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.
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."
The messages of exclusion can be less overtly hostile but still painful. As I researched this article, I heard stories about people of color attending environmental gatherings, only to be mistaken for the hired help or politely told, "You must be in the wrong meeting." It's easy, under those circumstances, to feel excluded. "There are a lot of people who want to go where our boat is going--they actually want to go to the same destination--but they don't want to be on the same boat with us," says Angela Park.
One fundamental barrier is the tendency of organizations to reproduce themselves in the images of their original leaders, explains Park. When hiring, environmental groups tend to rely on well-established social networks, so that new employees resemble the old ones.
Opportunities to extend those familiar networks are all too often squandered. Every year roughly 400 of the brightest Hispanic and black students show up for a conference held by the professional association MANNRS (Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences), says the University of Michigan's Dorceta Taylor. "I guarantee you: Maybe two or three environmental organizations go to that conference to recruit. These students are there looking for jobs. Who's recruiting them? Cargill. Archer Daniels Midland. Monsanto. Because they know how to look for talent. They don't sit around waiting for the kid from Alabama A&M to apply."
Hiring professionals of color--and retaining them by building an inclusive culture--is part of what's needed. Another is forming deep and equitable partnerships with organizations led by people of color. Often, though, conservationists try to enlist allies only in the thick of battle. "Building relationships takes time," says Marcelo Bonta, executive director of the Portland, Oregon-based Center for Diversity & the Environment. "You can't just, all of a sudden when there's a climate bill, go talk to some groups and say, 'Come support us.' "
Virtually every person of color I interviewed stressed how important it is for partners to work together to frame their goals. This isn't easy. Mainstream green groups, faced with limited resources, tend to focus more on core issues like wildlife habitat. By contrast, environmental-justice and community groups tend to think more about issues like how emissions from a nearby factory contribute to childhood asthma. They are also more likely to focus broadly on the root causes of environmental degradation--corporate greed and institutionalized racism, for example--and how those underlying factors connect to other issues as well. "The forces that allow for the poisoning of communities are the same forces that created poor public schools, that created a complete lack of access to quality food, that tore through communities with freeways," says Nia Robinson, an environmental-justice consultant with the Atlanta nonprofit SisterSong. "There is no separation for us."
During my interviews, I asked for examples of organizations that were grappling earnestly with racial and ethnic inclusion. Two diversity consultants recommended The Trustees of Reservations, a Massachusetts organization that manages 60,000 acres of "special places" with ecological and historical value. Founded in 1891, The Trustees have deep roots in New England blueblood society. "We're talking about a group that has an incredibly significant culture shift to make," says Angela Park, who counts The Trustees among her clients. Even today, out of 192 year-round employees, only 13 are people of color. "But they have made this a huge priority. They have a roadmap"--a 16-point plan to meet five specific diversity goals--"that is far beyond what I have seen in any conservation organization in this country."
On the surface, Trustees president Andrew Kendall looks like an unlikely diversity champion. The Harvard MBA grew up "in an environment of incredible privilege," he says--the product of a white Massachusetts manufacturing family whose foundation he now chairs. By the time he joined the Trustees in 2000, he had helped develop Audubon-affiliated nature centers in Boston (through Massachusetts Audubon) and Los Angeles, and those experiences convinced him that homogeneity was "the Achilles' heel of the environmental movement." Kendall, who is 50, wanted deeply to change that monoculture--yet he was taking charge of an organization that, he says, didn't really get it. "The Trustees had a so-called diversity interest before I arrived, which was best described as 'Let's get a token black person on the board, and maybe we can declare success.' That obviously failed. Miserably. Frankly, it was an embarrassment."
Kendall understood The Trustees had a long-term project on their hands. He also knew they could take interim measures--starting with their core strength, land preservation. (In the same 2009 poll, 54 percent of voters of color rated the loss of natural areas as "extremely" or "very" serious, compared with 32 percent of whites.) The Trustees had virtually no presence in Massachusetts' largest cities, with their substantial ethnic communities. Kendall set out to change that. "When you acquire a piece of land, you're there forever," he says. Of the 20,000 acres procured during Kendall's presidency, 4,500 are in or near cities.
