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Social Impact Heroes Helping Our Planet: Why & How Zainb Salbi Of Daughters for Earth Is Helping To…

Social Impact Heroes Helping Our Planet: Why & How Zainb Salbi Of Daughters for Earth Is Helping To Change Our World

An Interview With Martita Mestey

You need patience and consistency because there are going to be a lot of hurdles. Patience and consistency go together. That’s what I call perseverance. You need at least one person to support you and believe in you. Surround yourself with a team of supporters and believers. Which could be friends, it could be your therapist, it doesn’t matter. Surround yourself with at least three people who are supporting your efforts. They don’t have to be your colleagues. They can be anybody you choose.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Zainab Salbi.

As co-founder of Daughters for Earth, Zainab Salbi is one of the leading female voices championing the call for inclusivity of women in the climate conversation.

Women receive less than two cents of every charitable dollar donated to climate and environmental efforts, even though they are often on the frontlines of some of the most important solutions. That’s why Daughters for Earth has made funding women and girls on the frontlines a top priority. In the past several months, the organization has already funded two dozen projects (from Indigenous women fighting to protect millions of acres in the Amazon, to the largest effort ever to rewild a college campus in the United States). Daughters for Earth is also mobilizing women and girls at the local level to make changes in their lives and communities as well as ensuring women leaders have a seat at the decision-making table. Salbi is also the former CEO and founder of Women for Women International, a humanitarian organization helping female survivors of conflict around the globe.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig into the work of the organization and your work now, the readers would like to get to know you a little bit. Can you tell us about your childhood and how you grew up and how it sort of helped build the person you are today?

This is a long, complicated question. I grew up in Baghdad, Iraq. I was about 11 years old when the Iran/Iraq war started and there are a few things that impacted the work that I am doing right now.

We had a garden at home. My father would call his garden his second daughter and my mom would always send me there to get some parsley or some fruits. It was an important thing that impacted my current work. Even though I grew up in a big city like Baghdad, there was always a connection with nature through the garden.

Where I grew up, the symbolism of palm trees meant everything: the soul of the country, the soul of the culture. But war is all about destruction. So now when I go and visit the country, I see three-quarters of palm trees are dead or that orchards are no longer there, or miles and miles of the country are destroyed; it creates an emotional connection around the meaning of trees. To see these things destroyed in war throughout my upbringing, as well as right now, has affected me.

So those were some of my core childhood experiences: that garden, the wars, and living under an authoritarian leader, which taught me to be extremely sensitive about fascism, authoritarianism, and fear. I grew up in fear.

One of the things that I appreciate about being in this country after migrating at the age of 19 or 20, is the freedom because it’s the opposite of growing up in fear.

It’s a very nice frame you put obviously from a very difficult circumstance. You’re now leading a social impact organization that is making a defense for the planet. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are doing and how they’re trying to change the world?

I co-founded Daughters for Earth with Jody Allen (founder and CEO of Wild Lives Foundation and co-founder of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation). It’s an organization, a fund, and a campaign that aims at mobilizing women to be actively engaged in protecting and preserving Earth. That includes supporting women-led efforts on the frontlines of that movement, whose voices and efforts are neither acknowledged nor supported.

Daughters for Earth aims to raise awareness about all women’s efforts to protect and preserve the Earth, put more funds into their hands (because they’re getting two cents out of every dollar that goes to environmental issues), and ask every woman and every daughter to be part of the solution. It comes out of an utter belief that nothing is more powerful than when a group of daughters get together, pool their resources, their power, and their strength to collaborate and create change. This has been the learning of my career.

When I was 23 years old I started Women for Women International and it was with the same spirit. When I was actively involved in evacuating Afghan women, it was a similar story: a group of women who came together, pooling their resources, chartering planes, and evacuating Afghan women whose lives were at threat.

