How the distributive leadership model gets more done for environmental justice

Considering all the nuances within the scope of environmental justice work—from lead poisoning to climate change and green energy—how can any one organization that wants to make a significant impact in this space know where to start and how to best tackle an issue?

If an organization attempted to address all of the facets of environmental justice, especially at the grassroots level, it would become an overwhelming task.

But Black Environmental Leaders Association (BEL) and the Global Shapers Cleveland Hub have seemed to figure out a way to get more done with fewer people—approaching the work from a distributive leadership model.

“As we were looking at how we wanted to show up in the marketplace, we wanted to embrace the notion that everyone is a leader,” says SeMia Bray, BEL co-director.

What is a distributive leadership model?
A distributive leadership model is a shared leadership model that maximizes all of the human resources within an organization’s network. By taking this approach to environmental justice, BEL and Global Shapers Cleveland Hub empower individuals to give them opportunities to take leadership positions in their environmental solution areas of expertise.

This model allows different people to be working on different things simultaneously and for all members to contribute to and learn from each other to facilitate collaborative decision-making.

“The way we honor that [is] we learn and follow the lead of the leader,” Bray explains.

Bray cites as an example BEL’s relationship with Kim Foreman, executive director of Environmental Health Watch, a Cleveland-based group focused on creating healthy homes and sustainable communities.

“[Foreman] is an expert on the adverse impacts of lead in our built environment—that’s a primary focus of her work,” says Bray. “If we work in conjunction with Kim, we can put our focus elsewhere. At the same time, Kim can come to us when she has action items and needs support that we can provide.”

Foreman, who’s been entrenched in environmental issues for decades, says it’s great to support each other in that way. “All the partners bring some level of expertise. It’s important to lift up each other’s work in this space, especially to show African Americans who are doing this work.”

Here, we profile some of the BEL and Global Shapers Cleveland Hub leaders—their backgrounds, what motivates them, their passions, and why they got involved.

SeMia Bray, BEL co-director SeMia Bray, BEL co-director
Bray’s focus is on energy with particular focus on renewable energy, waste reduction, and electric vehicles. She says she has always loved science and math and traces the early development of this interest to several generations of her family’s appreciation of and synchronicity with nature.

Additionally, Bray attended the former Cleveland School of Science and worked on a space shuttle as an intern at NASA Glenn Research Center.

As a young, Black female surrounded by older, white males, she just didn’t fit into the culture they created in the NASA organization and decided to pursue another career path.

“I didn’t connect,” she says. “If I would’ve had some sort of support system, I probably would have stayed [at NASA].”

Bray eventually entered the commercial architecture design industry, where the world of STEM began to make sense for her. She has worked as a director for both Urban League of Greater Cleveland and Emerald Cities Collaborative (ECC). At ECC, she helped position the organization as a “go-to” source for high road, sustainable, just and inclusive development strategies.

These strategies at ECC included the advancement of clean energy, green infrastructure, and other sustainable development policies; programs and projects that increase climate resilience of the metropolitan region; building communities with family-supporting jobs, income, and community wealth creation; and ensuring equity participation of low-income communities of color in the green economy.

In addition to her work with BEL, Bray is a real estate consultant. She’s served on the Water Equity Taskforce and is currently on the Cleveland Tree Coalition’s executive committee.

Her hope for addressing problems around her area of expertise is that our nation discovers the solutions necessary to transfer to 100% renewable energy sources for all our energy needs. Bray explains that we will need to revamp our energy system by installing solar panels in our homes and transforming the grid to power electric vehicles.

“It’s not impossible,” she says. “We’ve done it before when we went from horse and buggy to cars.”

Bray advocates for the broadest level of participation when this occurs. “It’s my purpose. I embrace it,” she says. “Every shade of humanity needs to be included in that expansion and the economic benefits.”

David Wilson, BEL co-directorDavid Wilson, BEL co-director
BEL co-director David Wilson’s area of expertise is landscape architecture and urban design. Landscape architecture is the planning and design of parks, campuses, streetscapes, trails, plazas, residences, and other projects that strengthen communities.

Wilson’s time with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy’s School Grounds Greening Program in Pittsburgh inspired him to join the fight for environmental justice. There, he advocated for greater representation in the professional design field in response to design decisions made in the past that continued to impact communities of color. He realized that children in the city had different lived experiences with nature and the environment than he had growing up in Connecticut’s New England landscape.

