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On the road to a just world: Echoing Green funds social and environmental entrepreneurs

November 11, 2019
topic:Economic Inclusion
tags:#climate change, #environment, #Green Economy
by:Yair Oded
For over 30 years, Echoing Green, a prestigious fellowship programme, has been uplifting and supporting entrepreneurs seeking to tackle major social and environmental issues. 

The two-year programme identifies visionary leaders from around the world and equips them with the tools, networks, funding and expertise required to advance their initiatives and create positive change within their communities and nations.

Throughout the programme, the fellows receive personalised guidance from a portfolio manager who assists them in developing leadership skills, organisational structures and strategies to transform their visions into realities.

“We walk them through competencies like fundraising and well-being, and, at the same time, they have a full-time portfolio manager to support them,” said Neil Yeoh, Deputy Director of Echoing Green’s Individual Fellow Support, who also oversees the climate portfolio. “The portfolio manager’s function is threefold: we’re a coach, a thought-partner for them, and a connector for our network both internally and externally,” he added. 

Over the two-year period, fellows are granted a stipend of $80,000 for individuals and $90,000 for partnerships, as well as a flexible benefit stipend. “Funding comes from a range of areas,” said Yeoh. “You need risk-tolerant patient capital for the next generation of solutionists to develop impactful solutions to the most pressing issues in the world. [Echoing Green’s] money comes from a mix of philanthropy, foundation money, and individual donors.”

Even after the conclusion of the two-year program, Echoing Green fellows continue to benefit from a lifelong support network. This network includes international gatherings that bring together fellows, alumni, business leaders and institutions. Fellows also have access to pro-bono legal counsel and investment advice to further their initiatives.

Through a highly competitive selection process, Echoing Green nominates 30 new leaders every year. So far, the fellowship has supported over 800 leaders from 86 countries. 

“The one thing that differentiates Echoing Green from the other fellowships out there, is that we have a very strong diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) lens to how we fund, and we’re willing to take a bet on the leader," said Yeoh. "We see potential in that individual where they have a solution that can generate systemic change in a social area and we incubate them.” 

Climate action through a lens of diversity

Echoing Green’s fellowship supports initiatives centering around several issues, including climate change, education, health, human rights, poverty, and racial justice, and its programmes are run through three main funding portfolios: global solutions, which addresses issues across the board and across sectors and industries; the climate change portfolio; and black men’s achievements, which funds initiatives tackling American social justice issues with black men and boys. 

Yeoh indicated that he and his colleagues observed three main trends among their 2019 climate fellows. The first was a significant increase in African social entrepreneurs with technical engineering skills working to develop large-scale technology solutions in order to mitigate the impact of climate change on their communities and countries and promote ecological sustainability.

One such initiative is Khainza Energy Limited, established by Arthur Woniala and Yunus Masaba, which aims to facilitate access to clean, affordable energy for people across Uganda by packaging high-quality biogas in recyclable cylinders for cooking and heating.

Yeoh also referenced the proliferation of nascent hard-technology startups in need of risk-tolerant patient capital (as provided by the Echoing Green grants), which would help them develop their products and bring them from the lab out into the marketplace, including solutions ranging from “additives to reduce emissions from diesel engine vehicles in the U.S., to micro bioreactors to convert organic waste to activated carbon in India.”

One of the most notable trends they observed, however, is a surge in urban climate initiatives in the U.S. empowering local businesses and residents to take climate action and become an active part of the solution. 

ISeeChange, a global online community encouraging people to post about the changes in their environment, is an example of such an initiative. Founded by Julia Kumari Drapkin, ISeeChange empowers local communities to document the changes noticed in their environment over time as a result of climate change through their platform and mobile tools.

The data collected by locals and ISeeChange investigators is then synced with weather and climate data in order to formulate a larger picture that reflects the actual struggles of people on the ground, help communities adapt as best as they can to changing climate trends and ensure that their voices are considered in the crafting of climate policies. 

Drapkin first became aware of the deficiency in specific climate early in her career during her tenure as a climate reporter. “As I covered disasters it was the same thing over and over - we weren’t specific enough, we couldn’t get granular enough. We couldn’t say climate change is impacting you and your daily life right now,” Drapkin told FairPlanet. 

Over the years, as Drapkin worked on developing ISeeChange, which originally started as a media project, she realised the enormity of disparities between the actual effect of natural disasters (such as storms and floods) and the model data employed by city and government agencies in order to construct infrastructure and prepare for them.

“We may spend a lot of public money on infrastructure that’s actually not well located or targeted for the problems they were designed to solve,” said Drapkin, adding that, “If you combine community stories and data to actually document these events in real time in real life, it’s actually proven to be more accurate than the model data and have suggested changes that need to be made.”

