To Release, Be Resilient, and Embrace Hip-Hop


Kristi Davis

Student Conservation Association Regional Gift Officer &

Center for Diversity & the Environment Board Member 

*Edited by Moira McEnespy

Kristi Davis Main

RR: I want to start by sharing how we got to this interview.  We met through your attendance at the Environmental Educator Collaborative listening session at Lawrence Hall of Science. But being part of what feels like a small community or people of color in the environmental community, what interested me is knowing how you moved from being the Executive Director of a major California advocacy organization to what you’re doing today…I want to know your story.

Let’s start from the beginning. I found a profile of you on the internet naming you as a conservation heroine, or a “real mama grizzly.” Where did this initial interest in conservation come from? What inspired you to be interested in being outside and to make a career of it?

KD: Well, there was not one particular moment. There were a number of milestones. The first time I went fishing with my Dad and godfather, I was six years old and it was the early ‘80s…I had “ROOS” shoes with a quarter zipped in and a brown bomber jacket, and we went down the coast in Big Sur. Being in the car with the cooler and fishing equipment is a special memory. We literally went tromping through the marsh and I remember distinctly thinking, “Where am I?” Even though we were honestly probably only 45 minutes from house. I caught a fish that day, and still have a picture of me with my Dad and godfather and a big fish. I loved being outside in nature with my Dad. I was a “tomboy” and needed space. Growing up in the suburbs, it was outside that I could roller-skate and bike ride and run and play and jump and not be confined…I had the freedom to run and play.

Then I got to do it with friends. I grew up in Monterey, California and did not realize how privileged I was to grow up between the Pacific Ocean and lush forests. I joined the Girls Scouts (Troop 2014!) and we went to Big Sur or the mountains, went creek walking, roasted s’mores, set up tents, and learned about giant sequoias in the Santa Cruz mountains. I remember looking up and learning about constellations, never realizing the stars were so bright, and thought “this is awesome!” I wanted to duplicate these memories, so in high school I joined the Earth Club and the Science Club, and in my sophomore and junior years volunteered during spring break to be an assistant naturalist to lead 6th-grade science camp in the Santa Cruz Mountains. For some of these kids it was their first time to be outdoors. It was the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, the beginning of green conservation movement. Our goal was to reduce and reuse, and the kids did not realize how simple it was (we split a napkin each meal and by the end of the camp it seemed like we had saved enough to make a whole tree), how you can do one small thing to decrease consumption and it adds up.

Then I went to Mount Holyoke in the east coast for college. College was not hard academically, but it was hard socially to be a brown girl from California on the east coast. I had to acclimate culturally, and again, the outdoors was a place where I could just “release” and not have to figure out how to “read between the lines”…not have to think about anything but hiking the Appalachian trail, or the mechanics of snowboarding down a mountain.

Mount Holyoke is the oldest all-women college in the country, and was established as a “need-blind” school, meaning that if one had the academics, one was accepted, and then financial aid was discussed if needed. I went there because there was so much diversity; I met women from Somalia, Ethiopia, Japan, China, Massachusetts, Hawaii, women from all aspects of life. But then in my senior year, the school’s financial difficulties changed the financial aid system from “need blind” to “need-sensitive,” which meant prospective students’ finances came into play. I felt so strongly that it was not OK for students to be judged by financial capability that I stopped going to class, protested with other students and had sit-ins in academic buildings, on the main road into town, The Boston Globe came and interviewed us. And I almost did not graduate. I called my parents and explained, “Okay, I know you’ve spend hundreds and thousands of dollars, but here’s the deal... I just don’t think its fair that students are going to be judged based on their financial capacity because in all actuality that also means that it’s going to be based on their race.” So my parents were really proud of me and said, “We support you and we’re going to help you figure this out.”

