“Stuff Is Broken. Let’s Fix It”: Sandra Goldmark on Why We Need the Circular Economy

Every day, the average American produces five pounds of trash a day.

It’s a number that might not seem like a lot, but at scale, it’s staggering: By the end of one year, America as a nation has produced 268 million tons of new trash — enough garbage to fill 12,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

And of those millions of tons of new waste that end up in our landfills, less than a third of it is recyclable. That means that solving this problem will take so much more than just recycling better, and more often — it’ll take radically rethinking our relationship with how we purchase, what we purchase, how frequently we purchase, and perhaps most importantly, what we do with the things we have when we’re ready to throw them away.

In honor of Earth Day 2021, NationSwell is launching a content series exploring solutions from the Circular Economy, which the Ellen MacArthur Foundation defines as “a systemic approach to economic development designed to benefit businesses, society, and the environment. In contrast to the ‘take-make-waste’ linear model, a circular economy is regenerative by design and aims to gradually decouple growth from the consumption of finite resources.”

To kick off this series, I spoke with NationSwell Council member Sandra Goldmark, Director of Campus Sustainability and Climate Action for Barnard College, who quite literally wrote the book on the Circular Economy. Here’s what she had to say.

NationSwell: Thank you so much for speaking with me, Sandra. To start things off, would you be able to define the Circular Economy for our readers?

Sandra Goldmark: A big part of what we do as humans is extract resources from the earth. We turn them into things, and use them, and then we’re done with them. Right now we operate in a linear system where those goods just go right back into the earth, in the form of landfill.

But a circular system, and a circular economy, are different. When we move towards a circular system, we harness those resources and feed them into new processes, products, or goods. And along the way, increase, access, health and benefits for the human communities working on those goods. There’s no material that is ever considered unused. Just like in the natural world, every by-product or outcome of any process gets fed back into another process.

Why do we so urgently need to shift towards a circular system as soon as possible?

Right now, thank God, we are really beginning to take some serious strides on climate change. Biden has laid out a really impressive infrastructure plan. We are all of a sudden looking at transitioning our entire car fleet essentially to electric vehicles over the next 10 to 20 years.

However, if we build all that infrastructure, build all those new cars, build all those energy efficient appliances with the old linear model, then yes, we’ve switched to renewable energy, but we have not eased the pressure on the natural resources, which is a huge problem. We can’t approach our new climate plans as though switching to renewables is the only thing we need to do to be truly sustainable. We need to adopt a circular economy by building new systems and infrastructure and objects with existing, pre-extracted resources — rather than extracting new ones.

In your book, you talk about how the Circular Economy advances equity. Can you talk about how?

My entree into circularity really came from thinking about waste and environmental impacts. But as soon as I began actually looking at it, I realized very quickly that you can’t separate the human, the social impacts and the environmental impacts of these broken practices. Not that they’re one in the same, but they’re so closely linked that you really can’t look at one without looking at the other.

Look at a garment that you might buy. If it is cheap and poorly made, that means that the person making it was paid very, very little. That means that most likely the community where it was made was facing some negative environmental impacts from the manufacturer of that garment. And that means that most likely it won’t last very long and it will go to landfill.

And so if you start thinking about a different kind of garment, one where the person making it was paid a fair wage, where the true cost of the materials and the distribution of it from an environmental standpoint was paid for, you might be looking at a more durable garment. One that is, for example, repairable, where all of a sudden, a local artisan where you live might earn some money fixing it and where it could be passed on to somebody else when you’re done with it — maybe at a lower cost than the original price for a new garment.

And so all of a sudden there are these cascading benefits to rethinking what we pay for the objects that we make. Can we pay a little more to have new objects that are higher quality? Can we pay to have things fixed? Can we pay to have systems for circulating things within the community? And thereby increasing wages for manufacturers, increasing access to quality goods at the local community level and creating local jobs… it’s all there as soon as you start to look.

And in fact, the roots of the problem are also all about how much we’re paying people. Like, there’s no way we’re going to have repair shops exist again in the United States in a robust way if we’re competing against these artificially low wages overseas. So fighting for fair wages overseas is actually, when you’re looking at a circular model, is also a way of fighting for local jobs. Those jobs can be in the reuse and repair sector. It doesn’t have to be an either or. It doesn’t have to be like overseas jobs versus ours. It can be both.

What are things that individuals can do right now to live with circularity in mind?

This is the easiest thing in the entire world. Every single person in the United States today can radically reshift the amount of used goods that they buy, decrease the amount of new goods they buy and increase the amount of used goods. When they buy new, they should make a real effort to buy things that are sustainably and ethically made. And that those new purchases can become much more rare and used goods should be the majority of your stuff diet.

What can businesses do to develop healthy models for growth? And what might you say to an entrepreneur who might be thinking right now, “Sure, circularity is great and everything, but isn’t this all bad for my bottom line?”

