Image Credit: Kimberly Cho at bombilla® (www.bombilla.co)

This article is part of Climate Justice Organizing for Belonging, a series co-produced with NPQ and Mothers Out Front.The key question guiding this organizational shift—and this series—is: what does successful organizing look like for the most impacted when resources fully support them?


Since its inception in 2013, the organization I have the honor of leading—Mothers Out Front—has harnessed the power of intergenerational members and leaders to enact targeted, measurable climate-focused wins that have real impact in members’ and leaders’ neighborhoods and communities. Mothers Out Front was founded by a mom who became distressed about the prospect of her children growing up in a time of climate catastrophe and wanted to join with other concerned moms to create a better future. Today, the organization is made up of mothers and caregivers fighting for an equitable, just, and livable climate for children across the country.

In 2019, Mothers Out Front began to shift its thinking about how to move from a White-centered climate change space to a truly transformative space—one that takes all experiences into account to move to a justice-oriented future.

Like so many other organizations in the climate space, we are reimagining and redefining of our mission, vision, and values in order to build a more inclusive and just future for all children. Our founding constituency envisioned Mothers Out Front as a space for all moms. However, that space lacked the experience and intentionality necessary to build an inclusive organization where moms with diverse lived experiences felt true belonging. In 2019, Mothers Out Front began to shift its thinking about how to move from a White-centered climate change space to a truly transformative space—one that takes all experiences into account to move to a more justice-oriented future. We started exploring frontline community organizing strategies in California, New York, and Virginia and hired staff from those same communities to organize in them. Last year, we took the next step in our journey when our staff led a strategic planning process that shifted our mission from fighting AGAINST climate change to fighting FOR climate justice.

So much has been said in recent months about the gaps, challenges, and divides in advocacy spaces, but to date, few case studies describe how to put problem-solving for these issues into action. Here at Mothers Our Front, we’ve taken the time to examine our own gaps and challenges. For example, our first foray into frontline community organizing wasn’t resourced well enough to be sustainable, and in some cases, our organizers felt othered. We also learned that it was difficult to move beyond our majority White communities to invite BIPOC moms into our movement without seeming to tokenize people not historically represented in Mothers Out Front.

The climate justice we want to see—rooted in an understanding of how justice movements are interconnected—has to start right here, informing our climate organizations from within. When I joined Mothers Out Front as executive director, one of our organizers put this clearly for me: our climate justice work means that we are on the forefront of intersecting social justice movements. Our climate crisis is related to people being unhoused, living in food deserts, and being unable to find work because of a lack of affordable transportation. By working toward climate justice, we will begin solving many of the interconnected injustices so many people in this country face.

The climate justice we want to see—rooted in an understanding of how justice movements are interconnected—has to start right here, informing our climate organizations from within.What Mothers Out Front is intentionally building can be a template for other organizations looking to shift their internal and external framework to a justice-focused one. We seek to empower moms and women across lived experiences and divisions such as race, class, gender, and age. Along the way, we’re learning about the practical realities that go into building a multiracial, intergenerational, cross-class movement.

Throughout this process, we’ve asked ourselves two main questions:

  1. How do we embed justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion into our internal culture and programmatic work?
  2. What internal markers will help us determine whether we are on track to creating a social justice movement that will lead to collective liberation? We’re talking about the kind of liberation that will free us from White supremacy and allow us to build new internal systems that evolve into spaces of belonging for our people and teams.

Our journey thus far has revealed some answers that can guide others working towards the same goal.

 

Embedding Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion  

One of the biggest takeaways from the work to shift Mothers Out Front to a climate justice-focused framework is this: embedding JEDI principles requires a soup-to-nuts approach, or in other words, an understanding that moves beyond the performative and engages in an honest examination of all our policies and practices. We must ask ourselves if we are set up to maintain the status quo or if we are committed to moving beyond it. This deep examination can range from improving our outreach in hiring and retention practices to valuing experience in interviews. It can also look like making sure our PTO policy supports working parents. Perhaps most importantly, it looks like asking: what story does our budget tell about the kind of organization we seek to build?

Budgets are moral documents; they demonstrate an organization’s priorities and values. Seeing budgets through this lens shapes how we make financial decisions, think about programmatic and campaign work, and shift the mindsets of our member audience.

Mothers Out Front is evaluating every aspect of our financial culture—from salaries to promotions and professional development and trainings—to ensure that our impact is grounded in our anti-racism values. This month, we began a salary equity analysis to ensure that the salary bands and core competencies for each role at Mothers Out Front are centered in equity and fairness, and we are using our resources to ensure our staff have access to professional development opportunities that bolster their leadership skills, creating better managers, leaders, and allies in the process.