The president held a campus-wide open house and I stood up and asked, “You know, this was founded on free education for women, who are we to deny women the access to education, which is how most women have brought themselves out of poverty and other situations they are in.”). In response, the president at that time said,  “Well, I’m going to assume that you’re on financial aid and that that’s your concern…” In front of maybe, a thousand people I said, “Actually I’m not. My parents have worked 30+ years; my dad as a police officer and my mom as a Navy school accountant. They actually make just enough money that I don’t qualify for financial aid. Why would you assume I’m on financial aid?”. So in addition to advocating for free education access, there was also this interaction I had of, “you assumed this because I am black”. I’m positive that this is why this has happened. This became the starting point I started to see myself as an activist, to speak for the rights of women and the rights of the less advantaged and those who couldn’t speak for themselves.

The Fund for Public Interest Research approached me to become an activist, which gave me the opportunity to combine speaking for others with a love for the outdoors. Directly out of college, I drove cross-country from Massachusetts to California with my parents, then moved to the San Francisco Bay area and started canvassing door-to-door to raise awareness about clean air, clean water, and to raise money for those campaigns…a week later I was promoted to Campaign Director; one of five in Berkeley canvassing from Santa Rosa to San Jose. Doing this job, I realized how truly privileged I was to grow up in Monterey. I was talking about asthma, high infant mortality rates…talking to people and being in Point Richmond where the air smelled like oil and was murky bluish-green, talking to people who worked for big oil companies for 30 years. A lot of time people would say, “We get it, but this is our livelihood, and our kids have to eat and go to school”. I also learned about empathy as I watched people who were not truly affected give generously (of course there were also those who spit at our feet or called the police). I did this for almost two years, which is a long time in the canvassing business. Through these “boots on the ground” conversations, I realized that I had to be involved in this work no matter what.

I was 22 or 23 and was running the Berkeley and San Francisco canvassing offices, was singled out for an award out of the entire U.S. and had also piloted the very first national canvassing human rights campaign. Although I was getting tons of experience on the ground, I wasn’t learning how to run an organization. So I went to work for a for-profit organization, first as a research assistant and then as Director of Finance and Administration. I learned the ins and outs of business, and considered getting an MBA. It was such a good experience but there was no connection to the mission. Though I was making a lot of money, I went from fighting the good fight to talking about game theory and making as much profit as possible. So I volunteered.

I volunteered with the Bay Area Ridge Trail Council (BARTC) whose goal is a 350-mile trail around the ridge-tops of San Francisco. I experienced tons of government agencies coming together on a common cause and I realized had to get back into the nonprofit world. I applied to graduate school, went to work for Arriba Juntos (Upwards Together) to help young people find jobs, then for Women in Community Service (WICS). I loved the work, and got to do hands-on work directly with young people. Programs like the Treasure Island Job Corps taught skills like, how to dress for an interview, how to write a resume, etc… but a lot of kids did not have self confidence. So I decided to take a few young people out on a hike to teach them where they lived. This literally brought tears to my eyes. Kids born and raised in San Francisco or living on Treasure Island for years had no idea that just across the bridge is a beautiful State park, or that there are actually redwoods in Oakland! I was again trying to figure out how to empower young people through nature and conservation. A job at the Sierra Club Foundation enabled me to think big-picture and establish the “conservation and military program.” The idea was to take veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq into the outdoors as a place for meditation and relaxation, and to also take their kids. Most were brown faces, and I decided that was the work on wanted to focus on: creating space for communities of color.

I was always the one brown face growing up in Monterey, then private school, then college on the east coast. And I realized that if anything was going to change I had to be in position of power. I finished my masters at UCSF, and then had the privilege to become the Executive Director for the California Wilderness Coalition (CWC), an organization with a great reputation for change. The CWC’s mission is to create wilderness areas around California, but what makes it especially unique is its tactics.

The organization employed innovative advocacy methods; empowering, organizing and training local diverse (race, class, religion, etc) communities to become advocates and stewards of the land, something very special, something CWC became known for, and something I am very proud of.

RR: You have a wealth of experience and have had opportunities to jump into many positions…and amazingly each position seemed to inform your next step.