We need to rethink our business models for businesses large and small. Most businesses that make and sell stuff are locked into a model where their entire source of revenue is manufacturing and selling more and more new goods. Now, if those goods are green or sustainable, great. But if your only business model is always about selling more new stuff, it’s not going to work. We need to build business models that have some revenue from good new stuff, some revenue from reuse/refurbishment, some revenue from repair/reuse/recycling. We need to have a diversified business model where businesses are actually making money from something other than selling new goods.

What’s the policy side of this? What can we support at the federal or local level?

So the policy part of that is huge. I always like to think about it as small and big. On the small level, there are local municipal level policies that can make a big impact. Pay-as-you-throw waste pickup, mandatory composting, all of these kinds of policies that will incentivize the right behavior. We could begin to be giving tax breaks to repair service providers, to reuse businesses. That’s more like at the city or state level. At the federal level, in this new infrastructure bill, we need to be plugging a huge amount of money into circularity, not just green manufacturing, green remanufacturing. And at the global level, the number one thing that we need to do is demand better international labor standards.

Sandra Goldmark is Director of Campus Sustainability for Barnard College.

Announcing the Launch of “Fearless Philanthropy”

On behalf of the NationSwell team, and all the hands that touched this work in ways big and small, I’m delighted to announce the launch of “Fearless Philanthropy: Driving Impact Through Innovation” —  an action-oriented report made possible by support from our friends at Wells Fargo Foundation.

The report makes eight clear recommendations for how heads of philanthropic organizations can take action to advance their work by adopting these expert-tested approaches. To surface these insights, NationSwell interviewed philanthropic leaders at Wells Fargo, American Family Insurance Institute for Corporate and Social Impact, Amgen, Entrepreneurship Funders Network, Essex Community County Foundation, George Kaiser Family Foundation, Google.org, Lyft, and Salesforce. 

“Philanthropy’s role is to be the risk capital for impact — to lead the way for public policy and corporate action, and show what is possible,” Jenny Flores, Head of Small Business Growth Philanthropy at Wells Fargo Foundation, said to us. “For companies in particular, it’s not enough to have corporate responsibility initiatives siloed away in one department.  Societal impact needs to be an integral part of the core business strategy that every employee can take part in because it ultimately helps us to serve customers and communities better.”

We were so thrilled to work with Wells Fargo Foundation to bring this report together. Jenny and her team have been pushing the envelope on impact-driven innovation through corporate philanthropy. With so many converging global crises in the world today, now is the moment for philanthropy to be bold, and it was inspiring to speak to leaders that are stepping up and shifting towards more effective collaboration, greater business alignment, and deeper community engagement.

Download the report here.

Amy Lee is Managing Director of the NationSwell Studio

Expanding access to quality higher education for the incarcerated: An interview with Mount Tamalpais College’s Jody Lewen

In January 2022, after an arduous 18-month application and review process, Mount Tamalpais College was granted Initial Accreditation by the Accrediting Commission for Junior and Community Colleges, making it the first accredited independent liberal arts college dedicated specifically to serving incarcerated students.

Operating out of San Quentin State Prison — the oldest operating correctional facility in California, tucked away on a peninsula just outside of San Francisco — the staff at Mount Tamalpais has long been dedicated to ensuring that students on the inside receive a high-quality education at least comparable to what they might receive at a quality educational institution on the outside. 

Along with providing “an intellectually rigorous, inclusive Associate of Arts degree program and College Preparatory Program, free of charge, to people at San Quentin State Prison,” Mount Tamalpais also seeks to “expand access to quality higher education for incarcerated people, and to foster the values of equity, civic engagement, independence of thought, and freedom of expression,” according to its website.

NationSwell Council member Jody Lewen, the founder and president of Mount Tamalpais College, recently sat down with us to talk about advocating for academic quality and inclusivity and the process of building Mount Tamalpais’s programs into what they are today — a process, she said, that “really strained my atheism.”

Read our full interview with Jody below:

NationSwell: Tell us a little bit about how you ended up working in prison education.

Jody Lewen, founder and president of Mount Tamalpais College: I grew up in Manhattan and went to Wesleyan in Middletown, Connecticut, for undergrad, and then a short time later moved to Berlin and ended up doing my Master’s in comparative literature and philosophy. I came to California in 1994 to do my doctorate at Berkeley, but while I was about halfway through working on my dissertation, I very coincidentally learned about this college program at San Quentin that was run entirely by volunteers and became very interested.

I knew nothing about prison, it was not a field I had read about or studied. I had done a lot of political work and read a lot of history and literature as an undergrad and was very aware, in a mostly abstract sense, of suffering in the world, but I really hadn’t found a way to integrate my political interests with my academic career path. But I thought the program sounded really interesting, so I ended up going into San Quentin in the spring of 1999 and teaching a public speaking class and really loving it.

NS: What were some of the early challenges or surprises you faced in doing this work?

Mount Tamalpais College’s Jody Lewen: It was a lot of my own demons about education — there were so many very humbling ironies. I had never interacted with adults who were as talented and intelligent whose basic skills in reading and writing were as poor, and it made me realize that I had a lot of ignorant assumptions about the correlation between basic skills and intellect.

