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Racial Equity in Environmental Movement


Posted: 11:47AM August 11th, 2015 | Comments

A recent study entitled “The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations” has concluded that environmental organizations across the board have a stark lack of diversity throughout their ranks, especially in higher up positions. This isn’t all that surprising considering that the stereotypical environmentalist is a white dude wearing Tevas and tie-dye. The air of exclusivity within the movement has been detrimental not only to the people who feel unwelcome in something that they care about, but also to the effectiveness of the movement itself. The unnecessary and harmful divide within the environmental movement has stubbornly remained even while much of the corporate world has implemented successful racial equity management. How can we move forward in a sustainable way if we are excluding a huge portion of the population?


This unfortunate trend presents itself as a consequence of ignorance and unconscious bias since the inception of the environmental movement. It started out as a desire to preserve and protect pristine natural landscapes. This conservation movement was spearheaded mainly by upper middle class white people and often with disregard for people of color, especially Native Americans. On the other hand, people of color have mainly led the environmental justice movement. This movement has worked more towards preserving healthy environments for the people who have been the victims of careless environmental policy in disadvantaged neighborhoods. We have on our hands a segregated environmental movement. This is ridiculous!


So, how does one go about systemically shifting attitudes and practices throughout a global movement? Many organizations have given an honest effort towards increasing their racial diversity. However, without an accurate analysis, active leadership, and a solid strategy to achieve those goals, it is difficult for any organization to actually make changes. Emily Enderle, the chief environmental policy advisor to Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, outlined the problem with the lack of racial equity as well as a strategy for diversification in her report, Diversity and the Future of the US Environmental Movement. The ten best practices, as seen in the report, are as follows:


1. Set the context for cultural change.

2. Provide ongoing, inclusive communication.

3. Develop knowledgeable and committed leaders.

4. Focus on data-driven change.

5. Provide awareness and skill-based training.

6. Encourage ongoing learning.

7. Establish multicultural mentoring.

8. Provide flexible benefits/scheduling.

9. Link rewards to effective diversity management.

10. Build common ground.


From the same report, here is an excerpt with some tips on how to go about diversity management:  


“Leadership – The success of diversity and inclusivity rely on the thoughts and actions of leaders. Executive development is essential for equipping leaders with the skills to be most effective.

o   Goal setting – Not to be confused with illegal quotas*, examples of goal setting can be, for example, to establish relationships with minority communities.

o   Framing – Positive framing is needed. Instead of framing diversity as a barrier to effectiveness, frame diversity as an opportunity for improved performance.

o   Accountability – Tie practices like selection, promotion, compensation to the consideration and execution of diversity goals and values.

o   Readiness – Explore individual and organizational contexts for diversity – to understand the impact of power dynamics in both cases.

Recruitment – The number of minority people is increasing rapidly – in the workforce, it is estimated that labor force growth will occur in non-white segment. The demographic representation of individuals in advertisements and the associated messages needs to be inclusive.”

*illegal quotas: businesses or organizations requiring a certain number of people from each race


Here at Sustain Dane, we are asking questions like, “How can Sustain Dane promote equity in our organization?” At the staff, board, and intern levels, we are identifying how to be more representative of our program participants. At this time, much of our staff, board, interns and volunteers are white and come from places of privilege. We are not exempt from a systemic lack of diversity. We are, however, actively hosting dialogue and initiating processes that authentically support diversity by conducting assessments of diversity and culture at the board level, hosting an Equity and Environment Brown Bag lunch with other environmental nonprofits, and working with community partners on Step Up: Equity Matters, a new initiative promoting open conversation about diversity in the workplace. We want to maintain an open dialogue to discuss issues like diversity and racial equity that have too long been uncomfortable or taboo topics. The environmental movement needs to start talking about race and making sincere efforts to make changes. 

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