The same thing with Daughters — it is coming out of the solid and undaunted belief that when women, girls, and daughters come together, we get things done. The climate movement has largely not addressed, talked to, or supported women and girls. Daughters for Earth is planning to change that story by putting women and girls’ work at the center of the discussion and mobilizing resources towards them to support their efforts.

Can you tell us a bit more about the backstory of what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

It started with Jody, myself, and a group of likeminded women leaders. We met at a conservation retreat in Kenya. We talked about how we can engage women in the discussion of protecting and preserving the Earth. The reason I don’t say climate change is because climate change can be a limited point of view. It’s all interrelated because it’s not only about the climate; it’s about wild animals, wild plants, rewilding, and biodiversity.

I’m conscious about saying “protecting and preserving” because it is a more holistic approach to solving the issue. It started with the brainstorming of how we can mobilize. To be extremely honest, I started exploring the issue on the side. I’m not a climate expert or a scientist — I’m a women’s rights activist.

But in the process of exploration, I came to learn that women have been marginalized from the discussion and the leadership on solving these issues. Even now as we’re preparing for COP27, women are not fully or symbolically included in climate conversations. I thought, “Oh my god, here we are again”. Marginalization of women’s voices is not only in climate leadership positions but also in the grassroots movement. The current climate discussion does not realize that women are an essential part of the solution.

I discovered that a lot of women are taking leadership roles in their communities at the grassroots level in the climate movement and that they are getting no acknowledgments for their work, or any financial support.

It’s a repetitive story; women are doing a lot of work. They’re not getting enough support and their voices and views are not being represented at the decision-making table.

It’s the same issue that I face with women in conflicts, women in war, and really women in everything. You realize this is not a small concept of “oh, let’s engage women”. This is a really big and important story here and we’ve got to do something about it. It became more personal to me when I got sick and I almost lost my life three years ago. So far I gave you the intellectual answer, the feminist answer, the women’s rights, and the fierceness. When I almost lost my life due to health issues, I could not live in the city anymore.

I grew up in a city and lived in cities for 50 years of my life. I would have glimpses of nature. But when I was in the land of the living and the land of the dead, in-between spaces, all of what I could do was live in nature. There was a profound connection. I tear up just thinking about it. I fully believe that nature saved me. I was not able to breathe, and I felt Earth and every tree was telling me “You can breathe, you can breathe”. When I could not walk, I told myself “every wave by the ocean is when you can walk, you can walk”. When I could not digest anything, I had to become plant-based and nourish myself.

When you are frail and when your mind is not leading, your life becomes so much more connected to nature. I came out of it thinking I owe it to nature to do everything I can for it. There is another part aside from the activism, coming from the mind. We need to do that. It is an emotional, spiritual, and personal commitment. I owe it to her because she saved me. She saved all of us. She’s still saving all of us and we are taking her for granted.

I came out of it thinking if Earth was a lover, she would have broken up with us a long time ago for being selfish narcissists: controlling, greedy, and taking her for granted. I am no longer willing to be part of that story and I’m going to do everything to become a good lover of Earth.

After a year and a half of being extremely sick, I came to a point when I could be so joyful on my own and I don’t know why, but I changed my life. I am more in touch with nature, more in touch with myself, and with my heart. You become deeply grateful to be alive after an experience like that.

Many of us have ideas and dreams and passions, but never manifest them. They don’t just get up and do it. But you have, not just with the Earth, but also with Women for Women. Was there an ah-ha moment that made you decide that you were going to step up and do it or what was the final trigger point?

It’s not easy to manifest. There are always a million and one obstacles that get in the way. This happens to any dreamer, any entrepreneur, creator, innovator, or starter of new ideas, whether it’s a show, a book, a film, or an organization.

The only thing that distinguishes one person manifesting from the other is not the idea. Everyone has lots of ideas. It’s not the dream or even the skill sets. It is perseverance and belief that makes the impossible possible. I believe in making the impossible possible. I am just a believer. Every idea I had, everything I’ve done, there are always people who say no. It’s my inner voice sometimes that gets in the way.