When I got that first batch of papers back, I didn’t even know how to grade them, because there were so many problems. So I eventually went back and had a conversation with the students where I said look, guys, I’m realizing there’s all this stuff you haven’t been taught about college writing and I’m not sure how to handle this but I don’t really feel comfortable letting this stuff slide. They just overwhelmingly were like, ‘Please don’t patronize us, people have been underestimating us our entire lives.’ They didn’t want to be in a prison college program; they wanted to be in college, and they wanted to learn what they really needed to know to be successful in the outside academic and professional worlds. 

NationSwell: How did you go from working as a volunteer at San Quentin to becoming the founder and president of Mount Tamalpais?

Lewen: I had gotten very interested in the recruitment and training of faculty, because very early on I had become aware that they were not acquiring the basic skills they were going to need to be successful in a rigorous academic environment. It became a question of, should the standards we’re holding our students to on the inside be the same ones we’re holding our students to on the outside? And if not, why not?

I’m the most unreligious person to walk the face of the earth, and yet a series of things began happening that really strained my atheism. It was like an intervention: We started to realize that the problem was not just that they were so underprepared academically; the problem was us, it was that we didn’t have the resources or the time to build a program that really met their needs. And then the fellow who was running the program left, and the whole thing collapsed on me like a house. I began to tear out walls and floors and ceilings; our courses weren’t in compliance with the minimum number of contact hours, so I extended the semester from 10 weeks to 13 weeks, increased the class meetings to twice a week from once a week, and began to recruit teachers who knew how to teach developmental writing and math. And we basically overhauled the whole pre-college writing and math program.

NationSwell: What are some of the things you think about in trying to recruit new educators to meet these challenges?

Lewen: To be frank, most people assume that prison is a scary place to be, understandably. We’ve all been taught to imagine incarcerated people as ugly, predatory, not very bright. So getting people to overcome their physical fear of prison is huge. It helps a lot, as the program has grown, we have so many current and former faculty members who can’t stop talking about what it’s like to teach there, and they’re really our recruitment army. 

And then the other thing I’ve noticed is that the universe of people who are interested in prisons and serving the incarcerated are often relatively politically similar to each other. The Bay Area is obviously quite progressive, so cultivating intellectual diversity among the faculty can be quite challenging. I take really seriously the fact that our students are really diverse in every way — not just racially or ethnically but also culturally, ideologically, politically, they’re from all corners of the universe. So diversity is also an important value in our recruitment processes.

NationSwell: What can interested members do to help support the work that you do, or prison education more broadly?

Lewen: For the fall semester our instructors are mostly lined up already, but in general we’re always looking for volunteers. For the credit classes the lead instructor has to have at least a master’s degree in the field, but for the developmental education classes and also any tutoring roles, the requirements are a little bit more flexible. [Anyone interested in volunteering can get in touch through Mount Tamailpais’s website here.]

We’re  always looking to connect with individual and institutional funders who are excited about the idea of providing high quality educational opportunities to currently incarcerated people. Unlike traditional colleges, we charge no tuition and receive no state or federal funding. This is fantastic for preserving our autonomy and our capacity to innovate, but it’s also real work to raise $5 million a year. People can always reach out to us, or directly support our work at mttamcollege.org/donate

There are also other nonprofit organizations that support reentry and other ancillary fields that can always use volunteers.A number of excellent organizations in the Bay Area have been founded by our alumni, either while they were still inside or once they got out. Some of those organizations are:

  • Bonafide (bonafidelife.org), an amazing reentry organization that works with people from the moment they’re released and then stays with them throughout their lifetime helping them adjust and thrive. 
  • The San Quentin News, the prison newspaper that’s in a period of tremendous growth right now.
  • Mend Collaborative, a restorative justice organization that was recently co-founded by an alumnus of ours.
  • Veterans Healing Veterans, founded by a former student, which supports currently or formerly incarcerated veterans.
  • Ear Hustle, a podcast that was co-founded by a former MTC faculty member.

Not just surviving, but thriving: An interview with CLLCTIVLY’s Jamye Wooten

As founder of CLLCTIVLY, NationSwell member Jamye Wooten mobilizes philanthropy, businesses, and community organizations to build a more equitable and just future for Black communities in Baltimore. NationSwell had the opportunity to talk to Wooten about his work, the importance of place-based social change, and what a grant from NationSwell member organization T. Rowe Price Foundation has been able to unlock for his work.

This is what he had to say.

NationSwell’s Anthony Smith: Can you tell us a little about your professional and personal journey — and how it led you to CLLCTIVLY?

CLLCTIVLY’s Jamye Wooten: I was cultivated  here in Baltimore within the Black church, and every Sunday, I saw our practice of mobilizing resources implemented through offering and giving. Later on, I went on to become the director of the Collective Banking Group, working with over 200 churches in faith-based economic development continuing the work of mobilizing resources, starting with the assets and gifts that we already have in hand.

After the murder of Freddie Grey here in Baltimore, I was one of the co-founders of Baltimore United for Change. And it was during that time that I created the skills bank — and the skills bank was an on-ramp for folks who weren’t necessarily on the ground, but wanted to plug in. Over 260 individuals and organizations joined our skills bank. And the goal with CLLCTIVLY when we launched in 2019 was to create a more forward facing platform, inviting all Black-led organizations serving throughout the city. 

