Environmental movement’s growth stunted by ‘green ceiling’

Environmental movement’s growth stunted by ‘green ceiling’

By Rip Rapson

November 6, 2015 Updated: November 6, 2015 5:12pm

Groucho Marx is remembered for his quip that he would never join a club that would have him as a member. We’ve got a different problem when it comes to our nation’s environmental movement. Although many clamor to get in, people of color are not having much success shattering a “green ceiling” of the green insider’s club.

Many of us who are active in supporting and funding environmental causes, including a significant number of my fellow foundation executives and senior leaders of environmental organizations, have known about this disparity for years. Until recently, however, we have spent more time talking about it than fashioning a response.

A wake-up call came last year when Green 2.0, an initiative dedicated to increasing racial diversity across the environmental movement, released a report documenting the extent to which the movement remains a monoculture. The report found that people of color, although constituting 36 percent of all Americans, accounted for between 12 and 16 percent of staffers at a broad range of environmentally oriented government agencies, nongovernmental organizations and foundations. The situation in the boardrooms and executive offices was even worse.

The movement appears bifurcated. On one hand, policy-driven organizations working at the state and national levels typically receive the lion’s share of philanthropic dollars. On the other, their grassroots counterparts — proportionally far more diverse and reflective of their communities — struggle to attract support from funders.

That’s not right. And it’s not going to work for any of us over the long haul.

When people of color and other underrepresented groups are fully embedded and valued in our organizations, we are stronger, more aware, and better equipped to connect with our partners in meaningful, powerful and personal ways.

But it’s about more than that. This is a practical matter that goes right to the heart of the environmental movement’s performance and effectiveness. Many of the nation’s worst pollution problems, including climate change, disproportionally hit communities of color and low-income neighborhoods. How can we expect the movement to engage effectively with those communities — to understand problems and develop on-the-ground solutions that work — if we don’t draw staff and expertise from all segments of society? We can’t.

Effective solutions to environmental ills are going to be found in broad-based, culturally nuanced efforts to protect the climate, advance smart growth and tackle other complex issues. But these forward-leaning responses are innately imperiled by the inability of nonprofit organizations to break the grip of homogeneity.

So what is to be done?

Foundations have a special responsibility to demonstrate leadership in this undertaking. The environmental groups that we fund listen to us, and our actions will speak much louder than words.

Accordingly, this past summer, a number of major foundation presidents and I took a first step. We joined together to support last year’s call by Green 2.0 to establish a standardized sector-wide database for staff diversity and diversity practices among environmental organizations and funders. The database is managed through GuideStar, an organization that tracks statistics for the nonprofit sector.

It is now easy for foundations and nonprofits to contribute their information and for others to learn more about how this problem is being addressed. More than two dozen environmental organizations have contributed.

The Kresge Foundation has asked its active environmental grantees to provide their organizational diversity data to GuideStar. We at Kresge are also taking steps to ensure that our data, transparency and organizational practices match our ideals: We own fully that we, too, have a great deal of work to do.

I wish I could report that all this has lit a fire under environmental funders. Unfortunately, however, that’s not yet the case — Green 2.0’s latest survey of participation shows that only 12 of the top 40 environmental funders have joined the effort and shared their data. .

To be sure, reporting is a modest first step in bringing genuine diversity to the environmental movement — but it is an indispensable one. Becoming more transparent and self-aware raises the stakes. It will help us all to lend greater effort, expand our appetite for learning, and become more disciplined advocates for our communities and our natural resources.

Regardless of the motivation, “closed clubs” in any segment of our society should be relics of the distant past, and especially so in a movement with such high ideals for creating a better and more healthful world. Let’s get on with the task of ensuring that the environmental movement and the philanthropies that support it truly look like America.

Rip Rapson is president and CEO of the Kresge Foundation.

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