Today’s conversation is with Eric Dhruv (Program Director) and Angel Breault (Program Manager), of the Ironwood Tree Experience. Ironwood Tree Experience is a Tucson based nonprofit focused on youth wellness, systems based thinking, and sustainability. Eric and Angel were interviewed by Sehdia Mansaray in the summer of 2020.  This post was written by Sehdia Mansaray.

My interest in nature and culture goes deep into my people’s history. We are told stories of our ancestors; we descend from these wise insects that roamed the land and only took what they needed. We practice these same rituals today to protect our earth – Dot, ITE Wilderness Warrior

Fundraising and Equitable

As social justice issues have become increasingly publicized around the country, institutions and businesses have been analyzing their models; dusting off long-ago written diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) statements; and leaning with new fervor into principles of DEI. But what is changing to overturn the institutions of racism? And how do these institutional barriers impact environmental education programming even when equity and inclusion are an active part of an organization’s mission? I spoke with Eric Dhruv, Program Director, and co-founder of Ironwood Tree Experience (ITE), last summer to discuss this very question.

Centering Systems-based Thinking and Place-based Education

ITE was founded by Suzanne and Eric Dhruv in 2005 as a sponsored program hosted by Prescott College under the name Outdoor Youth Program. Within 9 years, it became a federal 501c3 non-profit organization. ITE’s mission grew from a recognized need to connect youth to the outdoors for increased confidence and leadership skills, as well as to support relationship building between youth and their environment and communities.

ITE forefronts systems-based thinking and place-based education which engages students in learning that is both local and relevant to the learner. Relatedly, in environmental education, systems thinking encourages understanding human and environmental communities as interconnected parts of a greater whole.

Both approaches facilitate the integration of socio-political, economic, cultural, and environmental knowledge into programming. Considering environmentalism’s and education’s white-washed and marginalizing history in the United States, speaking to these systems are crucial for an environmental organization to uproot systemic racism and to build equity for a space that feels safe, and welcoming, to a diverse audience. ITE incorporates Race, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (REDI) initiatives into their organization with acknowledgement to the history of violence against and erasure of Black, Indigenous, and communities of color (BIPOC).

Active REDI initiatives are important in creating a sense of place for youth beyond visual representation and for a greater sense of belonging. Dhruv reflected on the importance of youth connecting to the land they live on, saying, “sense of place involves giving access to place names and foods, such as utilizing Tohono O’odham names, and giving the back history of any name changes…It’s about being aware of our audiences and helping them see themselves.”

Sense of place is also solidified through fostering youth-led stewardship. Through internship programs, like the Wilderness Warriors, high school and early college students have opportunities to craft projects, learn more about urban and wildland environments in the Sonoran Desert, as well as engage in storytelling to promote youth voices. ITE works with Tucson educators through their Field Studies for Schools (FSS) program to incorporate art, history, culture, community service, STEM studies, and more into educational curricula. They also partner with local and national organizations, like The Wilderness Society, to create opportunities for youth to engage in the outdoors and make professional connections in the Tucson community.

Equitable participation in these programs –  through policies like covered costs of gear, paid internships, and ensuring youth feel comfortable, supported, and safe in their exploration in the outdoors – is necessary to achieve their mission. Since the onset of COVID-19, ITE continues to connect with their youth through hybrid online and in-person programs, and using interactive platforms like the World Wild Web and Trello.

As we become more aware, we move in those directions of equity, which means doubling down in youth we serve from underrepresented communities, providing easier access, and onboarding programs. We strategize on youth who may not have the resources to access environmental and community-based programs and we utilize language of inclusive access – even utilizing Spanish and Tohono O’odham words in a program.- Eric Dhruv, ITE

Dhruv notes that as people of color – and given him and Suzy’s own familial origins spanning international borders –  speaking with ITE youth about social justice, and equity has always made sense. Even still, Dhruv recounts that even with the best intentions, institutional barriers have stood as obstacles towards strengthening equity in their programs. Some of the repercussions of those barriers were visible.


Facing Funding and Institutional Barriers in Programming

When ITE started out, financial backing came primarily through connections of White counterparts. A recognizable difference since then is that ITE has transitioned over the years from a majorly White-serving organization to one that has a much larger base of Hispanic, African American, Native-American, and lower-income youth. For ITE, programmatic restraints to both increased racial/ethnic and income diversity, however, largely stemmed not just from connections in the environmental education field but also a need to focus on diversifying their funding streams.

