Push for more diverse green movement comes to Capitol

By Arianna Skibell | 07/28/2017 07:14 AM EDT

Mainstream environmental organizations, foundations and government agencies are too white.

Mainstream environmental organizations, foundations and government agencies are too white.

This complaint is not new. For the last 40 years or so, grass-roots black, Latino and indigenous environmental activists have pushed for greater representation in the environmental movement, as their communities often bear the brunt of environmental degradation.

They have had minimal success. While people of color make up roughly 36 percent of the U.S. population and 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce, they do not exceed 16 percent of the staff at top environmental organizations.


That’s according to a 2014 report that surveyed 191 environmental nonprofits, 74 government agencies and 28 foundations.

While the lack of leadership diversity in green spaces has not gone unnoticed by minority participants, the so-called Green Ceiling report, titled "The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations: Mainstream NGOs, Foundations & Government Agencies," brought national attention to the issue.

Now, the authors are taking their cause to Congress and its staff.

Whitney Tome, executive director of the Green Diversity Initiative, or Green 2.0, yesterday addressed a room overflowing with congressional staffers and interns in a House office building.

She spoke about the need for racial and ethnic diversity in environmental spaces. She said the combination of unconscious bias and lackluster hiring efforts has led to an overwhelmingly white "green insider’s club."

The briefing was hosted by the newly formed United for Climate and Environmental Justice Task Force, co-chaired by Reps. Don McEachin (D-Va.), Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-Calif.) and Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who are members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, respectively. All are freshmen.

The House Democrats launched the task force in response to proposed cuts to U.S. EPA, fearing that minority and low-income communities would be hit the hardest (E&E News, April 28).

Tome was joined by a panel of diversity champions and environmental leaders, including Mustafa Ali, the senior vice president of the climate and environmental program at the Hip Hop Caucus. Ali famously resigned from U.S. EPA amid concerns about the Trump administration’s plans for the agency (Greenwire, March 9).

"When you go into communities … you need folks that folks can relate to, connect to, that they can trust," Ali said. "Diversity plays a key role in environment and climate."

Also present were Mark Magaña, president and CEO of GreenLatinos; Jim Stofan, chief operating officer of Defenders of Wildlife; and Kimberly Grantham, vice president of human resources and administrative services at the League of Conservation Voters.

"Addressing climate change, making sure we leave the Earth healthier and cleaner for our children and grandchildren is my key priority," McEachin said following the news conference.

"Unfortunately, many negative climate effects disproportionately impact minority, low-income and rural communities. To help remedy this reality, the environmental organizations and advocacy groups need to reflect the diverse communities they are working to assist."

Green 2.0 was formed in 2013 with the goal of garnering commitments from influential green groups and their funders to implement measures to scale up diversity, particularly at the senior executive level. Commissioned by Green 2.0, the "Green Ceiling" report was authored by Dorceta Taylor,
a professor in the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability and the first black woman to have earned a Ph.D. from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

The failure of green groups and government agencies on diversity has come despite the disproportionate environmental hazard communities of color face, the report found. The trend is most notable at the top, she said. Diversity decreases as responsibility increases.

At the nongovernmental organizations surveyed, 22.5 percent of interns are people of color. That number drops to 12 percent in leadership positions and 4.6 percent at the board membership level. For federal agencies, the numbers decrease from 22.5 percent at the intern level to 6.9 percent in the highest slots.

Still, Green 2.0 is making progress. In 2014, Rhea Suh took the top job at the Natural Resources Defense Council, becoming the first person of color to lead a major environmental group. In 2015, a number of environmental funders joined the Green 2.0 data initiative. And in 2016, the campaign co-sponsored a panel during the Democratic National Convention.

Climate gets personal

The lawmakers and panelists told stories of how being in the minority has drastically affected their lives and their environmental work.

Grantham, of LCV, said her brother died at age 23 due to pollution-induced asthma attacks.

"There was something about the environment he was in that ultimately cost him his life, and I do this work to honor him," she said.

LCV has answered Green 2.0’s call, Grantham said. "At that time, we hadn’t ever taken a look at ourselves," she said. "Our organization is committed to making a change."

The group hired a diversity consultant, formed a steering committee and implemented new hiring practices.

"If LCV wants to reach qualified candidates from different backgrounds, we need to expand our network," she said. "Nobody is going to fall out of some tree and land in my office."

Stofan, of Defenders, spoke about his experience being gay and the need for greater inclusion along race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation and ability level.

He said that in 2016, Defenders hired a dedicated diversity fellow and developed a diversity statement that is included in its mission. The group developed a diversity policy and hired a human resource director with tailored experience, among other measures.

"Protecting and conserving wildlife is not a white issue," he said.

Jayapal spoke about being the first Indian-American woman ever elected to the House and being the first person of color in the Washington state delegation.

She said that in her experience, more non-minority environmental leaders worry about climate change and the planet. People of color worry about their families being safe and having clean air and water, she said.

"What I found is the discussions were very different when our voices were at the table," she said. "We see things differently because of our lived experiences."

Ultimately, it’s about coming up with better policy solutions that reflect and build a more inclusive movement, she said.

"It’s not just a nice thing to do so the pictures look better, though they do look better, but that’s not the point," she joked. "We have better solutions and we build a better movement when we have all these voices at the table."

She added: "For our planet, but also our health and our souls and our spirit."