Would it, for example, address historical inequities in that community’s relationship and connection to land? To what extent have those communities been engaged with developing the project? Could there be unintended impacts?” Ultimately, involving those groups intentionally in the process is key. “The best solutions may come from those who are closest to the work.”

There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to bringing an equity diversity and inclusion lens, says Garcia. “Don’t expect steps that are followed. There should be the expectation that it’s a learning process, and ever-evolving.”

Articulating Intersectionality of Shared Goals and Elevating the Questions

When it comes to conversations between a land trust and a potential donor on these topics, Garcia recommends that land trusts ensure a basic understanding of the terms and concepts. “There may be different ways people think about or talk about these issues.” He emphasizes being clear about mutual understanding rooted in the experience and background of whoever you’re talking to.

Organizations often have an equity statement featured in their publications, but for Garcia the what’s most important is “talking about what does that mean and what does it actually look like in practice. “It’s not a ‘nice-to-have’ – it’s really an essential to being an effective organization.”

“It’s not a ‘nice-to-have’ – it’s really an essential to being an effective organization.”

He recommends land trusts consider the goals that drive their grantor. “What are they trying to accomplish, how do they view this work, and what is that guided by?” With that understanding, intersections between a grantor’s and a trust’s work come to light. “If they have a strong focus on community health, is there a disparity there? Are there disparities around access to healthy food if the land trust is engaged in farmland preservation? Or disparities in access to clean drinking water or recreation?”

Connecting conservation to its impact on human wellbeing implicates a broader community of stakeholders and impact areas. “Land can be an answer to some of this, it may not be the sole answer, but it can be part of it.” Garcia recommends finding “places of intersection you can lift up and say ‘our goals are the same, though we are pursuing them through a land conservation strategy.’”

Garcia also recommends being honest. “It’s good practice to be up-front about what changes and progress you’ve been able to make, and what you envision will be the challenges going forward.” Not only does this practice promote candor, it opens a conversation about the resources needed to advance the organization’s work and how a partner can help.

“2021 will certainly be a time of transition in terms of how we support the work, so I think we’re going to take a lot of learning from this year.”