Managing Equity and Justice: A Conversation with Nellis Kennedy-Howard

Nellis Kennedy-Howard is the Sierra Club’s Director of Equity, Inclusion and Justice where she leads the effort to transform Sierra Club into an organization that welcomes and values people from all walks of life. Nellis is an attorney with certificates in Federal Indian Law and Natural Resources Law, and previously served as Senior Campaign Representative of the Beyond Coal campaign in the Southwest region. Prior to working for Sierra Club, Nellis spent four years working alongside Winona LaDuke as Co-Executive Director at the national Native environmental non-profit organization, Honor the Earth. She became an environmentalist after she learned of the country’s largest uranium spill, which took place just miles from her family’s home on the Navajo Reservation and which has been poisoning generations of her family ever since.

This interview was conducted by Clara Fang on September 25, 2018.

Since the 1970s, Sierra Club has strived to be a more progressive organization and address its challenges with diversity, equity and inclusion. It has greatly broadened its activities to a wide range of environmental issues and made justice a core component of its mission. In 2013, its board of directors voted that the organization should advocate for immigrant rights. The following year, it endorsed and defended the Black Lives Matter movement (Mock, 2017). Its current campaigns include opposing President Trump’s border wall, helping youth of color experience the outdoors, and fighting for gender equity. How do you feel about this evolution of the Sierra Club?

We’re very proud of our work. In terms of the larger green groups, we’re pretty far advanced. I think Earthjustice is right up there too, the work that Chaz Lopez is doing, he’s been doing a wonderful job there. So, I’m really proud of the work that we’ve done and how we are going to institutionalize our efforts. And we have a pretty long way to go.


How did you become DEI Director?

I started working for Sierra Club in January of 2012 for its Beyond Coal Campaign. Within just a couple of months of being at Sierra Club, I was asked to serve on the staff diversity team. It felt incredibly tokenizing to be asked to serve on a staff diversity team within just the first couple months by someone who knew nothing about me. I remember I shared a little bit about that with my manager at the time, and my manager said supportively, “I can see how you would feel like this is tokenizing, particularly given the context they don’t know anything about you, and I welcome you to challenge this senior leader, to ask them any questions you have about their invitation.” So, I went back to the senior leader and said, “You know, I don’t understand why you’re reaching out to me. You don’t know me. This feels very tokenizing and that you’re just doing it because of the many identities that I carry, as a queer woman of color.”  The senior leader said, “You’re absolutely right, and it was probably not the way I should have approached you,” and that regardless of that, given my experiences and given my skills as an attorney, they thought that I would make unique contributions to a team that was designed to help Sierra Club become more diverse. I was so impressed with this leader’s response, the humility that came with it, that it piqued my interest and I decided to serve on the staff diversity team.

The staff diversity team was made up of about a dozen people. We were largely a POC group, ranging in terms of sexual orientation, gender identity, and other things. Given that the Sierra Club is a predominantly White organization, it was vastly different from the rest of my experiences here at the Sierra Club, and through that team, I found people who are empathetic to my experiences as a person of color at Sierra Club, and I loved it. I loved that time together. I think that’s what helped me stay at Sierra Club. If you look at Green 2.0’s reports, one of the things that they show is that folks of color in the environmental movement need to have affinity spaces, places where identity caucusing can happen, and people can gather together to share their experiences to overcome the micro and macro aggressions that can sometimes be experienced working in predominantly White organizations. So, for me, that was the staff diversity team. I served on that team, starting in 2012 until I took this position in 2016.

In 2015, Sierra Club conducted an organizational assessment to better understand the needs that we have around diversity, equity and inclusion. That organizational assessment was used to inform the development of the multi-year equity plan that was adopted by the board of directors in 2015, which included a clear commitment of resources and staffing capacity in diversity, equity, and inclusion. The job was posted later that year in 2015. I remember I was kind of teetering on whether or not to apply, and my wife asked me, “Well where do you think you can have the biggest impact?” And for me, I know that the commitment that Sierra Club had made by adopting the multi-year plan was significant enough that whoever filled this position would play the role of a key senior leader and have opportunity to influence literally generations after us and our work so it was an easy enough answer: “I’m going to apply.” I was grateful to be selected as the final candidate in roughly March of 2016.

How has Sierra Club’s strategy on diversity evolved since you started?

At Sierra Club, we have a long history of working on diversity and justice, dating all the way back to the 1970s. In the early 2000s, we started to expand our thinking beyond diversity to diversity and inclusion. Then we expanded our thinking even further to diversity, equity, and inclusion, DEI, as it’s commonly termed. So, when I was hired, I recognized significant harms that I had witnessed in my time, four years at Sierra Club, because of the organization’s strong focus on diversity, usually racial diversity, diversity for diversity’s sake. Diversity is oftentimes treated as the silver-bullet solution of, “Get the right people in the room, and then all your problems are fixed.” And because I had seen that in place, and people being tokenized because of their identities, and harm being perpetuated because of that strong focus on diversity, one of my first priorities being hired into my position was to shift our thinking, so that we were no longer focusing on diversity as a goal. In fact, we don’t talk about diversity itself that much at Sierra Club. Instead, we focus on becoming more equitable, more just, and more inclusive, recognizing that diversity is an outcome of those things and the goal itself.

