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Losing Rebecca Tarbotton and Reassessing Representation in the Environmental Movement

Losing Rebecca Tarbotton and Reassessing Representation in the Environmental Movement

Like many with an interest in environmental issues, I was shocked and saddened to hear of the unexpected passing of Rebecca Tarbotton in Mexico last week. As the head of the Rainforest Action Network, Ms. Tarbotton proved to be a visionary and innovative leader interested in increasing direct action and other fiery, determined methods of creating environmental change. Her youth and vigor made her a standout in the environmental movement, which tends to be dominated by older, more cautious representatives, and she will be sorely missed at RAN as well as in the movement in general.

Her obituary at RAN notes that: “Under her leadership, RAN achieved tremendous victories in preserving endangered rainforests and the rights of their indigenous inhabitants…Becky spent much of her time thinking about how to inspire masses of people to work for transformational social and environmental change, and how to push the country’s biggest corporate polluters to reform their ways.” She also inspired and fired up a generation of employees at the famous environmental justice organization, and is warmly remembered not just as a leader but as a friend.

Writing for Grist, Lisa Hymas points out that Ms. Tarbotton’s death also raises some important issues about the demographics of the movement. She stood out in the landscape as a leader under 40, and not just that, but also a woman. The environmental movement tends to skew heavily towards older white men, something it has been criticized for over the course of decades, and many activists wonder why this demographic gap persists despite criticism, discussion and active movements to recruit and promote people who are underepresented in the upper ranks.

While the civil rights movement has begun to engage with environmental issues, noting that environmental racism is a pernicious problem that illustrates intersections between civil rights and environmental problems, the environmental movement has sometimes been slow to address racism and sexism from within, and to reach out to people who might correct gender and race imbalances. It also hasn’t necessarily created the best incubator environment for innovators and visionaries, despite the tremendous energy and strengths they bring to the movement.

Spectra Speaks talks about some of the ways in which white-dominated organizations can increase participation by nonwhite people and people of color, and her lessons from working with the London Feminist Film Festival could also be applied to the environmental movement. She noted the importance of avoiding the “we are one trap;” rather than folding everyone under one umbrella, the environmental movement should actively embrace and discuss intersectionality, talking about inequalities, disparities and even differing environmental goals.

She also says that outreach is critical, including researching issues in minority communities, working with leaders within those communities, and taking responsibility for specific issues. For the environmental movement, this means discarding an “if we build it, they will come” attitude, and focusing on the individual needs of the people the movement is trying to attract to build with them. Finally, Spectra says it’s critical to avoid “caucusing,” separating issues as “other” in a way that makes participants feel alien. Environmental racism, for example, isn’t a racial issue to be shoved to the side: it’s a serious problem that needs to be directly confronted.

With an active focus on diversifying the movement, everyone would win — and I suspect Rebecca Tarbotton would have been excited to see more visionary women under 40 among the ranks of environmental leadership.

 

Related articles:

Living in a Sacrifice Zone

The Environmental Movement Doesn’t Resemble the Obama Coalition

Environmental Leaders Encourage Civil Disobedience to Stop Keystone XL Pipeline

 

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Photo credit: Rainforest Action Network

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106 comments

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11:44PM PST on Jan 26, 2013

A great loss to the movement.

10:38AM PST on Jan 18, 2013

thanks for sharing :)

1:56PM PST on Jan 8, 2013

Great lost for us and the planet

8:42PM PST on Jan 7, 2013

Remember the "outrage" headline on CNN2 that someone killed a muslim woman in San Diego because of some anti-Islamic phobia of the people? "Oh my God! We need to get a petition going!"

What did I say? " I don't believe it for a second. Look first at the husband, then family and close friends". I said the perpetrator is the one who wrote the "hate" letters to deter the police from looking their/his/her direction.

Who did it turn out to be? guess............................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................the husband. Confession and all. It was and honor killing.

8:33PM PST on Jan 7, 2013

The key, dear Care2 editor, the problem is finding someone who is an intelligent, educated in Conservation, not Activism, or History or Spanish majors, or French Poetry, Art or other obsure major as almost all Care2 editors are. Not one economics, wild life biologist, any hard science major, amongst your midst. And yes it really helps. They will give you reality based solutions instead of the normal "outrage" response you are notorious for provoking.

Visionaries: Educated in the field they support, Believe it or not they don't come often.

4:49PM PST on Jan 6, 2013

@Domino T: If you read her obituary, you will see that she drowned. There is nothing to investigate. It was a tragic accident.

http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/vancouversun/obituary.aspx?n=Rebecca-TARBOTTON&pid=162145352

8:45AM PST on Jan 5, 2013

It strikes me as odd that someone so healthy and vital died under circumspect circumstances. Having lived in Mexico myself for many years, I can speak first hand about the beauty of the Mexican people to be sure, but I have also witnessed the darker side of what is capable. Rebecca's actions and successes no doubt attracted attention. I think her untimely death warrants investigation.

7:15AM PST on Jan 5, 2013

She seemed to have such fun in all she did, it was inspirational. You read it over and over again in the condolences people sent in. A truly brilliant spark, a new star in the heavens now. And on earth, what a loss. May her spirit continue to lead the way in all we environmentalists stirve to do, to make that very difference to the way our one blue planet is headed.

10:13PM PST on Jan 4, 2013

RIP! Thank you Rebecca for what you did for all of us!

10:09PM PST on Jan 4, 2013

Doesn't anyone think it would be wise to investigate foul play? She asphyxiated by breathing in water one report I read said. How often does this happen in athletic people? And in Mexico where there is already so much corruption? Or was it a poison in her system that caused paralysis ? And was anybody with money and power mad at her activism? For goodness sakes, I hope they investigate this death.

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