An interview with our new ED: Nakisha Nathan

Help us welcome Nakisha to Bark!

bark logo

Follow Bark on Social Media

Bark's Board of Directors invites you to raise a howl to welcome our new Executive Director, Nakisha Nathan. After an epic interview process, we are thrilled that Nakisha has accepted our offer. With years of experience as an organizer and leader in environmental advocacy, education policy, and racial justice; we cannot wait to see where she will lead us! In the midst of the holidays, Nakisha is already busy with the transition into her new role at Bark. Luckily, she had time to sit down with Board member Amy Harwood for an introductory interview, which we've shared below, so that our supporters can learn a little more about her and what she brings to Bark.

Welcome, Nakisha!

Bark Executive Director, Nakisha Nathan with her family and Broken Top in the Deschutes National Forest.

AH: How did you first learn about Bark? Tell us about your journey from that first interaction to becoming our Executive Director.

    NN: Six years ago, on my way into an REI, I met a Bark canvasser and was thrilled to hear about the work Bark does to protect Mt. Hood National Forest. I, of course, contributed to the campaign and began following Bark online and via regular newsletters while pursuing a Master of Science degree in Education, with a specialization in Leadership for Sustainability Education from Portland State University. During my time at PSU, I worked as a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) Garden Educator, cultivating students' curiosity and facilitating experiential learning opportunities. 

     Not long after graduation, I decided to return to my organizing roots and reached out to Huy Ong, the Executive Director for OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon (OPAL). I attended several of OPAL's welcoming events and eventually became the Program Coordinator for their Organizer-in-Training program. After the program ended, I continued learning from and working with OPAL while also working for organizations that often follow OPAL's lead, Neighbors for Clean Air and the Oregon Chapter of Sierra Club. While working at Sierra Club, I had a chance to meet with Courtney Rae, Bark's Associate Director and worked with her and key partners like APANO, Verde, and the Coalition of Communities of Color to strengthen environmental and equity commitments the 100% Renewable Energy Resolutions passed by the City of Portland and Multnomah County in 2017. And earlier this year,  I joined the Coalition of Communities of Color (CCC) as their Leadership Development Director, supporting the advancement of racial equity and centering the voices, experiences, andknowledge of those most impacted by climate change. 

     Throughout this year I reflected on all of my work experiences as an environmental consultant, legal assistant, educator and organizer and my commitment to interrupt and dismantle systems of oppression and white supremacy. When the opportunity to work with Bark arose, I jumped at it. I am thrilled to have a chance now, to not only protect and restore a key ecosystem for our region but to also engage and partner with diverse members of our community, to work in solidarity, building a movement for climate and environmental justice, so that we can all benefit from a flourishing ecosystem. As I write this, I am reminded of insights from Dr. Cornell West, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai, statements that illustrate the interconnectedness of social justice and environmentalism.

     "Justice is what love looks like in public." - Dr. Cornell West

     "We can love ourselves as we love the earth; feel grateful for who we are, even as we are grateful for the earth's bounty; better ourselves, even as we use that self-empowerment to improve the earth; offer service to ourselves, even as we practice volunteerism for the earth." - Wangari Maathai

AH: What part of Bark's work are you most excited to dive into?

    NN: The groundtruthing part, really! I love that Bark volunteers and staff go into the forest to determine discrepancies contained in Forest Service reports on areas proposed for logging. The act of getting on the ground and developing a sense of place while ensuring that threatened and endangered species are protected and illuminating the limitations of the Forest Service is transformational on so many levels. When people have a chance to connect with an ecosystem, and each other while doing so, and learn about the political systems that impact the environment and our communities, the need to improve or even dismantle systems that are not just for ecological health that our communities rely upon becomes plainly evident. And the camaraderie developed fuels movement building opportunities. So I'm really excited to be able to do this work with Bark. Also, I am thinking a lot about how to work with our traditional conservation partners to push climate and environmental justice issues.

Nakisha Nathan and Dupree West for the Portland Clean Energy Initiative.