We heard during the protests that a lot of foundations didn’t necessarily know who was on the ground in the community doing work. So we launched the first phase of CLLCTIVLY,  an asset map and directory where you can search over 200 organizations based on area of focus and neighborhood. We know that Black organizations only receive about 2% of the 60 billion in foundation funding. And so we want to mobilize resources, tell these stories, and close the gap.

NationSwell: What is CLLCTIVLY, and how is it different from other organizations?

Wooten: We launched in 2019 to be a resource for those that seek to find, fund, and partner with social change organizations in greater Baltimore. We are a place-based organization mobilizing resources to support these organizations. We offer grants, starting with our Black Futures grant where we’ve invested over $750,000 in no-strings attached grants to the community. First we draw from the traditions of our ancestors and the ways we have always mobilized resources to support the needs in community. We also center participatory and trust-based philanthropy models, where the community is at the table and is the decision maker. So I think that’s where we may be some somewhat different: We start with community; this is a community-led initiative that then partners with philanthropy as well as the business community.

NationSwell: Why is place-based change so important?

Wooten: It’s very important. I could have started CLLCTIVLY as a national platform, but I wanted to really be intentional about the stories and the expertise that exist within this local communities. This work is about trust-building and relationship building. So I always said we were going to spend our first two years deepening relationships. We’ve had hundreds of one-on-one conversations — and as we enter our third year, and we’re being intentional around what programming looks like, it was important to foster great trust and deepen relationships, and to support these organizations here in place-based spaces and to tell their stories. 

Major part of this work is narrative power. Often corporate media leads with the violence in the city and doesn’t tell the stories of the hundreds of organizations that are addressing disparities and serving our community that often go unnoticed and under-resourced.

Prior to COVID, I was trying to explain why Black-led social change was so important as a focus. But then you have COVID hit, and the murder of George Floyd, and now so many more people are starting to see the importance of supporting Black-led organizations operating in communities.

With us already having this asset-based directory, it was an opportunity for funders to see us as the place they could go to see what Black-led organizations are doing. We partnered with foundations to help them reach the people we were reaching. We’ve provided grants to community-based organizations that don’t necessarily have the resources to scale themselves. And so I think that our place-based approach in building relationships and trust helps us keep our feet to the ground and be able to offer funding to organizations that have never received a grant. 

NationSwell: What does the grant from T. Rowe Price Foundation unlock for your work?

Wooten: It’s amazing. Anytime you receive a no strings attached grant that allows you to be creative, to try out new things — like right now, we’re organizing We Give Black Fest. That’s not possible without funders that provide unrestricted dollars and support, and that we also have a network of advisors that we can tap into. [Foundation President] John Brothers is always great at providing additional resources. The relationships, the expanded network, and the financial resources have helped tremendously

NationSwell: Can you tell us a little bit more about We Give Black Festival?

Wooten: August is Black Philanthropy Month. We Give Black Fest is a three-day annual festival dedicated to social change, fundraising, and the amplification of Black-led organizations serving Greater Baltimore, and the celebration of culture as the foundation of community-driven wealth.

Ahead of the weekend of August 19 – 21, we launch a scavenger hunt — where our nonprofits would compete as they go to businesses, to historical landmarks, answer trivia, and receive up to $10,000 in prizes — that leads us into the CLLCTIVGIVE, which is 48 hours of giving of crowdfunding online. We have some local business partners who are coming alongside us as we begin to move into our festival, and there’ll be conversations around philanthropy, funding, and a celebration of local leaders who are serving in Baltimore.. 

NationSwell: Who or what is inspiring you right now?

Wooten: I didn’t think about this a lot when I started CLLCTIVLY, but I think about it now: it’s my dad and my sister. I lost my dad at 56 and my sister at 53. My dad dropped out of school here in Baltimore. He was the oldest, had to go to work. He dropped out of eighth grade, but went on to open five dry cleaners and several nightclubs in the city. My sister went on to George Washington Law School, came back, and opened two pizza delivery stores in the city. And so I think a lot about this culture of health in that even though they were applauded for their resilience and the innovation — bootstrapping and not having enough resources can also take you out. It really encourages me and inspires me to make sure our organizations and businesses have what they need — not just to survive, but to thrive.

New Leadership in a Changing and Uncertain World

As we continue adjusting to the new normal of our post-pandemic world, many organizations are exploring new leadership models. The shift away from the typical office experience has prompted a reexamination of traditional hierarchical systems and how we can reorganize in ways that produce more equitable outcomes. As leaders grapple with questions of how organizational values may have shifted, we ask how new forms of leadership can better reflect those values.

At a recent NationSwell event, members Beth BengtsonRadha RuparellJaTaune Bosby, and Reyna Montoya led a discussion on exploring alternate forms of leadership that challenge the norms of the typical workplace dynamic, diving deep into atypical leadership models such as shared leadership, adaptive leadership, and collective leadership, and others. 

