We envision a river health movement that is effective and relevant to all the Willamette Basin’s diverse communities, and where the benefits and impacts of river health are shared equitably among all.
We believe all people have a right to the benefits of a healthy river and that achieving watershed health will require the skills, values and leadership of all. But our initiative hasn’t always worked to remove the barriers that exclude some communities from having a say in our river’s future and accessing the benefits our river provides. Nor has it worked to reduce the unfair exposure to water pollution and lack of access to water that some communities face.
That changed when the Meyer Memorial Trust underwent a process to re-examine its mission. Recognizing that many of the societal issues Meyer strives to address are products of an unfair system that places power and influence in the hands of few while marginalizing others based on their race, origins, socioeconomic status and/or other factors, the Trust in 2015 paused most of its grantmaking to undergo an organizational transformation focused on equity.
WRI continued making grants. Meanwhile, we considered how to advance equity seven years into a 10-year program that had until then focused on achieving ecological uplift for the Willamette River system.
Equity: the existence of conditions where
all people can reach their full potential.
WRI’s investments are intended to make our watershed a healthier place for all Willamette Basin residents by protecting vital shared resources, but the truth is, our work doesn’t represent or benefit everyone equally. Studies show the mainstream U.S. environmental movement is overwhelmingly white in comparison to our population, and that low-income people and people of color are at disproportionate risk from environmental hazards such as air and water pollution. We can’t succeed in creating a healthier watershed for our communities without considering who isn’t being included in that vision.
So in 2015, we added a new goal to advance diversity, equity and inclusion within the effort for a healthier Willamette River system. We knew we were just beginning to understand and prioritize equity within our work, but we hoped to take meaningful first steps in our initiative’s final three years.
We listened to groups already working toward environmental justice and equity, and learned that while there is common ground in our missions, their priorities frequently differed from the restoration we had typically funded. Many of them used education, advocacy and workforce development as strategies to include more voices in decision-making about the river. We decided to diversify our grantmaking to include those types of projects, while offering equity-focused training for ourselves and the mainstream conservation groups that have been our longtime grantees. We also supported mainstream conservation groups in their efforts to understand and prioritize equity within their organizations and build relationships with more diverse partners.
We view these as first steps on the long journey toward a river health movement that is effective and relevant to all the basin’s diverse communities, and where the benefits and impacts of river health are shared equitably among all. As we work to build a new network to continue and expand support for groups working toward a healthier river system after WRI comes to a close in 2019, we are thinking hard about how it can continue the crucial work of improving river health while expanding its vision to better serve our whole river community. Equity will be a core value from the start.