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35 Years of Celebrating Grassroots Environmental Leaders—A Message from our Executive Director

January 2, 2024

Happy New Year to our global community.

It’s often said that optimism in the face of daunting odds is a prerequisite for all environmentalists. So, in a very challenging year for both environmentalists and humanity in general, I want to focus on what brings us hope in the coming months. For us, the antidote to hate, violence, greed, and inhumanity is always the selflessness, compassion, devotion, and courage exemplified by grassroots environmental activists around the world. And this year provides special reason for celebration: 2024 marks the 35th anniversary of the Goldman Environmental Prize.

Since its founding in 1989 by San Francisco philanthropists Richard and Rhoda Goldman, the Prize has recognized 219 grassroots environmental leaders from 95 countries and awarded more than $29 million in funding. The past three-and-a-half decades have been filled with stories of incredible achievement, community organizing, and unparalleled leadership.

For some Prize winners, the Goldman Prize provides the media attention needed to propel their work forward. For others, the Prize helps build their capacity as organizers and organizational leaders and connects them with likeminded advocates. And, for a few, winning the Prize was a kickstart to global recognition, catapulting them into the political sphere.

In August, I accompanied 2023 Prize winner Zafer Kizilkaya of Turkey to Raja Ampat, Indonesia, where I witnessed him in action, working to protect the remarkable reefs and marine wildlife of the Coral Triangle. I realized then that Goldman Prize winners don’t stop achieving when they win the Prize—they often take their efforts to protect planet Earth to new heights, even far from their homes.

2023 was a particularly busy year for our staff and Prize winners alike. After a long hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we were thrilled to welcome the return of in-person ceremonies in San Francisco and Washington, DC. Later in the year, we participated in climate events around the world—bringing 21 Prize winners to five conferences and climate weeks in Kenya, New York, Switzerland, Panama, and Malaysia respectively.

During these events, we noticed an unfortunate trend: All too often, grassroots, Indigenous, and local environmental leaders did not have a seat at the table. Sometimes it was overt—civil society and politicians were bisected into distinctly different venues. Other times, grassroots representation was present but lackluster—a half-hearted nod to civil society reflected in an underwhelming lack of diversity or a notably smaller meeting room assignment.

So, we asked Goldman Prize winners what THEY wished for in 2024. Here’s what they said:

“I hope that there will be significant actions taken to address the increasing impact of climate change, such as more and rapid investments in clean energy technologies while phasing out fossil fuels.”Chibeze Ezekiel (Ghana, 2020)

I am not hopeful for next year, because all global crises are deepening.” Svet Zabelin (Russia, 1993)

“We need mass awareness of the climate injustice caused by capitalist policies by governments and businesses around the world. We need global unity of the world’s Indigenous communities to wage war against corporate fossil fuels. Prafulla Samantara (India, 2017)

“We need to work with nature to maintain and restore its biodiversity. We should use practical, nature-based solutions that have been known and tested for centuries.” Jadwiga Lopata (Poland, 2002)

“We all know we are being failed and preparing the next generation for that is one thing we can do.”Maria Gunnoe (United States, 2009)

“The situation around the world is not encouraging on many fronts. Unfortunately, when this is the case, one of the first things to suffer (besides the people, of course) is the environment. Although some may call it naïve, I remain hopeful that the most auto-destructive species on the planet will come to its senses and realize that we either all swim or all sink together. A society grows great when men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.”Jean Wiener (Haiti, 2015)

“What we need to focus on is ACTION. Enough workshops, strategies, actions plans, diagnostic reports. We know what NEEDS to be done. There is no excuse to not act.”Randall Arauz (Costa Rica, 2010)

Goldman Prize winners are phenomenal examples of human beings at their best. Not superhuman but kind, empathetic, brave, and hard-working. Please continue to support these heroes and spread the word. And consider following their lead by engaging in issues in your own community. The Prize winners teach us that no one should underestimate the power of determined, committed individuals.

In solidarity,

Michael Sutton

Michael Sutton

About the author

Michael Sutton

Executive Director

Mike is a respected environmental conservation leader with extensive experience managing nonprofit organizations, influencing public policy, advocating for natural resources, and guiding successful philanthropic efforts. His distinguished career has ranged from work with the National Park Service to senior conservation roles at the World Wildlife Fund, the David & Lucile Packard Foundation, the California Fish & Game Commission, Monterey Bay Aquarium, and National Audubon Society. Mike received his BS in Wildlife Biology at Utah State University; did graduate studies in Marine Biology at the University of Sydney, Australia; and, received a law degree with honors from George Washington University’s National Law Center. He joined the Prize in 2018.

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