KD: Yes. Although my resume looks scattered, each move was always done purposefully and my end goal was always to become the Executive Director of a conservation organization. And one thing funders appreciated was the confidence given me by my Board of Directors; they saw that I was experienced and gave me that position. I was under the age of 40 and represented the next generation of conservation leadership.

RR: You talk about your end goal being the Executive Director of large conservation organization, but you are no longer with the CWC. Where are you now, and has your end goal changed?

KD: It is still my goal. I enjoyed almost five years as an executive director. It was an amazing opportunity to lead a statewide advocacy organization. I continue to be interested in politics, community building and advocacy. I chose to leave, so that I could focus not only on implementing solutions to our environmental challenges but to also focus on developing the next generation of conservation leaders. My current position with the Student Conservation Association (SCA) has allowed me to bridge this gap, while at the same time building a diverse community in support of this mission.

For example, there is so much anger and lack of hope in the City Oakland at times. I was inspired by Angela Davis and her belief that the answer is in self-love. If you give someone a job and teach them skills, that will empower them and create self-love. So providing young people with a strong skill set and self-empowerment while connecting them to nature will empower them to become the next generation of conservation leaders advocating for protection of our planet. SCA is taking those steps; it’s not only working in communities, but hiring from within those communities.

RR: So it feels like your current position is the culmination for you…it has it all?

KD: No one organization will ever be perfect, but my current position has it all right now, and provides the greatest opportunity to create impact and change.

RR: Let’s dive deeper into topic of diversity. You mentioned you were the only brown face in the crowd through school, etc. Have there been other moments professionally, and how did you approach them?

KD: Ever since I was little, my parents said to me “We want a better life for you, and you will be in certain situations where you will be only brown face or the only girl; so you have to be better than everyone else; people are expecting you to fail.” As a result I have always strived to be the best, not in terms of competition with others but the best for myself.

In terms of professional work, there have certainly been times where although I was not the only brown face, there were not a lot of us…and it was hard, especially in the beginning of my career. There have been occasions that there were other black women in positions of power. The organization was founded by a diverse group of women that stressed the importance of diversity; there were a number of women of color in positions to affect change. There was camaraderie between us. It was an empowering moment, I took notice and was grateful.

I have been able to meet more and more people in the field that “get it,” and new statistics indicate that funders are recognizing the importance of diversity. They understand the importance of diversity within an organization, which will allow for an organization to maintain its relevancy as the country’s racial composition changes. There are a number of courageous people (within our community) working to create change. We may find ourselves alone within our organization, but there is a community of support within the conservation field. With the globalization of communication (internet, email, Twitter, Facebook), communities of color, advocates for diversity are able to connect, share struggles, empower each other through shared experiences and build successes together.

RR: Being one with a different perspective can be a challenge, not only in the nonprofit world but in academia and other professions. I recall first wanting to know who is accountable, and what policies are in place. But at the end of day it’s about relationships. If you are not used to people of different backgrounds, then you don’t have the social practice to interact with difference. Talk about the importance of specifically being with communities of color; how important is that safe space?

KD: First, It is important to identify a support network. When I went through challenges in my career and thought about whether to continue within the conservation community, I had the opportunity to attend a talk with Angela Davis speak. She was asked, “You’ve been imprisoned and persecuted as you work to build a movement of equality and create change. How do you continue to do this challenging work?” She stated that she received support and recognition of her challenges from so many people, she recognized that she was not alone in her struggle. She had the support of a community.

It was then that I realized, if you feel alone, you become hopeless. But if you know others are going through the same struggles there is a community, a connection- a hope in knowing that others support you. We cannot do this challenging work alone; we are building a movement. It takes a community.  Even if you are not a person of color, this conservation work is hard, hard work that often takes 10-15 years to see real change. Having a support network makes it easier. And I in turn it becomes increasingly important to not only receive support but to share and give support.  My hope and goal is to give to those that come after me, to provide support to the next generation of young women leaders.