Here are some of the insights from the event:

To fix systemic problems, we will need to activate the leadership of many.
In order to solve so many of the problems and challenges we face, we will need to move towards a model that brings in disparate leaders from across systems. The image of a single caped crusader swooping in to save the day is pervasive in our culture, but in reality we will need change at all levels, at all parts of the system, in order to create change. In education, for example, no one solution will be universally applicable in order to fix caste issues in India, class issues in the U.K. or racial equity issues in America — just as no one President, social entrepreneur, or leader of an organization will be able to come up with the solutions needed on their own.

Bias is a collective problem, and it will require collective solutions to disrupt it.
The roots of biases can’t be attributed to just one person, but rather many people bringing their perspectives together over time. It will require community leaders, policymakers, students, and teachers coming together in conversation with one another over time to address the roots and challenges of biases and address their own part in the problem.

Building diverse teams is key to cultivating a unique set of perspectives and experiences.
A good way to amass a wide range of perspectives, strengths, and approaches is to be intentional about building teams that activate the strengths of a diverse coalition of people. Being a compassionate listener is also an integral part of the process — learning and knowing when to cede the floor to the experts you’ve recruited and trust in their wisdoms and experiences.

Have a trauma-informed pedagogy.
When working with folks who have, by definition, been marginalized or excluded from having their basic needs met, part of the effort to amplify their voices must necessarily include working to understand their triggers and work to avoid re-traumatizing people during the course of creating transformational change. Creating that shared language can be a slow process up front, but it pays dividends in the long run.

Allow people to operate in their gifts.
Part of the work of creating a diversity of leadership is to be thoughtful about creating the right conditions to lift up people’s expertise and experience in the areas that allow them to shine. When working to ameliorate the effects of mass incarceration, for example, pausing to think about how to incorporate and center the voices of those who are currently incarcerated themselves could involve the creation of new fellowship opportunities — avenues to allow those with direct experience within the systems you’re trying to reform to speak out and lend their leadership. 

Release your expectations for an end result.
Part of the work of assembling a diverse group of leaders is to detach from your ideas about the best course of action to take. Empowering leaders must necessarily involve cultivating trust in their expertise — meaning that the path a group decides to take might end up deviating from what you thought it might look like when the work began. Trusting that the group you’ve assembled will use their expertise to select the best possible course of action is a necessary exercise in letting go and creating effective distributed models, but you’ll always have your core values to refer back to.

The NationSwell community brings together a diverse, curated community of bold individuals and organizations leading the way in social, economic, and environmental problem-solving. Learn more here.

Key takeaways: How to build responsible AI for the public good

In June 2022, Suresh Venkatasubramanian, Assistant Director at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, confirmed that the White House is developing an AI bill of rights that aims to establish guardrails, best practices, and expectations on the role of AI and data in a just society. In the context of this major step, it behooves other sectoral leaders – philanthropists, public sector decision makers, and private sector leaders alike – to consider their role in tackling the challenges and opportunities presented by AI’s prevalence in modern life. 

When ethically designed and deployed, AI makes it possible to address some of our most urgent challenges, from climate change to health inequities. It can strengthen communities, advance equity and justice, and foster unprecedented opportunities. When AI is created and implemented irresponsibly, though, even the most benevolently intentioned projects can backfire, creating new problems and eroding public trust.

To date, most high-profile artificial intelligence has been driven by major corporations; and, driven by capitalist ventures, businesses have largely built AI-driven products, services, and infrastructure that further the interests of their bottom line and their shareholders. We may expect companies to act as a proxy for public interest, but public sector guidance is needed; the public sector has a significant role to play in ensuring accessible and relevant guidance for what responsible AI looks like.  As we look to the future of this transformative technology, we need a new model of inclusive AI design that prioritizes equity, human potential, and social progress; and standards to ensure we use it to build a future we can all share in. 

In partnership with the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, NationSwell convened fellow leaders and decision-makers embedded in AI development and community-centered innovation to explore, challenge, and advance what public trust in AI looks like: identifying challenges and surfacing solutions needed to demystify AI, empowering communities to participate in its development, and enabling its application it to solve urgent challenges and uplift communities.

Here are some key topics and insights from those convenings, which culminated in an event in Washington, DC in June:

How do we conceptualize public trust?

Clarity around decisionmakers is key. Who controls the building and deploying of AI is important in building trust. Much of the lack of trust in AI comes from a lack of diversity in the communities creating it. Without representation among technologists, AI cannot be truly inclusive, nor will it represent the best interests of communities at large. Building meaningful and accessible pathways to participation (e.g., through research, feedback, community-led design) are important first steps.

First impressions matter. The most publicized ways we hear about AI are often quite negative, and include examples of surveillance or harms from facial recognition. These persistent negative reports – while often true – affect people’s perspective of AI, and diminish the tool’s potential to be reconfigured and/or used for positive social purposes. In order for more people to understand the relevance and  importance of AI in their lives (and therefore be more willing to participate in its interrogation and creation), we must highlight the value AI can bring if used appropriately, as well as pathways to get there.

