The latest from the Council of 16,000 (C16K)


“Council for 16,000”

The Future Vision:

The year is 2050. You are one of several co-directors sharing leadership at a progressive U.S. NGO working on environmental and social objectives. You have just returned from a national meeting of all the groups working on conservation, environmental justice, food justice, workers’ rights, green economies, climate education, toxics…it’s actually not important to differentiate, because over the past couple of decades the movement has broken down issue silos and aligned mission and purpose. Leadership truly reflects the demographic of the country, welcomes diverse perspectives and talents and shares resources and power throughout the movement. Equitable collaborations between grassroots, community groups and national groups are commonplace, and new ideas and campaigns are mutually shared and supported. So are successes, with a win for one viewed as a win for all. A massive cultural shift has brought narrative and heart to the fore of the movement, and funders routinely prioritize alignment, community base- building and on-the-ground process. When a problem arises, the groups communicate like wildfire; national networks support community groups to call upon their bases for a common cause. The bases respond knowing local wisdom will steer the progress they envision and create.

The “Council” concept:

The “Council for 16,000” initiative is envisioned as a unifying catalyst for the U.S. environmental movement, with a simple yet incredibly ambitious goal: to authentically connect, align and strengthen the depth and breadth of the U.S. environmental movement. The Council shall propose processes and solutions to reach the future described above. And through extensive research and interviews, we know a growing number of diverse professionals across the movement agree.

“Connectors” and an “Idea Incubator Team” will help get us there:

“Connectors,” interviewees representing a wide array of racially and ethnically diverse communities from a variety of geographic and issue areas, were called upon for their knowledge of the movement’s history, power dynamics and current initiatives, and for their ability to bridge networks and pass on names of others who could likewise contribute ideas and opinions to the Council initiative. Connectors reinforced the notion that while the movement may not be working as cohesively or as powerfully as it could be, numerous examples of innovation, passion and brilliance ensure it is far from broken. The Council planning team asked Connectors to prioritize outreach to friends from grassroots and people of color-led organizations, those who may be working under the mainstream radar, and those who work on core issues but do not consider themselves part of “mainstream environmentalism.” This self-perpetuating, web-like method of research reinforced the Council initiative’s goal of rebuilding bridges, creating

new pathways and harnessing the full power of a rich, diverse, equitable and just environmental movement.

In addition to commenting on the initiative’s vision, all Connectors provided advice on the “Idea Incubator Team,” a to-be-formed group of 20-25 people from the movement and beyond who will convene in the summer of 2013 to discuss values and needs throughout the movement, brainstorm practical strategies and tools for cohering the movement, and develop concrete steps for bringing those two to four strategies and tools to fruition. The team’s ideas will be valued for their ability to push a movement that is more aligned, cohesive, inclusive and equitable. This first meeting is a launching point, with the intention that ideas born there will be developed and actualized in subsequent meetings, while further Incubator Teams are formed.

The Council planning team will put out a call for applications and conduct informational conference calls for networks leading up to the application deadline, ensuring a broad cross-section of movements learns of this initiative and the opportunity to participate.

The planning team will devise a fair and thorough method for vetting and inviting the 20-25 potential members, prioritizing the self-selection of representatives by movement alliances and financially supporting members of smaller, less resourced organizations. Room and board will be covered for participants, and honorariums will be provided for organizations with annual budgets of less than $1 million, as well as travel support for those who may not be able to participate otherwise. We are aware some smaller organizations could suffer a substantial loss of productivity due to the absence of their leadership, even for a few days, and we are committed to equitably supporting them to participate.

Acknowledging our shortcomings/Harnessing our power:

We know 2042 is the year the U.S. Census predicts people of color will be a majority in the U.S., yet the environmental movement remains largely white.1 And although the movement has large female representation, a quick Google search of ten of the biggest green groups shows a majority are led by white males. In fact, the ratio of men to women in high power positions in environmental groups is so overlooked there is very little national data available on the subject.

