A Look at Why Environmentalism Is So Homogeneous — and How Organizations Might Cultivate Genuine Diversity
By Ambika Chawla
As a child growing up in Los Angeles, Erynn Castellanos would spend hours exploring her grandmother's backyard garden, an oasis of greenery filled with oranges, sugarcane, yerba buena, guava and herbs.
"Playing with my brother and cousins in my grandmother's backyard, climbing the trees, and trying different fruits — those experiences made me appreciate natural spaces," she says. "I think that is where I got my sense of exploration, of wanting to go to forests, mountains and rivers."
Now a graduate student of environmental studies at the University of Montana and an active member of the environmental organization Latino Outdoors, Castellanos is passionate about educating young people of color about the importance of connecting with nature, hoping to inspire them to help protect the environment.
"Most of the people in camping advertisements are white people. You don't see people like yourself in the field of conservation," she says. "It is always this distant figure of someone else doing it, but not someone who looks like you."
Castellanos' perception that people of color are underrepresented in the environmental movement is accurate. Even though communities of color are disproportionately affected by environmental hazards, the environmental workforce remains overwhelmingly white.
As efforts grow around the U.S. to recognize and eradicate systemic racism, people of color can offer unique perspectives on both why diversity is lacking in the green sector and what organizations can do to diversify the environmental workforce.
In 2014, Dorceta Taylor, a professor of environmental justice and food systems and the director of diversity, equity and inclusion at the University of Michigan's School for Environment and Sustainability, published a landmark study of racial diversity in green NGOs, government agencies and foundations. She reported that 16% or fewer of staff in these organizations were people of color and less than 12% occupied leadership positions.
A follow-up study published in 2019 by Stefanie K. Johnson, associate professor of Management at the Leeds School of Business, University of Colorado, reviewed 40 green NGOs and foundations and found that green organizations were still overwhelmingly white, with only 20% of NGO staff identifying as people of color. In fact, the study found that from 2017 to 2018, the percent of senior staff positions at green foundations held by people of color fell from 33% to 4%.
And a recent study by Media Matters for America found that people of color comprised only 10% of people interviewed or featured in media coverage on climate change.
What's behind the lack of proportional representation of communities of color in the environmental workforce?
Peggy Shepard, co-founder and director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, a nonprofit organization that mobilizes underrepresented communities around environmental justice education, energy efficiency, toxins in consumer products, climate justice, clean air and more, says it's part of a far larger societal malaise. WE ACT also engages in policy advocacy at the city, state and federal levels.
"I see the fight for environmental justice, housing justice, Black Lives Matter, prison reform — all of those are linked by the underlying systemic racism that really mandates that we have organizations to safeguard our lives from the police, and to safeguard our environment," she says. "All of those issues that are about protecting rights, and justice is what really links us all."
Castellanos says that, in addition to not seeing people like them already engaged, some members of the Latino community view environmental problems as less pressing than other issues. "Immigration is number one, with people being detained," she says. "How can you tell your students to care about the environment when they are afraid that their parents won't be home?"
Virginia Palacios, a climate change consultant for GreenLatinos, says that people of color may have fewer opportunities to engage in environment-oriented activities that require financial resources when they are growing up, such as summer camps. As a result, they may not have a background that predisposes them to moving into green careers or being active in environmental groups.
"People who are low income are more likely to be people of color," Palacios says. "When you are coming from that background, you are not going to have the same opportunities as a person who is more affluent had in their life. You might not have been able to go to the summer camp that prepared you to go to college. You probably didn't get to do all the extra stuff that people use to stack up their resume."
One of the findings in Taylor's 2014 report was that in addition to overt discrimination, unconscious bias often perpetuates workplaces that lack diversity in hiring and promotion practices.
"Homogeneous workplaces arise because of adherence to particular cultural norms, filtering, network structure, and recruitment practices. These are forms of unconscious or inadvertent biases that can lead to or perpetuate institutional homogeneity," states the report.
Palacios contends that implicit bias often occurs as part of the hiring practices of green groups. "People tend to hire people who look like them or who went to the same schools as they did. Or, they get a good feeling from this person because they are like them."
Strategies for Change
Palacios says she believes training workshops on implicit bias can be an effective strategy for increasing diversity.
"Organizations that want to improve diversity have to know that they have unconscious bias. They will have to go through a process of unlearning habits," she says. "One of the things that has been the most successful in my experience are being able to go through an in-person training with your peers and then being able to have a conversation, to process things verbally. I think unconscious bias trainings are one of the first things that white folks can do to understand how they have been programmed."
The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has begun such trainings, according to senior vice president and chief human resources officer Sean Cook, in addition to other initiatives to promote diversity in the environmental workforce, such as fellowships and partnerships with universities.
"One of the initiatives that we have recently undertaken is unconscious bias training. Last year, we worked with an outside firm called Kaleidoscope to help us roll out this training initiative, which included increasing our knowledge of race and equity, leading inclusively, leveraging differences, and building a diverse team. Individual trainers from Kaleidoscope went to our offices in New York, San Francisco, Sacramento and Washington D.C. and trained all managers on these subjects. We began these trainings at the ground level of our organization and went all of the way up to the board of directors," says Cook.
According to Cook, staff gave the conscious inclusion training high marks. In follow-up surveys, 95% agreed or strongly agreed that "cultural competence can improve my experience in the work environment," and 89% agreed or strongly agreed that "the material in the session felt relevant to our workplace."
Cook says EDF is also working to ensure that during the hiring process, applicants are not judged unfairly based upon their educational background. "We want to make sure that we are inclusive of all, whether you went to an Ivy League school, whether you were self-educated, whether you attended a community college, a liberal arts school or a state university."
Palacios also recommends that organizations create guidelines for the skills that are critical for a job position, and that hiring managers should "really have a rubric in mind of how you are going to be judging the person in front of you. That can help to reduce bias when you are having an interview with someone, so you don't ask, 'Did they go to the same school that I did? Did they play the same sports that I did?'"
Hodan Barreh, a youth environmental advocate passionate about bringing diversity to the environmental movement in her hometown of Austin, Texas — which studies show is one of the most economically segregated cities in the country — cautions green groups to avoid tokenization of people of color if they want to bring genuine diversity to the environmental movement.
"They bring in that one Latinx person, that one Indigenous person, that one person of color, and they think that's enough. They think that one perspective speaks for all of the community," Barreh says. "That's very problematic, because not one person can give you the full perspective of what a community entails."
Shepard points out that it's important to remember that the environmental movement is more than large green groups: It also includes a constellation of community-based groups advocating for environmental justice within their localities. The problem, she says, is that the media and decision-makers are often deaf to their voices.
"When elected officials and policymakers want to know about environmental justice, they don't necessarily call environmental justice groups, they'll call [the Natural Resources Defense Council] or Sierra Club," she says. "It's the devaluing that we have expertise, that we're knowledgeable about our own issues and about the places where we are living."
Reposted with permission from Ensia.
By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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