“It Isn’t Easy Being Green” and a Person of Color.

A perspective on self-accountability and the environmental movement’s diversity binge.

By Dorien Paul


While it may come as a surprise to those entranced by the powerful images of Lisa Jackson, Van Jones, and Majora Carter in mass media, it seems the lack of black and brown faces in America’s environmental organizations tells a grimmer story of “our” progress. The environmental movement is no stranger to accusations of being one of the longest standing “members only” clubs of the 21st century. For the newfound sexiness of diversity and inclusion we can thank young and fearless advocates and an onslaught of black films at the box offices in 2014. But will conversations about diversity and inclusion persist when our “Selma” moment fades and Barack Obama boards Air Force One for the last time as the first African-American president of the United States?

From the Sierra Club to Silicon Valley new and old efforts to diversify have taken center stage in an ever-amplified conversation on race relations in America. Recently we’ve experienced what happens when diversity and environmental advocates join forces to address the diversity gap our movement is experiencing.

For example, last year’s groundbreaking report by Dr. Dorceta Taylor of Green 2.0, a collective of diversity experts and environmental scholars, quantifies just how wide the diversity gap is. The comprehensive report which surveys environmental NGOs, government agencies, and environmental grant making foundations raises a poignant question, “Do people of color have a seat at the table, beyond the receptionist’s desk?” Dr. Taylor’s report highlights that statistically “People of color support environmental protection at a rate higher than whites.” If this is true, we should continue to question why people of color make up only 12.4% of staffing at environmental NGOs with similar rates at government agencies and foundations.

The report also suggests roughly 1 out of 3 interns at environmental grant-making foundations is a person of color, yet people of color only account for 1 out of 10 executives in leadership. These numbers leave many questioning whether or not these organizations are serious about diversifying. The stats become more ominous when examining the cultural makeup of board slots, exposing how high the “green ceiling” really is.

But, is there a light at the end of this “not so dark” tunnel? That’s the question that environmental leaders, activists, and philanthropists must ask themselves moving forward. Significant gains for women in leadership roles are evident; that is something all of us in the environmental movement can be proud of. But, who will hold the environmental arena accountable, ensuring that people of color — who are disproportionately affected by global warming and environmental injustices— are represented at the table?

In December of last year, Green 2.0 and New America Media took a page out of the tech industry’s playbook, calling on environmental groups to hold themselves accountable by pledging to publish their diversity data. These progressive efforts, although only an initial step, are important benchmarks for the environmental community. We cannot hold other institutions accountable until we acknowledge our own agency by sharing the important and timely information that directly impacts the prospect of a new leader joining the ranks of environmentalists of color. It’s time to click “forward” on the “each one, reach one” notion that we as individuals can unashamedly be catalysts for someone else’s opportunity or success.

Whether or not environmental organizations successfully fill the internal and external diversity void, people of color across the environmental movement have and will continue to mobilize around pressing environmental issues important to us. From professional organizations like The Center for Diversity & the Environment to renowned conservationist Audrey Peterman’s newly launched national speakers bureau: Diverse Environmental Leaders, environmental enthusiasts and activists of color have carved out our own space in a community of like-minded, earth-toned stewards of color.

This observation isn’t made to suggest that people of color should draw away from the organizations that often set the mainstream environmental agenda. It is however raised to empower everyone with “skin in the game” to pull up a chair and claim your seat at the table, or make your own. And if these new developments have taught us anything, remember to bring a friend.

More information about Green 2.0 and Dr. Taylor’s report, “The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations: Mainstream NGOs, Foundations & Government Agencies,” can be found at www.diversegreen.com.

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