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Posted - 10/11/2016
Blue Heart Lab Pause

How might we most effectively channel funding towards grassroots, community-led organizations that are building the political power of communities impacted by climate change? How might we mobilize white and class-privileged people to be active allies to the liberation struggles of low income communities and communities of color around them?

These were our touchstone questions during our second pause in August. We convened a group of artists, movement builders, technologists, community organizers, climate policy experts, and one two-month old baby. Our goal in bringing together this manifold assembly of thinkers and doers was to pollinate the growth strategy for our nascent nonprofit: Blue Heart.

This pause followed our first in the San Juan Islands where we spent two months researching climate displacement and identifying how we might best leverage our skills and resources to support vulnerable communities most impacted by climate change. We spoke with organizations in Alaska, Louisiana, New York, Florida, and Colorado who are directly responding to and serving communities who are losing their homes to flooding, wildfires, and extreme storms.

Climate change amplifies existing systems of hardship and socio-economic stratification in the United States. It further entrenches poverty, exacerbates health conditions, and strains the resilience of low-income communities, who are disproportionately non-white.  Because it's an amplifier of existing conditions, climate change impacts look very different across the country, depending on the social, ecological, and historical context of the place. The context-sensitivity of climate change means that it's very hard to create "copy-paste" remedies for impacts such as displacement that can scale quickly across many contexts. Instead of a monoculture approach to climate adaptation, we must therefore take a polyculture, ecology-based approach.

In all of the communities that we spoke with, there are local anchor institutions that come from and build with the people that live there. They are the 'keystone species' that shape and are shaped by those places. There is the Lowlander Center in Louisiana; Re-locate Kivalina in Alaska; Catalyst Miami in South Florida-- to name only a few. We saw how these community-led organizations are building political power among those for whom social and economic injustice is stripping their agency and capacity to respond to the uncertain and context-specific impacts of climate change. We also saw that these organizations were consistently unfunded, underfunded, or funded with so many strings attached that nimbly serving their communities was impossible. In the words of one program director and organizer, "trust us that we know the best way to figure it out."  Yet often funders do not.

In turn, we were also talking with friends and colleagues in the relatively well-resourced young professional communities we are a part of. We heard a common refrain: people feel overwhelmed and despairing about social issues, and want to support social justice movement-building in their cities. However, they often do not know where and how to begin. We thought about our own journeys and where we draw inspiration from when we feel stuck, numb, or hopeless. What helps us feel alive, creative, and bold? Art was at the top of the list.It activates the social imagination. It is how humans learn about themselves and each other. It invites us to see, taste, touch, and dream about what alternative futures are possible. As we navigate the sometimes messy, often uncomfortable, pathway of individual and collective action, we need to engage the heart and the senses, not just the intellectual mind and the pocketbook. In this journey, grief, anger, and joy are sources of strength-- and art helps us embrace them as such. Experiencing and creating art is how we flex the emotional and psychological muscles that spur compassion and action.

These reflections shaped our theory of change: if we can connect people regularly with movement-minded art and the artists that create it, we can nudge them from a despairing outlook one of renewed possibility and connection. And, if we give them a direct path to concretely act with their renewed hope, then we can channel more resources towards grassroots, context-sensitive organizations, and increase the political power of climate-affected communities and advance social, economic, and ecological justice movements affecting change within those communities. Thus, Blue Heart was born: a service to inspire and connect people with local social and environmental justice issues, and fund directly grassroots action.

Every month, we will focus on a different social or environmental justice issue (starting in the Bay Area). We will send subscribers a print from a local artist that explores that issue, stories of the artist and grassroots organizations working on the issue, and a curated reading list to help them dig deeper. A portion of the subscription fees will go directly to a local community-based organizations working on that issue, artists will receive a stipend for their print, and the rest covers art printing, shipping, and operational costs. In contrast to issue-focused organizations, we will highlight the intertwined, intersectional nature of diverse social justice issues, such as climate change, gentrification, racial inequality, and immigration.

During this second pause, we applied a magnifying glass to our strategy and vision for Blue Heart. How should we communicate our vision to our various partners and audiences? What were the greatest risks we faced in implementing and scaling our effort? What were realistic target outcomes and metrics to evaluate those outcomes we should shoot for? Our invitees had generative and insightful feedback to these questions.

Despite having never met each other, our pause invitees immediately engaged the sticky, provoking, and often vulnerable questions that guide each of us in our work. As we sat around the firepit at Casa Bella Inn on that first evening, surrounded by ripe grapes and the golden light of sunset, we spoke of about our movement building ethos, political change, and where spirituality intertwines with ecology. We shared the artwork that has personally moved us in our work and in our lives. We found many streams of convergence, and importantly we discovered the many ways we are different. The small size of the group, the immediate sense of shared values, and the intimacy of the setting enabled the group to skip the small talk and dive straight into exploring the thorny issues and anchoring experiences that shape each of their professional and personal journeys.

Over the next two days we, as a group, molded our mission statement and vision, clarifying how Blue Heart is unique, compelling, and necessary. We identified indicators of success for our first year of operation and our greatest risk: the reality that we are working with three disparate communities, including movement-building artists with whom we do not have existing relationships and trust. We developed a plan of action for our three month pilot and identified individuals and organizations who may be able to guide our work. The diversity of our group begot generative discussions about our nonprofit's communications, priorities, vision, and organizational structure. And the presence of a two-month old human in the room continually urged us to consider the future world that she will come into adulthood within, and grounded us in the wonder and curiosity that we hope to bring to our work each day

The grind of crafting and launching a new organization can be overwhelming. Combined with a business model that includes producing a monthly package for subscribers, we've found it challenging to carve out time for the visionary, agenda-setting work needed to articulate our politics at Blue Heart. Our pause was an important moment to ask tough questions, push boundaries, and connect with the visions, fears, and dreams of other changemakers. It was powerful to see the creative outcome of bringing together a group of diverse interdisciplinary thinkers and creating a container that celebrates each member's unique lived experience.

Gatherings such as this one are often invigorating in intellectual content and human connection, yet frustrating in their lack of concrete outcomes or expectations for continued engagement. Yet this one was not the case with our pause, we have remained in close relationship to our pause participants and there have been emergent connections among those we gathered. We have a multi-sided solution--it needs to serve and reach community-based organizations, movement-building artists, and urban professionals--thus, it was critical to receive the collaborative guidance of our participants across those boundaries.

At our pause we developed a clearer picture of how Blue Heart might succeed or fail. And we learned that when you put a technologist, a movement builder, an artist, and a two-month old in a room together, so much more emerges than just strategy: a shared, and perhaps more ambitious and beautiful, vision of a more just future.

We thank our pause participants Mateo Nube, LucĂ­a Hennelly, Kyle Lemle, Heidi Quante, Ilyse Magy, and Justin Hall. We also thank Marga at Casa Bella Inn for her warm welcome and accommodation of our group in gorgeous Sonoma.