Lara Hansen | EcoAdapt

Addressing climate change with diversity and inclusiveness

Bringing Equity Into Perspective

Lara Hansen — EcoAdapt (Photo by Sara Stathas)

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.

Unequal Impacts

Lara Hansen participated in a Kresge talent and equity-focused leadership development program. (Photo by Sara Stathas)

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.

Groups participate in a National Adaptation Forum.

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 has evolved to embrace a focus on equity, inclusion and diversity

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.”

Lara Hansen

An Interview with Lara Hansen

Why do we need leadership now?

On a subject like climate change, the need for leadership at any and all levels is vitally important. The federal government has abdicated its sense of responsibility and leadership. So right now, we need leaders who are willing to take on moving climate change responses forward. We really need representation from everywhere, demonstrating that it's important to deal with. So that everyone sees someone that they recognize as a leader that is carrying forward the message….so a leadership community for climate change adaptation is everyone.

What makes an effective leader in your view?

I think effective leadership comes down to team building, and humility. Humility and humor coupled together. Having perhaps more belief in the people that you're working with than they always have in themselves. I think that's true whether you're working on climate change or anything else. But also as a leader, knowing that you do not always have all of the right answers, and being able to infuse humor with whatever you're doing. Because otherwise it's really depressing. There's an Oscar Wilde quote, that, “If you have to tell someone the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they'll kill you.” And I think that that applies to climate change.

The work your organization is doing, how is it paving the way in your sector?

This is EcoAdapt's 10th Anniversary. And when we moved into the adaptation space in the United States, there weren't a lot of people working in it. It was a nascent field. Globally, I had been working with a broader cohort of people. In the United States it was a handful, and there was a lot of opportunity to move things forward. The field just filled in, which is fantastic. A filled-in field that went from nothing to something, still means that there is always opportunity to move things forward.

Kresge's Take

Inspiring Grantees to Dig Deeper

As a large cohort of senior managers in the nonprofit sector nears retirement age, cultivating a new and more diverse generation of leaders is imperative.

Messaging reflects the urgency of adaptation challenges. (Photo by Sara Stathas)

“Racial equity is important because, in so many ways, an individual’s race is a predictor of outcomes in life,” says Lois DeBacker, Kresge Environment Program managing director.

Seizing that opportunity, Kresge has made significant investments in equity-focused leadership development. That includes two programs in which EcoAdapt’s Lara Hansen participated: Fostering Urban Equitable Leadership (FUEL), which approaches leadership development from an equity standpoint; and the Racial Equity Learning Program, helping longstanding climate grantees find their footing in equity-focused leadership.

“There was a recurring demand on the part of grantees to better understand the dimensions of equity and how to apply it in their work,” DeBacker says.

Incorporating equity is not “one and done,” DeBacker adds. Rather, “developing competency around racial equity is a journey.”

Community Wealth Partners (CWP), a consulting firm to nonprofits and foundations, helped develop and implement both programs. Some 150 staff members of Environment Program grantees engaged in training through the Racial Equity Learning Program over

18 months.

Sharing ideas at the 2017 National Adaptation Forum.

For some, that means developing a better understanding of the fundamentals of racial equity. Others were already approaching their work with equity firmly in mind, but want to apply it with greater nuance or incorporate it more thoroughly throughout their programmatic work.

Going forward, Kresge and CWP will evaluate lessons learned and explore ways to solidify grantees’ enduring commitment to equity.

“The challenge,” DeBacker says, “is to inspire the individuals and organizations to go further on that learning journey.”

View Previous Leader Story Enhancing the Path to Success for Community College Students
View Next Leader Story Championing Equity in Boston