OPINION – Masud Cunningham, an African American college student and native of Sacramento, California, recently spent his summer in Bolivia, teaching people in an impoverished community how to develop “square gardens” to produce a wide variety of organic vegetables with a solar dehydrator. When I met Masud four years ago, he was a Junior at McClatchy High School who aspired to be an international environmentalist.
Ricky Lewis, a youthful looking, African American man, standing no more than 5’7” tall walked into our Green Tech class in 2010 and told me he recently earned his degree as a physicist from Dillard University and that he was interested in becoming a biofuels scientist. I recall writing his recommendation letter to enter Penn State in 2012 and now, since receiving his Master’s degree in Agricultural and Biological Engineering, he completed his thesis, and talks to me about switchgrass as a form of biofuel used for clean energy.
My first environmental mentor is known throughout California as the “Envirobro”. Leonard Robinson is not only an environmentalist, but he is Republican and he is an African American male. Recent American history does not account for such a combination in significant numbers, yet he’s a towering figure, a successful businessman with three smart children and his own personal history highlighted by a stint as a soul train dancer. Leonard once held the position of director at the California Department of Toxics and Substance Control appointed by former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
A recent report by Dorceta E. Taylor, PhD. contends a rare few African Americans obtain high level executive positions with government agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGO) or private foundations that focus on environmental issues of the day. Her report is sponsored by Green 2.0, a conglomerate of environmentalist and philanthropist whose goal is to develop an initiative toward increasing racial diversity across mainstream environmental organizations.
Dr. Taylor’s report found people of color comprising of 36 percent of the U.S. population only make up 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce and yet do not exceed 16 percent of the staff in any of the environmental organizations she surveyed. Further, staff in these organizations only make up of just over 12 percent in the NGO’s, 15 and a half percent in government agencies and just 12 percent in prominent funding foundations. Some of these organizations include the Sierra Club, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) to name a few.
While it’s not much of a surprise that people of color, and most specifically African Americans rarely hold executive level positions in these elite environmental organizations, it is compelling to note my research found a significant amount of commentary claiming African Americans are more likely to be concerned about environmental issues than their white counterparts.
Kezia Williams writes in an article titled The Misconception of Black Environmentalism: African Americans Speak Out on Earth Day, “Black communities significant contributions toward protecting this earth is not being done as members of national and international environmental organizations, but that does not mean nothing is being accomplished.” (emPower Online Magazine – 2013)
As a newly-minted, self-proclaimed environmentalist and more accurately, a social entrepreneur, I have found that Blacks’ concerns about the environment to be a secondary concern and more often the last priority. Reasonably so, because the cost of gas is rising, the cost of food has increased, paying the utilities is more difficult, paying for education is harder and clothing our children takes precedent over sitting on a board to preserve wildlife. One of my Caucasian colleagues even pointed out people living in communities of color decidedly spend more time dodging bullets, fighting against racism, police corruption and crime. He said, “They have bigger issues than protecting the environment.”
Considering the high level of asthma, cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure and congestive heart failure in our community, we should certainly consider reversing the effects of climate change, reducing pollution, producing our own food and converting to healthier modes of transportation to increase our personal wellness. In the long run, installing solar panels can reduce the electric bill. Getting an electric car or a hybrid will reduce the cost of gas, the levels of pollution and greenhouse gas emission and growing our own food would keep us out of the hospital more and give us a longer lease on life, ultimately improving our overall health.
The word environmentalism is too often lost on simply the preservation of our earth, when in fact environmentalism is also a selfless act of not only protecting our personal human health, but that of protecting our fellow humans and the children that come behind us.
Without a doubt, it is high time for environmental organizations to increase their diversity and consciously promote African Americans, women and generally all people of color to effective decision-making positions. Considering the environment runs across all human-kind, and yet, different communities have to contend with different environmental ailments, all types should weigh-in on how to remedy the diverse environmental concerns.
It is true, “People from minority backgrounds are more likely to be exposed to hazardous substances,” writes Susan Clayton, Ph.D. in Psychology Today (On Being Green, 2012). “For example in their jobs; think of the pesticide exposure of migrant farmworkers. They’re also more likely to live near toxic waste sites. This is related to income level, but income doesn’t account for the whole effect. Minorities are also less likely to have access to nearby green spaces. This is important not just for aesthetic reasons, but because access to green space is related to both mental and physical health. In low-income areas, neighborhood parks may be critical in encouraging physical exercise.”
Today, Leonard is an environmental consultant providing vital information to his clients about government and environmental trends. He is certainly capable of leading an environmental NGO or a private foundation. Masud continues his studies at the University of San Francisco as a budding leader in environmental science and human sustainability. However, Ricky continues to toil away as a volunteer seeking employment in a world that undeniably excludes African Americans from leadership and positions in major environmental organizations. Will exclusion change over time? In America, it has not changed in more than 150 years.