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

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.

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Barry Yeoman

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine




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