Chris Rurik, Member, Board of Directors, The Russell Family Foundation

    "A strong community includes the whole natural world, of which we are just one part."

    1. How did you become involved in philanthropy?

    Through no doing of my own. I am privileged, in both senses of the word, to be a grandson of George and Jane Russell, who founded The Russell Family Foundation in 1999. I joined the foundation’s board in 2014.

    2. What is your grantmaking strategy and what kind of projects do you fund?

    Four words are at the heart of our organization: enhancing family, building community. Personally, I believe that family and community are impossible without a sense of place. Much of our work – which has become as much about facilitation, groupthink, collaboration, and party-throwing as grantmaking – is local to Puget Sound. It’s aimed at promoting a sense of place that is healthy, sustainable, and meaningful to all people. In our EE portfolio we like programs that get “feet on the beach,” programs that get people outside, together, into an intimate experience with the land. Recently we have been tossing around a second phrase, “hands in the dirt,” since elsewhere within the foundation we work on local food systems and farmland preservation, and we love to make cross-program (a.k.a. cross-community) connections. In short, we fund education programs that give people the opportunity to explore the human-influenced natural world for themselves.

    3. Why do you and your organization focus on connecting people to nature and environmental literacy?

    I work as a naturalist educator at an urban nature center, and I could tell stories for days about how the natural world impacts kids (and, for that matter, the adults who come as chaperones). When classes arrive they are full of excited questions: “Are we going to see tigers today? Are there crocodiles in the lake?” The concept of wild animals versus caged zoo animals is difficult for them. Over the course of a field trip, as I talk about the animals that are native to our Denver neighborhoods, and as we have fleeting encounters with hawks, deer, prairie dogs, and perhaps Mr. Muskrat, the students’ eyes are opened to a world that is more complex and cryptic than they had imagined. When we come to an anthill in the shortgrass prairie, kids will inevitably yell, “Red ants! They’re red ants!” and kick dirt at them. They know the ant’s bite but not the ant itself. When I counsel them to stop kicking and start watching, when we ask questions together about what the ants are doing, I see a light of empathy begin to burn in their eyes. Together we learn much from ants, not the least of which is that our human frame of reference has great limits.

    Empathy is at the heart of what we’re trying to accomplish at The Russell Family Foundation. If the world is going to continue with respect for others as its golden rule, we must go out and know others. A strong community includes the whole natural world, of which we are just one part. Conservation is a tangible end goal of environmental education, but just as important is the idea that we as humans will remember to seek the camaraderie and wisdom of the other beings with whom we share our landscapes.

    4. What topics and questions are you most interested in engaging with other funders about?

    How do you measure impact? How do you balance long-term support for individual organizations with funding for new ideas? How do you encourage small nonprofits to collaborate or think outside the box without unduly overloading them? How do you address equity? How do you ensure that your own conception of what nature is or should be does not blind you to the insight of others?

    5. Tell me about one of your favorite grants or projects related to connecting people to nature.

    Recently we began to fund the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe’s summer program. The S’Klallam youth were visited by a tribal elder and fisherman who taught them how to harvest crab, salmon, and shellfish and cook them on the beach. Another elder, an artist, came to talk about how their ancestors lived before reservations and taught them to make paint with salmon eggs, seashells, charcoal, and plant dyes. He taught that every part of every plant and animal has a purpose and should be used to honor that purpose. Another artist taught the basics of Salish design, and a linguist taught the names of animals and various commands in the S’Klallam language. All the while the students were learning Western science as well, and they were amazed at the many connections between their tribe’s traditions and the current state of Puget Sound. I’m deeply enthusiastic about this style of teaching – and more than a little jealous. I long to live in a world in which all subject areas interrelate. I wish I could teach my own students a more all-encompassing approach to nature, one that embraces our role in the ecosystem as more than a hands-off visitor. What an honor to be able to support, in some small way, the survival of a stolen culture, a way of life that I believe is a guide not just to the past but the future.

    6. What is your favorite outdoor activity and where do you like to do it?

    I have two I like to combine: birding and cycling. This spring I did a “big day” by bike in the Front Range. I started in a lonesome National Forest where my third bird of the day, somewhere near an abandoned cabin, was a Williamson’s Sapsucker. I bombed downward after that with brief visits to the Fawn Brook Inn’s famous feeders and a waste-of-time dirt road, then had an absolutely frigid rainy canyon descent, then emerged into a backroad area with small farms framed by rimrock, then wound through suburban Longmont’s parks and reservoirs, picking up birds all along the way. Over the course of 74 miles and 5,000+ feet of (mostly downward) elevation change, I found 101 species. Not a bad total, but I think I can do better. I’m already planning for next year.

    Chris Rurik is a writer and naturalist educator who splits time between Denver, Tacoma, and "out there." He is co-founder and fiction editor of GARO, the Rocky Mountain Land Library's online journal. In addition to his service as a director of The Russell Family Foundation, he serves on the board of Denver Field Ornithologists. His projects include All of 100, a roundtable between Colorado Parks and Wildlife and non-consumptive wildlife user groups, and a nascent youth birding club.