An Interview with Philanthropic Climate Leader, Tenzin Dolkar

Tenzin Dolkar was born in Odisha Phuntsokling, a Tibetan refugee settlement in eastern India, where she grew up farming and learning about water-scarcity and community-based environmental solutions. In her philanthropic work, Dolkar oversees and develops grant portfolios that support efforts to build power through partnership, aligning climate and equity goals. A coalition builder and community advocate, Dolkar views her work through a climate justice lens. Dolkar serves as Program Officer for Midwest Climate & Energy at McKnight Foundation.

Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.

What does advocacy mean to you, and how do you define it?

Dolkar: The primary function of being an advocate is to inform, educate and organize: amongst your peers, your community, and those individuals who hold power. Advocacy is the ability to influence the system, and the process. To make the system work in a way that benefits everybody requires change.

How has your perspective on advocacy changed over time, if at all?

Dolkar: In my younger days, I thought it was enough to have passion for an issue and to make change- you simply needed to engage. Once I started working within the political system, I learned that it’s not so simple.

Within an established system, if you want to shift the power structure, try a new approach, or elevate emerging voices, it takes a lot of work. In public-policy making, change is incremental and slow. It’s not enough to just have a passion for an issue to be effective at advocacy. To do this well, you need one of three things going for you (and ideally all of them):

1. First, you need a movement behind you, and the momentum that brings with it — so everybody’s paying attention to your issue.

2. Second, it helps if you are working on an issue that you truly know inside and out, that you have taken time and effort to organize around (sometimes this takes decades). You need to understand your stakeholders, your supporters, the arguments and all the angles.

3. Third, you need to know and understand who the political players are, and the systems they are operating within. We tend to think of the relationship between elected officials and community members as: you vote, you elect them, therefore you can influence them. We forget that our legislators and other elected officials function within a power structure themselves.

We see this exemplified in efforts to take meaningful action on climate change. There are so many layers of change that need to happen. My advice to individuals is to stay informed and engaged on the issue. Policy-making and decision-making process can feel like a black box and it is a complex system that is not easily accessible and understandable to most of us.

Do you consider yourself to be an advocate? What approach do you take?

Dolkar: Yes. I have always labeled myself as a social entrepreneur, and an advocate… with limited success in both areas!

I became a social worker with a goal to change people’s lives. I’ve realised you can help somebody one-on-one, but this doesn’t change the fact that the system they live within is unjust. For example, you can give somebody $500 one time, but unless you’re changing the root causes of inequities and the systems underpinning their life (such as access to transportation, living wage jobs, affordable child care, affordable and safe housing) the inherent challenges they experience will persist. Often those who are most impacted have very little influence over the policies and programs that determine the quality of the lives they live. Most of us don’t get to design the society we live in.

In order to be a successful social worker, to bring systemic change, I had to take on an advocacy role. I needed to know the system that people were struggling within and why it wasn’t working. I have taken that framework into all the work I’ve done since: from becoming a legislative director and lobbying on behalf of communities, to working as a policy advisor to the Governor. In my current role, I bring all of those experiences to bear in order to achieve climate solutions that are centered in lived-experiences, is inclusive and addresses systemic inequities towards a more sustainable and just economic system where all of us can thrive.

Dolkar’s family farm in India

What tactics do you use to influence others, build coalitions or otherwise drive change?

Dolkar: It really matters what seat at the table you are occupying. The skills and tactics I utilise differ based upon where I am, and who I am representing in my work. As an on-the-ground community organiser, my job was to connect with people and build coalitions with member peer organisations. Organising is about finding a shared common goal, building a momentum, and working to communicate your shared vision. When done well, when you show up at the table you are truly speaking with and on behalf of a community — not just representing yourself.

When you are lobbying at the elected level, the skills and the tactics must be broader, and more public. If you can get the media to cover your issue, all of a sudden, your priority is the topic of the day — which you need in order to sway the public and elected officials. However, you can have overwhelming public support for your issue but if you cannot get key individuals, organisations, associations, constituents or interests aligned, then it can be hard to make change happen. Often there is an entrenched power structure you have to cut through. Here, the trick is to follow the money. It’s really critical to know who’s left behind in the current system, and who is invested in maintaining the system as it stands today.

In bureaucratic systems, like government agencies or institutions, advocacy is less about policy vision, and more about implementation, down to the details. The question here to answer is “how are we going to implement this program or policy in a way that has broad support, and creates the intended impact?” Often, this is where policies which were not designed for — or by — the impacted communities can have unintended, negative consequences. This is the least understood part of advocacy.

What personal skills do you think are needed in order to be effective in the role of a change agent?

