Michelle Mascarenhas-Swan

Ashoka Fellow
web_headshot_michelle.jpg
United States
Fellow Since 2017
This description of Michelle Mascarenhas-Swan's work was prepared when Michelle Mascarenhas-Swan was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2017 .

Introduction

Michelle is helping build a vibrant and proactive movement for ecological justice in the United States by equipping frontline communities with a unifying framework and a national network of support.

L'idée nouvelle

Michelle’s work concentrates on the leadership of large numbers of local efforts that arise in communities of color and among working class people who are often the first and most impacted by climate disasters and the poverty and pollution that are byproducts of our economic system. Local people are compelled to action, but what they face often outpaces the strategies available to them. Michelle and her team at Movement Generation have created a new way for local changemakers to increase their effectiveness both individually and at scale. In this way they are helping transform and align the leadership of individuals and groups across the country into a grassroots and distributed movement of changemakers with shared strategies and messagingto work across silos.

Through a national architecture of training, engagement, and support, Michelle is helping social change leaders from the frontlines of destruction to take effective action towards rebuilding their pieces of our economic system in ways that work for the whole community. She and those she works with describe this as “resilience-based organizing” and a growing collection of local examples, helpful frameworks, and refreshed strategies ensure that this new operating model resonates with more and more directly-affected communities. In this way, she has been able to inspire new changemakers, but also to redirect the power and energy of today’s social movements. Rather than just protesting or banding together to ask the powerful to act on their behalves, groups of people are becoming skilled changemakers, taking up the whole range of tasks from working effectively as teams, cooperating across very diverse and unfamiliar issue areas, creatively addressing new challenges as they arise, and bolstering their own abilities to govern through actually creating and implementing the changes they and their communities need.

Not only does this reform their own relationships with larger forces like government and private companies, but individuals’ own experience of agency and changemaking is reawakened. No longer are they only able to add “people power” to advocate for the few “politically feasible” options that are currently on the table; now this talent is channeled towards developing new examples of real solutions that provide for the basic needs of their own communities: things like food, shelter, energy, transportation, and caregiving. Through a constellation of national alliances and initiatives, this accumulated learning is aggregated and shared. Nearly 5,000 rising leaders from across the country are trained and woven into this work each year and some 250 organizations have gone from things like “raising awareness” to adopting and advancing a transformative theory of change with an emphasis on building local, practical solutions in line with a shared, long-term vision. This shift has created much more room for smaller scale players who are motivated by the values of the good of all, greater justice, and more joy to contribute productively to building a new economic system. And it has generated far more real solutions

that provide the foundation for the emergent, more life-giving economic system that we all deserve.

Le problème

The communities most negatively affected by the increasingly rapid changes to our economy and our environment are communities of color and working class people. Automation and globalization on the one hand and intensifying droughts and storms on the other hit these communities particularly hard. And while changing the economic conditions that exploit both human labor and natural resources and concentrate wealth and power with the very few is a global, long-term challenge, many individuals across these most-affected communities are nonetheless rising to this challenge today. Unfortunately, too often the local actions and old ways of organizing fall short. Mobilizing to ensure that polluting power plants don’t end up just in poor neighborhoods is a false solution; it doesn’t begin to address the underlying systemic problems. Winning wage increases for workers or requiring developers to build a few more affordable housing units alleviates short-term suffering and inequality, too, but as Michelle points out “if they don’t shift the decision-making power to workers and communities, they don’t change the path we’re on.”

As Movement Generation says, “Transition is inevitable, justice is not. Frontline communities must provide leadership in shifting towards local economies that put well-being first.”

The time for incremental change has passed, but the changemakers in the best position to build and share actual, transformative solutions are not set up to do so. In the face of our current ecological crisis, the conventional wisdom is that humans need to shrink; there are too many of us, and we use too much electricity and take long showers. Michelle, on the contrary, believes humans are our only hope. We need humans to act as a regenerative force—restoring watersheds, installing greywater infrastructure, shifting from landfills and incinerators to zero waste. All of these require human labor that can apply lessons and make good decisions.

