Lead With Love: Elena Marszalek on the Feminist Climate Movement

Editor’s Note: This interview in our Feminist Giving IRL series features Elena Marszalek, Managing Director of Del Mar Global Trust, a private foundation dedicated to the environment. 

Elena Marszalek
Elena Marszalek, courtesy of Elena Marszalek

1. What do you wish you had known when you started out in your profession?

I started my career in philanthropy as the only employee of Del Mar Global Trust, a newly established family foundation focused on the natural environment. Although I had previous experience working in climate change, I had little experience in philanthropy. I felt both hopeful and overwhelmed. 

Joining Rachel’s Network, a community of women environmental philanthropists, broadened my knowledge of complex environmental issues, and significantly improved my ability to select and monitor grant recipients. Networking with other women with similar goals and interests helped my career in numerous other ways, for example sharing information about projects that as individuals we would not be aware of. Perhaps most importantly, I have access to other members with many years of experience who offer advice and mentorship. As in all professions, you learn through experience. 

2. What is your current greatest professional challenge?

A constant challenge is to be as effective as I can be in ensuring that grants are awarded in a fair and unbiased process.  For example, as a white woman, I have been learning about unconscious racial biases that may be affecting my daily life, as well as my grantmaking. The article, ‘Philanthopists Bench Women of Color, the M.V.P.s of Social Change,’ outlines how philanthropists view large white-led nonprofits as ‘safer investments,’ when it is often the smaller, grassroots organizations led by women of color that have the local experience and potential to make real change. In 2016, only 0.6% of foundation grants went to women of color. I am working now to become more aware of these biases, address them, and actively seek-out nonprofits that are led by women of color. 

3. What inspires you most about your work?

I highly recommend reading, All We Can Save, by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson. This pivotal book is a compilation of art and essays by women leaders working in climate change. It represents the shift in the climate movement that really inspires me. The climate movement has not only become more inclusive of women and young girls, it has become more feminist. Women and girls are leading the way, and they are leading with love, compassion, and a solid focus on justice, equality, diversity and inclusion (JEDI). We are all stronger for it. 

4. How does your gender identity inform your work?

Working in climate change, I am very aware how women and children are disproportionately affected by its consequences. I am also cognizant that, having the incredible luck of being born a white American woman, I will experience the burdens of climate change at a significantly lower level than most other inhabitants of this planet. I have always felt a love and connection to a broader global community; now as a mother I feel an even stronger kinship. I am very much aware that I was born into a situation of privilege, and I think that awareness has driven me to try to support those women who were not as fortunate as I am. 

5. Do you think your gender identity has affected your career?

Being a woman has affected my career in a positive way, in that I am part of a large community of other female philanthropists. Working with other women provides a unique kind of camaraderie and ease. In a general sense, we have similar interests and goals. Most of our grantee organizations are run by women with whom I have been developing good relationships over the years. There is a strong element of trust and openness. I am learning that to be a good philanthropist you have to be a good team member; the grantor-grantee relationship works best when it is more of a partnership rather than the top-down approach.

6. How can philanthropy support gender equality?

Philanthropists can start by looking inwards. How diverse is their own organization? Do the organizations they support incorporate JEDI work in their organizational structure and work?  Directly funding women’s empowerment can produce benefits that reach far beyond the original funding focus. Educating girls and voluntary family planning services, in particular, produce wide ranging long-term benefits for the individual, the community and the natural environment. Project Drawdown rates both educating girls and voluntary family planning in the top five solutions to combat global warming. 

Supporting women of color is also critical to advancing gender equality. DMGT funds the Rachels Network Catalyst Award, which offers a $10,000 cash prize to mid-career women of color working in the environment. The significance of this award is that the cash supports the individual, with another smaller donation going to the organization she is affiliated with. The winners also gain recognition, networking opportunities, and mentorship from previous recipients. 

7. In the next 10 years, where do you see gender equality movements taking us?

It is clear that the environment is not some abstract concept; it is intricately connected with our everyday health and experiences. Supporting gender equality is important from both human rights and environmental perspectives. Although we still have a long way to go, I am glad to witness ongoing advancements around the world. Several countries now have women heads of State, and women head important international organizations. Most recently, the inauguration of the first woman and the first person of color as Vice President of the United States gives me immense hope. In ten years, my daughter will be sixteen years old and thinking about her own career options. I hope that gender will not play a role in that future decision. I truly believe that gender equality will continue to improve at an accelerating rate worldwide.

More on Elena Marszalek:

Elena Marszalek is managing director of Del Mar Global Trust (DMGT), a private foundation dedicated to the environment. She lives in Switzerland with her husband and daughter. She serves on the boards of Climate Access and Rachel’s Network, and is also a trustee of the Bay Branch Foundation and the Mary Lea Johnson Richards Charitable Trust. Her identity as a mother inspired her to focus DMGT’s resources on promoting the links between health, quality of life and the natural environment.

This interview has been minimally edited.

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Author: Julia Travers

I often cover innovations in science, the arts and social justice. Find my work with NPR, Discover Magazine, APR and Earth Island Journal, among other publications. My portfolio is at jtravers.journoportfolio.com.

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