Editors’ Note: What follows is a remarkable account of leadership transition in its full complexity—including shifts that occurred at a national movement level, at the organizational level, and at a personal level. In integrating all of these levels, it takes a mature and holistic approach. This piece is one of the few we have seen that made such an attempt, and we are proud to share it with you.

On January 1, 2005, the SouthWest Organizing Project (SWOP) will turn 25 years old. Founded in the wake of the Reagan era by civil rights activists who cut their teeth organizing during the power identity movements of the late 1960s and 70s, we became recognized on state, regional, and national levels as an institution in the movement for progressive social change. Since 1980, our mission has remained to “empower the disenfranchised of the Southwest to realize racial and gender equality and social and economic justice.” Our members represent a social justice legacy of struggle in New Mexico, rooted in a liberation framework. The heritage of our mission comes out of land struggles, civil rights, cultural preservation, anti-colonization, and international solidarity.

My Introduction

I first visited Albuquerque, New Mexico as an intern in 1996. My political activity, like that of many of my colleagues, began in college, fighting for things like need-blind admissions; recruitment and retention of students and faculty of color; ethnic studies programs; and higher wages for campus workers. As a student at an Ivy League university, I was taught that social movements had already happened: they were a thing of the past. Through my internship at SWOP I was surprised to find out that the work of the civil rights, power identity, and liberation movements continued through organizations in the environmental and economic justice movement.

The organizational culture promoted cadre building: the formation of personal relationships within a family atmosphere. Through the organization I became part of this extended family and network of organizations—organizations like the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice (SNEEJ) and the Southwest Workers’ Union in San Antonio, Texas. I was adopted into this support network that saw people as the most important resource for making change. As a result, these organizations invested in my potential.

Through this work, I met people who dedicated their lives to realizing social justice and who believed that the vision of their youth was attainable within their lifetime. And while others “sold out,” they persevered, dug in, and built strong organizations that would continue the legacy they inherited and built upon.

An Organization and a Movement

The growth of our organization ran parallel to that of the movement we helped build. Having built significant organizational infrastructure, we’ve gone from a collective working out of the trunks of cars to a membership organization with a staff of 10 full-time employees offering health benefits and a pension plan. Our growing influence, however, is accompanied by strains on our organization. Having successfully lobbied through grassroots organizing for greater access to decision-makers has spawned a demand for greater capacity. Getting what we ask for, in terms of access, comes with a price. How we respond to these challenges is important in navigating our future course.

Likewise, our movement has grown and expanded. The environmental and economic justice movement’s call for inclusion at the highest levels of decision-making takes a toll on our organizations—the backbone of our movement. Mitigating participation at these levels while keeping true to our principles requires evaluation: What do we want to get out of a process? How much are we putting into it, and ultimately, is it worth it? It also requires a constant process of developing more leadership and providing the historical analysis to be able to participate effectively.

Developing this new leadership is an issue of capacity for SWOP and many other organizations, especially for those organizations working at the grassroots level. Being “at the table” requires lots of time and a high level of expertise and experience—and the odds seem insurmountable. As the leadership of our organizations and movement are pulled into these processes, organizations attempt the juggling act of continuing the work on the ground, developing new leadership, and raising the resources to keep doors open. Invariably, one of these balls is bound to drop, and when it does, those with the time and resources, by default, gain access and power that the grassroots organizations have leveraged. Because of the organic nature of our organizing culture, articulating these needs to our allies, especially funder allies, can be difficult.