This asset-based reframe may work as an inspiring call to action, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that people heeding its call will know how to effectively contribute. Across the Ashoka Fellowship, there is a category of Fellow who works on up-skilling people who find themselves in roles for which they are unprepared: rural school principals in India (whose prior work experience is typically longest-serving teacher), farmers where farming is a birthright and not a chosen profession, or elected officials in small towns who are respected neighbors but not necessarily effective ‘city planners,’ for example. In poor, working class communities across the US, such a category of leader is the local environmental changemaker.

The folks in these communities have firsthand knowledge of these challenges and they apply their energy and ideas to addressing climate change and fixing our economic system as best they can. Compelled to take some sort of action, they inherit a playbook of petition passing, protesting, or advocating for those in power to heed their calls for change. But the old way of organizing can’t work fast enough. Not only that, but – at the individual leadership level - Michelle observes that this way of organizing is actually deeply disempowering in that it entrenches “a notion that power lies in the hands of others rather than in our own hands.”

The very distributed nature of activism and social change further complicates any potential solution. There is no school through which all these local leaders pass, nor one event or experience they all share. And many leaders working on their local or thematic issues – from migrant rights to racial healing to environmentalism - haven’t even realized they are all on the same team, having all been hurt by the same underlying economic forces. Harnessing all this energy to actually transfer skills and enact big change is necessary, but complicated. Against a backdrop of fewer and fewer good jobs and more environmental vulnerability, big changes become even more necessary and increasingly urgent. But how can we get unstuck?

La stratégie

The emotional core of Michelle’s work is an accumulated empathy and deep connection to the experience of living with the reality of resources ebbing away and the feeling that something needs to change, paired with the inability to begin or to realize those necessary changes. This is a potentially hopeless place, made only more bleak by the disempowering experience of more and more failed attempts to fix it. But there’s energy here and, through her work with the communities of color and folks from working-class backgrounds who experience this most acutely, Michelle has proven that she’s able to tap that energy to initiate a personal transformation that’s rooted in embracing robust intellectual frameworks and practical experiences, then redirect it towards productive, hands-on changemaking. Then at scale, she and the folks she works with are able to harness these collective efforts as a force for actual, transformative change.

Addressing the problems laid out above is long-term, 100-years, multi-generational work, but Michelle believes the most strategic way to begin tackling this problem is to invest in the power of people to step up into more effective changemaking today. Therefore, Michelle has built the architecture to align, train, and support social change leaders from working-class backgrounds and communities of color across the country. Through Movement Generation, she’s developed a whole range of professional development and ‘up-skilling’ opportunities that will help launch more effective changemakers today, as well as the national and longer-term architecture of amplification and support that will support them and their initiatives over the long haul.

For many people, a first point of contact with Michelle’s work might be an in-person Movement Generation training. Whether these in-person engagements pop-up as intensive trainings organized by local partners that bring in Movement Generation as the content and convening experts or take place inside larger existing conferences or events, this is often the closest thing to formal training in social change strategy that many rising civic leaders will experience, and last year some 4,700 individuals around the U.S. benefited from attending. According to Farhad Ebrahimi, the director of the Chorus Foundation who has sponsored several such offerings, though these engagements “aren't necessarily framed as "trainings for trainers," they can have much the same effect in the sense that they develop new leaders to propagate and re-contextualize Movement Generation’s insights and strategies.” These insights and strategies include things like critically assessing our current economic model and organizing strategies, emphasizing the need to practice building and governing local solutions, and then championing and promoting these real solutions over incremental, superficial changes. As program attendees share with their communities, families, and local groups, they remain banded together as a broader coalition working to build practical, lasting changes.

