The environmental movement (still) has a major diversity problem

A new report looking at the 40 biggest environmental NGOs is not good news for diversity in the movement.

People gather for a climate rally on Boston Common. CREDIT: AP Photo/Michael Dwyer
People gather for a climate rally on Boston Common. CREDIT: AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

There is a clear and defined link in the United States between race and exposure to environmental risks like toxic air, water, and soil. One study by researchers from the University of Montana found that race was the determining factor in who is most affected by air pollution. And a study from 2007 found that communities of color make up the majority of communities near toxic waste sites.

But while communities of color are the communities most directly impacted by environmental pollution and degradation, they are often cut out of the mainstream environmental movement. A recent survey of the diversity of the country’s 40 largest environmental NGOs found that people of color make up just 27 percent of full-time staff, on average, at the largest environmental organizations. For senior staff, the percentage of people of color drops to 14 percent.

“Communities of color are among the strongest supporters and champions of environmental policies, yet they are among the most excluded from the environmental movement,” Jennifer Allen, senior vice president of community and civic engagement with the League of Conservation Voters said in a press call announcing the report.

The report was produced by Green 2.0, an organization founded two years ago to bring attention to the lack of diversity in the mainstream environmental movement. According to Whitney Tome, executive director of Green 2.0, over 77 percent of the environmental organizations surveyed agreed to provide data to the study. Two organizations — Oceana and Pew — refused.

Groups that were created more recently, with an equal focus on social justice and environmental progress, were more likely to have diverse staff than longstanding environmental groups. Green For All, for example, a group founded in 2008 with the explicit purpose of giving people of color a voice in the environmental movement, has a staff that is 70 percent people of color. Sierra Club, on the other hand, the country’s oldest grassroots environmental organization, has a staff that is just 26 percent people of color.

Still, Sierra Club fares better than 60 percent of environmental NGOs that don’t even have an institutional diversity plan in place. Sierra Club released its first official diversity statement over a decade ago, and in 2016, created an new division charged with carrying out the organization’s mission for greater justice, inclusion, and equity, both among staff and within the work Sierra Club does. Recently, Sierra Club announced that for the first time in the organization’s history, the board executive committee is all female, and the executive team is predominantly female.

Still, Nellis Kennedy-Howard, Sierra Club’s director of equity, inclusion and justice, admits there is far more work to be done.

“As a 125 year organization, sometimes change doesn’t come as quickly as we’d like it to, but it is coming,” Kennedy-Howard told ThinkProgress. “We’ve made a commitment to do this work and do it as thoughtfully as we can. It’s not just window dressing.”

Perhaps because communities of color are so familiar with environmental pollution, they also tend to be the most supportive of policies to deal with pollution and climate change. According to a poll conducted by Green for All, 68 percent of minority voters say climate change is an issue that worries them now, and 62 percent say not enough resources are currently devoted to fighting climate change.

Minority voters’ interest in — and familiarity with — environmental issues is part of what makes their input so valuable in environmental organizations, Vien Truong, national director for Green For All, explained.

“They are the people who can see the problems most closely and will know what solutions are needed to solve it,” Truong said on a press call discussing the Green 2.0 report.

The Green 2.0 report comes at an especially crucial moment for the environmental justice movement. Facing drastic cuts from the federal government — Trump’s proposed budget would result in a 31 percent decrease for the EPA and zero-out several crucial programs aimed at helping vulnerable communities — environmental justice leaders have stressed that community and environmental groups will likely need to fill the void created by losing these programs.

That makes having inclusive environmental groups all the more important, because without diverse voices and perspectives helping shape the work that these groups do, environmental organizations might not prioritize work that helps vulnerable communities.

Having diverse staff can also help environmental organizations make clearer connections between environmental work and other social justice movements, such as gender or income equality.

“No one single issue exists on its own,” Sierra Club’s Kennedy-Howard said. “No matter where we go and no matter what we are doing, we’re never just working on one issue. All of these things are connected to people.”