Bringing Equity Into Perspective
The year was 1998. Lara Hansen had just begun studying the ecology of coral reefs when it happened: the first global coral bleaching event. Triggered by warming oceans, bleaching causes corals to shed algae, transforming thriving reefs into ghostly white skeletons. It also changed the trajectory of Hansen’s life and career.
“I couldn’t continue my previous course of study and pretend climate change wasn’t happening,” she says.
Hansen began exploring ways to make ecosystems — and those who rely on them — more resilient in a warming world. First, she signed on as chief climate scientist at the World Wildlife Fund, creating its International Climate Change and Adaptation Program. Then in 2008, she co-founded EcoAdapt to shape a rigorous, holistic approach to climate change adaptation.
“I couldn’t continue my previous course of study and pretend climate change wasn’t happening.” —Lara Hansen, EcoAdapt
EcoAdapt has since emerged as a pillar of this fast-growing field. Today, the organization works with diverse players across the U.S. — from nonprofits to governments — to reshape planning and management in response to a warming world. Thanks to two Kresge-supported leadership development programs, Hansen and EcoAdapt are also helping that field become more diverse, inclusive and equitable.
Just as there is no pretending that climate change isn’t happening, there’s no pretending that it affects everyone equally. Low-income communities and communities of color are hit first and worst by the changing climate. That’s why it’s crucial to emphasize equity in adaptation, by focusing on the most vulnerable people and places.
It is a new perspective for many in the field who, like Hansen, hailed from the environmental sciences.
“Early adaptation had a strong focus on protecting natural resources from change,” Hansen says. “People were clearly part of the picture, but they were not the focus.”
Fusing the natural sciences with social equity doesn’t happen by itself, as Hansen learned the hard way. In 2013, EcoAdapt held the first of its biennial conferences, the National Adaptation Forum. Afterward, several attendees called out the forum’s lack of racial and ethnic diversity.
In hindsight, Hansen recognized that the model didn’t serve equity-oriented groups that weren’t part of the conference network.
“In our minds, we thought we’d created this very inclusive process,” Hansen remembers.
For subsequent conferences, Hansen and her colleagues solicited the involvement of groups outside the network. A more diverse planning team now recruits submissions and evaluates session proposals, which are required to include information about how the work being presented considers equity and inclusion. EcoAdapt also offers travel subsidies so underresourced and underrepresented groups can attend.
Time Out for Training
As EcoAdapt worked to become more inclusive, two Kresge leadership development programs provided a powerful assist. In 2016, Hansen participated in an equity-focused talent and leadership development program for Kresge grantees. She credits the program for improving the organization’s communication with partners — and among EcoAdapt’s far-flung staff.
EcoAdapt’s second leadership development experience, with the Racial Equity Learning Program, proved more transformational. Through that program, EcoAdapt partnered with Marcelo Bonta of the Raben Group on a customized, 18-month engagement designed to “up our game on a holistic, equity-inclusive approach to adaptation,” Hansen says.
Step one was to create a JEDI (justice, equity, diversity and inclusion) team. Including all of EcoAdapt’s 13 staff members, the team conducted deep dives into each of EcoAdapt’s four programs, finding ways to codify equity and inclusion internally and in its engagement with partners.
Now the organization includes thinking about equity, inclusion and diversity when undertaking an adaptation process.
“Our team works to ensure that equity is part of adaptation,” she says. “We firmly believe that the best adaptation is holistic in all aspects of that term.”
Hansen’s leadership on equity is “exemplary,” says Bonta, noting, “She brings her science-y, analytical brain to the work, but also her empathy, curiosity and humility.”
A Positive Ripple Effect
EcoAdapt’s “JEDI” are having a broader impact. The 2019 National Adaptation Forum included racial equity among its themes. Nearly 1,000 attendees learned, for example, what local governments must do differently to center equity in climate-adaptation planning and how community-based organizations are highlighting inequities associated with urban flooding in low-income areas and communities of color.
In this way, Kresge’s investment in leadership development is shaping a nascent field.
“There’s a big opportunity when you can work with leaders like Lara Hansen,” says Lois DeBacker, Kresge Environment Program managing director. “If you can expand her concept of the relevance of equity to her work, she can influence her organization. And, because she is such a thought leader in the field, it has broader ramifications for the number of people exposed to those concepts. There’s a really positive ripple effect.”