Emerson Collective, Laurene Powell Jobs’ Org, Looks To Local Leaders To Bridge Divides

This undated photo shows oral historian Francine D. Spang-Willis, who is leading a project to create a land stewardship plan for the Crazy Mountains near Bozeman, Mont. She was named an Emerson Collective fellow on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024. Emerson Collective is the philanthropy of Laurene Powell Jobs.  ( Francine D. Spang-Willis via AP)
This undated photo shows oral historian Francine D. Spang-Willis, who is leading a project to create a land stewardship plan for the Crazy Mountains near Bozeman, Mont. She was named an Emerson Collective fellow on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024. Emerson Collective is the philanthropy of Laurene Powell Jobs. ( Francine D. Spang-Willis via AP)
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Francine Spang-Willis wishes the landscape of the Crazy Mountains near Livingston, Montana, could speak for itself. But absent that, the oral historian will launch a new project talking to people with a connection to the land.

Spang-Willis is one of a dozen new fellows announced Wednesday by the Emerson Collective, Laurene Powell Jobs’ philanthropy organization. In partnership with the nonprofit Park County Environmental Council, Spang-Willis will spend the next year interviewing people with unique and deep perspectives on the area in hopes of generating strategies to steward the Crazy Mountains. She said the land has many stakeholders — from ranchers who have been there for five generations to members of the Crow Nation who go there for "some type of fasting or vision quest” to hunters and recreationists.

"How do they connect with the land and have a relationship with the land," she asked. "And what knowledge can they bring to the table?”

This year, Emerson Collective's fellows are all local leaders pursuing projects of their own creation through a wide-range of methodologies. Each member of this fifth cohort of fellows will receive $125,000 from the collective and does not need to report back about how they spend those funds.

“They’re all working on a culturally relevant local approach to knitting their communities together, many of them bridging divides and ultimately creating a stronger civic fabric in the place that they live,” said Patrick D’Arcy, senior director of the fellows program at Emerson Collective.

Powell Jobs, who made her fortune along with her late husband, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, established the collective in 2011 for philanthropic work and investments. Emerson Collective is not a foundation and says little about its grants, which focus on education, immigration, the environment and health equity. In 2021, Powell Jobs announced she would invest $3.5 billion into climate-focused initiatives over ten years.

In December, at one of the collective's annual gatherings, Powell Jobs described herself and the collective as “horticulturalists of hope.”

“Just like a tiny seed contains all that is needed to produce a towering redwood, the work that we and our partners do can grow from modest beginnings to alter the landscapes of possibility,” she said.

The collective researches and invites potential fellows to apply with a project, though the theme of the fellowship changes each year. It's one way the collective directly supports individuals.

“When those talented people have the freedom and the support, they take risks and think big, really kind of magical things can happen,” D’Arcy said. Given the uncertain year for the U.S. ahead, he said all the fellows work to knit their communities together.

Rosten Woo, who is a civic designer who works at the intersection of art and community organizing, will use the funds to create an atlas of civic institutions in Los Angeles where he lives and works.

“LA is in particular a pretty bewildering place for people to especially get a political orientation, like who controls anything here? What happens here? It can feel really lawless,” Woo said. He envisions creating a map that incorporates the layered features of the city and county, including everything from the Los Angeles River to school districts and mutual aid projects.

The nature of his project and his methodology means he anticipates working closely with community organizations and local experts and plans to spend a significant portion of the fellowship award on compensating collaborators for their time. The fellowship and support to execute a project he designed is an incredible privilege, Woo said, but he also recognized that it and much of his previous work is done in collaboration.

“How do you resource more than just an individual or move from a different model of individuals are the special people and think more about a community or a set of people?” he asked.

The fellowship will allow Tami Pyfer, who leads UNITE, a nonprofit focused on healing political divides, to develop and distribute a framework for assessing the way people speak to each other. Called The Dignity Index, it measures the amount of contempt or dignity embedded in speech.

Pyfer, who served as an education advisor to a former Utah governor and served on the state's board of education, sees the meanness and attacks on public figures as a major deterrent for women to take on leadership roles. She hopes the index can also be a tool to recruit more women into public service and has found that Republican and other women's groups in her state and elsewhere also see the potential.

“We can do better in our families. We can do better in our communities. We can solve problems together in politics," she said. "Heaven knows we need it in the 2024 election cycle.”

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