Sometimes the Problem is Us

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When I rowed in college, a bajillion eons ago, I held one oar on the port side of a nine-person boat. When we fell out of balance, my first assumption was that the problem came from starboard— I blamed the four rowers holding oars on the other side of the boat.

These days, I row alone in the early morning on Lake Champlain, before the wind kicks up. I row with an oar in each hand— I’m holding both starboard and port oars. So, now if something’s causing the boat to drift off course, I have to figure out how to come back into balance. It’s one of my lessons of getting old— I’m starboard. The problem is likely coming from me. 

In her recent piece as part of a blog series of hosted by Justice Funders, Crystal Hayling of the Libra Foundation talks about the challenge of actually addressing where problems come from. We may know to look upstream to find what’s causing trouble in our downstream communities. When we look upstream, however, we’re troubled to find that “upstream is us.” Crystal writes: “The phrase ‘going upstream’ is often used to describe getting to the source of the problem. But the problems aren’t just ‘out there.’ Habits of inequality live within us and our institutions as well.” Crystal encourages us to look critically at every level of our organization: What are the problems we’re trying to solve? How do our own actions contribute to these problems?

Crystal is speaking as the executive director of a foundation devoted to human rights issues across the United States. She’s conscious of how racism and racial inequality run through the focus areas of their mission, and how assumptions and practices within their foundation can get in the way of marginalized communities building their own power. She describes how an examination of their Women’s Rights grants resulted in deeper support for and greater trust in community-based organizations led by women of color and low-income women.

High Meadows promotes vibrant communities and a healthy natural environment while encouraging long-term economic vitality in Vermont— that’s our mission. We also see how systems of economic injustice and histories of land ownership have created unequal concentrations of wealth, privilege and power across the state. We’re now asking ourselves whether, in following our mission, High Meadows is perpetuating this landscape of inequality.  

This month, we’re hosting a learning session for funders interested in the health and integrity of Vermont’s forests. While we’ll talk about the drivers of forest fragmentation and approaches to active forest management and conservation, Dr. Cheryl Morse, Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Vermont, will join us to talk about language, perspective, perceptions. With Cheryl, we’ll look at how state leaders, natural resource professionals, and local residents and practitioners have diverging ideas about what is and isn’t meant when we talk about Vermont’s working landscape. The tensions and gaps in understanding between these perspectives have to do with class, race, power, education, and the geographic divides of our state.

What we have to learn about class and power in Vermont is essential in our learning about forest health and integrity. We believe it’s important to all of the efforts of our partners with a landscape-based focus in this state. In this work, none of us are rowing our own boat. Each of us holds an oar— we all have a role in both the problem of inequality and the solution.