Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Progress Report

March 6th, 2023

In early 2020, Upstate Forever published our Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Statement. This statement laid out the steps our board, leadership, and staff would take in the years to come to ensure that Upstate Forever’s work to protect our region’s critical lands, waters, and unique character represented and served the full breadth of the Upstate community.

As we start a new year and begin implementing Upstate Forever’s strategic plan that will guide our team’s work from 2023-2027, we wanted to share some of the work behind our words. Below is a status update regarding the goals for diversity, equity, and inclusion set forth in 2020.


Upstate Forever’s mission is to protect critical lands, waters, and the unique character of the Upstate region. We envision a future that is healthy, vibrant, and prosperous. To realize that vision, we know it is vitally important and essential to our core values that we engage the diverse community we serve.

1. To develop and advance long-lasting, equitable solutions for balanced growth and natural resource protection, our leadership is committed to working intentionally to engage a broader base of Upstate residents in the coming years.

Efforts toward this goal include, but are not limited to:

  • In 2022, Land Trust sought funding for Black landowners’ conservation easements and investigated outreach opportunities in Black communities through local news outlets and a presentation with the SC State Extension. The UF Land Trust Board Committee approved a new priority property criterion aimed at facilitating work with more landowners of color. The new criterion enabled UF to close an easement that will forever protect Soapstone Baptist Church, established more than 150 years ago in Liberia, a small community in Pickens County. Soapstone was settled by formerly enslaved African Americans and their families looking to start new lives in freedom after the Civil War.
  • Clean Water staff pursued funding through the Environmental Justice Data Fund to map water quality and environmental justice indicators and create an interactive tool that can be used to promote advocacy efforts, inform watershed planning, and connect UF to historically underserved Upstate communities. The team continues working with partners in source water protection areas to provide financial assistance to low-income homeowners to fix failing septic systems.

  • Land Policy staff began working collaboratively with partners to raise awareness of – and begin rectifying – injustices caused by discriminatory land policies that have led to racial and socio-economic inequity in the Upstate and countrywide. Staff also worked to ensure diverse cohorts of participants in our Citizens Planning Academy (CPA) and integrated a session regarding Equity in Planning into UF’s CPA in fall 2022, which was extremely well received. Staff worked with partners at Impact Greenville – a coalition working to shape public policy at the intersection of affordable housing, transit, and land use – to ensure the voices of those most impacted by the policies we seek are at the table as we build our advocacy agenda.

  • Energy and State Policy Staff worked extensively to expand advocacy efforts to underserved communities. The program was awarded funding by the Energy Foundation to broaden the base of support for electric vehicles among elected officials, businesses, and communities who are traditionally overlooked for federal and state investments. The team is involved with the newly formed SC Energy Justice Coalition and worked to help distribute surveys to measure the energy burden of underserved communities around the state. The results were analyzed by the University of Maryland and will be used to educate policymakers and bring attention to the issue of energy insecurity in South Carolina.

2. We will build staff knowledge and capacity related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. We will frequently ask ourselves — who is impacted by this work, and how is their voice represented in the conservation and advocacy solutions we seek? We will amplify the stories of underrepresented stakeholders in the conservation movement — especially people of color.

Efforts toward this goal include, but are not limited to:

  • Staff continue rotating the responsibility of sharing monthly DEI resources and facilitate related thought-provoking discussions. In the fall of 2022, we began exploring and scheduling training for staff to build and strengthen equity and justice competencies most relevant to Upstate Forever's work, the first of which was related to inclusive language in September. These trainings will continue quarterly in 2023.
  • Our Communications team is actively working to amplify voices of diverse leaders in the conservation movement — both at the local level and more broadly. For Black History Month, we shared (on social media and in our e-newsletter) content about local Black leaders in conservation and environmental justice: Drew Lanham, Mable Clarke, Mary Duckett, and Rep. Harold Mitchell. In honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15 – October 15), we shared the essay by Alix Pedraza that originally ran in the Spring/Summer 2022 issue of the Upstate Advocate. For Native American Heritage Month (November), we highlighted the Cherokee people who endured forced removal from their ancestral lands, which encompassed the region that is now Upstate South Carolina.

  • Our Clean Water team dedicated time to outside training and research in equity-related topics that will help inform future projects and grant opportunities. The team has identified climate resilience as a key issue, especially how climate change vulnerability intersects with additional risks in historically disenfranchised communities. This research has included topics related to heat vulnerability, tree canopy cover, housing in floodplains, and drinking water/wastewater service affordability.

  • The Spring Advocate, which arrived in early May, included an update on our DEI strategic goals and six personal essays by women with remarkable conservation stories. This issue's essays included two Black leaders, Mable Clarke and Ruth Littlejohn; Alix Pedraza, a Colombian woman who manages SCDNR's Diversity Outreach program; and Sandy Hanebrink, a disability rights advocate.

  • We are expanding accessibility awareness among Development and Communications staff to ensure event planning and promotion are inclusive for people with disabilities.

3. Finally, we will take deliberate steps to build authentic community partnerships and cultivate new leaders at all levels of our organization — from our membership to our staff to our board — to ensure that we better represent the community we serve.

Efforts toward this goal include, but are not limited to:

  • In 2022 we contracted with a local consultant to facilitate a strategic planning process to guide our work for the next five years, with a focus on integrating equity and justice principles into the plan. The process included discussions with staff and board focused around connecting with diverse communities and environmental justice, as well as a focus group of stakeholders underrepresented in previous strategic planning processes. The plan was adopted by our Board in late 2022.
  • We worked during 2022 to institutionalize best practices related to inclusive recruitment, interview, and hiring processes. To ensure objectivity related to salaries, we developed criteria (skills, experience, knowledge, etc.) to be directly linked to pay rates, salary increases, and promotions. Additionally, plans to create a paid diversity internship program are underway and expected to launch in 2023.

This work is ongoing and we want to listen and learn from members of the Upstate community. Please contact lhallo@upstateforever.org with questions and comments. 

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