Paul Sabin, Environmental Leadership Program
Thursday, 15 Aug 2002
The Sleeping Lady retreat center is located in a spectacular canyon with a beautiful creek running through it, so we couldn’t help but get off to a great start yesterday. We did a lot of good talking throughout the afternoon. We also plunged into the aptly named Icicle Creek and, later, strutted our stuff on the dance floor. As our host Harriet Bullitt told us last night, why should you have to wear a hair shirt to be an environmentalist?
People are energized to be here and it’s a thrill to see the community come together. I had wondered whether it would be too unmanageable to have three classes of fellows meeting at once. But so far, it seems to be great. Whenever there is a lull in the structured program, the conversations surge ahead.
I’m pleased to feel this positive energy in the group, since we’ll need it to carry us through a busy and challenging day. We’ll start off with an Activity Fund fair. Each member of the second and third class of fellows will present a possible leadership project and then have a chance to talk about it with others mingling through the fair. This is a great opportunity to learn about the issues that people face in their work, and to hear about their ideas for innovation and personal learning. Then, this afternoon and tomorrow morning, we’ll talk about diversity in the environmental field, and particularly about race, class, gender, and questions of privilege. Since these aren’t easy topics, we’ll work in separate fellowship classes to create a relatively safe space for conversation. We’ll also divide into race and ethnicity “caucuses” and professional sector groupings to allow more focused discussion.
It may seem strange for an environmental leadership program to spend so much time talking about broad social issues. Yet one of the main things we’ve learned over the past three years is that it isn’t enough to “do” diversity by bringing people together across lines of race, class, professional sector, and so forth. Diversity is too big and too messy a part of American life for action alone to succeed. Instead, we’ve found it necessary to push people to think about the personal and societal baggage they bring with them to the group, and to their work at large — though it’s sometimes tricky to figure out how far the pushing should go.
Why do we care so much about diversity? The answer is that we think the environmental movement needs to expand its constituency to be effective in the coming years. As I noted yesterday, we hope to help broaden the definition of what it means to be an environmentalist and to connect the environmental movement to groups that historically have been underrepresented in environmental politics: people of color and various ethnicities, and people outside the upper-middle class. Simply put, we think that too often, being green has meant being white and/or well-off.
At past retreats, some fellows have expressed frustration about these diversity conversations. Some have asked whether probing these social divisions within the environmental community weakens us internally, rather than help focus our collective efforts on behalf of the environment. Others have felt that these conversations haven’t gone far enough. Talking about racism and privilege has led some ELP fellows to reveal deep reserves of anger and hurt based on personal experience. Sometimes these feelings have been hard to say and hard to hear. We’re still figuring out how to make sure that we frame these discussions in a safe way. Different people are comfortable with different levels of intimacy and candor, and sometimes people need to remember to speak or listen with an open heart.
The challenges we face raise serious questions about how the environmental movement is going to deal with issues of equity and privilege. One conclusion that I draw from our experience is that the environmental community needs to spend a whole lot more time talking internally about diversity, in addition to taking practical action through hiring processes and leadership programs. Until we can talk more comfortably about privilege and equity, and about the limits that we each face in wrestling with these hard topics, we’ll lack the skill to deal with inevitable misunderstanding and conflict.
On a personal level, I continue to deepen my understanding of my own limitations. I’ve come to see more fully how tightly a mask of identity covers my face — the stamp of white, male, executive director, Yale, well-off, New England, secular, Jewish, academic. That’s a lot of baggage in a conversation about diversity. But when you get right down to it, I think it may not be much more or less than any other person carries. I’m working on seeing how different people have different understandings of what’s going on in the room; on remembering that many people see my mask and don’t necessarily hear me until long afterwards; and on embracing the responsibilities and challenges that fall to me as a result of my societal position. I am also experimenting with speaking candidly about these issues, in one-on-one conversations and in front of the entire ELP group. Reflection and self-awareness is a big part of what we are teaching in the ELP fellowship program, and, thankfully, I’m learning, too.