Seven-and-a-half Questions for Laurie Benenson

1. Your background (often in collaboration with your husband Bill, pictured above) is a provocative mix of journalism, film production, adventurer, activist and philanthropist. What parts of your professional and personal history have most influenced your focus on the issues you care about today? 

I’m answering these questions as I fly from L.A. to New York, a flight I have taken countless times, and my favorite part of it (other than the roasted nuts and the chance to catch up on movies) is looking down at the deeply gouged magnificence that is the Grand Canyon, a place that has always held a profound significance for me. Although born in Brooklyn, N.Y., I grew up in Arizona, and so had the chance to visit the 70 million-year-old phenomenon many times during my childhood. Something about gazing upon, and hiking into, and staying within the embrace of this most unforgettable geological marvel, helped early on to set the coordinates for my life: a love and reverence for nature, a sense that we’re only here for a brief time and that we must marshal our time and resources in a way that aligns with our deepest interests, and an abiding fascination with the way the planet makes and remakes itself. Venturing into the natural world, whether it’s the sand dune beaches of Nantucket, the mountains of Big Sur, the rain forests of the Pacific Northwest and those of the Amazon, or the pristine fastness of the high Rockies, has always been my reset button, the cure for what ails me, and, I believe, the cure for what ails most of our fellow beings. So doing what I can to preserve the healing wildness of nature, and helping others in their quest to do the same, is of paramount importance to me.

The other side of my nature embodies a love of communications media: books, magazines, newspapers, all the proliferating riches of the Internet, and above all, film. Professionally, these interests have helped define my professional path as a journalist, a storyteller, a revealer of the truth as far as I am able to ascertain, and led me to found Movieline Magazine, and then go on to write for the New York Times about film, television and music. In 2009 all these passions recombined in a novel way to allow me to become involved with documentary filmmaking with my husband, director Bill Benenson. Happily, Bill’s and my intellectual and philanthropic concerns are extremely congruent. The films we’ve made and/or been involved with hopefully have helped to advance our social and environmental agendas. And our philanthropic lodestars are pretty consistently in line with the focus of our documentary films.

2. In addition to Bioneers you sit on the board of TreePeople. What specifically inspired you to support Bioneers and TreePeople among all the many good organizations that are in your universe? (Please feel free to include other relevant organizations that you support.)

Although I support a number of environmental groups, I have a particularly strong affiliation with TreePeople and Bioneers, as you point out. Both are relatively small groups, at least compared to behemoths like NRDC and Conservation International (two other great organizations I’m involved with), and I happen to have strong personal connections with the founders of both groups. Furthermore, I particularly resonate with the goals of both organizations: TreePeople, because I’ve lived in Los Angeles more than half my life, and TreePeople’s solutions are specifically oriented to the L.A. watershed; Bioneers, because of the global, interconnected biospheric vision fostered by Bioneers. It’s the micro and the macro.

3. Bioneers co-founder Kenny Ausubel talks about how we are in an era that has moved from “urgency to emergency” in reference to our ability to react and respond and create meaningful change despite massive shifts caused by climate disruption. What do you think are the most pressing issues that philanthropy should be addressing in this time of “urgency to emergency”?

The question of “the most pressing issues” for philanthropy to address is one that Bill and I have wrestled with incessantly. We personally have a broad range of organizations whose goals we champion, from the arts to education to the environment to social justice, and many whose goals straddle two or more of those areas. Ultimately, in many categories of concern, the goal must be to spread the word and motivate people to action, so change is generated on a mass, grassroots scale. When, for example, the majority of people demand sustainable, non-fossil fuel-based energy, the market and government policies will respond to these demands. One hopes.

4. You and Bill are both members of the Bioneers Kinship Circle and have traveled with us on the Indigenous knowledge journey in 2014 to Maui and most recently in 2015 to British Columbia to learn about the Province’s greening efforts and national and Indigenous struggles around the Tar Sands. What are some of your strongest takeaways about those experiences and why might you recommend these journeys to other Bioneers supporters? 

Both of our Kinship Circle journeys were memorable, intense, even revelatory experiences. The most indelible takeaways in both cases came from our interactions with the , people of the two regions we visited. Hearing the Native Hawaiians talk about how mega-Ag has ripped apart the fabric of life on the island of Maui by polluting the air and the waterways was deeply troubling, and led us to offer support to the Shaka movement, which succeeded in passing a “GMO hiatus” ballot initiative last November. (Unfortunately, due to challenges from GMO interests the new law has not yet been implemented, but we are hopeful that the injunction will eventually be reversed.)

And meeting with the First Peoples of the Vancouver and Alberta sections of Canada, we were blown away by the strength of their movement to reverse the depredations to their ancestral (and current) lands. In both cases we were afforded the privilege of diving more deeply than ever before into issues we care about passionately.

5. How has your view and approach to philanthropy changed since you first started?

Our philanthropy has evolved from just writing checks to organizations we considered “worthy” to a more direct involvement, by making sure we are acquainted with how the organization will use the funds we donate, and in some cases finding programs to support within the organizations so that we can more accurately target those funds. In many cases, including Bioneers, our commitment has gone beyond monetary donations to more concrete, hands-on involvement with the organization, which has in turn generated more significant financial support. I think the lesson is, the more involved one becomes with a group, the more one wants to support it and make sure it has the means to survive and prosper.

6. What is your advice to other young philanthropists entering into this field?

My advice is to get to know the leaders of the organizations you support. Even if you only write a small check, you have the right, even the duty, to know the people who are running the show. These interactions will help you decide whether, and to what extent, you want to continue your involvement. If you have the time, try to become actively involved with the group’s programs. If they offer volunteer opportunities, volunteer. If they offer trips or seminars, attend them. The name of the game is engagement.

7. Bioneers is about building bridges between cultures and generations. As you know, we have a big focus on youth leadership and youth scholarships to create this bridge. If you could time-travel back to a 15-year-old Laurie, what words of advice would you give her about the world she is about to enter?

I would say to my 15-year-old self—and to all the Bioneers Youth who can attend the conference—that staking a place in the Bioneers ecosystem could be a very rewarding way to figure out what their passions are, and help find the potential paths to address their concerns. The main difference between my teenage self and the youth of today is that, although there were huge issues to be addressed when I was a kid—the Vietnam War, American imperialism, deeply embedded segregation, the threat of nuclear annihilation, and so on—we were not for the most part aware of environmental concerns, and impending global climate catastrophe was not on the horizon. The impacts of climate change are global and universal, so today’s young people can partner with their peers throughout the world, and Bioneers can offer the means to do that.

7.5. What words of advice do you have for the youth leaders attending Bioneers this year? 

The “non-youth” leaders of Bioneers are passionate, engaged, committed and determined. But inevitably, they are not always attuned to the very urgent concerns, and potential solutions, that you, the young Bioneers, have to offer. You are a crucial, and very welcome addition to the Bioneers ecosystem. We need and solicit your input, advice, and feedback. Don’t hold back!

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