Once I get into it, and say, “no, this is important”, it’s like becoming a hawk. You focus on the idea and believe that it is possible to do it. However, I really do not believe one person can do it. One can never do anything alone, including myself. I always need to do things in collaboration and in play with other people.

It’s not only that I can’t; I’m not interested in doing anything alone anymore. I want to do it in collaboration with others because it’s more fun, more joyful, and more playful to contribute. When I worked in Women in War and Women for Women International, I took life very seriously and melodramatically.

There is room to make a difference in the world and I would die trying. I will not give up on contributing all I have to make the world a better place. I believe that’s ultimately what’s asked of us as humans, to give the best of us to the world. But I will no longer do it in a dramatic way. I will do it with joy. I will do it with belief, with love, with collaboration. That’s the only way I’m willing to work in that.

Manifesting is belief only. It takes sacrifice. It takes risks. It takes perseverance, community, and love. My commitment to Earth is a promise I make to Earth. I will not back off on it. I will not rest until Daughters for Earth reaches its goal of $100 million in funds to help all women and change the narrative, where in a few years we see women being part and parcel of the solution for Earth. I don’t want to see two cents going to them, but fifty cents going to them. If we see 50 percent of decision-making tables on anything that relates to Earth, that’s when I will rest.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your organization?

My most interesting discovery was when I started Daughters for Earth with Jody Allen and in partnership with the One Earth team. They taught me a lot about the science and what we need to do, and I learned that the solutions are tangible. All we need to do is to protect Earth, to re-shift to regenerative agriculture, and shift to renewable energy.

There was always part of me that thought when we say women are marginalized, we mean women in developing countries, from Ecuador to Kenya. That’s what I thought, or to my own home country, Iraq. I didn’t think it was referring to industrialized, developed countries.

As I traveled around and started speaking about Daughters for Earth, I realized the marginalization of female farmers or female-led efforts are seen as much in Sweden and France as in Ecuador and Kenya. Honestly, that was shocking news for me. I discovered they were as marginalized financially and politically and they’re not included in the discussion. They were criticized for shifting their relationship with the Earth from extraction and farming to leaving it alone and having it re-wild. That is what women-led efforts are doing and they are really suffering everywhere.

I thought that this is nuts in a developed, developing world discussion. I’m not saying women are exclusively leading innovative solutions, but women I met, who are leading innovative solutions, were truly, truly marginalized in these countries. Discovering that women are being marginalized everywhere, not just from the developing world, was a big discovery.

Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you succeed? Can you tell us a story about their impact on you?

I don’t have one mentor; I have so many mentors. Jody Allen in Daughters for Earth is one. Every time I went to her, I came out with ideas. There was always support, and there was trust, and I appreciate that. That trust is the same principle in which I operate with my colleagues, co-leaders, and everyone. We’ve got to operate out of trust and out of love.

When people around me trust me and say I can do it, then it gives me the energy to do it. There was also generosity from different mentors throughout my career. I called them not knowing how to do what I needed. People who are successful in their careers spent time with me and told me what I need to do. That was huge. It helped me a lot in my career and in my development. The generous time of people, the trust and love of people, the ability of people to support, and be authentic and truthful with each other, these things helped me. The principle of operating right now is to be authentic and truthful with my team. We hold each other’s back.

If one is tired, if one is sick, you show up for each other. Don’t operate out of the concept of perfection. None of us are perfect in our lives. We all have shit going on in our lives– families, friends, health. Operate out of authenticity that you’re committed here, doing, showing up, but you need help in this. These are principles — trust, support, love, generosity, and be kind to each other. Be kind to each other as you’re dealing with each other. My mentors and leaders have shown me these consistent values.

Are there three things that the community, society, or policymakers can do to help adjust the root of the problem that Daughters of the Earth is trying to solve?