Dolkar: You need to be grounded and you need to know your “why”. The strengths, and skills that you need include entrepreneurship, perseverance, tenacity, and a bit of optimism. When the days get darker and there are moments when you feel like you’re not making a headway, you need that optimism. Humility goes along way. Also, I am still trying to find the secret to how to create a revolution.

Dolkar and her siblings at their house in India

Are there any learnings or “mistakes” you’ve made along the way that caused you to shift approaches, or informed the way you show up now?

Dolkar: In my early days as a social worker, I believed in “empowering communities” or “creating a seat at the table”. This implies that a community is marginalized and that they have limited or no power, and that I should speak on behalf of the community — this is how I was professionally trained. As I have matured within advocacy roles, I wholly believe that it is not about fighting for a seat at the table and limiting who has access. Communities have power and they know the solutions that work for their communities. We know the system can be re-designed to be inclusive and we can democratize how decisions are made and challenge preconceived notions of who “knows the solutions”.

This realisation is informed by mistakes I have made.

I’ve realised once you leave the community organising world and work within the system, you then become part of the system. For example, I once made the mistake of making decisions, and thinking I understood where the community was on an issue. I then found out the community was not with me, and that I had been making decisions based on assumptions that very much came from the system perspective. That was a rude awakening.

Specific to climate and sustainability, what change do you want to see?

Dolkar: When I think about climate change, I am overwhelmed by the magnitude of what needs to happen. We know deep decarbonisation and decoupling of fossil fuels from our economy is key. We also know that there are countries and communities who are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change than others. This means that there are whole communities that are going to be left behind if we only focus on solutions that those with resources can afford. My personal investment in climate work is to ensure that communities are part of the solution, and that they have the adaptive ability and resources they need in order to weather the changes we foresee ahead.

Tackling climate change requires bold and ambitious change, at an accelerated pace. We have an opportunity to create a more sustainable and generative economy that contributes towards just and equitable society if we are intentional in designing our climate solutions and mindful of who is designing them. No community should have to disproportionately carry the burden of climate change because of their race, nationality, income, or background.

Dolkar’s grandmother

What do you see as the role of philanthropy in addressing climate change?

Dolkar: One of the reasons I chose to move into the philanthropic space is the ability to support the climate ecosystem, and to create opportunities to be bold in climate. Philanthropy is unique in the sense that it is able to take more risks to cultivate ideas and to support new and emerging approaches. This offers an opportunity to explore paths to change that are community-led. Nonprofit organizations who seek to influence public policy by building coalitions need financial support, and funding is one of the primary tools philanthropy provides. Philanthropy also is able to bring many groups together to become stronger than they would be alone.

What do you see as the role of the individual in responding to climate change?

Dolkar: Individuals can respond by making conscious consumer choices, and taking steps to reduce carbon emissions. The key word here is “choice” which requires you to have resources and the power to access those resources. I absolutely think that collective action on climate change is critical to building a successful movement. Our collective stance on what we expect from government and corporations will be crucial. Individuals can create ripple effects, but we need government and major corporations to do a far greater share of the work to address climate change. Institutions, like BlackRock, not financing any new fossil-based projects can create far bigger impact and change.

Globalisation showed us that our economies are interdependent. I think one thing we’re going to see as a result of the climate crisis is a deeper understanding of our interconnection. We need to solve climate at a global level, and every community has a role to play. My hope is that this causes us to realise we’re all living on one, shared planet. I’m also hoping it will give us a little bit more grace and compassion with one another. Could this help us to have greater empathy, to increase our capacity and ability to think beyond ourselves and our own communities or countries?

Who are your mentors? Who do you admire?

Dolkar: His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He is my north star and has had a huge influence over my personal philosophy and ethics. His Holiness had a vision to provide free public education to every Tibetan kid born and raised in India and Nepal. His vision for the Tibetan society and government included equal rights between men and women. That’s the systemic and cultural change that he led — and it happened within a span of a few decades. I see the difference between my grandmother’s life to my own, in terms of how women are treated and the opportunities I had. I am fortunate to be living the life His Holiness envisioned for Tibetans.

Dolkar with His Holiness the Dalai Lama

I find that His Holiness’ teachings live on through my current work: it’s why I’m so invested in creating a just society, caring about the climate, and whether all people have the ability to thrive. I am who I am because of His Holiness’ teachings and his vision.

Tenzin Dolkar can be contacted at tdolkar@mcknight.org. Information about her work can be found here.

About Cri de Cœur: The Cri de Cœur Interview Series focuses on how advocacy manifests at the intersection of community, business, policy, finance, academia and the arts in order to explore tactics and approaches that will help build a more sustainable future. Cri de Cœur aims to demonstrate how a layer of climate advocacy can and must be a part of everything we do as a society in order to reach our goals.

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Cambray Crozier

Cambray Crozier

Minnesotan, MSt student at University of Cambridge, mom to baby É.