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Speech for Biodiversity Funders Group, Kona, Hawai’i June 11-13 2018

Sonja Swift


Last June, I was present at a blessing of the hulls ceremony, initiating the build of a Maori community-owned waka horua - Tairawhiti- which has since been built and is now serving as a learning classroom for youth. From a Maori friend and sailor, I learned that when you work with the patterns of nature, read the winds and rhythm of the ocean, and navigate by the compass of stars, it is not solely about seeking the island but more that the islandcomes to you. Having crewed on sailboats myself, I’d never conceived of the voyage this way. It was a reorientation for me. Voyaging – going somewhere, potentially somewhere unknown – suddenly felt less about the sheer effort of getting there than about being present with the daily winds and letting the island itself come into view.   


I didn’t set out to work in philanthropy, rather, it came to me and has been a force in my life I have had to reckon with; a responsibility I have taken on and try to live up to. Never assuming that I deserve the position I am in has given me a kind of freedom to ask hard questions, of myself and also of this industry. That’s something defining about me, I suppose, I ask questions and look for other ways of understanding the world. I am also defined by a strong land – and ocean - based worldview having grown up on a ranch in the dusty hills and live oak woodlands on the Central Coast of California. This feels important to share. 


Of asking questions, I can’t tell you what has compelled me, but I can share a few examples. My last year of high school I studied abroad in Brisbane, Australia. For a research project I chose to write about the stolen generation, Aboriginal children taken away from their families, forced assimilation. When I presented to the class I was met with a room full of uneasy stares. I’ll never forget it.I still ask, what do we to lose by continuing to ignore these realities?       


Out of undergrad I got a job working for an environmental NGO in the Pacific Northwest.  To the north, First Nations were engaged in months-on-end road blocks to prevent mining companies from entering their traditional territories.I continue to ask how can we provide resources more directlyto the leadership of Native people on the frontlines defending their homelands?


When I first joined the board of Swift Foundation I asked a question that is as relevant as ever: where is the sense in giving away 5% percent of our endowments yearly interest toward addressing problems created by the very same extractive companies we are invested in?         


Of myself I consistently ask: how do I stay courageous? This has meant examining my own relationship to economic wealth, and I have found that it starts with facing things honestly. 


What is clear is that we won’t solve the problems we face today with the same thinking that created them. As foundations, we need to reckon more honestly with the conditions that created philanthropy – colonialism, slavery, corporate capitalism, ongoing- and the indigenous worldviews and wisdom that have been marginalized as a result.    


The purveyance of knowledge is embedded in language, I’ve been told. Take the Hawai’ian word for land, ‘aina,which more accurately translates as that which nourishes you. Embedded in the language is a different way of understanding territory – what you might also call “biodiversity.”The kinship embodied is powerful, it implies relationship.  


Some of the most biodiverse places on earth are also most linguistically diverse, still cared for through the applied science of local indigenous intergenerational knowledge. These things are related.Knowledge imbedded in language, and the health and vitality of places. The separation of nature and culture – nature and people –is an invention of the industrialized mind. And it’s very limiting.


When I think of biodiversity I think equally of cultural, linguistic and also agricultural diversity. I think of DIVERSITY. Uniqueness and interrelationship. And how in diversity there is resilience, diversity in allof its dimensions. Though of the word resilience I learned recently, while spending time in Greenland, that there is no word for resilience in the Kallaalisut language. There is living life in skillful relationship.


What I have noticed is that where the environmental or conservation - nowadays climate – movement, broadly speaking, falls short is when nuanced local place-based knowledge is disregarded. Knowledge in relationship, and responsible, to place.  


When I look at the ideas coming out of certain influential organizations - carbon trading schemes, geoengineering, GMO forests and seeds, as a few examples - they strike me as ideas that are disconnected from place, and so irresponsibleto place, because they mimic the thinking that has created the conditions of loss we now live with. Therefore, by design they are unlikely to succeed at the stated objectives. What they will succeed at is in keeping money (and influence) centralized, maintaining control.


If you want a geoengineering solution, restore whale populations, optimize perennial grasslands. If you want to keep carbon stored in intact forests, protect indigenous rights to their territories. If you want climate resilient agriculture, support peasant farmers and agroecology. Stop land grabs. 


If we imagine philanthropy to be like voyaging, and our respective organizations like wakas, as we sail toward the more sane, vital and just future vision that we all promote, that vision will also approach us and may look different than we expect. And so, as we voyage perhaps it would be wise to guide ourselves by way of livedscience and intergenerationalknowledge, and listen more deeply to diverse ways of knowing, living and wayfinding a route forward.

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