“For me, that was more than an issue of living in an urban environment, [an environmental issue]. That was a social justice issue,” he says.

In addition to his work with BEL, Wilson is a project manager with LAND studio, serves on the board of the Ohio Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects (OCASLA), and is a committee member on the City of Cleveland’s Southeast Design Review Board.

He describes his work as a bit of an anthropologist—having to examine where a place is now, where a place has been, and how it can serve a community currently and into the future as it connects to those systems of the natural and built environment.

When considering sustainability in environmentally sensitive design, Wilson says it not only involves improving the landscape but leaving as little to no footprint as possible.

“It’s really making sure that the design looks at the landscape and, in some ways, improves some of those decisions made in the past around either infrastructure or connectivity,” he explains. “[We have to look at] where the built environment has caused issues [and compare it] with how the natural environment is supposed to function.”

Wilson says people living in the environment must be considered as well, ensuring it is sustainable for present and future generations. “We try to define what it means to be a good steward, not only in word but through practice,” he says.

If there’s one thing that would make a demonstrable change in the design profession as a whole, Wilson says, it is breaking down the barrier of what a designer should be, can be, and should look like.

“It baffles me that there’s still a mindset where a firm will go into a neighborhood and just start checking off boxes when the real experts are the residents… how [the residents’] voices are being devalued and even not considered in most cases,” says Wilson. “There needs to be a more concerted effort to reach a wider audience and make it accessible for folks to participate.”

Kwame Botchway, Global Shapers Cleveland Hub curatorKwame Botchway, Global Shapers Cleveland Hub curator
Kwame Botchway, Global Shapers Cleveland Hub curator, is an urban development professional and social worker interested in the intersection of community and economic development, sustainability, and impact investing.

He received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Ghana and holds a master’s degree in social administration from Case Western Reserve University (CWRU), where he was awarded a Mandel Leadership Fellowship. He is the founder and principal consultant at Citadel Impact Consulting and director of community impact and innovation at Cleveland Neighborhood Progress’  Village Capital Corporation.

“I think of my work primarily as social impact architecture, where I help organizations strategize around community solutions that build resilience, wealth, and wellbeing specifically within historically marginalized communities,” Botchway says.

Growing up in the Volta region of Ghana, a society with a deep reverence for the natural environment, Botchway spent his formative years on the Keta peninsula. There, the sea and lagoon were not just sources of livelihood for the local residents but also held spiritual value.

“As children, the natural environment was our playground,” he says. “We played soccer in the sand and ran track within the neighborhood. We swam in the sea and lagoon and sat around the fire at night to watch the stars and hear tales from the elders.”

It sickens Botchway to know there are communities where children cannot play outside because the air is either polluted by a poorly sited factory or the soil is laden with toxins because of poor waste management practices or the lack of investment in public parks and playscapes. It hurts him to know there are children whose life outcome is impacted by lead poisoning in their homes.

“To know that most of these children are placed at this disadvantage because of their race, ethnicity or socio-economic status is the reason I fight for environmental justice,” says Botchway. “For me, environmental justice, social justice, is personal,”

Botchway has been a long-standing advocate for safe, quality affordable housing in urban communities. This is especially true in urban communities that are on the cusp of gentrification and threatens the displacement of long-time residents of these communities.

“The mixed-income neighborhood housing model, to me, is a sound and plausible strategy for preserving affordable housing in gentrifying neighborhoods and also deconcentrating poverty in distressed neighborhoods. The home is one of the frontiers of the struggle for resilience, and sustainability,” he says.

Jonathan Steirer, Global Shapers Cleveland Hub memberJonathan Steirer, Global Shapers Cleveland Hub member
Originally from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Jonathan Steirer moved to Cleveland after completing his program at Maine Maritime Academy in 2015, where he earned a B.S. in marine systems engineering and minored in Naval architecture.

Wanting to become more involved in the community he expressed this desire to a member of his dodgeball team who in turn introduced him to Global Shapers.

Steirer refers to himself as a community leader and professional supporting critical energy and materials data science research at CWRU. He passionately supports social impact and community development with a focus on fair and equitable housing, youth climate organizing, and transportation solutions with an emphasis on biking and public transit.

