- Justin Schott
Transitions and Transformations
Updated: May 27, 2020
I stepped into my role as Executive Director in 2015, a difficult time for EcoWorks when we were still facing significant debt burdens with an uncertain path to stability. We also faced a number of leadership transitions at the time but had the space and commitment from staff to re-envision the future of EcoWorks. This is the beauty of organizations: that they have lifespans that can stretch beyond the visions of their founders, of generations of Executive Directors (by my count I am the sixth), funding cycles, and huge changes within the landscape we work in.
I am deeply proud of what we’ve achieved over the last five years and where we are headed. Today, more than ever, we seek out and create work that is visionary and focused on racial justice and equity. Our work over the next decade or more will be defined by a few powerful questions:
How can we work with residents to create efficient, affordable housing that contributes to health and economic security for families and neighborhoods?
How can we empower and leverage the leadership of small businesses, grassroots organizations, public sector institutions and municipalities to demonstrate a path to an equitable, vibrant, and zero carbon society?
How can we prepare young people for an uncertain future with increasing climate impacts, affirm their wholeness as individuals, and create space for them to be heard and contribute to their schools and communities?
I imagine people may be wondering, “So why leave now?” I often find myself asking the same question. I feel called to be in the thick of the work, immersed up to my neck in cutting carbon. I’m already leaning into this by taking on the role of Project Manager for the Detroit Climate Strategy with EcoWorks, and I hope to continue contributing to related initiatives like our Net Zero F.A.S.T. initiative.
In stepping down, I’m also making space for a new leader to infuse EcoWorks with fresh perspective. I believe rotating leadership is a healthy practice organizations need to evolve and thrive. But if I’m being honest, I mean this as more than a euphemism. I mean that EcoWorks has been led by straight white men for the last 25 years, and this needs to change.
This has never sat well with me, even from the moment I applied to serve as ED. I was told by a few that environmental organizations still get a bit of pass for the composition of their leadership, which I can’t accept. White men like me have plenty of gaps, blind spots and ways that we hold back movements for justice and equity, even if unintentionally. That is a consequence of our privilege we cannot escape, even with trainings and intensive work to be allies with justice-driven movements. After years of reflecting on this, I believe there are serious costs to the executive history of environmental organizations, and EcoWorks has the opportunity to embrace change. Getting serious about racial justice and equity means, as a minimal starting point, that we can no longer dance around the issue, we have to address it directly and transparently.
No matter how effective we believe we are, how mindful and responsive to other justice principles, and how connected to our communities and partners, we cannot fulfill our mission by reserving a disproportionate number of seats at the table for white men. In some ways, it’s like how blanketing our atmosphere with too many greenhouse gases results in climate change—it’s not personal, it’s just physics. After decades of dominating the seats, it is our responsibility to step back and serve in solidarity, supporting people in underrepresented groups in taking the helms. I’m eager to do my part.
In the midst of the pandemic, we have seen the crushing, disproportionate outcomes that result from the vacuum of presidential leadership, and phenomenal outcomes from bold leadership and collective civic action—often by women--in places like Senegal, South Korea, New Zealand, Mongolia, and Finland. Exemplary leadership among women and people of color is too often overlooked, and it matters most in times of crisis.
I see our greatest legacy as more than the work we do, but as the people we are and the organization we are becoming. I’m not going far from EcoWorks and will continue to serve in a part-time role as Project Manager for the Detroit Climate Strategy through at least August 2021 and support the incoming transition of our next ED. I have more to say and an abundance of people to thank, but I’ll hold that for a later time.
Until then, thanks for supporting our work, for believing in and backing me, and for sharing the opportunities on our horizon. I look forward to many more years together on the good, green path ahead.