The Environmental Movement Has a Serious Diversity Problem

A new report from Green 2.0 presents grim news for those concerned about diversity and inclusion in the environmental movement: It’s getting whiter over time, rather than more racially diverse — especially in the context of leadership roles.

This is a frustrating reality for advocates who have been fighting to bring racial justice to conversations about the environment – and for those wanting to work in solidarity to build a more powerful movement with a coalition of stakeholders from across the spectrum.

The organization, which explicitly works to promote racial diversity in environmentalism, found that the participation of people of color is falling at both foundations and non-governmental organizations. This research suggests that institutions are struggling to retain existing staff as well as recruit new employees.

At foundations, there was a dramatic decline in people of color in senior staff — from 33 percent to just 4 percent, from 2017 to 2018. While NGOs actually experienced a slight boost in people of color in senior staff roles, the numbers among board members and full-time staffers dropped. And while staffers were heavily female, that wasn’t the case with boards.

The group looked at the top 40 organizations in each category, which definitely obscures some data. This approach means that some groups — especially smaller, newer organizations headed by people of color — didn’t get counted. There are also inevitably some flaws with the survey data, which was self-reported; diversity surveys like this rely on organizations to be honest, but also can be skewed when people decline to include personal details about themselves, for a variety of reasons.

So the bottom line on these findings isn’t that the environmental movement is irredeemably racist. The data does, however, suggest that at leading organizations, people of color are having a hard time breaking in — and they may be experiencing burnout and other issues that make it hard for them to stay in their jobs.

The Green 2.0 report suggests that there’s a race problem the movement needs to deal with, which isn’t news to anyone; mainstream environmentalism is heavily associated with whiteness, and activists have made a number of missteps when it comes to failing to think about the needs of communities of color.

Racism is always unacceptable, but it has especially high costs here, because communities of color are on the front lines of climate change and other environmental issues – as they have been for centuries. Environmental racism highlights how pollution and environmental degradation tends to concentrate in communities of color, whether we’re talking about lead contamination in Flint, Michigan, or the location of dumps containing toxic materials.

And for indigenous people, racism takes on additional complexities as the land their communities hold sacred is exploited for natural resources, broken up by government entities and treated disrespectfully by settlers.

People of color working on environmental justice issues sometimes wind up isolated from white-led groups because they have different approaches to the work and different priorities. Diversity and inclusion in the environmental movement doesn’t just mean “hire more people of color.” It requires connecting with communities of color to learn about their issues and cultivate activists as leaders, and working within organizations to change their culture so people of color want to work there.

To do so, however, also requires confronting the role of racism and white supremacy in the white environmental movement –  something some are reluctant to do; failing to do so, however, will erode environmental organizations and force them to miss out on incredibly valuable insights from people of color who are subject matter experts and residents of communities disproportionately impacted by environmental destruction.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

52 comments

Greta L
Alice L3 months ago

Thank you

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Marija M
Marija M3 months ago

tks very much for sharing

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Chad A
Chad Anderson3 months ago

Thank you.

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Ruth R
Ruth R3 months ago

Good article. Good point.

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Ruth R
Ruth R3 months ago

Please, in these places put in more environmental litigation and education by all people who have the education.

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B B
B B3 months ago

Thank you for this article.

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Colin C
Colin C3 months ago

Maybe an Affirmative Action policy

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Ruth S
Ruth S3 months ago

Thanks.

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Ruth S
Ruth S3 months ago

Thanks.

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Shae Lee
Shae Lee3 months ago

Thank you for sharing

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