Diversity Remains Elusive Among Green Groups
August 10, 2016
Originally published in the RSF Summer Quarterly
by Enrique Perez
I grew up next to an entranceway to Rock Creek Park, a large urban greenspace that begins in the Northeast quadrant of Washington D.C. and ends in Montgomery County, Maryland. At that young age, I did not fully grasp how exceptional it was that I was able to access nature so easily. The special moments I shared in those woods were irreplaceable—from my first kiss behind a fir to my first rollerblade-induced concussion on the paved trail. The creek, which could be heard from my bedroom, was especially loud when it rained or when the snow melted. It was a magical place to call home.
Those special days of being so close to nature inspired me to work for non-profit groups like Environment America, which focuses on advocacy, and The Conservation Fund, one of the largest environmental non-profits in the U.S. My time at these organizations taught me a lot about the serious effort that goes into preserving the outdoors. And while I will forever be grateful for the knowledge these groups bestowed on me, there remains one issue that grinds my gears about the environmental movement: lack of diversity.
The “green ceiling” is a term used to describe the yet unbroken 16 percent racial composition that remains the status quo at environmental agencies, according to a Green 2.0 report on the matter. At non-governmental organizations, the ceiling is a dismal 12 percent. Of those in employment at green groups, the vast majority of minority hires were for low-level administrative positions. All this data points to the fact that the environmental movement largely remains for white elites.
Now, the lack of diversity among green groups is nothing new. In fact, there are reports dating back to the early 20th Century that highlight lacking minority participation. In the 1960s, strides were made to incorporate a social justice element in environmentalism, thanks to the Civil Rights Movement. And by the late 2000s, many activists began to question the largely monolithic ethnic and racial composition of green groups. And yet, now in 2016, the situation remains largely unchanged.
Inclusion matters in conservation
If environmental efforts are successful, why care about diversity? This is a question I often wrestle with. On one hand, I acknowledge the viewpoint that the protection of our one-and-only biosphere supersedes human-centric considerations of identity. On the other, I renounce the idea that major challenges like climate change can be overcome without including minority populations, which tend to be most affected, at the decision-making table.
Representation that mirrors population—often referred to as “descriptive representation”—has long been the subject of political science roundtables. Studies by Stanford University researcher Claudia Gay have indicated that disadvantaged populations are more participative and trusting of institutions where representatives are co-ethnic. Given demographic shifts toward a majority-minority America, it is imperative for conservation groups to deepen relationships with minority communities if erosion of hard-won environmental gains is to be prevented. Inclusive hiring practices is one place to start.
Glimmers of Inclusion
While some environmental groups have taken the ostrich approach to issues of diversity and inclusion, others have been exemplary in their focus on recruiting and retaining a workforce from all backgrounds. Groups like the Conservation Trust of North Carolina have been operating a diversity internship program since 2008. I, myself, was a beneficiary of the initiative in 2010. To date, 73 interns have been sponsored by the CTNC to do meaningful work at various green groups. The Nature Conservancy has also come out with a public commitment to recruit and mentor a more diverse workforce.
Time will tell if these efforts change the make-up of environmental groups. Until then, we should keep a watchful eye on the make-up of environmental agencies, particularly among leadership, and continue to push for the publicizing of their diversity data. (Many do not currently make this information public.) Only then can we finally realize an environmental movement that is inclusive of all voices.
Enrique is Marketing Manager at RSF Social Finance.