Secondly, I think that it is important to build a diversity of thought within an organization or a movement. Creating and affecting change should be a bit messy. When a diverse group of people come together you must create compromise, you create an end product that is better than if it had just come from one homogeneous group. In building a movement built upon diversity and compromise, you create a movement of buy-in and legitimacy. You have worked to create a constituency of diverse voices in support of one mission.

Advocacy creates the most legitimacy and the most power. I had the opportunity to speak with Van Jones, who equated the environmental movement to the civil rights movement: Blacks alone cannot effect change, we need allies. Similarly, conservationists need allies and people of color need allies. There needs to be groups that come together to effect the most change.

RR: But it’s important to have that safe space. The challenge is that sometimes it turns into more and smaller boxes of people…more segregation than collaboration. So how do we challenge ourselves to recognize the need for safe space, but to mix and get true diversity?

KD: That is the million-dollar question! It was posed at conference last summer, and a woman who is a renowned international advocate and fundraiser, Lynne Twist, author of The Soul of Money. We come from a standpoint of competition of resources (i.e., there are only so many pieces of the pie). We must let go of the idea of competition. We must celebrate our shared successes, which will draw more attention to the issue and the work we all do, and eventually it will come back to all of us. This is actually a spiritual idea and a practice:  a practice that I hope to incorporate into my everyday life as well as in my professional life. It is tied to how you were raised (self-worth and self-value)…not everyone will be at that same space.

RR: This idea really sounds like Buddhist practice…ego-less and letting go.

KD: It really brings an inner peace to yourself.

RR: Let’s talk about the challenge in working with stressed communities, and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Personally this is where the challenge is, figuring out how to flex between different upbringings, priorities, and needs.

KD: A lot of people operate out of fear, which holds you down. You have to be able to remove the fear and operate out of courage and faith. And it is hard to have faith and courage when rent is due in two weeks! But there comes a point where it’s about quality of life, and where it’s less of a job than a movement. Sacrifices become not for me but for the future of my children, i.e., so they can have clean air and water. But it’s still really, really hard! I would suggest that being grounded in some sort of support system with in-depth relationships beyond the professional helps to maintain my faith.  I am extremely lucky to have a strong support system. My parents continue to support and empower me every day. I am every grateful.

I reached an age where I just took a leap of faith and gave my resignation to the CWC…and one and a half weeks later I had a job offer! It’s about doing what is best for you and your family and your environment…something will come.

 RR: We’ve touched on a lot of details about your life and your perspective. Is there anything burning in your mind you want to say about diversity and the environmental movement, or being an environmental professional?

KD: Only one last thing: Truly in all honesty, we need to look to the next generation of young people to be our leaders. And I am hopeful. I don’t think it will be like the civil rights movement, where there were single unifying leaders such as Malcom X or MLK, Jr.…It will be more like a “hip-hop” environmental movement, where like in hip-hop its taken on so many different colors and has been molded to fit many different things. It’s important for us to think in terms of hip-hop when we think about the environmental movement. Similar to hip-hop, it will have so many different leaders, facets and faces. We need to be receptive to that and not try and mold the next generation into what we are used to and have seen in the past.

 Does this make sense? To think in terms of hip-hop?

RR: Yes! Totally! But at the same time I want to say, I think it makes sense “to us”. But I think that nails it in that sense that hip-hop is a global phenomenon!

KD: And I’ve talked to people before about, how do we change it? Do you work within the system or from outside? And I think its a bit of both. It think there are some organizations that are huge and have been around for a really long time. Change happens slowly. They may have the best intentions, but it just is taking them a long time. Organizations like the Audubon Society or the Trust for Public Land, they’ve been doing this work for a really long time and have made true strides in the past 10 years; in terms of changes to their boards, who they hire, and their programming. It is possible, but it takes time and patience, and takes the operating from all levels and structures.

RR: The bigger the organization, the slower the change. But like you said, we need to rely on youth. Eventually there’s going to be turnover. And that’s why I say, hip-hop is a world-wide phenomenon and is relevant to more youth than ever. And the old guard is going to have to surrender to this movement.

KD: Yes, you have to be relevant, you have to be.