With these examples in mind, before we can reach a more unified movement truly reflective of the needs, values and cultures of the people who comprise it, we must acknowledge the white racialized framework of today’s movement, the weighted history of U.S. conservation, and funder/NGO power dynamics. Added to a national history of racism, colonialism, unlawful land acquisitions and perpetuation of dominant culture values, this dynamic must be prominently addressed in the discourse of a national movement if we are to move forward as a new, fresh, united front. It is our deepest


intention to name this past, yet focus on moving forward toward the united, inclusive and equitable future we know is possible.

Understanding that competition and “cannibalizing” funding inhibits the movement from progressing, a top priority of the Council initiative is for all funding dollars to flow directly back into supporting and lifting up the non-profits that participate. As funders supporting this initiative, our goal is to launch it but hand it off as soon as possible, with the intention that it will quickly be run by the non-profits themselves.


Sixteen thousand groups report to the IRS as “environmental,” but many in the field believe even this enormous number is just the tip of the iceberg. Fiscal sponsorships and groups that categorize themselves under non-environmental umbrellas likely account for thousands more working toward better food, better communities, and a better planet. It is inspiring to imagine the magnitude of groups and networks that comprise this community – from environmental justice to biodiversity conservation, land protection, healthy local food, international networks, grassroots organizing and more.

And yet, the U.S. environmental movement as a whole is out of joint. There is no way to address the movement at once, no central, agreed-upon “place” to send a message that will reach everyone across the field. Perhaps even more disconcertingly, practitioners describe their own movement as “rudderless” and “disengaged.” Too many groups continue to report being excluded and even patronized by mainstream organizations. And “mainstream,” which once described groups that were middle of the road, is now typically used in environmental circles to differentiate the “haves” in the “haves”/”have nots” dichotomy, used by many to describe groups that are national in scope, have historically acted as mouthpieces, and worked with budgets of multi-millions.

This perception of “haves” and “have nots” is not at all off-base. We know that 50 percent of environmental grantmaking currently goes to just 2 percent of the largest, most prominent groups, while the 98 percent of smaller, local and regional grassroots groups are left to compete for the remainder.2


Despite these ample advantages, the progress of the “haves” is far from smooth sailing. Sky-high budgets and DC access aside, many “mainstream” groups still report feeling overwhelmed by increasingly complex political battles, complaining of fatigue, overwork, and frustration at not winning big enough, often enough. So, with the small groups needing resources and the big groups needing grassroots allies, partnerships between the two seem an obvious solution.

2 “Cultivating the Grassroots: A Winning Approach for Environment and Climate Funders,” by Sarah Hansen; National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, p. 6

And yet, examples abound of missed opportunities for just such goal-alignment and collaboration:

The failure to pass climate legislation in 2010 is perhaps the most infamous example of lost opportunity for equitable, movement-building, and several recent papers investigating this failure address the lack of collaboration between small and large groups. Institution for Social and Policy Studies Fellow Nathaniel Loewentheil writes in his paper Of Stasis and Movements, “…key institutions…largely overlook(ed) grassroots organizing, underestimating its importance for successful policy change.”3

In The Too Polite Revolution, Pamela Bartosiewicz and Marissa Miley write, “…the greens did not invest substantially in cultivating a grassroots base, nor did they effectively build on existing mass mobilization efforts when it became clear that passage of the climate bill would be more difficult than anticipated.”4

Instead of responding to the reality of the situation and reaching out to the broad grassroots base for support, the big greens doubled down efforts behind closed doors, neglecting an immensely powerful pool of grassroots activists and organizations that would have rallied had they been equitably included in the conversation from the beginning.

However, the failure of climate legislation by no means quelled creativity or fortitude within the grassroots. Based on examples far too numerous to list in entirety, it is safe to say that the innovation, energy and force we need to win is coming from the grassroots and communities of color – that is, from the “have-nots.”