AI must hold relevancy. Many communities that have the most to lose from unethical uses of AI are focused elsewhere on their pressing human needs: access to food, housing, and education. To increase public engagement, we must build coalitions and create constant touch points with the public to discuss the ways that AI is impacting and influencing their communities and their daily lives, increasing their personal stake and agency in how these decisions are made. 

How do we engage communities?

Avoid jargon to build inclusion. People don’t want to sound uninformed, and often shy away from taking part in the development of AI that ultimately impacts them. We have to create an environment where people feel welcome to the group, and where attention is focused on the problems AI is seeking to solve. In short, people shouldn’t feel they need a PhD or tech degree to provide meaningful input into how AI affects their communities.

Reframe understanding of AI. If we think and talk about AI as a tool or infrastructure, we can encourage communities to recognize all of the factors (including AI) that are shaping their lived experience, which can lead to more planning and design fit for community needs.

The people closest to the problem are closest to the solution. Even before we decide to adopt AI or not to adopt, we have to think of the problem we are trying to solve. Allowing communities to identify the problem may give us different solutions that may or may not use AI and can shape the development of AI that addresses the issue. 

Mind what you’ve built. AI-powered tools are only as strong as their inputs, and once the technology is released, there are no take-backs. It’s critical to ensure the tool’s legitimacy in solving real problems — and not creating new ones.

How do we use AI to develop workforces?

AI education is key. If you aren’t familiar with AI, then it is not going to be a tool in your toolkit. Outside of the tech community, the power of AI is just starting to be understood, especially in nonprofits. We must build capacity and knowledge among people closest to the communities we seek to serve.

A drumbeat to ethics training. In organizations, it’s commonplace to undergo regular cybersecurity training to make sure that every worker is up to speed on threats to digital operations from external bad actors. In the same way, organizations should consider AI ethics training that are both comprehensive and regular occurrences. 

Specificity. For regulation in AI to take hold, we must dive into specific industries or applications — that means we need to build AI literacy among leaders in different industries, applied to the details of their specific worlds.

Explore certification. Certification models are helpful in building transparency and reassurance in different types of industries, such as apparel, SOC data management, B Corps, and LEED. An ethical AI certification model could be a helpful solution to build public trust, particularly from an individual perspective.

What do good policy and regulation look like for AI?

Regulation + augmentation. We need broad regulation to make change happen, similar to how ADA compliance was crucial for inclusivity of workers with disability, but we should also augment and accelerate progress by encouraging standards within industries and businesses.

The power of building a data privacy agency. Beyond the Federal Trade Commission, some in the public are unsure of who to turn to in government when we have a problem with AI, underscoring the need for an AI bill of rights to help Americans navigate a world that is more increasingly powered by artificial intelligence with each passing day. 

As we wait for the Biden Administration to unveil their AI bill of rights, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) shared in October 2021 what one might look like. Until then, we’re not sitting back and waiting — we’re eager to follow and actively engage as this critical document takes form.

For more actionable insights and credible solutions from AI experts on transparency, ethics, implementation, education and more, read the takeaways from PJMF and NationSwell’s Summit on Building Public Trust in AI.

Seizing the moment to close the opportunity gap

A pivotal moment for the future of work

The global economy is in a period of major transition from traditional fossil fuel-based industries to more renewable and sustainable processes & accountability systems — what some call a “greening” of the economy. This transition is spurring innovation,  job creation, and both the opportunity and responsibility to embed more inclusive approaches into the hiring for fast growing “green” jobs. 

In that context, Autodesk FoundationLinkedIn, and Workday have been working together as part of a Just Transition Collaborative facilitated by NationSwell, with the shared goal to identify opportunities to accelerate more equitable pathways into green jobs by increasing the use of skill-based hiring. In an effort to catalyze collective impact, we are sharing key insights from our work here.

Focus and approach

The Just Transition Collaborative is focused on communities and regions most impacted by the shift from traditional fossil fuel to sustainable industries, guided by the concept of just transition: the notion that no one is left behind in the transition to a green economy. We are propelled by the shared belief that this economic paradigm shift presents a meaningful chance to help close the opportunity gap in America — by seizing the moment to rethink inequitable approaches to talent and training, and expand the use of more inclusive practices like skills-based hiring, particularly among communities that have traditionally been marginalized or experienced economic divestment.

We investigated key roles and workforce development practices in industries that sit at the crux of innovation and the creation of middle-skill green jobs: manufacturing, clean energy (solar power and electric vehicles, in particular), and Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) compliance. By speaking directly with an ecosystem of stakeholders in Indigenous, Appalachian, and Midwestern communities that have the most to gain from support for more equitable career pathways, we were able to better understand the needs of job-seekers impacted by the economic transition, and identify ways in which funders in this space can help accelerate change. We heard from workforce development organizations (e.g., Navajo PowerCoalfield DevelopmentISAICThe Industrial CommonsStacks & JoulesTalent Ei), employers in greening industries (e.g., VehyaINCOGreenworkCDPPique ActionIndigenized Energy InitiativeJust Transition CentreCalifornia Labor Management Cooperation Committee) and job seekers on the skills-based hiring track (via Coalfield Development).

