Facing the Future

Wayne Lawrence/INSTITUTE
Wayne Lawrence/INSTITUTE
Wayne Lawrence/INSTITUTE
Wayne Lawrence/INSTITUTE

Facing the Future

While environmental groups often work toward preserving biodiversity in ecosystems, many are now grappling with trying to figure out how to diversify their own ranks.

By Barry Yeoman/Photography by Wayne Lawrence
Published: September-October 2011

"This is where it all started for me," says 24-year-old Samnam Phin. We are standing in Copicut Woods, a forest threaded with hiking trails that pass through cedar swamp and an abandoned farm settlement. These woods are part of the 13,600-acre Southeastern Massachusetts Bioreserve, a protected area so vast and unspoiled that it offers habitat to forest-interior birds like veeries, blue-winged warblers, and eastern phoebes. Phin manages Copicut Woods--whose 500 acres lie entirely within the city of Fall River--for a statewide land conservancy called The Trustees of Reservations.

Growing up, Phin never envisioned himself a professional conservationist. He was a Cambodian immigrant kid who was born in a refugee camp and spent his teen years in public housing in Fall River. He played basketball and video games and dreamed of a career in 3-D animation. "But I never explored trails or parks," he says.

Then, in high school, Phin met Linton Harrington, who runs a youth-corps program for The Trustees. Harrington recruits young people like Phin, racially and ethnically diverse, with a special outreach into the declining textile cities of Fall River and New Bedford. Harrington is driven by a well-accepted premise: For the environmental movement to survive, it must cultivate new leaders who mirror the demographics of a nation that's now 36 percent minority. "Our population is becoming more urban. There's many more people of color," he says. "Our traditional base is way too small, and it's shrinking. If we want to be relevant in the coming decades, we have to expand the people who are hearing the message of conservation."

That first summer, and in later seasonal jobs with The Trustees, Phin tested water quality, maintained trails, and built stone walls. He observed amphibians like the state-protected marbled salamander, and watched Harrington identify birds by their calls. "Linton's enthusiasm was contagious," Phin says. "Being out there with nature really helped me appreciate land conservation." When a job opened up last winter, Phin applied and was hired. (He attends college at night.) In turn, he's been going back to urban and minority communities--for example, by offering free landscape-drawing classes in the woods for Cambodian youth. "I can relate to people in the city," he says. "I can tell them there's another world out there."

I was visiting The Trustees of Reservations because they've been immersed in a deep and deliberate conversation about how to move beyond their white suburban base and reach more people like Phin. In doing so, they've grappled with a paradox that haunts the entire environmental movement. Numerous national and regional polls show that people of color in the United States care more about environmental degradation than do their white counterparts. Minorities are also more willing to pay higher taxes to fund programs to preserve wildlife habitat, lakes and rivers, and other natural areas. The numbers are dramatic: A 2009 national poll (conducted by two firms, one Republican and one Democratic) revealed that 63 percent of African-Americans felt that toxics and pesticides in our food and drinking water were an "extremely" or "very" serious problem, while 61 percent felt the same way about global warming. For Latinos, the numbers were 61 and 55 percent. For whites, they were 38 and 39 percent. Yet despite these numbers, mainstream green groups remain overwhelmingly white.

"A lot of environmental organizations genuinely think, 'Look, we're saving this planet for everybody, so we don't have to think about equity as a separate issue,' " says Julian Agyeman, who chairs the urban and environmental policy and planning department at Tufts University. "It's almost like the last great white social movement."

Agyeman, who helped found Great Britain's Black Environment Network before moving to the United States, was one of 48 people I interviewed for this story. The conversations were some of the most intense I've had in my career. People of color talked about feeling ignored and even rejected, while whites puzzled over how to transform their organizations' internal cultures.

Most large environmental groups acknowledge that diversifying is essential to accomplishing their missions. They point to new programs designed to expand their reaches, from minority internships to partnerships with local grassroots groups. Still, many leaders recognize the need to do better, particularly as the country moves toward becoming majority-minority around 2042. "If we're going to have a constituency 20 or 30 years from now, or even 10, it's critical that we be more inclusive," says Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "If we fail to do that, the movement will erode--erode in numbers and erode in political weight."


History has a long arm, and the environmental movement's racial dynamics can be traced back more than a century. Matthew Klingle, an environmental historian at Bowdoin College, points out that modern conservationism began with elite aims--"setting aside wildlife for the worthy," he says, with regulations that favored sportsmen over subsistence hunters and fishers. The creation of state and national parks entailed forcibly evicting Native Americans. Sometimes this was accompanied by racist rhetoric. In 1894 Sierra Club founder John Muir described the Yosemite Valley's Mono Indians as "mostly ugly, and some of them altogether hideous," lacking any "right place in the landscape." In cities, fights against slaughterhouses and tanneries were "won" when the offending businesses were banished to poorer neighborhoods.

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Barry Yeoman

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine




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