Yes, of course. First, put in more money. A lot of societies, governments, or corporations, are still led by male-oriented leadership. Women are more at the decision-making table, but it’s not equal at all, and we’re still marginalized. A lot of times, when you speak to powerful men, they say, “oh, of course, we support women, and it’s not an issue”. Let me tell you loud and clear: money is an issue when it comes to women. We are still marginalized. Simply put more money in the hands of women who are leading efforts — they tend to be less corrupt, more efficient, and more sincere about their work.

Second, invite them to the decision-making table. I’m talking about the C-Suite level people or higher, and government people. When they invite women at the grassroots level, these women are not speaking the same language. I don’t mean it’s English versus whatever other language. I mean they don’t express themselves in polished language and that’s okay.

There needs to be discipline to learn to listen to women. They may express themselves in different languages, or different expressions. We are used to those who are highly educated in the C-Suite, but there needs to be discipline to listen to different expressions and different ways to get to the solution. Discipline to listen leads to inclusion at the decision-making table.

When I enter any room, when I go to any meeting, the first thing I notice is, are women 50 percent of this representation or not? If they are not, then we are missing something. We’re simply missing. And it’s not only women. As someone of color, as an immigrant, if I enter anything or even go to the farmer’s market, I say, “am I the only one here or are there other people like me?” Diversity is necessary to make lasting change and tangible inclusive solutions. So, that’s what I ask — include, listen, invest.

If we look at businesses, how would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable or more environmentally conscious?

We’ve got to shift our economic structure. We cannot put all the value on the success of a business only on the financial profits and loss. It is a strictly old measurement that can no longer sustain us moving forward. I’m a big fan of introducing other metrics for profits and loss inspired by the work of Jochen Zeitz, who is the chairman and CEO of Harley Davidson and the co-founder of The B Team with Richard Branson. His work includes environmental profit and loss.

It’s not only about measuring the money, it’s also about its impact on the environment. What is the profit and loss? Also, you have social P&L, right? What is the impact on my employees, clients, and customers? If we start shifting the measurements in these ways and introducing these concepts, not only for the company, but for the public and shareholders, we will have a more balanced view of how we define our economy.

Our economy right now, capitalism right now, is defined from a very strict, extremist point of view. Make extreme profit, make as much profit as possible, and who cares about the outcome or the damage. What I’m saying is balance it. Make it healthy capitalism. Make it the kind of capitalism in which it looks at the environment, it looks at humans and yes, it does look at the profit and loss.

Can we make money by being kind to Earth and to ourselves and to each other? Yes. Is the propulsion of the money different? Yes. Would that create a more lasting, stable society? 100 percent. The more we are keeping at this trajectory we are in, the more upheaval can happen, not only with Earth itself but also with society. I am a big advocate of re-shifting the metrics.

Frankly, my message to businesses, if you don’t do it, the consumers are going to force you to do it. This is what Daughters for Earth is partially doing. We’re mobilizing women to take charge of our dollar and our spending, to spend differently, think differently, and act differently. If the companies are not going to be proactive in shifting their economic model, the consumers are going to shift and force them. This is the thing — women have a huge purchasing power. It’s underestimated and everyone talks about it, but no one tailored for it.

It’s up to you. Does your business want to lead and become a leader in talking to women and addressing their purchasing power? Or do you want to become a follower that is running behind the movement? The movement has been created and is being created. It is going to be empowered more and more and that is one of our goals. This is not only Daughters for Earth, but many women’s organizations are trying to address the purchasing power of women.

What are five things that when you started, whether it’s Daughters of the Earth or even earlier in your career, that you wish someone had told you?

You need patience and consistency because there are going to be a lot of hurdles. Patience and consistency go together. That’s what I call perseverance. You need at least one person to support you and believe in you. Surround yourself with a team of supporters and believers. Which could be friends, it could be your therapist, it doesn’t matter. Surround yourself with at least three people who are supporting your efforts. They don’t have to be your colleagues. They can be anybody you choose.