Building movement also means diversification. Environmental and economic justice issues are being examined through different lenses by a number of entities. While the roots lie in grassroots community participation, we find environmental justice allies in academia, nonprofit and governmental agencies, health and legal professionals, and philanthropy. I believe the experience of Summit II (the Second National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, held in Washington, D.C. in October 2002), while showcasing the diversity of this movement, also demonstrated a challenge to accommodate this growth while honoring bottom-up decision-making as we redefine the democratic process. This challenge speaks to structure, process, and accountability.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, SWOP concentrated its efforts in regional and national movement building. In 1990, we sent a letter to the “Group of 10” mainstream environmental organizations charging them with environmental racism, and we hosted the Regional Activist Dialogue in Albuquerque, New Mexico. At this meeting, leaders from throughout the Southwest decided to form a multi-racial grassroots network: the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice (SNEEJ). While our movement was making incredible strides, and while the organization played an important role in moving a national environmental and economic justice agenda forward, there were consequences to this shift in resources. Looking back, we still support the decisions we made in the past. The important thing is to recognize the lessons learned and to pass this information on to new members of our organization. Likewise, it is important to reflect upon accomplishments, strategies, and decisions as a way of sharing information with new allies and members of the movement.

Generational Issues and Transitions

Today, the SouthWest Organizing Project is at a unique juncture in our organization’s history. We are undergoing an executive transition. Michael Leon Guerrero and I are currently the co-directors of the organization. After 17 years of helping to build the social justice movement in New Mexico, Michael will be leaving the organization and I will become the executive director. Most, if not all, organizations find executive transitions challenging and time consuming. This particular transition, however, poses additional challenges.

In February of 2003, Jeanne Gauna, co-director and co-founder of the organization, died of cancer. At the time Jeanne was diagnosed with breast cancer, she was already planning her transition out of the organization. Jeanne’s plan was to do some organizing training part-time and commit more fully to her family, particularly her grandchildren. Jeanne’s transition process was interrupted by her illness, and as a result, the organization addressed these transition issues on an ad-hoc basis.

Michael and Jeanne’s departure from the organization represents a significant turnover in leadership. Both have a long organizational memory and a vast amount of organizing and administrative experience.

This transition also represents a generational shift. Half the staff, including myself, is under 30 years old, while many of the founding members, who remain active in the membership and on the Board of Directors, are in their 50s. Additionally, youth organizing efforts are significant and the youth members are some of the most active and informed. We are committed to an intergenerational model of organizing that honors and integrates various perspectives.

As part of this executive transition process, the organization is realizing that we have an obligation and an opportunity to examine how we approach our work. This opportunity also exists for environmental justice as a movement. Like SWOP, this movement has experienced growth and increased influence. And, like SWOP, for varying reasons, it is experiencing a generational shift in leadership. How does the environmental and economic justice movement accommodate this growth and transition in leadership? What is the appropriate forum in which to have these discussions? Who needs to be a part of them? What is the role of various stakeholders? These are important questions to ask.

We recognize the challenges that can surface as a result of differences in generational perspectives. Issues such as low trust may result from a lack of shared history and experience. My peers and I were not involved in the struggles of some of the founders of this movement. We grew up and live in a different political atmosphere and environment. Organizing culture and structure is different today than it was 30 years ago—we now have nonprofit corporation structures to work within, and we depend in large part on foundation money to move work forward. The opposition we face today is different than it was 30 years ago. These are conditions we have inherited. And while a new generation may be respected, inherent issues of trust must be overcome.

We are better positioned to confront these challenges when we work together. Finding the confidence to trust one’s instincts while seeking support is a part of these transitions and a challenge for a newer generation. For an older generation, it means coming from a place of power in order to support and empower. This means we must all extend ourselves differently. The movement for environmental and economic justice, for social justice, continues and grows stronger today because of the sacrifice and commitment embedded in our history and the people who have been a part of it. Many of these people remain committed, and their role is crucial. It too must be supported. Structure is one aspect of integrating all the strengths of this movement, and we need to find a way to recognize people for their contributions.

An Organizational Development Lens

These transitions present an opportunity to reflect on what we have accomplished. This is a time to have meaningful and deliberate discussions about how our past has led into the present as we ready ourselves to continue moving forward and making change. One challenge is to capture the experience, history, and values of the organization/movement as part of developing new leadership.

