Roughly 50 environmentalists of various racial backgrounds — African American, Native American, Latina, and Caribbean — gathered at the National Press Club yesterday with a message for mainstream green institutions: If you are serious about diversity, then put your money where your mouth is or suffer the consequences later.
The newly launched Diverse Environmental Leaders National Speakers Bureau, or “DEL,” convened yesterday on the 98th birthday of the National Park Service to convey chiefly two things: That environmentalists of color are plentiful and available as employees and leaders, and that environmental groups and government agencies have no legitimate excuses for having predominantly white workforces.
“We are here, and we have always been here,” said the event’s host, Audrey Peterman, jabbing at the notion that people of color are unbothered with the environment. The display of talent among the attendees — many of them DEL members — further crushed that notion.
In the house: Yosemite Park Ranger Shelton Johnson, who you might have seen in Ken Burns’ national parks documentary; Berkeley professor Carolyn Finney, author of Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors; and Captain William “Bill” Pinkney, who in 1992 sailed around the globe by himself, using the Southern Route — a passageway so difficult only three other Americans have navigated it. Just to name a few.
Many of these people have decades of experience working with a range of major institutions, from the corporate America to the president’s cabinet. Peterman, one of DEL’s “visionaries,” has won an Environmental Hero Award from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and serves on quite a few major organization boards, including the National Parks Conservation Association. Along with her husband, Frank, who co-hosted the event, she’s co-authored two books on nature discovery and runs the environmental firm Earthwise Productions, Inc., which they started 20 years ago.
Said Pinkney: “People of color have been involved in every aspect of what makes the world what it is today.”
But with little recognition or compensation, as the speakers emphasized. “They don’t know we exist,” said Pinkney in his speech. The saddening context of that statement is that here you have a man who has literally been all around the world, but still feels invisible.
“This is not a group who likes to come together to just complain about stuff,” though, said environmental superstar Majora Carter, name-dropping her “buddy Bill Clinton,” with a smile just as slick. They have an action agenda, with many of its bulleted tasks aimed at the Department of the Interior (which houses the National Park service) and the Department of Agriculture.
One of DEL’s asks is for each department’s inspector general to “conduct a baseline assessment of diversity initiatives, hiring, public-private partnerships, external outreach, and programming.” Much of this information has already been pulled together by University of Michigan professor Dorceta Taylor in the Green 2.0 report released last month.
Danielle Deane of The Raben Group, who spoke on behalf of the Green 2.0 working group, pointed to anecdotes published in the report from philanthropists and board members saying they can’t locate qualified candidates of color. Plenty of data exists on the supply of talent, she said, but foundations and executives “still think the supply is the challenge.”
“To make a serious dent in this diversity challenge, it will take us raising our voices to make them demand our talent,” Deane said.
A glaring irony at the event was that despite the many academics discussed and represented in the crowd, some of the speakers said that the conservation movement had grown too … academic. One of the barriers to achieving ideal diversity is that employers place too much value in university degrees. African-American and Latinos are underrepresented in higher education, due to failures in the education system, economic inequality, and structural racism.
Environmentalism doesn’t have to be such an intellectual enterprise, Frank Peterman said: “Two of the greatest conservationists I’ve ever known were my father and grandfather. Neither of them had more than a 6th grade education, but they knew how to protect the Earth.”
Frank served as the Southeast Regional Director of the Wilderness Society from 2003 to 2010. His chief tasks were working closely with Congress to support forests in his region, and making sure urban communities benefitted from public land systems. He talks with a gentle but commanding voice. I might dare to make a Morgan Freeman comparison, but Frank erects himself in the room like the kind of authority figure that Freeman only plays in movies. He has an easy smile and a perfectly shaped silver Fro that sits relaxed like the birth of cool. He animates when the issue of money or funding comes up.
Part of what he and DEL are pushing Interior, the USDA, and environmental groups to do is create line items in their budget for enhancing the recruitment and hiring of people of color. “It is a mockery to say you support diversity, but you don’t have a line-item in your budget for it,” Frank said.
It’s difficult for federal agencies to get a new line item in their budgets for a new pack of pencils these days, thanks to the Tea Party austerity hawks in Congress. I asked Frank about this in an interview after the event. He smiled and said: “One of the skills I have developed over the years from dealing with government and nonprofits is, I stand up and say, ‘Don’t tell me you don’t have the money. You have the money. What you’re telling me is you don’t want to spend it on what I’m talking about.'”
“It’s an absolute failure to move forward with engaging all the parts of the country,” said Audrey Peterman. “Our entire future depends on the extent to which they engage communities of color.”
DEL’s challenge, said Frank, is creating a climate where “it is no longer acceptable for [employers] to say, ‘We can’t find [people of color],’ or, ‘We don’t know where they are.’”
But what if visibility isn’t the only problem? It is possible that employers know where people of color are, but the reason they’re not hiring them is just plain-Jane racism — discrimination of either the conscious or subconscious variety? Frank had a smile and answer for that too.
“We have to challenge that mentality,” he said. “When it comes to racial issues, the only way we’ve ever made progress is to call it what it is, and then challenge it.”