Think systemically, then get specific

Our research highlighted that skills-based hiring is only one piece of the inclusivity puzzle. More than anything, job seekers are looking for good jobs and opportunities to build their careers in a way that leads to long-term economic stability and overall health (e.g., comprehensive benefits packages, a safe and comfortable work environment). Both funders seeking to truly make a difference for the communities that have experienced many years of systemic inequity and economic disenfranchisement, and employers seeking to live up to their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) commitments, must move at the speed of trust and acknowledge the wider issues in play. Often, talent is kept out of pipelines for good “green” jobs due to financial inclusion gaps such as the drop in pay from traditional fossil fuel roles, the cost of credentialing, over-emphasis on seasonal infrastructure roles, and the lack of accessibility to entry-level roles. 

With systems in mind, funders must then be prepared to get specific: workforce development solutions need to be hyper-localized to the communities in which they’re located (e.g., considering local transportation needs, workforce development networks, and specific recruitment ecosystems.) Specificity matters, even when it comes to language: we found that messaging focused on “green”, “low carbon”, and “sustainable” opportunities can lack resonance with key stakeholders who are more focused on honing their craft and securing their future.  

Building on this context, the Just Transition Collaborative uncovered three key insights that can guide more effective funding in this space. 

1. From job pathways to hiring ecosystems

Insight: Opaque pathways
Pathways into these types of “green” roles are opaque and often include many barriers to entry, including the need for academic qualifications or expensive credentials. Additionally, as industries emerge and evolve, new roles do not have standardized job descriptions and skill requirements. The lack of unified definition means that it’s difficult for skills providers to get funding and for job seekers to know how to gain access to those roles. Thus, sticking to traditional hiring routes (e.g., your own site, specific job boards) will not reach the widest talent pool, because many potential hires don’t know where to look or don’t think they qualify for the roles.

Solution: Hiring ecosystems
Businesses have success in reaching underserved talent by partnering with community and workforce development organizations with no barriers to entry as part of their hiring process. For example, Stacks & Joules has an Advisory Board of employers whereby they track relationships and how the trainee’s skills are matching industry needs. These partnerships are usually hyper-local, allowing the business to tap into and support the community nearby from a place of authenticity.Unions are also a vital and integrated source of training and quality jobs for job seekers, so funders seeking to make change in this space should consider how to help include local union representatives in any skills-based hiring ecosystem,  to ensure there are not two separate pipelines of talent development (unionized and non-unionized) that are competing for resources and opportunities.

2. Skills built and applied

Insight: Experience needed
Employers for the middle-skill roles seek and value on-the-job experience, and in practice they often will not hire entry-level talent without at least five years of experience. Plus, the field is so fast-moving that some certifications that prospective talent are obtaining through credentialing programs are not able to keep up with the real needs that businesses have.

Solution: Applied learning
Some workforce development organizations have innovated to offer talent not just skills training, but also on-the-job experience, ensuring that talent have the skills that matches pace with industry innovation and the experience that employers are looking for. Innovative organizations like Coalfield Development partner with other businesses to provide career pipelines once trainees have completed their programs, and facilitate connections with community leaders committed to hiring people who face barriers to employment.

3. Support doesn’t stop on day one

Insight: Barriers beyond hiring
One of the key barriers to underserved talent growing in these careers is the lack of ongoing support that acknowledges their life circumstances. Free workforce development placements can be successful in getting people into the jobs, but often lose them due to practical challenges faced by talent with little to no safety net (e.g., like lack of reliable transportation, or not having access to affordable childcare).

Solution: Ongoing support
New human-centered models are being created that are intentional about creating the space and support that underserved talent needs in order to thrive. For example, the Industrial Sewing and Innovation Center (ISAIC), is committed to the wellbeing & professional growth of their team: each employee has a unique career path with mandatory and elective training, guided by a coach that is updated annually since people’s interests evolve over time. Acknowledging that their employees also have their own entrepreneurial aspirations and life priorities, ISAIC also gives employees access to the organization’s time (‘Learning Fridays’), space and resources to focus on personal needs. This holistic, talent-centric approach to development and support helps more people to grow in their careers and is good for business too — reducing turnover costs through increased retention and internal promotion.

How funders can help create more inclusive pathways into “green” jobs

Based on our insights, we believe there are four smart ways that funders can help to ensure that a more inclusive and holistic approach to talent hiring and development — including increasing use of skills based hiring — is recognized and practiced as an effective approach to building a talent pipeline within fast growing “green” industries:

    Connecting your network to catalyze local ecosystems of employers, workforce development organizations and (ideally) unions, who can work together to find and support talent to gain the skills they need to thrive in fast growing industries.
    Helping expand access for talent to get both skills training and on-the-job experience, particularly in areas where experience is required (explicitly or implicitly) and the industry skills required are evolving fast.
    Offering the support needed to scale social enterprises and other talent development partners who can work with employers to provide wrap-around support for talent — including ongoing development opportunities and the space, time and money to allow for changes in circumstances.
    Work with your public policy and government relations teams to campaign and drive support for policy that provides adequate public sector funding for workforce development programming, modernized labor market reporting to identify in-demand roles, workers with paid time to develop their skills, and emergency cash relief to give more people the security they need to grow their career, and incentives for employer-based training and workforce partnerships; with a particular focus on low income communities most impacted by the transition to the green economy.