Despite non-profits generally working with or targeting  historically marginalized populations, most non-profits are White led. And while a common argument might be that there are few (environmental) organizations led by BIPOC community members, studies show there is often a bias and greater scrutiny by foundations against these organizations, particularly Black-led organizations, to serve as a viable source of funding or partnership. When they do receive funding, BIPOC led organizations generally receive less funding compared to their White counterparts. Dhruv notes too, reporting to donors can create a constant sense of having to justify BIPOC led organization’s work and existence, as well as create a language around that justification (e.g., title 1, inner city).

Almost all of these business models are built on systems that appeal to privilege… We haven’t charged for expeditions in several years, we couldn’t do that in the beginning because even as a non-profit we had to show we had a diversity of sources of funding. We all try to be financially responsible people within systems built for privilege…There is a learning curve in running a program and doing business and managing finances. First, we have to contend with risk management, then financial management, and then we figure out how to be more inclusive. – Eric Dhruv, ITE

Indeed, factors such as these can be found in educational programs around the country, where a need for funding and access to donors can shape both participation and program focus. And because many foundations only fund a certain percentage of an organization’s budget, this can also direct non-profits towards funding privileged groups that already have financial assets.

Towards Equitable Fundraising and Environmental Programming

So how are such barriers ingrained in the fabric of our institutions overcome? It comes back to systems thinking and sense of place. Establishing and strengthening community relationships are key not just in environmental education but also in building a business and fundraising as well. Building partnerships within communities of interest, with recognition to needs and the resources and assets they can bring to programming, is important to do prior to seeking funding.

Dhruv reflects that there has been a significant shift towards initiatives like REDI and readiness to listen. Even so, he says good intentions need to be questioned, saying,

I’m not sure if people are investing in our organization the same way they think of investing in a predominantly white organization. There is an investment when you think of investing in a business – then there is charity. Sometimes it feels like feel we are considered more like charity. People love what we are doing – even by serving themselves. [Still], when you have predominantly kids of color, you fall into a different category in terms of how you [are perceived to] serve a community.

While Dhruv describes work with ‘minority youth,’ members of ITE also underscore the mindset one must be wary of in calling certain populations (particularly BIPOC) ‘marginalized’ or ‘minorities.’ A minority implies a homogenous group that is lesser in number or power to a dominant group. The term can ignore the social action and resistance happening in their communities (where a person may not feel themselves a minority) while also ignoring the institutional racism that othered them as minorities in the first place; rather, they acknowledge that these groups have more often been minoritized. Through programs like Field Studies for Schools, for example, ITE acknowledges schools do not always have the capacity to support students due to defunded programs and a lack of investments for minoritized students.

Just as importantly, it is important to ask  how a diversity of funding is related to an organization’s grounding in place. Who the communities and organization work with or are involved with will be both directly and indirectly affected by a funding stream. Seeking equitable funding can be affected by numerous factors including timelines, the need for financial support, geographic location, as well as bias on the part of the funder. Barriers are not always external but can be internal as well – or even a mixture of the two. Dhruv explained, for example, timing constraints connected to somewhat self-imposed programming timelines and organizational needs have redirected being more deliberate and strategic about hiring (especially pre-COVID) to now hiring with timeliness in mind.

In some cases, the grant applied for can make all the difference in centering community involvement, contribution, and equity. Making sure the community or audience of interest is the priority in seeking funding, however, helps direct an organization to funding streams that support targeted audiences in an equitable manner and beyond monetary needs.


Questions to ask in your organization (from ITE and AZMN) 

  • How is your organizational board supporting or directing funding?
  • Who is in your donor audience and what conversations are you having with them in communications?
  • Is your fundraising drawing a certain audience?
  • What biases might be present in the application process (as a funder and applicant?)
  • Is your organization investigating and addressing the root of barriers to equity before instituting and implementing equity centered policies?
  • Mistakes can be made wrapped up in good intentions. Are you aware of what biases exist in your organization?
  • Are you taking the time to strategize towards more equity and inclusivity?
  • How are you building leadership in your organization? Are people genuinely integrated into your program (from participants to managers to your board) as decision makers? Or are they tokens?
  • Who are you reaching out to in your outreach efforts? What advertising platforms are you using?