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

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.

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Barry Yeoman

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine




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