AH: What are some of your principles around organizing and advocacy? Who did you learn from? Who are some historical figures that inspire your work?

     NN: Soon after my introduction into canvassing and activism, I came to believe that those most affected by a problem should be a the helm of coalitions and partnerships seeking solutions to that problem. I was privileged to work with and learn from neighbors who lived downwind of irresponsibly managed landfills and learned that their long-term involvement was a crucial component of successful campaigns. I learned so much from Robin Schneider, the Executive Director at Texas Campaign for the Environment and my Canvass Directors and Field Managers. We worked together in solidarity, amplified the voices of those most impacted, and nurtured each other and our relationships throughout challenging campaigns. 

     Years later, I started working with OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon, In a short time, the staff, youth leaders, and volunteers became powerful mentors and colleagues to me. It was there that I first saw the principles I followed as a canvasser highlighted in the Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing. These six principles, created by a diverse network of organizers from a variety of communities and organizations, are foundational for me. The principles? 1) Be Inclusive 2) Emphasize Bottom-Up Organizing 3) Let People Speak for Themselves 4) Work Together in Solidarity and Mutuality 5) Build Just Relationships Among Ourselves, and 6) Commit to Self-Transformation.

     Wangari Maathai, Audre Lorde, recently departed Rosanell Eaton, Angela Davis and Frida Kahlo have been incredibly inspirational to me. Their work, commitment to justice, and perseverance throughout and in spite of the pain, fear, and doubt they felt constantly inspire me to navigate through the challenges I face.

AH: You were a canvasser, right?

     NN: I was!

AH: Tell us a good canvass story?
     NN: Wow, I have so many! One individual story doesn't really do justice to the life lessons I picked up from my experiences meeting people and speaking with them about solid waste and or electronic waste issues. I learned, quickly, that more people than I imagined really cared about the issues I brought to their attention and that my best nights canvassing occurred when I connected with folks based on their specific concerns and provided them with an opportunity to do something to take action on those concerns.

     More often than I can count, my efforts to have meaningful conversations with people were fruitful in spite of some rocky starts! Sometimes folks would begin their interactions with me in a belligerent manner, sometimes they appeared completely apathetic. But if I focused on authentically sharing why I was on their doorstep, and really listened to what they were trying to express, our discussion was beneficial. Even if it meant I left without a signature, contribution, or letter. If a contact and I engaged in thoughtful dialogue, I counted it as a success. And more importantly to me, our interaction meant the next canvasser would likely have an easier time of it because I planted a seed with someone who may just be having a bad day. 

     Even when I failed miserably, I sought to value those moments as important lessons that showed me more about myself and provided me with an opportunity to realize that even some of the most uncomfortable interactions have value.

AH: What were you like as a kid?

     NN: I always loved to be outdoors. In third and fourth grade I started climbing trees, played with insects a lot, and watched animals—and kept a diary on their comings and goings. I was pretty quiet. I am an extroverted introvert now and I was considerably more introverted in my youth.

     I think I was always curious and I wanted to be helpful to my mom and do good things around the house. I helped take care of my brother, too. I struggled with some hard times during my childhood so I found ways to heal myself and I became a bit independent, but simultaneously recognized that I could depend on my natural environment to soothe and provide a sense of belonging. I've never met a tree that judged me for who I am, the color of my skin, or because I'm a woman!

AH: What’s a special place in the world for you?

     NN: Panama. Central and Latin America. I spent four years in Panama when I was in junior high and high school. My dad was an officer in the Air Force so we bounced around quite a bit. And I had some really amazing teachers in Panama. We lived on an Air Force base so I was pretty sheltered and felt safe to explore the base freely. I carried on the activities from third and fourth grade but with a lot more purpose and a scientific interest. My biology and chemistry teacher really fed my curiosity and they were student-centered so I had a lot more ownership over my learning. 

AH: Have you been back to Panama since then?

