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Building that Village in the Willamette Basin – An Interview with Allison Hensey

“Long-term flexible capacity funding is key because the on-the-ground funding just can’t be overstated. That strategy has really borne fruit because it enables people to take much bigger risks and make bigger commitments in projects and of the scale of those projects than they were able to before.”

The Willamette Basin is a hard-working western river system. Over two-thirds of the state’s population lives in this 11,460 square mile region which includes three-quarters of the state’s economic activity.

And, like other river systems, the health of this Basin is deteriorating from the factors we’re all familiar with: a rapidly warming climate, increasing population, pesticide runoff, and outdated reservoir operations.

Ten years ago, Oregon’s Meyer Memorial Trust commited to a long-term grant program to build success in the Basin by building the capacity and connective tissue among the river’s stakeholders. That $19 million grant program has now involved into the Willamette River Network.

Allison Hensey, the Director of the Trust’s initiative, has been instrumental in launching this new network. In this issue of Confluence, she shares how they’ve built these smart, collaborative partnerships over the past ten years, and the evolution to this exciting new network.

Carpe Diem West’s Willamette Future Project has been a partner in this Initiative, and our final plan outlines the source water protection strategies as part of the overall work of the Willamette River Network.

Read Carpe Diem West’s interview with Allison Hensey below.

Over the past decade, Meyer Memorial Trust’s Willamette River Initiative has funded a wide variety of groups in the Willamette Basin for a total to date of $20 million. What was the strategy behind such a diverse funding portfolio?

Our focus is to support meaningful, measurable improvements in the health of the Willamette River system, and better alignment of agencies, NGOs, funders, and other key Willamette River stakeholders doing this work. We’ve been investing in building a strong foundation for long-term efforts to protect and restore the Willamette River. It’s been about strengthening individual organizations but also strengthening the connective tissue between players within the field so that they are working together and are going in the same direction, and so that there’s better information, and capacity, and strategy for this work.

The importance of long-term flexible capacity funding can’t be overstated. It’s been a missing piece in the puzzle to enable scaling-up projects to improve river health and their impact in the past. Pairing that will long-term funding for on-the-ground river restoration projects has been a key strategy and has really borne fruit because it enables people to take much bigger risks and make bigger commitments in terms of projects and of the scale of their effort than they were able to before. It also enabled them to spend time around shared learning and working on alignment and collaboration because that’s hard to make time for if you’re not funded to do so.

A diverse portfolio like this requires a great deal of cat-herding and that is where so many foundations fear to tread. Why did the Meyer Memorial Trust decided to launch this initiative? You could’ve gone in so many easier directions.

In the mid-2000s, the Trust realized that it was supporting good work around the state on all manner of issues, environment, social services, housing, education, but it was hard to understand the difference it was making with the funding. So, the trustees and staff decided to see if by focusing more deeply in a specific area, and by making a long-term commitment to that focus area, we could get a better sense of the possible impact and also test new strategies to see if they could move the needle through sustained focus, funding and backbone support.

As a result of these conversations, the Trust started three initiatives. One was focused on improving educational outcomes, which became the Chalkboard Project and now lives outside of the Trust through Foundations for a Better Oregon. Recognizing that the environment is incredibly important to Oregonians and the Willamette Basin is where they majority of Oregonians live, the second became the Willamette River Initiative, housed within Meyer. The third was creation of an affordable housing initiative within the Trust.

The second part of your question was around the cat-herding. We look at it as more of an invitation to participate in a sustained conversation together and learning together. As you well know, if you run a network it requires continually touching base with folks. It’s about building trust and relationships and therefore coming to more of a shared sense of identity and understanding. That also enables a basin-wide view where you have a much better understanding of who the players are, what the opportunities are, and what the barriers are. And by having those relationships and that trust and resources that you can offer as well, you’re able to say, “Hey, I see an opportunity here and we can actually support you in trying to address that opportunity,” or, “You know, there’s a barrier, let’s try to break that down together.” And so, it’s kind of a magic combination where you have the ability to build trust in relationships and have an understanding of the needs of the field and then resources to try and address those over a longer time period.

