Mediators Beyond Borders International is a nonprofit organization governed by a Board of Directors, comprised of 17 remarkable individuals. This article is the first of the Meet the Board series—putting faces to the decision-makers, guiders, and advisors of MBBI.
Meet the Board: Todd Lopez
Todd Lopez—lawyer, facilitator, hydrogeologist, environmental advocate, and father of two—brings over 25 years of experience working on issues like education and the environment. He has served on the Boards of Directors for several New Mexico non-profit organizations and joined MBBI’s Board in 2018.
The road to MBBI was an interesting one.
Todd had just graduated law school, had just been admitted to the Bar, when his professor called him up. “I need you to take on a client for me,” she said. The client was an environmental organization representing the Gila River, the last major free-flowing river in New Mexico. “They’re at it again, trying to dam this river. I need you to take this.”
Todd laughs when he tells me: “She wasn’t really giving me a choice.”
New Mexico has a small community of water rights attorneys, and Todd was selected for the job because most other interested lawyers were conflicted out from the negotiations. This was Todd’s first big case and he found himself at a table with counsel from the governments of New Mexico and Arizona, tribal governments, and the State Engineer’s Office. The Gila River was just one piece of a much bigger problem—and Todd was an unlikely addition to the room of senior, seasoned attorneys.
“There was one chair open. And we were just waiting on the final chair. Then, in walks this guy.” Into the room walked a man wearing sunglasses, long hair, shorts, and flip flops. “And lo and beholds, it’s DL Sanders,” Todd says. “DL Sanders is the father of water rights in New Mexico, an absolute legend. And then he looks at me and says, “Who the hell are you?”
Young, new, and the outsider, Todd negotiated and navigated perspectives as the representative of the Gila River’s environmental interests. For Todd, this was a career milestone: “During the negotiations, it felt like a place where I belonged—and a place where I could do alright.”
Todd worked as a natural resource, water law, and environmental attorney for over 15 years before transitioning into conflict resolution work. “Some lawyers contribute to a more adversarial situation, rather than solving it,” he says. “I asked myself: ‘What am I going to look back on in twenty to thirty years from now?’ And that [adversarial competition] wasn’t the legacy I wanted.”
Today, Todd works on resolving complex environmental issues in New Mexico. Todd’s advocacy roots stretch back to his days as an AmeriCorps volunteer in the northern New Mexico pueblos, the first step in what he describes as “the pursuit of mission-aligned work.” One of his current projects is in protecting, managing, and sustaining a prehistoric migratory bird route along the Rio Grande.
Todd describes an interesting, complex scenario of wetlands and environmental concern. New Mexico is introducing a giant wind farm to power Southern California with clean energy. However, to get electricity to California, the states must navigate transmission lines across the Rio Grande—at a vulnerable point for the migratory birds. The situation is complicated by the Department of Defense White Sands Missile Range; archeological and pueblo sites; and urban areas. It’s a project that, despite political uncertainty, has managed to forge agreements between so many stakeholders. This is a process in which Todd remains hopeful for a facilitated, win-win outcome: “We’re working to protect several million-year-old migratory patterns and critically unique ecological habitat. Surely there’s a way we can come up with a solution that both protects this continentally important segment [of the Rio Grande] without impeding the advancement of renewable energy strategies.”
Todd’s work in collaboration, advocacy, and nonprofit management eventually opened doors to MBBI. In 2017, a friend invited Todd to the Hague for MBBI’s 8th Annual Congress. Having studied the International Court of Justice as a law student in London, Todd couldn’t pass up an opportunity to visit the Hague. To his pleasant surprise, the Annual Congress was very much the highlight of Todd’s trip. His networks and connections all linked back to MBBI’s work. “The Congress was really powerful, really impacted me deeply to see the kinds of people involved and the work they were doing was overwhelming.”
Despite being the newcomer, Todd happened upon a possible connection between a Hague-based international training institute and MBBI, in an intimidating step that led him to Prabha Sankaranarayan, MBBI’s president and CEO. They went to dinner that night to discuss integrating conflict resolution into the training catalog. “And that,” Todd says with a laugh, “was the beginning of that.”
A few months later, MBBI invited Todd to Lebanon on a Rotary water and sanitation project. He joined MBBI’s Board in 2018. Todd says, “[MBBI] is doing the most important work in the world right now. That’s how strongly I feel about [this]. We’re at a critical juncture in human history. The decisions we make and the way we make them in the near future will dictate the way we live for generations to come.”
When asked what he envisions the future of MBBI to be, Todd highlights the important work being done on IPTIs and, more specifically, the women training initiatives. “I learned so much at the Hauge about the deficit of women leaders at the negotiating table despite the evidence demonstrating greater sustainability and efficacy of conflict resolution agreements when women are involved,” he prefaces. “Although it was acknowledged as a generalization [at the Hague Congress], history suggests that men are often negotiating for power and control while women seek to memorialize rights and responsibilities.” Todd believes that the work MBBI is doing to include women in peacebuilding is laying the foundation for more inclusive, lasting, and peaceful solutions.
In addition, Todd sees MBBI continuing to act as a convening agent for important international conversations—to establish itself as a global authority in peace-building.“Even as small as MBBI is, members are leaving marks all over the world. How can we expand that capacity even more? The people I’ve met through MBBI are like real-life superheroes fighting for justice,” Todd says at the end of our call. “The closer you get, the more you learn about MBBI, the more you want to be involved.” Learn more about how you can be involved here.
Article by Emily Zmak, MBBI Writer