     NN: Not yet! I was in Costa Rica six years ago though, just before I moved to Portland to attend graduate school at Portland State University. The first course in grad school was the Theory and Practice of Sustainability in Costa Rica and it was a very meaningful ten days for me, kind of a life changing ten days. During that week and a half, I felt like I was at home. I am not a morning person, but during that trip I would wake up with the sunrise, without an alarm clock (okay, I may have had some help from howler monkeys for a few of those mornings) and I would walk through lush forests or along calm beaches and reflect on what I learned from locals who shared their knowledge and love of their environment. It was during this trip that I opened my heart and mind to what the plants and their stories and mythologies could tell me about how I relate to my fellow humans. I began to ask myself questions that arose as a result of studying plants. For example, some are difficult to handle, but once you get past their shield, you often find something amazing (like the pejibaye palm). Others are sweet on the outside, but their seed can be irritating (mangoes). So I began to ask questions like: “Do some people irritate you because you perceive them have overwhelming and “pungent” personalities or values? Are there times when their qualities are helpful, motivating or inspiring, despite the reaction they seem to evoke within you?”      

Bark is helping to bring beavers back to Mt. Hood. Do you think you share any lifestyle qualities with beavers?

      NN: I like to work with my hands and build things a lot. Beavers may not have hands, but they have awesome paws and are amazing builders. I love to be creative! I see creativity as a way to contribute to community, my family, and myself. My artistic nature pairs well with a sense of wonderment and desire to learn. And I endeavor to facilitate learning, working, and communal spaces where people can draw upon their authentic natures and find solutions to the challenges they face. I seek to cultivate healthy relationships and creative spaces and I see beavers doing that when they build dams and create wetlands. Their engineering enhances ecosystems and biodiversity and like many flora and fauna, they inspire me to do the same!

AH: Anything else we should share with people for now?

NN: Ask me about my favorite tree in Portland.

AH: What’s your favorite tree in Portland?

NN: It’s Araucaria araucana. Do you know what that is?

AH: No.

NN: You probably know it as a monkey puzzle tree. It’s also known as Chilean pine, and is the national tree of Chile.

AH: Oh, yeah! Do you have one in your neighborhood?

NN: I have one in my front yard! I think ours might have had a hard time at points. It was pruned back at one point and it has this lopsided, mushroom cap thing going on, which is cool because I like mushrooms. Chilean pines are graceful, ancient (they are considered to be living fossils) and formidable, and the juxtaposition of these traits appeals to me. I navigate my way around the city based on where the nearest monkey puzzle tree is. I’m always looking for them!

AH: So, tomorrow is your birthday? What is something you are looking forward to for your next trip around the sun?

     NN: I am incredibly excited about opportunities to create deeper and more broad networks for environmental, social and racial justice in Oregon and the United States. Communities across Oregon are stronger and we are working together to participate and lead in decisions that meaningfully impact urban, rural, and tribal communities.

     I am thrilled to be part of Bark during this time because has recognized the intersection of environmentalism and injustice and is committed to addressing the root causes of oppression in all its forms. There's no point in us defending and restoring Mt. Hood National Forest if our communities are not able to flourish as part of this regional ecosystem. At the same time, fighting for social and racial justice will mean nothing if environmental degradation and climate change continue to progress at current rates. Bark's volunteers, staff, and board members all recognize that it is imperative to contribute to an equitable and sustainable future, and I am honored to be part of this team.

     On a more personal note, I am also really looking forward to restoring some habitat in my own backyard this year, attending and perhaps leading hikes with Bark, and planning a wedding!

AH: Sounds like you have a lot to look forward to! I am equally excited to have you here and thank you for sharing a bit of your story. Happy Birthday!

You'll be hearing more from Nakisha after the New Year. In the meantime, there are only a few days left in our year-end fundraising campaign. This year we have a 1:1 match up to $40,000 so if you haven't yet made an end-of-year donation, now is a great time!  Many of you have already contributed and we thank you! Consider forwarding this email or sharing it on social media to help your community get to know Nakisha as well! All donations before December 31st at midnight will be doubled!

Sincerely, All of us here at Bark!

Share This