2020 Goldman Environmental Prize winner for South and Central America, Nemonte Nenquimo. Photo by Jeronimo Zuñiga, Amazon Frontlines.
2020 Goldman Environmental Prize winner for South and Central America, Nemonte Nenquimo. Photo by Jeronimo Zuñiga, Amazon Frontlines.

With the end of the year comes award season (be on the lookout for IP’s own IPPYs next week!), and this year, it arrives amid unprecedented philanthropic attention—at least for now—on racial equity. A recent report released by the Center for Effective Philanthropy found that nearly 90% of foundation leaders interviewed said they planned to focus more on racial equity in the future.

If such efforts pan out, it will have been a long time coming for environmental funders, whose ranks and grantees have historically been overwhelmingly white. There are bright spots, however, including two recently announced rounds of awards that offer a snapshot of the many diverse and inspiring grassroots leaders who are winning environmental victories and advancing movements, often with only minimal funding.

The annual Goldman Environmental Prizes, sometimes called the “Nobels of environmentalism,” have for more than two decades uplifted daring work by diverse and often little-known grassroots activists from around the world. And the Catalyst Awards from Rachel’s Network, now in their second year, focus on women of color leading the environmental movement in the United States.

“Grassroots environmental heroes”

The Goldman Prize, which we’ve covered for years, was created by the late Rhoda H. Goldman and Richard N. Goldman, who founded an insurance brokerage firm based in San Francisco. In 1951, the couple formed the Goldman Fund, which supported arts and culture, Jewish affairs, and the environment before closing its doors in 2011. The Goldman Prize continues as a separate entity, and the couple’s children carry on the family’s philanthropy.

The awards have a somewhat participatory structure. Candidates are nominated by a panel of nearly 30 nonprofits. One winner is chosen for each of the six inhabited continents, with a focus on private citizens over NGO leaders, and each winner is granted $175,000. Recipients are often from rural villages or less developed cities, and many take on great personal risk in their work.

This year’s winners included Leydy Pech, an indigenous Mayan beekeeper from a community where the practice stretches back centuries, who led a coalition that blocked Monsanto from planting genetically modified soybeans in southern Mexico.

Another winner, Kristal Ambrose, spent two days trying to pull plastic out of a sea turtle while working at an aquarium, which set her on a mission to reduce plastic waste, most recently winning a ban on single-use plastic in the Bahamas.

Nemonte Nenquimo is an Indigenous Waorani woman working to protect her tribe’s ancestral territory and way of life in the Amazonian rainforest. She led a campaign and legal action that resulted in a court ruling protecting 500,000 acres of rainforest from oil extraction, setting an important precedent in Ecuador for other Indigenous tribes.

And Paul Sein Twa, who is an indigenous Karen (one of eight ethnic groups in Myanmar), led a successful campaign to establish a 1.35-million-acre park that seeks to preserve both peace and biodiversity in an area that has often been a conflict zone.

Tragically, these awards also highlight the risks that such leaders face in many parts of the world, as in the cases of former Goldman Prize winners Isidro Baldenegro López and Berta Cáceres, both of whom were murdered for their activism.

“Building a healthier, safer, and more just world”

While Goldman is international, the Catalyst Awards focus on women environmental leaders of color working in the United States and its territories. The awards were created by Rachel’s Network, which organizes women donors and grantmakers supporting environmental health and justice issues.

Named for pioneering environmentalist Rachel Carson, the funding power of the network’s individual members reaches into the tens of millions annually. But it also runs a handful of joint funding programs using a unique “member-led, staff-supported co-funding model” in which network members propose and then rally around specific causes.

In 2017, for example, the group partnered with the Sierra Club and gave $50,000 to organizations that were fighting against existing and proposed border walls. That funding, along with an additional $25,000 to the Texas Civil Rights Project, was dedicated to “backing the broad coalition of groups working on the issue and legal support for landowners along the border.”

While not an obvious choice, that project is a perfect microcosm of the intersections where the network operates, which reject the concept that environmentalism, racial justice, immigrant rights and feminism must be mutually exclusive categories. The 2020 Catalyst Awards are yet another example of the network’s multifaceted approach.

The nine women of color who were honored by the network this year come from a wide array of backgrounds and disciplines. Many, like Doria Robinson of California’s Urban Tilith and Leah Penniman of Upstate New York’s Soul Fire Farm, are focused on food justice for people of color. Others, like Amy Cordalis of the Yurok Tribe and Alannah Hurley of Alaska’s United Tribes of Bristol Bay, are Indigenous leaders whose work is centered on environmental justice for their people. Others still are tackling the effects of colonialism on the environment and environmental racism.

In a statement to IP, Ariana Carella, who directs the network’s award program and collective grantmaking, said that “over 600 women have applied to or have been nominated to the Catalyst Award in the past two years”—an impressive feat, given the group’s age and niche. That response, Carella said, proves why Rachel’s Network and the work they do is so necessary and helps them navigate their future.

“The overwhelming response to this award, in addition to the bevy of reports on the meager funding in this space, demonstrates that women need more attention and support,” she said. “In 2021, we plan to invest in women’s leadership in a deeper and more nuanced way.”

Carella acknowledges that environmental justice will hopefully have more of a champion in President-elect Joe Biden, while noting that “this work is necessary and important regardless of the political climate.”

“Historically, there has not been enough money directed to environmental justice or women-of-color-led organizations,” Carella said. “We are glad to see tides shifting in philanthropy here.”

There are a lot of prizes out there. And there are even more amazing, dogged and worthy leaders working to protect the environment and our climate than there are honors to hand out. But in giving the stage to individuals and movements who have historically lacked prime-time attention from the mainstream environmental establishment, these prizes are worthy of special attention.

The public face—and funding landscape—of environmentalism showed some signs of changing this year. Yet green philanthropy still has much progress to make toward equity. These awardees show the possibilities such a shift could empower.