Janiece Watts

Photo by Nance Musinguzi

My name is Janiece Watts. Watts, of course, is a unit or measurement of power. Janiece can mean “wisdom.” I love that my name means power and wisdom put together. Those words are central to my identity and how I think of myself.

My life’s work is as an environmental justice advocate. I started my career in environmental justice organizing so that is the framework of how I see the world, how I have come to understand both myself and my relationship to nature and to the planet.

Also, right now I'm pregnant so it’s not just about me anymore. I need to protect my body because I’m growing a life inside of me - every single step I take is more careful.

I think about how divided this world is and what that might mean for my child. On one hand, I feel grateful to be part of a community where I know people are working hard to build the future we want; a future that is just, safe, equitable, and accessible. On the other hand, when I think about the forces and issues we're up against, I feel fearful for every child, for every person in the next generation. Internally, these acute feelings are new for me.

I grew up in St. Paul, but my parents are from the south. That's really important to me. My dad is from Mississippi. My mom is from Texas. Both my parents are Black and Cherokee, and I identify as Black and Indigenous. I grew up in a very affirming household in terms of my cultural heritage. So, as a Black, Indigenous woman in this country, I know what justice looks like according to those identities.

But until I encountered Headwaters, I didn't know what to say about class or how to talk about money. One of my strongest memories of participating in HFJ’s Giving Project was when we discussed class and split ourselves into similar class groupings. My group named itself “Deceptively Stable” because we felt like to the outside world, we probably looked like stable middle class families. In my case, we had our single-family home, I was lucky to have two parents who worked, and I was able to play music and sports. There were parks where I grew up. I look back on mostly fun, happy memories. We shared what were able, but we did feel financial stress at times.


In my family, our door was always open. Family and friends were always at our house. There was food on the table for anyone who needed it. That's what giving looked like for us, that's what community looked like, and that's how I still live my life.

My parents probably wouldn't call that donor organizing or giving in the traditional philanthropic sense; it was just what we did. My family’s mindset was if we've got a little bit, we can give what we can share; if you are ever in need, you just hope that that kindness comes back to you.

There was also an element of cautiousness my parents instilled in me around money. But we didn't really talk about money or how to manage it. Going to college was eye opening for me in terms of finances. My parents supported my decision to go, I just needed to get the loans. Now I’m 32 years old and still have way too much student loan debt. Way too much. Because of all of that, one thing I do now that I never thought I would is give monetarily.

I still give my time through organizing, building community, sharing food, opening my home to friends and family like my parents modeled for me, but I am also more intentional about tracking my finances. I have a giving budget, and I give every month to Headwaters and a couple other places.

Photo by Nance Musinguzi

Over the past handful of years, the Headwaters Board of Directors and Development Committee have become my movement homes. I'm so grateful one of my mentors told me about Headwaters and encouraged me to get involved. She said, “You work in nonprofits. This is another side of it.”

I never imagined being involved in community foundation work. Now here I am, having volunteered for a Giving Project, co-chaired and chaired the Development Committee for three years, and am in my fourth year of being on the board.  Before encountering Headwaters, I did not have the sense to question what “philanthropy” entailed, but since getting involved I keep digging into it and stretching myself in new ways. Because of that I started to finally understand my relationship to money.

I’m grateful that, because of my experience with Headwaters, I’ve been able to bring my understanding of foundations and donor organizing to my job. I can confidently speak to our funders about the importance of funding actual environmental justice work and can bring in an analysis of money and power in funding patterns thanks to Headwaters.

There is so much incredibly brilliant work that’s happening, but environmental justice funding has been so limited for years. The problem is that many foundations don’t recognize the intersection of environment and justice, which can mean everything from housing and education to policing and global military issues to immigration. We're talking about people who are the most vulnerable, frontline communities most directly impacted by environmental issues. We must be explicit in naming white supremacy as the root of environmental injustice.

So, I say Headwaters is my movement home because it opens space for me to do a lot of the justice work I'm already doing, but with this added layer of understanding around money – moving money and wanting to understand how money can be medicine, not just a tool of oppression and evil, which is what I always thought. I love digging into questions about money and power, gender justice, and environmental justice. Having all that in one place is a win-win-win for me. Headwaters helps me explore issues of justice paired with an economic analysis and then live into that work through giving. That's what keeps me coming back.


We extend our thanks and appreciation to Jillian Gross Fortgang, the Headwaters volunteer who conducted the initial interview.

Photo by Nance Musinguzi