NationSwell Collaboratives build cross-sector coalitions of leaders and experts to advance specific impact priorities, by enabling open collaboration, learning, and cooperation, that breaks down silos and puts equity at the heart of solution-building.

Learnings from NationSwell’s event on ‘Harnessing the Power of Media to Destigmatize Abortion’

In July 2022, amid the immediate aftermath of Roe v. Wade’s repeal, the NationSwell Mainstage convened thought leaders, experts, and social impact practitioners to discuss an unexpected front in the movement to protect and advance abortion rights: the media.

At the event, filmmaker and NationSwell Council member Jess Jacobs moderated an expert panel featuring journalist Samhita Mukhopadhyay, Dr. Eva Lathrop, Global Health Director at PSI, sociologist Gretchen Sisson. Together, they explored media’s responsibility to women and pregnant people amid this rollback of rights, its undeniable power to normalize subjects that carry social stigma, and why it’s such a key component in the effort to affirm the rights of people with uteruses to health and bodily autonomy.

Below are some of the key takeaways from the conversation.

Television and movies give writers a chance to connect audiences with abortion stories that resonate with them on a personal level. According to Sisson, screenwriters have an opportunity to craft abortion narratives that provide viewers with a window into something that they might have experience with — exposing them to new perspectives and shifting their beliefs in the process. By using characters that audiences already have an emotional connection to, writers can tell abortion stories in ways that feel familiar, relatable, and sympathetic.

Reaching out on your side of the political aisle matters — reaching across the aisle, not so much. When it comes to trying to change hearts and minds, appealing to pro-lifers to change their stance on abortion is likely a lost cause, according to Sisson. Your energy would be better spent trying to move the needle with people who are already mostly politically aligned with you, making the effort to shift their perspective and increase their field of awareness.

“A huge opportunity in storytelling is not to talk across the aisle too much — they’re not going to listen anyway,” she said. “But you can focus on breaking down the stigma for people who are, if not on the same page, on the same chapter as you, or at least reading the same book, and then you can sort of move them further along.”

Social stigma doesn’t just affect abortion-seekers — it also affects healthcare providers. According to Dr. Eva Lathrop, an OB-GYN by trade, the stigma surrounding abortion care frequently represents a threat of violence for the healthcare workers performing the procedure in addition to the threats already facing the person undergoing the procedure.

“If I had a group of 100 providers and said, ‘how many of you have hidden or selectively eliminated some of the work you’ve done in abortion care?’ I think all of us would raise their hands, and I think that’s out of fear,” Lathrop said.

More people are engaging with news about abortion than ever before.
Reporters covering abortion tend to have a difficult time balancing their editorial interests against newsroom traffic metrics. Put simply: Abortion stories don’t “click” well, according to Mukhopadhyay, meaning that recent political movement in the abortion space has had the unexpected and unintended consequence of generating a lot of newfound interest in the subject.

“It’s exciting to see that newsrooms are finally taking the stories about reproductive rights and access to abortion seriously,” she said. “Having been an editor on these stories, when we have the pressure to get traffic and clicks, a lot of us have faced barriers n terms of elevating stories.”

Opinion journalism that supports the idea of a “pro-choice feminism” isn’t just misleading — it’s dangerous.
According to Mukhopadhyay, the slate of op-eds that have been coming out in service of normalizing a pro-choice position that supports women’s best interests aren’t factually sound and shouldn’t be printed.

“If you don’t believe in bodily autonomy, you can’t be a feminists — we can’t accept things that are factually inaccurate or that exist in an alternate reality,” she said.

We need to normalize depictions of self-managed abortion.
Within the pro-choice community, and particularly among activists, there is still a tendency to wield symbols of a pre-Roe abortion experience. “Coat hangers” and “dark alleyways” are frequently referenced as if they are tangible threats that are synonymous with the fight for reproductive justice, but in reality medication abortion options — including Mifepristone and Misoprostol — are safe, effective, and widely available. While it’s true that women will suffer when abortion is not widely accessible, there’s no reason to believe we will ever return to the “dark days” of pre-Roe — and acting like we might only serves to fuel hysteria and misinformation.

Instead of “cancelling” people for their ignorance, seek to educate them.
According to Sisson, abortion is a space where many people lack expertise and understanding — meaning there’s a large margin for error on the correct terminology, logistics, and particulars. That lack of understanding can contribute to discomfort, which is why it’s important to meet people with empathy and understanding in order to help them see things from your perspective.

“Making space for discomfort is really important in order for us to engage with issues like abortion and create more common ground, and that’s what the power of storytelling is — meeting a range of audiences where they are,” she said.

To learn more about how NationSwell supports social impact leaders, visit our hub.