Enhancing DEIJ in the Coastal Restoration Sector: Reflections from the Inclusive Coasts Initiative

There is no better time than the present for coastal conservation funders and project implementors to apply concepts of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice to their way of doing business. We are in a critical time where the success of our efforts toward protecting the environment will be defined by how we treat our most vulnerable communities and how we incorporate the needs and voices of those who have been overburdened by environmental inequity and systematically excluded from conservations around funding, policy, and project design. 

The first time I heard the term DEIJ to describe diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice I was a sophomore in college interning at my local aquarium. While I knew a lot about my personal experiences in the field of conservation as an African American woman, I took this opportunity to learn about other people's experiences and the efforts conservation organizations were undertaking to increase diversity in their own organizations. I learned for the first time what “meeting people where they are” meant and how to tailor conservation activities and messaging to different audiences. What I thought was a short-term learning experience has led me down a path of continuous learning and, five years later, leading various organizations’ DEIJ efforts. 

Restore America’s Estuaries (RAE) has been operating in the coastal conservation field for over 25 years. In that time, the systemic inequities facing past and present marine, coastal, and estuarine project implementation, policy formation, and grant distribution have become increasingly evident. It is vital for all people and the planet that we create lasting systemic change in the coastal conservation field by intentionally integrating diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice throughout our work. 

In 2021, RAE, in partnership with the National Science Foundation (NSF) launched the Inclusive Coasts Initiative (ICI) with the goal of improving access to grant funding and promoting collaboration in project implementation that will lead to more just and equitable outcomes for all coastal communities.

To kick start the process, in January 2022, RAE launched a survey around this initiative where we learned about challenges, successes and hopes on the topic of DEIJ in the coastal sector. 

Challenges ranged from not knowing the best way to conduct outreach to a lack of understanding around implementing DEIJ as well as a lack of DEIJ focused funding. Despite challenges, people have seen success in this work, such as increased grant funding support for DEIJ initiatives and underrepresented groups, and an overall growing awareness of and emphasis on improving DEIJ in the coastal sector. In the area of “hopes,” survey respondents hoped for many outcomes; but the one that touched me the most was the desire to build connections among fellow conservation players and to see new ways of knowing and doing things in the coastal conservation community. This feedback aligned well with our project’s goals:

  • Amplify voices of those who have been doing this vital work for years
  • Lead to real change in grant programs and coastal conservation implementation projects 
  • Encourage new connections and relationship building 
  • Emphasize the importance of including community needs and interests in research since research directly informs policy and funding 
  • Avoid structural barriers, such as overhead limitations, which can create inequity in even well-intentioned grant programs  

Lessons Learned 

The Inclusive Coasts Initiative has so far presented two workshops in the Grantmakers series: topics discussed have included improving equity in grantmaking and understanding how funders can rethink their application processes.

Our overall goal was to create an interactive peer-to-peer learning environment where all participants learned from one another.  Speakers shared some of the following insights and lessons learned from their own experiences:

  • Include the concept of “health” in coastal conservation initiatives, especially when working with communities of color and low-income communities which have disproportionate exposure to poor environmental quality.
  • Bring the affected community to the forefront of decision making (i.e. move away from top-down implementation structures).
  • Realize that capacity building and community-led work continues to be underfunded.

Restore America’s Estuaries believes that it is important to amplify diverse voices and the progress of others. For those groups and organizations that were unavailable to participate, we shared relevant resources from their work and highly encouraged participants to read them as a part of their own learning. We are grateful to have access to resources such as Funding Indigenous Peoples: Strategies for Support by International Funders for Indigenous Peoples and Candid that provide further depth and breadth to our understanding of this subject. 

I have been most personally impacted by learning from the speakers how to think more deeply about equity, and the fact that our understanding of what is “best practice” for DEIJ work is not constant but evolves over time. Additionally, participants' questions and stories from their own DEIJ initiatives have inspired me and shown me the impact this work can make. Funders have also shared that after participating in these workshops, they returned to their own grantmaking processes and made immediate changes. Other participants expressed a heightened sense of urgency to pursue better equity within their own organizations.

Next Steps

The final grantmakers workshop will be held later this month, on April 26, and will focus on “Partners, Communities and Program Design.” After that, we will offer the Project Implementors series while also planning future cross-sectional opportunities. 

My hope for this Initiative and complementary efforts is that everyone involved internalizes that applying DEIJ practices to our conservation efforts is not just a personal learning experience, but a lifetime commitment to others in a way that will bring justice to people and our planet – both of which have been overburdened for far too long. 

Enhancing DEIJ in the Coastal Restoration Sector:


About the author(s)

Inclusive Coasts Initiative (ICI) Fellow at Restore America’s Estuaries