If we are talking about diversity, which is kind of rare, we like to be explicit, because sometimes diversity is used as code, as in, “I want to make a diverse hire.” What does that mean? Diverse from what? Different from what? What does that look like? And it doesn’t feel quite as right if they were to say, “I want to hire a person of this ethnic background.” It doesn’t feel quite as right; it feels tokenizing when it comes out of your mouth to say that, but “diversity” somehow became code to make it feel okay to talk about a specific kind of identity. So, instead of focusing on diversity, I worked on shifting to how are we becoming more equitable and more just, lifting up the voices of those who are oftentimes at the margins and pushed to the margins. But when we do in those rare incidences talk about diversity, we require explicit definition of what type of diversity you’re talking about so that we’re not using it in some coded way.

So, within the first six months, we changed the name of the department from the Department of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion to the Department of Equity, Inclusion, and Justice. We’ve also done a lot to ensure that we don’t acronym the name because DEI became another code word for “charity work,” and we wanted to avoid that. Oftentimes you’ll hear me say that I’m the Director of Equity, Justice, and Inclusion. Inclusion, Equity, and Justice. Justice, Equity, and… just scrambling up the language so that people don’t acronym the name, because words matter and for real. What we’re really trying to do is to promote equity, practice justice, and to become more inclusive of those who share our values. That’s what we have to do. So, within the first six months, we changed the name of the department.

We also established for ourselves a vision, which includes a clear listing of all of our values and a little bit about the theory of change that we want to employ. We identified three equity goals in our 2015 multi-year plan: 1) Creating a welcoming and inclusive organizational culture for all who share our values. That “all who share our values” is critical. We don’t want to be inclusive of everyone. We can’t be. We don’t want to partner with people who are toxic. We don’t want to welcome people in our organization who don’t share our values. Not everyone is welcome at Sierra Club, but we really want to be as inclusive as possible to those who share our values. 2) Offer education, training, and support to build that organizational culture. We want people to build up their competency about what does equity look like, and how do we practice justice. We want people to be fluent in their understanding of issues of racial, social, and economic justice, and that requires a lot of education. And 3) Working to ensure that our partnerships and our goals reflect our commitments to equity and justice. Who are we partnering with this year at Sierra Club? Are we partnering with people who share our values? Are our commitments to justice and equity reflected in those partnerships? So those are kind of our three long term goals at Sierra Club.

Within the first six months, we gave those goals a little bit further, specified meaning. We developed that vision for us to rally behind and all of those things were adopted by the board of directors. Then shortly thereafter, we performed a staff retention analysis to understand what our retention and turnover rates were for people of color as compared to White folks at Sierra Club. Not so shockingly, we have a retention problem. It’s not uncommon for people of color in particular to carry a disproportionate amount of work, relative to their White counterparts, because of their identity. They need to affirm their knowledge and skills and expertise in ways that White folks don’t necessarily have to do. So performing that retention analysis to understand the reasons why that was the case, and then within that we also adopted clear recommendations to help us improve the experiences of people of color at Sierra Club in hopes that we can improve our retention rates and improve our turnover rates, but not just because we want to improve our retention and turnover for folks of color, but because we want to be a more equitable and just organization that really lives out our equity values.

So, we performed that staff retention analysis, and then partly because of what we learned through that process, in 2017 we hosted the largest educational event that’s ever happened at Sierra Club, called Growing for Change. Growing for Change was a two-day anti-oppression workshop that was mandatory for all of our staff, almost 700 staff, and 150 volunteers. About 150 people went through Growing for Change in 2017. We essentially hosted 13 workshops across the country over the course of 2017 so that people could participate in smaller groups. Getting 850 people in a room to try to have a conversation about equity and justice isn’t very fruitful. But we know that if you break it down and you design an impactful curriculum that is created after diligent assessment to understand what are our needs and what is the baseline of understanding that we’re trying to build around equity and justice, it can be incredibly powerful for people to go to workshops that say have 65 people in them. We had four facilitators in addition to folks from our equity staff that were there to support this two-day anti-oppression workshop.

We call it a workshop, not a training. You might notice that one of the lessons that we’ve learned along the way is that when you talk about training, people think that they’ve been trained. “Oh, I’ve had my racism removed because I got trained.” That’s not the case. We call it a workshop, because that’s what it is. It’s an experience; it’s a conversation. We don’t believe that training is a solution to things, but the practice and continued conversation around the skills that we’re hoping people can develop is absolutely critical.