ISeeChange is headquartered in New Orleans, a city where the consequences of inadequate climate data collection have had severe repercussions. Following the catastrophic storms and floods that hit the city several years ago, the  authorities collected data for reconstruction and damage control purposes from sources that did not necessarily reflect the scope of the devastation, as it largely neglected the voices of low-income and minority communities.

The result, Drapkin pointed out, was the execution of inequitable recovery efforts that failed to resuscitate and strengthen many of the local communities most drastically affected by the floods.

By conducting expansive interviews with local communities, ISeeChange was able to construct an accurate map of the flood damage sustained by locals and highlight the disparities between those and the city’s original maps. ISeeChange then partnered with the city of New Orleans and used its data in order to inform infrastructure design, support communities in need and lower community insurance rates around flooding by increasing risk awareness. 

“We don’t empower communities; communities are naturally powerful,” Drapkin said, “so what we’re doing is mobilising and channelling that energy to visualise and document their experience; take that anecdote and turn it into the empirical data formats that are needed for cities and engineers and people to actually act upon.”

Combating food waste while fostering economic growth

Rust Belt Riders, an organisation based in Cleveland, is another example of a solution that empowers local businesses and residents to take environmental action. The initiative focuses on upcycling food waste into valuable products, filling the void left by insufficient government support and legislation.

The organisation's founders, Daniel Brown and Michael Robinson, sought to tackle what they defined as a most-troubling phenomenon: over 40 per cent of food waste in the United States ends up in landfills.

What began as a humble initiative with the two founders cycling from one business to another to collect food scraps has gradually transformed into a comprehensive local operation. The operation aims to combat food waste and stimulate economic growth in the U.S. Rust Belt by producing sustainable soil, mulch and fertilizer products derived from discarded food.

“Our core business is providing services to organisations and businesses, which looks a lot like services you’d be receiving from landfills or recycling services,” Brown told FairPlanet, “but we recently launched a programme that we call our 'community supported composting programme,' where individuals can start to utilise a similar food waste diversion service. They have a few strategic drop off locations throughout the city of Cleveland, where members are able to dispose of their household food scraps."

Brown added, “What makes our effort pretty unique nationally is that we’ve been able to do and make what we’ve made in the absence of legislation or policies that would otherwise provide tax incentives or mandates dictating how food-waste ought to be managed.

"We think that our laws and rules around food-waste in Ohio are not the most border-looking, and so our approach and tactics to encourage people to participate have been slow and methodical and considerate of the communities we’re trying to serve.”

Both Brown and Robinson shared that becoming Echoing Green fellows significantly benefited their efforts and introduced new prospects for their organisation.

“Echoing Green has already made a whole bunch of introductions to other organisations that might be facing similar issues as we are or navigating similar scenarios,” said Robinson, “the network, the staff, and the resources that they’ve provided are going to be extremely helpful.”

He added, “Echoing Green recognises the kind of intensity that comes with doing [climate] work and taking the time to understand a dire situation with great detail in order to come up with systematic solutions, and they provide that kind of emotional support necessary to be able to do this work despite other forces that are extremely interested and vested in not making the changes necessary to continue to have a planet that will sustain human life.” 

Empowering grassroots solutions: the way forward? 

The common thread connecting these initiatives is their focus on engaging local communities, addressing their specific needs and turning them into a core part of the solution to the ecological collapse of our planet.

“I think that community driven solutions are critical to systemically tackling climate change,” Yeoh said. In his view, dysfunctional economic systems are largely to blame for the degradation of our environment. Grassroots initiatives, he believes, are our biggest hope.

“If you have a broken system, and then you use that broken system to fix [itself], it doesn’t play out that well. If you put voices to communities that are actually impacted and ask what they think and what they need, you may be able to build more resilient cities and communities to what’s inevitable in climate change,” he said. 

This isn’t only true of climate change. Such an approach could be applied to transform the way we tackle issues of racial injustice, gender inequality, xenophobia and economic and health disparities.

Echoing Green champions this approach by uplifting solutions from the ground up. In turn, such initiatives have the potential not only to inspire large-scale policy, but also encourage local communities across the world to follow suit and empower the voices within them clamouring for social and ecological justice.

Article written by:
yair oded profile
Yair Oded
Managing Editor, Author
Embed from Getty Images
The programme locates visionary leaders from across the world and provides them with the tools, network, funds and expertise necessary to develop their initiatives and have a positive impact on their communities and countries.
Embed from Getty Images
Over the two-year period, fellows are granted a stipend of $80,000 for individuals and $90,000 for partnerships, as well as a flexible benefit stipend.
Embed from Getty Images
Such an approach has the key to transform the way we tackle issues of racial injustice, gender inequality, widespread xenophobia, and economic and health disparities - just to name a few.
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