However, we have come to learn that ten years is not that long. So, just as people really got going and started having significant impact, they also began to see the end horizon of the funding, and, you can’t keep your engine going at top speed when you know that you’re going to have to stop at some point on the horizon. I would say that for this kind of work – for a funding entity to do something similar – they would actually need a longer time period and funding commitment.

That said, it still has been exceptional to see what people are capable of when you provide a long-term funding commitment and support to supercharge their efforts and unlock untapped potential.

The Willamette River Initiative has been taking the lead in allying with folks of color and indigenous communities in the basin. Please talk about that and talk a little bit about how these communities are impacted.

In 2015, the Meyer Memorial Trust redesigned our strategies, priorities, and grant programs to focus on addressing disparities and supporting equity and inclusion. A beginning point for the Willamette River Initiative, was to support some of our core grantees learning what that equity and inclusion would mean in this work. So, we’ve supported two year-long training cohorts for grantees in understanding racism, dismantling racism and equity and inclusion. And that’s been really powerful.

We also, at the same time, have supported operations, projects and learning cohorts for a number of different nonprofit and community-based organizations who focus on advancing equity and inclusion connected with environmental education or river health in some way. And that meant that we needed to engage in relationship building and to broaden our circle and our understanding of what this work means. And it’s been incredibly rich and it feels like, for everybody involved, it’s been deeply meaningful to begin to set a new table and have a broader and more diverse group of leaders and voices engaged in working on river health needs. This is the beginning of building a stronger, more relevant movement for people and rivers thriving together.

We’ve also recognized that when we began this initiative our grantees were primarily white-led mainstream conservation groups. We realized that in addition to engaging in learning and deepening understanding about the inequities in our society and in this movement and also in the opportunities to change that, we also needed to support similar learning and understanding amongst communities of color and indigenous people who are also part of this dominant culture. That’s something we’ve been supporting that will enable all of us, to step into a deeper conversation about how this work looks different, how leadership looks different if we want to have a far more equitable and inclusive river movement.

Now we’re engaged in creating the new community-led Willamette River Network to continue this evolution. This is an incredible opportunity to have leadership who have deep expertise in not only river restoration but also in environmental justice, and in equity and inclusion in the conversation movement. We now have a new board and staff for the Willamette River Network that will mean that we’ll have a network that will bring supportive leadership that can help reset that table and reframe what conversations and decision-making looks like, and who is involved. That’s really exciting for me, because that means that this work will be more relevant, I hope, to everybody in the Willamette Basin in the future.

You’re heading out in 2020 for that wonderful year of traveling. What would you like to see in the basin and with the newly launched Willamette River Network when you’re back in 2021?

Oh, that’s exciting to think about! I would like to see a more connected and synergistic group of individuals and organizations who are working towards a more equitable, inclusive and impactful river movement. I would hope that they have been successful together in engaging communities and voices from across the basin who bring different perspectives and with experience and that will make this effort stronger. I hope they’ve identified a vision for the next two decades, and are successful in engaging funders and decision-makers from across the basin in saying they care about the river and making sure that there is significantly increased investment in its health over the long term. In the face of climate change, population growth, and increasing water scarcity, we have to work together to protect this river system and the people who call this place home, or we won’t succeed.

Allison comes to Meyer after a childhood spent on Western rivers and a career in collaborative conservation. Her work supports people improving the health of the Willamette River and its tributaries, which run through the majority of Oregonians’ lives.  Before joining Meyer in 2015, Allison led the Sustainable Agriculture and Watersheds Program at Oregon Environmental Council, and was a Policy Specialist at the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board. She is a volunteer board member with the East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District, which helps people care for land and water. She has a J.D. from the University of Oregon, and a B.A. from Claremont McKenna College.



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