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What we learned at the Funders’ Briefing on Environmental Education in the Southeast

Peer-funders and experts join Blue Sky Funders Forum, Pisces Foundation, and Southeastern Environmental Education Alliance for briefing on environmental education in the southeast

In the United States, the southeast receives only 8% of the $116 million in philanthropic investments for environmental literacy, outdoor experiences, and connections to nature. This disparity of funding in the region, unfortunately, mirrors inequities in access to green spaces, education, healthcare, and economic opportunities. With this in mind, the Blue Sky Funders Forum, Pisces Foundation, and Southeastern Environmental Education Alliance (SEEA) recently hosted a forum for peer-funders and experts to explore findings from a recent landscape analysis of environmental literacy in the southeast. With insights into the assets and barriers to furthering environmental literacy in the states of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee, the funders briefing also provided a space for attendees to connect with peer-funders to explore opportunities for collaboration.

Jason Morris, Senior Program Officer at the Pisces Foundation, said the event was designed “to highlight some of the amazing work going on in the southeast and to share about how an increased investment and a slightly different frame of reference can strengthen and build environmental education and outdoor learning in this area.”

The conversation also highlighted how an investment in environmental education and outdoor learning not only leads to positive educational and conservation outcomes but also positive health and wellness, social justice, and youth development outcomes. “When children engage in this type of learning in meaningful ways, our communities become stronger and our world becomes a more diverse and equitable place,” Morris said.

To plan the event, Morris was joined by Berkeley Bryant, Program Coordinator at the Blue Sky Funders Forum; SEEA Executive Director Ashley Hoffman; and Environmental Educators of North Carolina Executive Director Lauren Pyle. The goals were to help funders learn about current needs and trends within environmental education (EE) across the southeast; to explore how funders can explore and make use of data from a recent regional landscape analysis; to offer a space for funders to network with one another; and to collaboratively discuss solutions and strategies for funders to help advance the field of EE in the southeast.

In an overview of the field, Bryant shared details about the Tracking the Field searchable grants database, which is led by the Environmental Grantmakers Association. She also shared a snapshot of environmental literacy grantmaking from the past several years, explaining that only 6% of recent environmental philanthropy has gone to environmental literacy and education initiatives, and a high percentage of these grants are less than $50,000. The areas of the US that receive the highest levels of environmental literacy funding are the northeast, the Pacific coast, and at the federal level, and that the areas that receive the least amount of environmental literacy funding (which include the southeast) are the most racially and ethnically diverse (2020 Census Redistricting Data). In the southeast, a highly racially diverse region, the median grant size for environmental literacy initiatives is a mere $2,000. (In comparison, the northeast, which receives 24% of environmental literacy funding and is less racially diverse, has a median environmental literacy grant size of $15,000.)

In addition to sharing how increasing philanthropic dollars to environmental education and meaningful experiences outdoors in the southeast is a top priority for the Blue Sky Funders Forum and how structural, systems-wide funding is crucial to build a sustainable movement that advances the role of environmental and outdoor learning, Morris highlighted the work being done by SEEA and its eight state associations. “In many ways, the connective tissue between these states is greater than in many of the regions of the country,” he said. “We at the Pisces Foundation work to amplify good work and shine a spotlight on good work, as does Blue Sky. There’s true investment potential to bring about some structural, durable, systems-wide changes, and the work that SEEA has done has positioned the region well for some significant advancements.”

Ashley Hoffman (SEEA Executive Director) and Lauren Pyle (Environmental Educators of North Carolina) shared key findings from Phase 1 of a robust regional landscape analysis of environmental education in the southeast. They explained how funders can use the many tools created as part of Phase 1 to determine funding priorities and identify needs and gaps and how, based on the findings from Phase 1 of the landscape analysis, funders looking to make a significant impact on environmental literacy in the southeast have the opportunity to fund systems-level initiatives that fill identified gaps; fund systems-level support, including staffing; support training and planning time for environmental education providers to dig into evaluation, demographics, and equity work; and adjust funding requirements and priorities to support strategies that address the opportunities.

After the highlights from Phase 1, Hoffman shared updates about the launch of a Phase 2 survey, which is currently being distributed to PreK-12 schools across the southeast. Finally, she shared that thanks to a new partnership between EcoRise, NAAEE, and the Affiliate Network, Phase 1 of the project will be scaled nationwide, and plans are underway to include maps of all 50 states by the fall of 2023.

The event ended with a panel discussion that featured Alfred Mays (Senior Program Officer and Director and Chief Strategist for Diversity and Education at the Burroughs Wellcome Fund), Dawn Chavez (Executive Director of Asheville GreenWorks), Christine Smith (Executive Director of Seedleaf), Sarah Bodor (Director of Policy and Affiliate Relations at the North American Association for Environmental Education), and Jason Morris. The panelists shared stories about projects they’ve funded; the need for capacity-building support to provide environmental educators and interns with an equitable and living wage; inspiring stories of how funders and organizations worked together to make an impact; successful advocacy initiatives; and the power of student voices when it comes to inspiring and creating change.

Learn more about the event and the work being done in the southeast


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