Some of that ‘banding together’ happens organically as folks drawn from diverse backgrounds and across thematic “silos” find common community and stay in touch. But a key piece of Movement Generation’s ongoing support architecture is a suite of five national initiatives that invite – and indeed rely on – local participation. Initiatives like the Black Land and Liberation Network focus on equipping black community leaders with actual food security and land-access skills while Climate Workers engages unions – regardless of sector - on taking on wider-scale leadership to innovate on and advance actual economic models that support more vibrant communities. The most robust of Movement Generation’s current “verticals” is probably the Climate Justice Alliance, which is a collaborative of more than 50 community-based groups, networks, and movement support organizations uniting frontline communities across the US with a current focus on Black Mesa, AZ; Eastern Kentucky; Jackson, MS; San Antonio, TX; Detroit, MI; and Richmond, CA. These areas that are driving local, regional, statewide and national shifts are cumulatively home to tens of millions of people from mostly Indigenous, African American, Latinx, Asian Pacific Islander and working-class white backgrounds and often living near toxic, climate polluting energy infrastructure or facilities.

Whether through their own work informed by Movement Generation’s strategies or through engagement in national campaigns like the Climate Justice Alliance, this all culminates in actual local solutions being conceived of and built 1) in places it wasn’t being invested in before and 2) by people who weren’t playing these leadership roles previously. In other words, while these may not be the first people ever to – for instance – start and run a local solar energy cooperative or reclaim municipally-neglected public land for community gardens, where these changes are taking root and who is driving them represents a groundswell of new changemaking energy in the areas with most to win (or lose) if this potential is unlocked (or not). The impact of Michelle’s work therefore shows up differently than a job-training or childcare-providing project, for example. As a talent development intervention, the emphasis in Movement Generation’s work is on the local social change leaders’ or organizations’ grasp of core principles that become part of an analysis that can be applied everywhere. And that can be shared. Their measure of success is essentially, ‘are local changemakers up to the challenge?’

Thanks to Movement Generation, it seems they are. Leaders whose efforts and impact has been amplified through their engagement with Michelle and Movement Generation include organizers in Kentucky who, despite a historical focus on creating local post-coal jobs, have channeled their energy towards supporting the development of rural electrical co-ops that promote clean, efficient energy as well as empower members to step up for co-op reforms that will that increase transparency and democracy. They helped start the municipally-owned utility (in the town of Benham) that became the first in the state to offer pay-as-you-save financing for residential energy upgrades and they’ve influenced not only the Kentucky Clean Air Opportunity Act, but have served as a national model for federal funding for home weatherization projects, as well.

Elsewhere, examples of Movement Generation alums show the power in reorienting economies, resources, and goals around a vision of a local economy that works for everyone. In Black Mesa, Arizona, collaborators at the Black Mesa Water Coalition not only helped the Kayenta Solar Facility come into being (becoming the first utility-scale solar project in Navajo Nation with the capacity to power as many as 13,000 homes) but have also launched and woven together the Navajo Wool Market Project to improve the quality of local wool production and ensure fair market value for producers as well as the Food Security Project which works to revitalize,

strength and support the local food systems of the Black Mesa region. And in Detroit, Movement Generation alums and collaborators have worked through the City Planning Commission, an advisory body to the City Council, to pass the Urban Agriculture Ordinance that recognizes the threat heat island effect and the fragility of our conventional food supplies pose to the health of the people of Detroit and therefore commits to an inclusive process and agriculture policy that protects the ability of citizens to grow their own food and create productive community-based green spaces within their neighborhoods.

Over the next 4 years, fifty more just transition zones will come online through the Climate Justice Alliance alone, hitting the ground running with the models developed in Kentucky, Black Mesa, Detroit, and beyond, and also bringing their own experiences and innovations into the mix. In many cases what the communities build is “ahead of” and conflicts with current legal and political structures set up to serve the interests of the status quo. Whether it’s net-metering laws or challenges to regulations around growing food in yards or cities, by creating this “crisis of governance”, these innovations raise the question of whether communities have permission to take action on their collective interest, not to mention that they are actually building the architecture for dramatically new ways of living together and in concert with the earth.

