Environmental Movement Feeling the Heat - To Diversify

Environmental Movement Feeling the Heat - To Diversify

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Mainstream environmental groups are feeling the heat, and it’s more than climate change. In the green movement, there’s a growing sense of urgency to diversify – people of color are shut out to a staggering degree, and according to recent data, things can’t get much worse.

A study released last year by the Green 2.0 campaign found that people of color did not exceed 16 percent of the staff at any of the nearly 300 environmental organizations surveyed. And the groups’ governing boards were found to be 95 percent white.

Worse, Green 2.0 director Danielle Deane says that although foundations and NGOs “acknowledge that diversity is important to make a difference,” the survey found that there has been “lackluster effort and some disinterest in doing what needs to be done.”

Deane spoke to a packed room at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, at an ethnic and mainstream media forum called “Breaking the Green Ceiling.” It was an effort by Green 2.0, an initiative to bring key stakeholders together to institutionalize the steps needed to diversify the leadership of the environmental movement, to call on the field’s leaders to publicly acknowledge their commitment to diversity.

And a key part of that acknowledgement is for more organizations to submit their diversity data to the initiative.

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” said investor, philanthropist, and environmental advocate Tom Steyer. “This is measurable, and therefore to the extent that we have transparency and we have information, people can manage against that and see how they’re doing and give themselves goals.”

The Hewlett Foundation, one of the largest grantmaking institutions for environmental organizations, signed on this week to share its diversity data with the initiative, in what advocates said was an important signal that this is now a priority for the field. Hewlett is joining other groups like the National Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society, and Earthjustice in an effort led by Green 2.0 (in collaboration with GuideStar and the D5 Coalition) to gather diversity data tin order to create more of the kind of transparency Steyer talks about.

“We are a much more successful society when we act together,” said Steyer. “You can show in the private sector that diverse companies do better. You get better decision-making. You get different points of view that you would not have thought of.”

The Green 2.0 initiative is a project of The Raben Group, a government affairs and consulting firm that does work in progressive policy and is headed by founder Robert Raben, a former Assistant Attorney General under the Clinton administration. The event was organized in collaboration with New America Media.

“Diversifying the environmental movement is the central challenge of the movement and the central opportunity. We will never successfully tackle the enormous challenges we face, including climate change, without doing so,” said Clifford Rechtschaffen, one of Governor Jerry Brown’s senior advisors, who joined Robert Raben on stage in welcoming Bay Area ethnic media reporters and a lineup of high-profile environmental group leaders and stakeholders.

“The question for us is, ‘Who makes decisions?’ People and communities that are most impacted by those decisions must not only lead on those issues, but they must be actively participating,” said Peggy Saika, the president and executive director of Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy.

The diversity challenge in the environmental movement can bring with it some internal conflicts, one example of which was relayed by Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune. Late last year, after the ruling in the Eric Garner case in New York, the Sierra Club came out in support of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, making statements on social media and encouraging chapters to participate in local demonstrations.

While there was a significant positive response from many Sierra Club supporters and members, there was also an “embarrassing and hurtful” amount of backlash, much of it on social media, from supporters who opposed the organization’s involvement.

Brune took it as a “learning opportunity” about the work that has yet to be done, but it also strengthened his commitment to not only a having a diverse organization but to participating in diverse social movements.

“As an organization, we can’t remain silent on core democratic issues, and as an environmental group, when we approach this from a justice perspective, that is what really enables us to attract different kinds of people who might want to work with us,” he said. “For us to be effective, throughout our volunteer ranks and throughout our chapters, we have to look at the underlying tensions in our society, all of the fears that keep us apart.”

Brune added that the decision to diversify needs to come from an organization’s leadership, a statement echoed by Tomás Torres, the director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s San Diego Border Office. “If it doesn't come from the top, if the diversity initiative does not come from the leaders of your organizations, the initiative is not going to work,” Torres said.

And it’s more than just outwardly visible steps like implementing workshops and trainings – internal processes, significant among them hiring practices, need to change.

Laura Butler, Pacific Gas & Electric's chief diversity officer, pointed to the importance of slowing down the hiring process and recruiting from a larger pool, so companies aren’t just hiring people they already know – which can be the norm, she says, in company cultures that have “a need for speed.” Torres adds that hiring managers need to be held accountable for following through with diversity initiatives.

And, he said, organizations that don’t diversify do so at their peril: “I would venture to say that either demographics is going to take care of that issue eventually, or your organization will become irrelevant or obsolete.”

And Green 2.0’s decision to collect diversity data is key to building institutional commitment to diversity.

Tech entrepreneur Hank Williams, who founded the Platform Summit that focuses on diversity in innovation fields, compared Green 2.0’s efforts to recent decisions by companies like Google to release their diversity data.

“Tech is beginning to own up to the problems and start to make investments that are substantive in making a difference. And that’s really significant for the tech world, because to be honest, and I say this as someone who’s spent my entire life in tech, it’s a very arrogant industry,” he said.

“The green movement is a liberal-minded and philanthropic community, and if tech can do it, there is absolutely no reason that the green movement cannot at least get to the starting point, which is: Come out with your numbers. Let the world see where you are. We all know it’s bad, but there’s no shame if you know where you are,” he added. “Let’s all come clean and then we can have a discussion about where we go.”