Although he’s always had interest in housing, it grew from his participation in a Global Shapers’ partner project with the Fair Housing Center for Rights and Research, where he and others were challenged to develop a tenant screening model that accounted for bias and disparate impact. As a result, they found some basic metrics that were inherently discriminatory.

“Housing is related to a lot of other sustainability aspects,” says Steirer. “When you engage people around climate and environment, there is an opportunity to put housing into the conversation. It is usually siloed.”

For example, when people talk about lead, that’s a housing issue, he says.

The work with The Fair Housing Center for Rights and Research led to several recommendations—including changing the narrative around how a “good tenant” is defined, using Google ads to increase the search results rankings for this new narrative, and to better educate tenants of their rights as well as landlords on how to accept more tenants with fewer risks.

“Getting people into housing is a huge concern,” says Steiner. “I think this model can be of use.”

Elena Stachew, Global Shapers Cleveland Hub memberElena Stachew, Global Shapers Cleveland Hub member
Originally from Cleveland, Global Shaper Cleveland Hub member and incoming curator Elena Stachew grew up in Michigan—spending summers on the beaches of Lake Michigan and camping with her family throughout the Midwest. Stachew’s dad served on the local environmental council.

“I always had an interest in nature,” she says. “I remember as a kid, having to remove invasive purple loosestrife from around a pond with my dad—[we released] these specific beetles he ordered from Asia that would eat only the loosestrife but nothing else. We also did water quality testing in local streams, and these activities just stayed with me.”

Stachew studied engineering at CWRU where she got involved with sustainability groups, doing beach clean-ups and trail maintenance work at the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. “I always made it a priority for sustainability to be a part of my personal lifestyle and profession,” she says, adding that she thinks sustainability should be embedded in every discipline at both the collegiate level and professional level.

Stachew’s area of technical expertise lies at the intersection of bio-inspired design, technology & manufacturing, and the built and natural environments. She refers to herself as a community connector and outdoor enthusiast, connecting individuals, communities, and organizations together—particularly in the spaces of clean energy, outdoor and nature-based education, and youth climate activism.

“What sustainability needs to be is a complete mindset shift in how we think, operate, act, and live with ourselves and our environments,” she says.

“A mindset shift is also what is needed for environmental justice, because how environmental issues and climate change disproportionately impact BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] populations is a direct result of how our social, political, and economic systems are set up.”

It is obvious that all of the BEL and Global Shapers leaders are passionate about creating a better environment and economy for current and future generations. And they credit the distributive leadership for allowing them to bring their level of agency to the issue.

Steirer says the distributive leader model allows all participants to feel like they have a stake in the mission, which is helpful. “It’s made me a more confident leader,” he shares.

Stachew says a top-down approach can often move too slowly, while a bottom-up approach at the grassroots level creates the groundswell and momentum for action, but often lacks the ability to affect systemic, policy-wide change.

She says she believes a combination of both top-down and bottom-up approaches can work if leaders at each end are in constant communication with each other, but that is often the critical failure point.
 
“Starting with a distributed leadership model from the very beginning ensures everyone is a leader—regardless of age, experience, background, etcetera,” she says.

“It’s about what they can contribute. When something needs to be done and one person in the distributed leadership team asks for help, everyone knows they have the agency, the respect, and the responsibility to speak up and help,” Stachew continues. “Everyone believes in each other. It is understood that everyone produces their highest quality work, constantly communicates with the team, and reaches out if they need assistance.”
 
Wilson adds, “That is very much how we model true environmental and economic justice to a larger audience.”

This is the second story in a 10-part series of articles designed to highlight how this intergenerational model is helpful in moving the needle in so many aspects of Cleveland as well as to uplift narratives of resilience and impact within the environmental justice space. Upcoming stories will spotlight different organizations working on environmental justice and climate change as well as capture the intergenerational voices working on these issues.

Read more articles by Rhonda Crowder.

Rhonda Crowder worked as a general assignment reporter for the Call and Post Newspaper for 11 years and has served as associate publisher of "Who's Who in Black Cleveland" since 2013. She currently runs a creative services agency, is VP of print for the Greater Cleveland Association of Black Journalists, and coordinates Hough Reads literacy initiative. Her debut novel is titled "Riddles."