Finally, to add even more momentum to all these efforts and ensure even more concrete impact, Michelle is systematically working with national funders to ensure philanthropic capital flows to this new network and approach. Mark Randazzo, Director of the EDGE Funders Alliance which includes funders like Rockefeller, Ford, and Open Society as well as many smaller family foundations, has personally – and profoundly - seen himself and his network profoundly changed by Michelle’s work, having gone from pursuing strategies like the Sustainable Development Goals that “at best are just making tiny pockets more sustainable” to realizing that what “Michelle and her team show funders is that if we are really serious about trying to create a world that is sustainable and just, we need to embrace a framework and live into a vision of getting out of our current economic model and mindset.” And more than a dozen funders representing more than $100M in annual giving have done just that. Through “Shake the Foundations”, a collaboration that Michelle and Movement Generation helped launch, the Chorus Foundation, the Libra Foundation, the Bay Area Justice Funders Network, the EDGE Funders alliance, and others have since all taken efforts to align their giving, in some cases making pledges like the Chorus Foundation’s commitment to making 10-year grants of general support to visionary, local organizations building actual, practical new solutions inspired by the just transition framework that Movement Generation espouses.

The elegance in Michelle’s approach is that she’s doing all this work, all at once, and across the full ecosystem, from the first-time changemaker to the long-standing funders. She’s making it happen now, and creating a living, learning laboratory. In addition to the aligned foundations, more than 250 organizations have adopted a transformative theory of change and a hands-on approach (in parts of the country where non-profits are commonly mistaken for government agencies given their tendency to provide direct services). The Movement Generation network has shown that it is possible to build the things that inspire hope in a new economic model and show that the communities that are at risk of losing the most during this time of dramatic transition are able to skillfully and carefully (as in full-of-care) lead the transition.

That said, things may still get a lot worse before they get better. The old economic model collapsing will likely mean fewer and fewer jobs, and the legacy of our impact on the environment will mean even more vulnerability to severe weather. What’s new – and enlivening - is that thriving in this new reality can become real for more than the lucky few. Working-class and disenfranchised people living though an economic and environmental upheaval are expressing a vision for how their time, choices, values, joy, and distinct cultures can provide a pathway for an economy that actually takes care of people, that fits our time in history, that is rooted in trust and teamwork, and is life affirming. This is thanks, in larger part, to a growing national cadre of changemakers who, as Michelle puts it, “rather than simply fighting the systems that are harming us, work to foster systems of care and cooperation [through] this approach that calls on our deeply rooted DNA as humans.”

La personne

In reflecting on the threads that are woven through her life and that inform her work today, Michelle has shared that she was the child of white-collar working-class immigrants and a latchkey kid who was not always safe even though there was a veneer of safety in suburbia where she grew up. She studied electrical engineering and was one of the first in her family to put herself through university, where she helped create a series of groups that were creating campus-community connections (like engaging students in activism around Proposition 187, one of California’s first anti-immigrant initiatives) while also founding groups like Voices, a way for students to come together to write and share (through a full curriculum that they developed) the ways in which the female beauty myth impacts women of color. Michelle did a short (6-month) Peace Corps internship in Lesotho during the transition from Apartheid to ANC governance. Later she worked on farms long enough to see “the ways the food system was not working for farmers or for families,” paired that with an Urban Planning degree, and was one of the early champions of the local farm-to-school movement.

As “one of the midwives” of this now national movement, Michelle had the experience of developing and then scaling up nationally a model for locally-sourced in-school salad bars that provided a powerful entry point for parents and young people to make local changes. In expanding her model from one school district (Santa Monica-Malibu Unified) to many across the country, she linked up seven existing regional organizations, secured funding for all of them through the USDA, and activated the full network. This became a space for people to exchange ideas, to identify areas for policy change to help farmers access school markets, and to share stories of success in getting families, farmers, and school administers and – critically—the cafeteria cooks involved in making change. Though Michelle transitioned out of her direct leadership role in the late 90s, the network is still active. And while the solutions have not saturated everywhere, the conversation has gone mainstream and there are thousands of communities currently transforming their local systems.

Through all these experiences, Michelle came to see “the limitations of the way our movements were building ‘alternatives’ that could simply exist with grant funding on the margins while this extractive economy continued to exploit people and places.” This inspired her to get more engaged in political education, first bringing her executive leadership skills to School of Unity and Liberation and, later, to Movement Generation.