What first sparked your interest in philanthropy and specifically in the field of environmental grantmaking?
My interest in environmental grantmaking and specifically, in being a program officer, was first sparked in my second year at Stanford Law School. At a lunch event, I heard a Hewlett Foundation program officer talk about his work, which I found to be incredibly appealing. After working in the nonprofit sector, federal government, state government, and the United Nations on a wide range of environmental issues, my dream of working in philanthropy finally came true when I joined the New York Community Trust in January 2014. I never thought that I could find a position that brought together all of my environmental policy interests, but serving as The Trust’s environmental program officer does exactly that. I love being able to think so deeply and strategically about so many issues, and to learn from the brilliant people working in these areas. My passion for protecting the environment was instilled in me by my Puerto Rican grandfather. As a biologist working for the Federal Government, he introduced me to the wonders of the natural world whenever I visited the island. He taught me how fragile and precious these wonders were, and how important it was to conserve these natural resources for future generations.
As the Environmental Program Officer of the New York Community Trust, what drew your attention and interest to the Appalachian region?
The New York Community Trust has had a longstanding commitment to the Appalachian region through its Oakley Logan and Ethel Witherspoon Alexander Fund, established in 1977. The purpose of this fund is to benefit workers in the coal industry, their families, and their communities in Central Appalachia. In 2015, I assumed primary responsibility for The Trust’s Alexander Fund grantmaking. Over the past two years, we have focused our grants on several key issues: supporting access to higher education; promoting a just transition away from a coal-dominated economy; expanding training and employment services for families affected by coal industry layoffs, and providing quality health care for individuals suffering from black lung and other coal-related respiratory problems.
How has your involvement with the Appalachia Funders Network influenced or affected your work at the New York Community Trust?
I was hired to work primarily on The Trust’s national environmental program. However, early on, I realized that the challenges the Appalachian region faced were emblematic of our civilization’s broader effort to transition away from fossil fuels. I recognized that our national environmental program and the Alexander Fund could and should be used in conjunction to help Appalachia adjust to a rapidly changing energy landscape. After learning about the Appalachia Funders Network from the Babcock Foundation’s Sandra Mikush, I realized that it would be a great resource for our efforts in the region, so we joined and I attended the 2015 Funders Network Gathering in Kingsport. My biggest takeaways from that event were the level of creativity and entrepreneurship in the region as evidenced by the different projects and initiatives I learned about, and the need to leverage public and private funds to realize the incredible untapped potential for innovation that exists there.
What is it that you are hoping to accomplish through the energy and natural resources work group?
We hope that this working group can support collaboration in addressing the many energy and natural resource-related issues the region faces. As the coal industry continues to fade, we must think carefully about the potential for expanded investment in renewable energy, the implications for the region’s waterways of hydro-fracking, the challenge of abandoned mine lands, and much more. In October, the New York Community Trust is supporting a Network retreat that will bring together energy and natural resource-related practitioners and funders to share knowledge and decide how we might best move forward in a more collaborative way. It is time to explore more sustainable ways to grow local economies and adopt more holistic approaches to preserving the precious resources of the region.
If established, I also expect the new energy and natural resources working group will work closely with the Network’s other working groups where clear synergy and overlap with their areas of focus exists.
What do you see as the role of philanthropy in the Appalachian transition?
My sense is that foundation grants are best suited for supporting things like policy advocacy, demonstration projects and pilot programs, strategic planning, and research and analysis. One of the common threads in that list is a focus on influencing or persuading government to change course or adopt a new approach. This is particularly important in Central Appalachia, which has suffered from the “resource curse.” When this curse afflicts an economy, it becomes overly dependent on a single, relatively abundant natural resource, which creates a culture of dependency and entitlement around it – a culture that often inhibits innovation and efforts to diversify the economy. At the moment, I think it is making it difficult for local political leaders to think rationally and strategically about what is next for the region. I believe that philanthropy can help illuminate different paths forward, different scenarios, and different innovative approaches.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I just returned from a vacation in Mexico with my mother where I had the opportunity to swim with whale sharks! It was a magical experience. I highly recommend it.