Elena Bilheimer, EcoNews Journalist
Caroline Griffith, NEC Executive Director
The following is an interview with the Northcoast Environmental Center’s new Executive Director, Caroline Griffith.
How did you develop a passion for environmental justice issues?
I think it came out of living in Portland, Oregon in my early 20’s when I got a job canvassing for an environmental organization. I really enjoyed the job, mostly because I like talking to strangers and had an interest in politics. Also, we all need clean water and that’s mostly what we were talking about. The job was going door-to-door in neighborhoods throughout the Portland metro area fundraising. Going to different neighborhoods with people of varying socioeconomic backgrounds and talking to them about environmental issues was incredibly eye opening, particularly seeing the wealth disparity and the caring disparity in different neighborhoods. I think that’s what kind of radicalized me, to go to these higher income, predominantly white neighborhoods where people did not care at all and to hear people say things like, “I don’t care about the pulp mill dumping dioxin in the river. That’s just part of doing business and I don’t worry about it. I just don’t fish near where they dump.” And then we would go to neighborhoods that were right next to Superfund sites because of the dumping in the river and to have people who were very working class and people of color be like, “Yeah, I know that’s a problem. I see it. You know, my kids can’t swim down there, but I just don’t have the time and energy to do anything about this because I’m so worried about just living.” And that really just drove it home to me that these are not just issues of clean water and clean air. It’s about who gets access to the clean water and the clean air.
What experiences have you had that have prepared you for being the Executive Director for the NEC?
Strangely enough, I have to say that the experiences that I have had as a waitress and a bartender have prepared me for pretty much any job that involves interacting with the public, hearing their concerns and managing a lot of different things at once. Obviously, as the Executive Director of the NEC it is a little bit different than all the things that you come up against as a bartender, but a lot of it is paying attention, listening to people and deciding what is the most important issue at the time, and kind of triaging things. I’ve also done a lot of work on different political campaigns, state and local electoral campaigns, and building coalitions with different people who are working towards the same goal. I think that a lot of those skills translate to the NEC. I’ve also worked a lot in nonprofits as well, so I’m used to the labor of love involved with working for underfunded organizations.
What most excites you about becoming the Executive Director for the NEC?
The possibilities. I think that there’s a lot of different directions that we could go in as we transition into the next 50 years. There’s just so much work that the NEC has done that we could follow any of those directions. It’s exciting to me to think about taking the institutional knowledge and expertise that a lot of the folks who have been involved over the years have and bringing that to a younger generation of activists. We’re in a period of generational transition in general. I think a lot of the folks in the movement are kind of graying out. We also are a largely white organization, and I’m excited about transitioning out of that and into having a more diverse board and more diverse staff and to be able to learn from new younger people of different backgrounds, learn their experiences, and decide what direction we go. I’m also just really excited about that new energy from younger people. I’m excited about the new interns that we are going to be able to hire and the new campaigns that we’re going to be able to work on because we have that energy.
What is your favorite part about working for the NEC?
That’s a super good question. I really do like that because the NEC has been around for a really long time, there is a certain amount of trust that it seems people are already giving me simply because of that. I have had a number of people who have a lot of experience that I don’t have approach me, not necessarily to take me under their wing, but help get me up to speed on things, which has been really exciting. The information and the things that I’ve learned in the last few months, just by being able to step into this role, has been really exciting. I also really like the staff and enjoy working with them. The energy that is there is invigorating to me, especially in this very weird time.
What is your biggest hope for the NEC?
Oh, I really hope that we are able to get with the times. My biggest hope is that we are able to open up and welcome more people of color, younger people, and people of different socioeconomic backgrounds into the movement. I think that my biggest criticism of the environmental movement in general is that it is predominantly white and pretty elitist. I don’t think that is the intention of most of the people involved in it, but definitely there’s a whole big sector of the population that I think could have a home in this movement if we were to help make them feel welcome and give them that space. So I hope that we can gracefully make that transition into younger, more diverse leadership.
Where is your favorite place to connect with nature?
Right now, it’s the Smith River. I absolutely love the Smith River and I think it’s such an important and beautiful place. It’s one of the few wild, undammed rivers in California, and it’s amazing to see the difference compared to some of our other waterways. The clear, cold water, the geology, the rare plants, all the salamanders, it’s a very special place. There’s still work to be done to heal the damage done to the mouth of the river by agriculture and settler colonialism, and to head off continual threats of mining operations at the headwaters in Oregon, so I am grateful to know there are so many people working to keep it safe.