The Hill: Diversify and win: What lies ahead for the environmental movement

By Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.)

As the nation commemorated Earth Day last week, it was once again apparent that, despite all the progress the environmental movement has made over the past half-century, something is still amiss. That missing element is racial and ethnic diversity in the mainstream environmental movement and among environmental funders. And it needs to be addressed if the movement is to prepare itself for the unmet challenges that need to be addressed now and in the coming years.

Those challenges have expanded from a call to action on the first Earth Day 45 years ago to include a broad range of public health and civil rights issues afflicting everyday life in communities of color across the country. Yet studies show that while the overall movement itself is very diverse, the mainstream big-budget green advocacy and scientific organizations, foundations and environmental agencies in government continue to be overwhelmingly led and staffed by whites.

It may sound harsh, but it’s true. A recent report released by the group Green 2.0, commissioned from University of Michigan professor Dr. Dorceta Taylor, found that only about 12 percent of staff at the mainstream environmental advocacy groups and foundations that fund them are people of color, while our representation in the general population is three times that (and growing). So, despite broad progress over the past five decades in diversifying large segments of our society, for the best-funded environmental organizations the needle has barely moved. Environmental organizations already led by people of color get a tiny slice of roughly one billion dollars in funds doled out on average each year.
Let me be clear, this is not a matter of diversity for the sake of it. With key environmental priorities continuing to evolve and becoming increasingly inter-connected with issues of critical importance to communities of color, the racial and ethnic composition of our parents’ environmental movement is clearly not right for today. The issue on everyone’s mind, climate change, is a civil rights issue as well as a health, economic, and environmental issue. And this lack of diversity represents a fundamental flaw in today’s movement.

Why is it so important that this be addressed?

To begin, the movement needs to upgrade its capabilities to identify and address environmental and public health issues in the communities where the problems are the most severe. And those happen to be communities of color. As just one example, studies show that Latinos are three times more likely to die from asthma than other racial or ethnic groups, due in large parts to socioeconomic, housing and health care divides in the country – all of which expose them to unhealthy air.

The dangers of indoor and outdoor air pollution have become a plague on the Hispanic community. How can a movement that lacks diversity among its leadership be equipped to partner with organizations and leaders rooted in communities of color to address these kinds of problems in the most effective ways? The simple answer is by building a leadership and staff that is reflective of communities these organizations need to be serving.

Not surprisingly in light of all this, surveys indicate that Latinos are far more likely to view climate change as extremely or very important to them personally, and that they are among the strongest supporters of action to curb climate change. We are one of the fastest-growing segments of the population and we vote. So at a time when climate deniers and well-funded polluters are trying to get the upper hand and reverse environmental progress, the movement is going to need all the friends it can get. Partnerships and collaboration among all environmental stakeholders are increasingly important, and the mainstream movement can advance these by showing itself to be expansive, not restrictive, with regard to the people it hires and promotes.

Fortunately, there are signs that change is in the air, particularly in getting the transparency that is needed for this problem to be properly analyzed and quickly addressed. Since the release of the Taylor report commissioned by Green 2.0, more than two dozen leading mainstream environmental advocacy groups and eight leading foundations have begun publicly disclosing their staff and leadership diversity data on GuideStar, a public online portal that tracks data transparency of NGOs and foundations, thereby providing an important baseline for measuring diversity and moving toward change.

I have heard it said that Americans of color with the right skills are simply not available for this kind of work. I don’t buy that, at all. What’s lacking is the will to move forward and make diversity happen.

Let me put this in the context of the desert landscape where I grew up and which I now represent in Congress. Many of the visitors to our area remark at how barren it all seems to them. But those of us who know the land are aware that if you look more closely, you will see that the desert is teeming with life, beauty, and cultural and historic significance.

Similarly, there is an abundance of talent and potential in communities of color, more than enough to invigorate a longstanding movement with the tools, the practical and relevant skills, and the passion it needs to meet the complex challenges of pollution, climate change, and clean energy, air, water and land. I am convinced that with a change in attitude and a more assertive approach to hiring and promoting of people of color by the mainstream NGOs and foundations, the environmental movement in this country will be much better equipped to move decisively, as it must, to the forefront of protecting health and advancing opportunity in every community.

Ample evidence and experience indicate that organizations are stronger when they are more reflective of the American mosaic they serve. If given the chance to serve and to lead in our great environmental movement, our people will contribute in large measures to strengthening this movement so that it can help deliver to every family an opportunity to achieve the American Dream.

Grijalva represents Arizona’s 3rd Congressional District and has served in the House since 2003. He is ranking member on the Natural Resources Committee and also sits on the Education and the Workforce Committee.

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