One of the big changes The Trustees made was a shift toward protecting farmland and urban gardens. "Agriculture hasn't always been viewed as part of the conservation movement," says Wil Bullock, the organization's farm educator (listen to an interview with Bullock here). "But to me, it's one of the clearest and most direct ways to get people to understand the importance of the environment. I can't uproot a tree and bring it into an inner-city community and say, 'This tree is why you should care.' But I can take a tomato and say, 'This came from five miles up the road, and there's a place there that needs to be protected and here's why.' "
In Holyoke, an industrial city that has lost one-third of its population since 1920, The Trustees obtained 25 acres alongside the Connecticut River. Some of the land is being restored as a wooded buffer. But most has been converted to an urban farm by Nuestras Raices, an economic-development group that serves the city's large Puerto Rican community. On the day I visited--it was March and still cold--Nuestras Raices staffers were prepping the soil to be divided into individual plots where squash, cilantro, leaf lettuce, and hot peppers would grow. Uphill, amid a cluster of homemade wood-and-corrugated-tin structures, residents tended to their horses, chickens, and hogs.
Julia Rivera, board president of Nuestras Raices, told me many Holyoke Latinos have rural roots but no access to farmland. "Puerto Ricans in Holyoke live in apartments, and [many of them] miss working the land. Here we feel like we're home. We're not only conserving land--we're also using it to grow healthy food."
In 2006 The Trustees formally affiliated with the Boston Natural Areas Network, a nonprofit that (among other things) owns and supports community gardens tended by Haitian, Cape Verdean, Vietnamese, Russian, and Puerto Rican Bostonians. The same year, The Trustees hired Bullock, a TogetherGreen Fellow who is African-American. Bullock now runs an agricultural youth corps aimed primarily at minority teens. The kids grow produce and sell it at three farmers' markets hosted by an African-American church.
All this work was important but not the deepest stuff. For The Trustees to succeed, they needed to examine their own internal culture--an unsexy and sometimes painful process--and make enduring changes. "This thing has got to be hard-wired before I leave," Kendall says. For help, they turned to Angela Park of Diversity Matters.
Park conducted a thorough assessment of the Trustees starting in 2009. "It wasn't pretty," says executive vice president Kathy Abbott. Trustees employees described the organization as "stodgy, white, wealthy" with "norms that make it hard to be different," Park's report said. Staffers cited obstacles ranging from outright "stereotyping" to the inaccessibility of the offices to public transportation.
As brutal as Park's assessment was, it helped crack open a conversation The Trustees needed to have. "We had a culture of not talking about things," says Abbott. "It's kind of a white WASP-y thing. You just don't talk about the tough stuff." Much of the initial dialogue with Park took place within the Trustees' Inclusion and Diversity Council, which is made up of both employees and volunteer leaders. As those conversations have expanded beyond the Council, they've ferreted out hidden biases. One field staffer admitted to profiling visitors at The Trustees properties and lavishing attention on those who looked like they could afford membership dues. "It made me wince, but it's what we need to get at," says Sarah Bursky, The Trustees' engagement program manager.
Meanwhile, the Council developed a diversity plan covering not just race and ethnicity but also geography, sexual orientation, and disability. It encompasses 16 strategies that include new job-recruiting practices, multilingual programming, and broadening how The Trustees define "special places." The board approved the plan last year, and The Trustees are in the earliest stages of implementation. While their minority workforce has more than doubled since 2005 to 13 staff members, it still remains just seven percent of the permanent staff. What's more, only two of the Trustees' 20 board members are people of color (up from zero in 2005).
By its nature, striving for diversity is a messy, frustrating process. I saw some of that messiness on my visit to Holyoke. During two conversations, staff members of both Nuestras Raices and The Trustees vented about the difficulties of communicating across cultural lines. The Trustees prefer a businesslike approach with multi-page memos and bulleted action plans. Nuestras Raices believes informal communication--picking up the phone instead of sending email--is essential to building relationships. The two sides don't even have a shared interpretation of body language: Did the other person just agree to your terms, or were they being polite? Everyone agreed that bridging these cultural gaps will be essential to achieving their conservation goals.
Navigating issues like body language seems very far from saving endangered species, but it's essential nonetheless. If mainstream green groups don't do the hard and sometimes fumbling work of diversifying, they will become increasingly marginal in the political debate. A movement concerned about biodiversity needs to start thinking harder about human diversity--if it doesn't want to become endangered itself.