On the programmatic side, our budget now devotes program resources first and foremost to solutions that center communities most impacted by the climate crisis. Our 2023 fiscal year budget includes a fellowship for moms who otherwise might not have the time or resources to join Mothers Out Front. This fellowship prioritizes single moms, moms working one or more jobs, moms who live in lower- to middle-class neighborhoods, and moms who struggle with childcare. Our priority campaigns focus on fair access to federal and state funding for BIPOC and low-income communities. We are designing and facilitating workshops to help people in these communities access Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) rebates and are organizing smaller campaigns to advocate for Justice 40 Initiative resources in all of our states.

A crucial lesson that all climate organizations must learn in the coming years is that investing in solutions that center and are led by those most impacted will help us all. Only by funding the ideas and solutions that come directly from these communities will we stop the cycles of harm that a) impact frontline communities first and hardest, and b) compound into even broader harms.

Mothers Out Front staff is centering those most impacted by climate degradation through our organizing in Pueblo, CO, a zone that has been sacrificed to provide energy to the Denver metro area. One of our Pueblo-based teams is working on a just transition away from fossil fuels and has made strides in bringing about an early retirement date for the Black Hills Energy natural gas plant and the Xcel Energy coal-fired plant. Both plants have polluted the air, impacting residents’ cardiovascular and respiratory health for decades. In 2020, the Colorado Public Utilities Commission identified Xcel’s Pueblo plant as the largest single source of greenhouse gas in Colorado and Xcel’s least reliable plant. Based on that evidence and several years of advocacy by our local teams, Xcel Energy Colorado recently proposed a new retirement date of no later than January 1, 2031—39 years earlier than the planned retirement date of 2070. This is a huge win for our Pueblo team, the Pueblo community, and all Colorado residents, both human and non-human.

In Fresno, CA—a historically low-income area—Mothers Out Front organized for new electric vehicle charging stations and green spaces because such basic climate justice solutions have been systemically kept from frontline communities. Up in San Jose, our moms are working on local legislative campaigns around electrification in building codes for multi-unit dwellings to remove and prevent toxic gas fumes in residential spaces.

Making sure our resources support these movements in an equitable, long-term way is certainly not a “one and done” for our team. We are on this path together and are aware that it is often the path of most resistance in nonprofits grappling with building equity into their organizations. It can be uncomfortable to confront our conscious or subconscious biases when determining how and where to put our resources. For this reason, this most crucial part of the growth process is often the most neglected. But lasting, sustainable change must start here.

 

Internal Culture Markers Indicating Successful Shifts

As we continue remaking our organizational psyche, there are three levels at which we can measure cultural markers that indicate successful shifts: the collective level, the leadership level, and the level of White members, staff, and volunteers.

At the collective level, we must engage in facilitated conversations that help us arrive at shared language. For example, the meaning of “centering Black women in our work” can be very different for Black and White staff, or for non-Black people of color on our staff. Without shared definitions, we waste time trying to correct misunderstandings. This process also requires us to create a culture that embraces shared learnings and “rules of engagement” for how we approach problematic situations among ourselves and with our constituency. Most recently, we are engaging as a team to arrive at a shared definition of climate justice and, equally important, of climate injustice. With these shared definitions, our work will be more impactful and rooted in solutions.

At the leadership level, we must adhere to one crucial idea: protect your team. Every day, people of color in this country are subjected to micro-aggressions, active and passive acts of racism, and bias. While Mothers Out Front can’t eliminate racism, we can show up and support our team to alleviate some of the pain and trauma that exists in our world. Those in leadership positions should be in the habit of not just supporting their team, but also holding our funders, constituents, and decisionmakers accountable and should be ready to call them in when their actions, words, or beliefs negatively impact staff.

And for White leaders, members, staff, and volunteers: we must sit with our discomfort and do more listening than talking. It’s incumbent upon us to actively listen without trying to interject our feelings or fragility into the conversation. We must practice listening without preemptively formulating our defenses as it’s critical that we see our actions through the lens of the person with whom we’re speaking. Admitting fault is the first step in repairing our relationships and changing our actions for the collective good. It’s okay to be uncomfortable. And when we get it wrong (which we will), practice apologizing sincerely and try again. This, on repeat, is what will change our nonprofit culture. For me as the new executive director, that has meant publicly advocating for this shift with our entire constituency, having hard conversations with people who value their comfort over the shift we are making, and embracing rather than fearing conflict.

I am leading a majority BIPOC staff that is working to expand our majority White constituency. It is an odd juxtaposition for me, and more than once, I’ve wondered if I’m the right person to be leading Mothers Out Front through this transformation. When I have moments of doubt, I remind myself that I am a White person on a lifelong journey to be more than an ally—to be, instead, a co-conspirator—and to shift our social impact spaces into inclusive, belonging spaces for everyone. I’ve learned to sit with my own discomfort when I get it wrong. I’ve listened and, I hope, have grown through and past my mistakes. I’ve challenged myself to do the work instead of asking my BIPOC staff to “teach me” how to be better. I’ve joyfully engaged in the hard work and asked others to join me so we can create a Mothers Out Front that welcomes all and centers those who are most impacted by our climate crisis. Together, we are moving forward, and I’m thankful for a team that is leading with me to a new future that will leave no one behind.