Minnesota is home to five accredited residential environmental learning centers (RELCs) that host overnight field trips for students from Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, and more. Our centers are independent entities that have no financial ties to one another. But despite this, we’ve long had a collaborative approach to projects, grants, fundraising, and reaching broader audiences. Therefore, when we had an opportunity to collaborate on a grant through BEETLES that was geared towards supporting regional capacity building, it was really just a matter of determining what project we could develop.
What did we hope to achieve with this grant? We immediately saw an intended outcome that is two-fold: to deepen the collaborative and to grow our capacity for equity. First, we seek to build and strengthen this regional partnership that has been working together for over 30 years in different capacities to support residential environmental education in our state. We see partnership as an important part of supporting the students we serve in a couple of ways. On the micro-level, coming together to share ideas allows each of our centers to process challenges we are facing, identify new resources, and try new things that ultimately support the students that we serve. On the macro-level, when we work in partnership we are more likely to influence systems-level change, leveraging our unified efforts to amplify impact. Being in collaboration empowers our work across the board.
The second outcome is to critically examine how our organizational cultures support justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI). Ultimately, we knew this was a multi-year project that would influence all aspects of our organizations. The mission of all participating learning centers is to get their participants outside, connecting with and learning about the natural world and the role we play in supporting a healthy and resilient environment. It is a regional goal to make environmental education more accessible, inclusive, and equitable — we believe that by starting with our organizational cultures we will build a strong foundation. From there, we can then look more deeply into the equity across our curriculum, our training, hiring practices, and beyond. Working together to share resources, ideas, and trainings, will allow us to identify and make changes at our individual centers and also create regionally-relevant resources. This collaborative approach to equity work can bring about maximum impact, too.
With our grant funds, we opted to look at our organization culture with the support of a consultant to assess all staff at all five centers for diversity and inclusion. Our consultant, August Ball from Cream City Conservation, first had our staff and board take two surveys. One focused on how staff and board felt about inclusion within their organization. The other survey was a personal assessment of an individual’s diversity and inclusion journey. August gathered all of the data and then presented the findings to the staff and board from all organizations.
Through the survey, we learned that there were some things in our organizations that we were doing well, and of course there were (are) areas of opportunity. The top two places we “thrived” as a collaborative were with staff and board engagement (people are proud to work at their organizations and are motivated to fulfill their commitments to their organizations) and belonging (staff and boards are respected by the organization and within their department and they feel like they can be their true, authentic selves in the workplace). Our two biggest areas of opportunity were in equity (staff are unable to sustain themselves fully with the compensation that they receive from their position and staff and board did not think we had a system/tool for making decisions equitably, inclusively and just) and diversity (while folks said all organizations valued diversity, we did not score well with building diverse teams).
With the survey feedback, our consultant worked with one representative from each organization over the following ten months to analyze the results and develop action steps in the form of a road map for our organizations to take that would help improve staff equity and inclusion. This road map functions very similarly to a logic model, helping us to identify activities, metrics, staff leads, and outcomes. We used data from the surveys, namely from categories that had areas of opportunity such as equity and diversity, to help us determine our main focus areas.
Since each of our organizations operate as separate entities, building the road map took a lot of trial and error as we figured out what our collaborative capacity actually was and what we would be able to achieve. As we began to work on our road map (i.e. identify activities, metrics, and outcomes), we met as a large group, both with and without August, to populate different sections with content. Progress at this phase was slow and arduous, and there were a number of things that slowed us down. We share these for others to learn from:
- Logistics. It was hard to identify times for all of us to meet, our meeting times would be so spread out that we’d have to spend part of each meeting reviewing sections we’d already completed, and it was hard to make time outside of the workgroup meetings to add content to our road map. It’s not that the work wasn’t important for the organizations, but this work was also being done in the height of COVID when some staff were working reduced hours, others were managing reduced budgets, and all of us were navigating what it was like to offer programming during a pandemic.
