Diversifying the Enviro Movement


By Jose Gonzalez, NewsTaco

So the articles keep on coming out echoing the same message: “We essentially have a racially segregated environmental movement”.

One that made recent headlines was over at the Washington Post, titled “Within Mainstream Environmental Groups, Diversity is Lacking”.

The article provides a good snapshot of where we are, with a bit of history and hints of what we can do to fix it. The important thing is that it provides direct quotes from diverse leaders working to get this message out to prompt action.

The Washington Post article was followed up in Color Lines with “Mainstream Green is Still Too White”.

That article was more targeted, with clear sections breaking it down and digging a little deeper. It closes with essentially an open question/proposal to mainstream environmental groups: Will you let us lead?

This discussion on diversity lacking in mainstream environmental groups echoes past articles, which have elicited a range of responses trying to address why this is the case.

To that discussion I will add the following thoughts, stressing the steps for solutions rather than an autopsy of why we are where we are.  To quote the Executive Director of Azul, Marce Gutiérrez, “’We essentially have a racially segregated environmental movement’ – Agreed. Now, how do we start to change this?”

That really is the question, which was furthered highlighted when I had a conversation with a professor who has done research into the barriers to engagement with the outdoors/conservation by communities of color.

The take-away message was “we can talk about barriers all day long but…” The key point was that in many ways the barriers have not changed. Yes, we can narrow it down from broad barriers to the specific ways in which they affect separate communities. But it still comes down more to “what are we DOING?” more so than “what is the answer.

There are three points I put forth for consideration:

  • The pool of talent available, how they are represented, and for what purpose.
  • The mindset of mainstream organizations that need change or may seek change.
  • The funders that support these efforts—and how their support help or hinder efforts.

On the first point, the statement is simple. There are many talented individuals and organizations out there doing the good work related to communities of color and environmental/conservation issues. Most are categorized under “environmental justice”. But a good segment is working as bridges between mainstream conservation issues and issues relevant to communities of color. Simply put, one cannot say that there are no “qualified” applicants out there. The important point is that they are valued for the contributions they bring, and that real diversity is not limited to just counting the number of “people of color on staff”.  As Adrianna Quintero from the NRDC put it in the Washington Post article:

 “Last year, we did a big analysis of what our diversity needs are, and we found that in order to attract the talent, [applicants] need to be allowed to do work where they feel like they are giving back to their communities.”

So how are organizations hiring these individuals, reaching out to them, and putting them in positions that leverage their skills, rather than just counting them for “diversity purposes”?

On the second point, whether mainstream organizations want to change, it really connects to points one and three—whether they are hiring people committed to these issues and how they are prioritizing their spending.  Even organizations that are working on it have a ways to go. As the Washington Post article noted:

“Spokeswoman Maggie Kao [for the Sierra Club] said the group has had an environmental justice arm for at least a decade. Still, several minorities who work for Sierra Club said it lacks diversity.”

A question there may be not so much that an organization has an “added on” component of environmental justice, but rather if an examination of the organization’s values, mission, vision, and framework shows environmental justice as part of the mindset and internal drive. This is not to criticize the good work that many mainstream organizations are doing, but rather to point the way to keep moving forward on diversity—to internalize diversity rather than just add it on.

The third point is a big connector to all this:  how funding is allocated for environmental/conservation work. As this 2010 Environmental Grantmakers Association report noted, funding for work labeled as Environmental Justice, Environmental Health, and Indigenous Populations, paled in comparison for big issues like Climate Change. We could get into the semantics of whether climate change funding was applied for work with communities of color—but the larger picture is a snapshot of how funding is prioritized, and what organizations claim those larger shares. It is also not to dismiss how important it is to tackle climate change, but rather to challenge funders to think about “the big issues” with a “community of color lens”. We are all affected regardless of skin color and ethnicity, yet it can seem like the ones getting the money and credit are “the big organizations”, which focus that money and energy in ways that can seem exclusive of communities of color.

To funders, the question and challenge is: how is your funding diversified? Not just in issues and organizations, but in mindset. It seems like common knowledge that land conservation will get millions while community programs struggle for operational costs in the thousands. Investing in the environment means investing in the communities that will benefit from and provide support for environmental/conservation issues in the future—a demographically diverse future.

Simply put, this third point goes back to the “put your money where your mouth is” or “walk the walk, don’t just talk the talk”.

Yes, projects and programs cost money. But if the answer is “we don’t have the money” rather than “how are we spending the money and what can be changed?”, then it points more to a mindset that sticks on knowing the barriers but not moving forward to provide solutions.

If you set a plan in motion, it speaks to your philosophy of working towards change, instead of just seeing the challenges.  Are you working for the opportunities or just dragging on the challenges?

Of course, matters may be different for a public agency compared to a mainstream environmental non-profit. Agencies have to work within one set of rules and non-profits within another. But the question will still be, what are they doing within that set of rules?

Non-profits should be most nimble in that respect, while keeping in mind how funders also need to think about how the money is used—and how it supports or leaves out communities of color.

Public agencies also face funding challenges, yet in many ways they have clearer directives to engage diverse communities. Here, public agencies do need more traction but yet they also have big potential, with the right reframing and shift in thinking.

To close, there may be people asking, so what? Why worry about this issue?

If you are stuck on that point, it could be a whole discussion. The short of it is that diversity yields strength, in our social world just like in the natural world. Monocultures do not really thrive on their own.  If mainstream organizations want to remain relevant and access that strength from diversity, they need to embrace it in meaningful ways, and share in the leadership—as well as the money—that they have been accustomed to having on their own.

As Van Jones, noted in the Washington Post article:

“Any movement or cause that’s racially exclusive will have less power and less influence. You’re leaving out too many good ideas. I think the cause of having a liveable, survivable environment is weakened by the fact that we have these divisions.”

We can keep pointing fingers or wondering why some arms are crossed—or we can make sure we are reaching out, grasping hands, and making it work. Also, much like in many things, follow the money.

[Photo by Giovanna Di Chiro, EPA EJ Blog]

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