Facing the Future

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

Long after environmental leaders stopped using patently offensive language on a wide scale, the movement was still sometimes accused of racial insensitivity. In 1990 a social-justice group called the SouthWest Organizing Project sent a letter to 10 leading environmental organizations (including the National Audubon Society), accusing them of ignoring the "survival needs and cultures" of people of color. The letter, signed by more than 100 activists, listed numerous examples--including environmentalist support for the designation of Native American and Chicano ancestral land as national monuments--and cited the "lack of people of color in decision-making positions." It called on the groups to "cease operations in communities of color" until their hiring records improved dramatically.

"That letter created tremors throughout the environmental community," says the NRDC's Beinecke. Many vowed to do better. Michael Fischer, at the time the Sierra Club's executive director, called for "a friendly takeover of the Sierra Club by people of color."

The past 20 years have hardly brought a revolution. But they have brought progress, particularly in programming. Some green groups have created environmental-justice teams that address the disproportionate harm pollution causes minorities and the poor. The Sierra Club partners with American Indian tribes that oppose uranium mining in Arizona and New Mexico. The NRDC joined forces with the Bronx-based Mothers on the Move to curb odors and emissions from two sewage facilities in the impoverished Hunts Point neighborhood. The National Wildlife Federation works with tribes on addressing the outsized impact climate change will have on Native Americans. The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) collaborates with Louisiana coastal communities--Cajun, African-American, and Houma Indian--threatened by land lost to saltwater intrusion, and with Gullah-Geechee fishermen in South Carolina faced with dwindling fisheries.

For its part, Audubon (along with Toyota) has created a fellowship program, called TogetherGreen, to train a racially diverse group of 40 innovative conservation leaders each year. National Audubon has also opened urban nature centers in nine cities, including Phoenix, San Antonio, and Columbus, Ohio. "We see birds and the places where they visit and live as the common denominator that can teach us about healthy systems and inspire hope," says Audubon's president, David Yarnold. In addition, he says, Audubon is changing its hiring practices--"reaching out to historically black colleges to create more conservationists of color."

Still, that "friendly takeover" of the movement never occurred. At the management level, Audubon is 91 percent white; National Wildlife Federation, 93 percent; EDF, 85 percent; NRDC, 84 percent. (The U.S. population is 64 percent non-Hispanic white.) The Sierra Club declined to provide figures but acknowledges that minorities are underrepresented. In a 2008 study by Dorceta Taylor, an associate professor of natural resources at the University of Michigan, more than one-third of 166 mainstream organizations surveyed had no people of color on staff.

Boards of directors fare no better: A 2002 survey of 61 environmental groups found just 127 people of color among their 1,324 board members. The past nine years have brought little improvement, says Angela Park, founder of Diversity Matters, a nonprofit that works with environmental group (listen to an interview with Parkhere). "So many of the boards are still fundraising boards," she says. "There's a notion of give or get: give from your pockets or get from your network. It's a ballpark in which many people can't play." What's tragic, Park adds, is that boards can potentially drive their organizations' diversity efforts. "If a board is supposed to give guidance," she says, "you miss a lot if you don't have a richer mix." 

Jerome Ringo, former board chair of the National Wildlife Federation and now CEO of the green-development firm Synergy Global Development, says the political impact of these numbers is already evident. "We were unable to get a climate bill passed in Congress," says Ringo, who is African-American. "Climate change disproportionately impacts the poorest in America. But because I do not believe there was effective outreach, [civil-rights] organizations did not focus their time, money, and energy. And so goes the movement."

Ironically, as conservation groups struggle with diversity, the corporate world has moved forward with more alacrity. "I've had the painful experience of walking in to talk to a management team at a major private equity firm and have the other side of the table be fully diverse, and to have my side of the table be incredibly homogeneous and all white," says Yarnold. (At the time, he was directing EDF.) "It's a pretty strong signal that they're more in the world than we were."


The reasons for this persistent whiteness are often complex and subtle. But not always. "I was having breakfast with a leader of an environmental organization," says Audrey Peterman, coauthor of Legacy on the Land: A Black Couple Discovers Our National Inheritance and Tells Why Every American Should Care. "He brought up the topic of 'how hard it is to diversify dah-dah-dah-dah.' And I said, 'Well, I don't have any problem. We take people out to the parks. They become enamored and then they become advocates.' And he exploded. He said, 'Does that mean that everyone has to go to the park? Does that mean we have to have the boom boxes and everything?' I swear to God, people think of us as the unwashed masses, threatening to overrun these very prized places."

Magazine Category

Author Profile

Barry Yeoman

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine




Add comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.