There are going to be doubtful and painful moments where you want to give up. I regret these moments. I remember reading an article saying that if you’re suffering too much, if your business is not working, it’s also okay to close it. With another effort, I thought maybe this is not working, maybe I need to close it. I regret, I regret.

In moments of doubt, know that you are not alone. Know that other people are going through what you’re going through. That’s when you need your team to go and process with you. Most importantly, do not sacrifice your well-being. The cause does not require you to self-sacrifice. I repeat — the cause does not require you to self-sacrifice. You need to embody what you are advocating for.

If you’re advocating for people to be happy, you need to be happy. If I’m advocating right now for the health and nourishment of Mother Earth, I need to be healthy and nourished. When we act out of sacrificing ourselves by working 60 hours a week and bragging, that’s so dated for me. Work whatever amount of hours that pleases you, but don’t brag that you are sacrificing yourself for the cause. No. The cause does not require it. When we give out of fullness, that means that we are physically healthy, mentally healthy, we are emotionally healthy. The giving is endless and it’s beautiful and it’s flawless. It just flows.

When we are operating out of scarcity, meaning we are tired, not paid well, exhausted, or deprived of sleep, then the giving becomes resentful. We become harsh on our colleagues and ourselves. This cause does not require us to self-sacrifice. Last, but not least, this is the time. I call for everyone. This is our moment to make the 21st century the feminine century. This means to lead, discover, nourish and lead with feminine values.

What are these feminine values? It doesn’t mean that I work 80 hours a week to be good or successful. No. Define the values that you want to work with, that are kind to yourself and the cause. I’m not saying to be less efficient. I am efficient; I get things done. I really get things done, but it’s not based on the principle of sacrificing my well-being. It is anchored in the principle that Earth, my cause, and myself is one extension. I learn from that extension, I learn from applying things and values to myself, to Earth and to the cause I’m working in rather than compartmentalizing it in different ways.

If you could tell young people one thing about why they should consider making an impact on the environment — young people themselves are very fired up to do that — but if you were speaking to young people, what do you tell them or what would you tell them?

Speak, I am listening. I don’t need to lecture young people. I think young people are more aware of environmental issues than a lot of older people and my generation. They’re more conscious and they have much more to lose from our inaction. I would want to listen to them, and I am inspired by them and all their thoughts. These thoughts can come from my 5-year-old niece and my 11-year-old nephew, or from my 20-year-old colleague, or my 28-year-old colleague. They are my inspiration. So speak — I am listening.

Can you give us your favorite life lesson quotes or a quote that inspires you?

“Be fully present wherever you are” — Rumi.

Any way in how it’s applied in your life?

Yes, every day.

Is there a person in the world with whom you’d like to have a private breakfast or

lunch with who would it be and why?

I had the privilege of meeting a lot of people, so the list is getting accomplished. I’m grateful for that. I would like to meet the current Prime Minister of Finland, Sanna Marin. I am inspired by her. She wears her leather jacket and goes to a dance club as she is leading a country. I think it’s courageous. I love her boldness in being who she is authentically and not being rattled by all these attacks that she’s getting from older men in her country and different people across the world.

It takes a lot. It’s one thing to be inspired by people who are doing business. It’s another thing to really get a glimpse of the struggle, doubts, and attacks that can go through them and how they handle it. So I would love to meet her. She’s authentic, as opposed to all the guys who are criticizing her, who probably committed more than a few wrongdoings, but underground… She’s just being herself and it’s not even a big deal.

How can the readers follow you online? and all the links to Daughters for Earth social media — Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Thank you for taking the time. This was very meaningful. It’s been really inspiring to hear your story and frankly enlightening.

Social Impact Heroes Helping Our Planet: Why & How Zainb Salbi Of Daughters for Earth Is Helping To… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.