Here are just a few current examples of incredibly innovative collaboration and sharing:

  •   The Prop 23/AB 32 fight demonstrates a bold approach to collaboration that resulted in unprecedented success. In the recent National Committee for responsive Philanthropy paper “Cultivating the Grassroots,” author Sarah Hansen profiles the now famous fight between a broad, eclectic mix of collaborating environmental groups and highly financed oil companies, which attempted to pit environmental ethics against employment and the economy. In a true David and Goliath story, the collaborating environmental groups won!
  •   The Climate Justice Alignment process (CJA) convenes over 45 grassroots environmental and climate justice groups, their networks, and coalitions representing Indigenous communities, communities of color and working class white communities. They have aligned efforts in fighting multiple “extreme energy” sectors, and their extraction, pollution and waste industries. Over past decades, these groups have led citizen action in stopping the construction of thousands of climate and community polluting facilities and infrastructure projects, from coal plants and incinerators, to toxic dumps, uranium mining and

    3 4 OVER.pdf

oil/gas pipelines. From the Appalachian Mountains to Navajo-Hopi Mesa lands, from the frontlines of urban smokestacks to those of rural land, water and food struggles, multiple community organizing networks have aligned goals and strategies to launch a national campaign for community resiliency and planetary defense. The CJA effort has outlined a 25 year plan to reduce industrial greenhouse gas and toxic emissions, while creating millions of jobs through farm localization, public transportation, affordable housing, zero waste, community energy and ecosystem restoration.

 Tar Sands Blockade is a nationwide network of citizen activists – youth groups, students, farmers and ranchers, clergy, Indigenous communities and grassroots collectives. Every week for the past year, TSB members have been arrested along sections of the thousands of miles of Keystone XL pipeline, being constructed to bring crude oil from the Athabasca Chipewyan Tar Sands to expanding oil refinery hubs in the U.S. From the Gulf Coast to corporate headquarters in Houston, these activists have laid siege to the largest corporations in the world by blocking the progress of the pipeline. One week three Texas grandmothers stand in front of bulldozers plowing trenches through their farms, another week a Colorado clergyman sits in a tree in the path of heavy construction equipment, another week dozens of youth chain inside the very pipeline – stopping work crews form laying pipe. Anchored by citizens groups in Oklahoma, Texas and Indigenous communities on the Keystone pipeline route, and supported by the Rising Tide network – these heroic stories of resistance, broadcast as viral social media, have inspired many national groups to support non-violence, civil disobedience strategies, including the Sierra Club and 350 that endorsed civil disobedience in recent mass rallies in DC.

The above are just a few examples, and it is heartening to see such bold and prescient work already happening. But regional and issue-based collaborations alone will not bring the movement to the level of power and cohesion it needs to achieve.

If we truly wish to harness the power, talent and passion of all our nation’s innovative grassroots, it is clear that the culture of “haves” and “have-nots” must shift toward an inclusive, equitable, connected movement that is capable of creating the change the world needs today.

Why Now/Reaching the Future Vision:

By acknowledging both the shortcomings and incredible successes and potential of the movement, we know we can all go farther, faster. At this unique moment in history, we must move to action thoughtfully and collaboratively, but we must move. The Council initiative eschews topic-specific works and gets to the heart of the how and the why of our work as a movement, and then builds tools. We seek to deconstruct the label “environmental,” acknowledging it is not welcoming for all, and many social justice, food justice, labor and public health groups are absent from a conversation that needs their insight and power.

Initial goals for the Idea Incubator Team are for its members to listen, generate ideas, and participate in a respectful exchange. Once trust and relationships are built within the team, its members will create two to four strong, viable, collaborative and innovative ideas focused on movement cohesion, alignment and equitable inclusion, and will plan ways to bring those ideas to fruition. Subsequent teams will build off those ideas as well as create new ones of their own, constantly growing and synthesizing a strong, supportive movement.

We recognize this is a bold vision, but one that must be created now — together. One Connector called the Council “the most important space we can be constructing right now.”

Will you join us?

For more information or to get involved, please contact Samantha Harvey at The Overbrook Foundation:


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