- Intimidation. Honestly, it was also just really overwhelming at first, and we didn’t have a lot of context for which steps would be good steps to add to a road map. We knew where we needed to improve based on our survey results, but we often got bogged down in the quagmire of minute details of how something was to be accomplished. For example, we want to make sure “hiring more diverse staff” is on our road map… but how do we do that? When August works with companies to build road maps, they typically go through an intensive, weeks-long workshop series first, which sets them up for a common language around concepts such as what equitable decision making looks like. We could see why this normally happens… We had a steep learning curve together.
- Whole-collaborative relevance and scale. Lastly, most of the work we’d put into the road map in the first six months wasn’t actually that useful for our collaborative. For example, on the staff inclusion survey, many staff expressed that it was difficult to find housing near the centers where they work. We had added a row to our road map about identifying housing options and building partnerships with our communities that would help us locate housing. However, while this type of work does need to happen, it’s not an aspect of the work that the collaborative can tackle. That is to say that building partnerships in communities near northern Minnesota will not translate to communities in southeastern Minnesota. So, we had to scrap those ideas from the group road map, and bookmark them for each organization to work on locally.
Ultimately, we finished the road map by working in pairs and meeting weekly for three months. We refocused and trimmed down our strategies and activities to be achievable and most beneficial for the entirety of the collaborative under the three main goals of staff representation, career accessibility & awareness, and inclusive workplace. Once we realigned our strategies in that way, it made completing our road map much more achievable and streamlined.
One example of a strategy that is perfect for the collaborative is to create affinity groups and schedule meeting times for staff from all five organizations. While diverse staff recruitment is also an identified strategy on our road map, we know that it will be important to these staff, especially staff of color, to feel welcomed, included, and supported throughout their employment, valuing not only recruitment but also retention. We know that currently, there may only be one or two staff members of an historically excluded group at one organization. So one way each single organization can support those small groups of staff is by setting aside time, quarterly, for them to meet with staff from the other four organizations in the collaborative. In this way, we create somewhat larger affinity spaces where staff can come together to feel less isolated and more connected along those identities they share. The focus of these groups will come based on requests from our staff, and establishing these affinity spaces is one of our first initiatives of the road map projects we’re starting.
Some additional examples of outcomes we’ve identified on our road map are:
- Staff have a shared understanding of JEDI-related language. The collaborative will be working to put together a resource, started by our consultant August, that can be shared across all organizations. (In our Inclusive Workplace goal)
- Staff in leadership positions are equipped to practice, demonstrate, and foster JEDI values across their teams and work. This will be done by consistently attending trainings and workshops that focus on JEDI work (In our Inclusive Workplace goal)
- The RELCs will take a collaborative approach to recruitment. As we market seasonal positions in order to recruit more diverse staff and face the challenge of forming partnerships with new contacts, we commit to share employment opportunities from all five organizations, not just one individually (In our Career Accessibility & Awareness goal)
- Implement inclusive language throughout all hiring documents. Organizations will evaluate other organizations’ position descriptions for bias and exclusionary requirements in an effort to strengthen how we communicate about our organizations and the people we seek to hire. (In our Staff Recruitment goal)
We’re really looking forward to following our road map toward more equity and efficacy. In recent history, it’s the most our organizations have collaborated. It was a pretty big learning experience, especially since many of the topics, strategies, and activities we were developing are in areas that we don’t have a lot of experience in. Thankfully, our consultant August was very willing to provide us with examples, templates, and many already established resources. As well, the shared commitment of the organizations has fueled our continuation of this work into our areas of growth.
Lastly, we encourage other organizations to form similar collaboratives in their regions or states, even with those they might consider to be their competitors. It’s hard work finding time to meet, figuring out what you can collaborate on, and getting funding to do so. And JEDI work is also hard stuff that takes a lot of time, introspection, personal and organizational growth, and commitment. However, if we reflect back on the two-fold purpose of this grant — strengthening the relationship between our five organizations and assessing the organizational culture of the five Minnesota RELCs so that we can better support our staff and students — then this work is worth it. Our collaborative relationship is stronger than ever, and even in the first phases of following our road map, each organization has been taking steps to internally improve staff culture and organizational systems. As our survey underscored, we already have high staff and board engagement. We all believe in our missions and we are motivated to accomplish them. Now, we have another critical component that enables us to live our missions with equity.
This project was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation under Grant No.1612512. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.