For SWOP, this has meant reaffirming a commitment to our mission; evaluating the leadership development process and roles of staff, board, and membership; and redefining staff structure and responsibilities. This process is a result of need, is organic, and takes time.

As we review what, how, and why we organize, we learn that SWOP, as an organization, is undergoing a process of organizational renewal. We are beginning a new cycle of growth. Over the last 10 years staff has doubled, and in the last two years, we have gained significant victories that have raised the credibility of the organization among entities who have not historically been allies. As a result, the scope of our work is growing and we are again being approached to participate in the processes that we have struggled to gain inclusion into. However, we run the risk of becoming an advocacy organization if we fail to remain committed to grassroots principles of working to promote the vision of working-class New Mexicans.

At SWOP, we recognize that our structure and process have not kept pace with the scope and content of our work. The issues that we are working on require staff and members to have a deeper political understanding, a broad range of training, and the ability to get more people involved. To get a diverse group of people together to shape a common agenda requires a different structure and process, which we have not yet formalized. We believe, however, that the elements currently exist within the organization to help us reach this new level of organizing. We are attempting an organizational development process that emphasizes sharing history to ensure that it remains captured as part of the organizing culture and practice. It also is about honoring the work of people who have contributed to building the environmental justice movement.

Similarly, the environmental and economic justice movement needs to evaluate its structure and process. We need to create the space to have these discussions and understand that this is not a crisis, but rather another phase of building movement. However, who decides and what process is used to make these decisions is critical. Many of us feel that this must be driven by grassroots organizations. And although philanthropy can be an ally, it is not the role of philanthropy to define and drive this process.

This organizational development process is about bridging the organization’s past with a vision for the future. The underlying premise of these discussions is that we are moving forward—our work toward social change is needed and necessary, but we might have different ideas about how to move this work forward.

This means talking about past as well as current approaches, so we can further define how to proceed in the future. A plan to resolve these issues will become the roadmap to our organizational goals for the near future. If we are to achieve environmental and economic justice, we need to consolidate and build upon victories while engaging at the grassroots level. We are reminded of the famous paradigm posed by Bob Moses of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee: “We need to fix the boat to stay afloat and stay afloat to fix the boat.” This is our constant challenge as a dynamic, community-based organization/movement. For the environmental and economic justice movement, an organizational development process could help in addressing these questions.

Together, we can resolve these issues while being inclusive of relevant stakeholders both because their perspective is relevant and to ensure that we can sustain the changes we anticipate. Since this process is so comprehensive, we need to involve key members who have been active both recently and historically.

This process is comprehensive, and a significant amount of time needs to be directed toward resolving these issues in a manner that values perspectives, investigates their meaning, and converges on a resolution and implementation plan. As part of this executive transition process, more people in the organization are realizing how much this transition affects the organization as a whole. We believe that there is a considerable amount of “buy in” toward a more comprehensive and time-intensive process. We hope that inclusion of stakeholders in this process will accomplish the goal of creating a better understanding of what will make SWOP a more effective organization. Given a broadened base, increased infrastructure, and extensive history and experience, we believe our impact can be deeper and wider. We have yet to realize our potential to make social change in New Mexico. The very same can be said about this movement.

Jeanne Gauna was the editor of our newsletter, Voces Unidas, and one of my mentors. We’re reminded of her spirit when she wrote: “We will not allow ourselves to be treated as second class citizens in our own homeland. Our common goal is for control of our land and our resources and protection of workers and communities. The leadership of our youth is central to our work. Please join us. New Mexico is not for sale. We are winning.”

Robby Rodriguez is co-director of the SouthWest Organizing Project (swop.net), a community-based social justice organization located in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and a project team member of Building Movement into the Nonprofit Sector (buildingmovement.org). This article was adapted from a version originally written for the 2nd Generation Environmental Justice Leadership meeting convened by the Ford Foundation in October 2004.