We did Growing for Change in 2017 last year and then this year we’re focusing on doing a couple different things. We’re adapting the curriculum of Growing for Change for online use for our staff and our volunteers, and we are in the process of updating our multi-year plan. We’re in the process of doing some collaborative engagement across the organization to understand where are we not quite hitting the mark? Where do we need to grow? What is working really well so that we can define for ourselves, what are the biggest efforts and priorities and outcomes that we want to achieve by the end of 2022?

So that’s like a quick overview of some of the things that I do. But I do want to share that 98% of my work is internal facing. It’s about transforming our organizational culture. It’s not about the things that we’re doing externally, because when we change how we operate and how we think, we can’t help but have that impact externally to the rest of the world. We believe that by focusing on the culture, rather than the demographics, we will create long-lasting transformational change.

How has that focus on culture rather than demographics changed the way Sierra Club views DEI work?

The 2014 Green 2.0 report identified a green ceiling in environmental organizations, a phenomenon where despite increasing racial diversity of the US, the racial composition of environmental organizations and agencies has not broken 16% folks of color, which is embarrassing. Then shortly thereafter, in 2016, the Sierra Club broke the green ceiling. Hooray, we’re more racially diverse! But in the same year we performed the staff retention analysis and it shows, yeah, we have more people of color than we ever had before at Sierra Club, but the turnover rates and retention rates are lower than that of White counterparts. We had achieved greater diversity, but it didn’t offer any solutions. Diversity can oftentimes cause harm and be a false indicator for success, whereas focusing on the transformation of organizational culture to embody a set of core values that are rooted in things like promoting justice, advancing equity, and being more inclusive of all those who share our values, creates long-standing transformational, cultural change at an organization more than just diversity itself. The outcome of that, more often than not, is a more racially diverse organization in terms of sexual orientation and gender identity, religion, each and all of those different things which are beautiful, but that in themselves are not our goals.

How do you think the movement overall has done on diversity and equity in the last 10 years?

From personal experience, I feel that in the last five years there has been significant changes that have made a real impact on the ways that we engage the partners and communities and the places that we work and live and love in beautiful ways and there’s still so much further to go. I think that one of the demonstrations for how the movement is changing is People’s Climate March. That was a huge undertaking, a huge event, to prioritize the people and the voices the way that they were was absolutely extraordinary, and I don’t think it would have happened if it weren’t for all diversity and equity types of efforts that are out there. I’m really grateful to see that happen and I think that a lot more is still necessary.

What are the main barriers for people of color when it comes to engaging on climate change?

It’s not surprising that the people first and most deeply impacted by climate change are communities of color. Communities that have been given the least resources, have been unheard because of the struggles that they face, are likely to be the first ones to be most impacted by climate. I know that native communities and First Nations are at the top of that list in many ways, and it’s absolutely heartbreaking. I don’t have the data or the specifics in front of me. I could put you in front of people at Sierra Club who are working to advance justice and equity in the climate initiative who could speak more clearly to that. But given that 98% of my work is internal facing, I can’t speak to that as well as they probably could, but I’d be happy to put you in touch, if you’re interested.

What do you feel are the barriers in terms of doing equity and inclusivity in the organization?

There are two things that come to mind immediately with that question. One is the spectrum of understanding and competence in those skills around equity work, particularly racial equity social justice work. There is a spectrum of folks who on one end have never had to think about the color of one’s skin and never had a conversation about that, and then at the other end of the spectrum, there are folks at Sierra Club who have hosted their very own dismantling racism trainings, and this is a passion for them. How do you engage an organization that is made up of 700+ staff, thousands upon thousands of volunteers across the country, and millions of members and champions and supporters, when you have a spectrum that is so vast in terms of understanding? And then the second challenge that I see is the spectrum of willingness. There are folks who are at Sierra Club who have been here for years and years and see equity work as a distraction, and those who are just outright resistant. And then, on the other end of that spectrum, you have a group of folks that are impatient and frustrated and want us to become as just and inclusive as we can possibly be as quickly as possible. So, engaging that spectrum, along with the learning spectrum, make our work and our equity department very challenging.

What advice would you give to an organization starting this work?

My top line advice is to start with the leaders. Work with your senior leaders to determine where do you want to go with this work? Is it diversity, is it equity, what is it that you are wanting to do? What are you wanting to achieve? And to identify for yourselves a vision and goals that you can take to your board of directors and other senior leaders at CCL, so that you have grounded yourself with visions and goals before starting.

Another piece of advice that I would give, is to offer whoever is leading the work on equity (and I would recommend that the focus be on equity and not diversity for all the reasons that I’ve shared with you) the support and resources to help them be successful in their roles, and most importantly, that they be given the grace and the space to learn, make mistakes, and grow, because this work is sadly so new to the environmental movement. We’re still trying to figure out what it looks like, and it can’t be held to the same standards of accountability that perhaps some other work can be in terms of metrics and success, but that it really is a learning journey that requires that space to learn and make mistakes.

Thank you for the work that you do, and for sharing your insights!

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