The face of America is changing

The face of America is changing — is the environmental movement ready to face change too?

“Kyra, do you know this is yours?” I ask, looking down at the skinny little girl with big, curly, dark brown locks. Her hair to body proportion resembles Thing One and Thing Two from Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat.

“What do you mean?” A furrowed face of mostly cheek and big brown eyes replies.

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My four-year-old daughter and I have just spent an early summer morning exploring the Leif Erikson Trail in Forest Park. It’s 75 degrees and not a cloud in the sky — a perfect day in Portland, Ore. Wide-eyed and humming her favorite Sunday school tunes, Kyra had picked and smelled flowers of an array of colors, listened to bird songs and leaves rustling in the gentle wind, identified maidenhair ferns and banana slugs, found a red-backed salamander under the bark of a fallen log, come eye-to-eye with “the biggest snail in the whole wide world,” and discovered that a small side trail sometimes leads to something bigger and better. So far, it’s been a magical day.

Kyra could stand there indefinitely waiting for an answer. Her senses are alert, and she is focused on the question at hand. Her intrigue is endearing.

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“The trees, the flowers, the stream, this trail. This is all yours,” I finally answer.

“It is? How can this all be mine?”

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“Well, it’s actually everybody’s. This forest was set aside so you and all people can always enjoy it. It will always be here. No one will ever build houses or big buildings or anything like that on this land,” I explain.

“Oh,” she says, allowing the information to sink in. As she slowly realizes what I’m saying, a slight twinkle in her eye gradually grows into the big smile that always makes me melt.

“This is my trail,” she says, happily skipping past me back toward the distant trailhead.

My moment of nirvana is disrupted by concern about Kyra’s future — something that seems to happen fairly often.

What if, for instance, Kyra decides to follow a career path in conservation and land protection? Her love of nature is pure. And simply by exposing her to the right opportunities, I’ve found that she absorbs anything that has to do with plants, animals, and being green. All of which makes me happy. My main concern is this: I don’t see many people who look like Kyra working for environmental organizations.

You see, Kyra is a unique mix of Jamaican, Filipino, Caucasian, and Spanish heritage. What would it be like for her to maneuver in such a homogeneous culture? As Kyra’s parent, my job is to protect her and allow her to thrive, grow, and be the best she can be at whatever she does. Unfortunately, with its unintentionally exclusive culture, today’s environmental movement does not provide that atmosphere for her.

Marcelo’s girls: Stella, left, and Kyra.

When the time comes, I will be honest with Kyra and share my experiences working in the mainstream environmental movement — such as encountering ignorant comments and being the only person of color on a national wildlife group’s conservation staff. I will also share with Kyra that those unfortunate experiences and my commitment to make the world a better place for her and her sister drove me to commit the rest of my career to diversifying the movement. Through my consulting activities and the creation of the Center for Diversity & the Environment, I am doing everything within my ability to ensure that Kyra and her sister, Stella, do not relive the same experiences I went through. My hope is that the movement will be inclusive by the time Kyra enters the workforce.

To get to that point — especially if it wants to remain relevant far into the future — the movement needs to prepare itself for Kyra and her generation, which will be the most diverse generation our nation has ever seen. Some estimate that the population under the age of five in the U.S. is 40 to 50 percent children of color. As this generation grows older and begins to inherit leadership positions around the year 2050, the U.S. population will be more than 50 percent people of color. I often hear conservationists mention that they are saving this or that parcel of land for future generations. But how often do they think about what those future generations will actually look like?

Some people are thinking about it, to be sure. People like Iantha Gantt-Wright, Charles Jordan, Angela Park, and Emily Enderle, and organizations like the Center for Whole Communities, Environmental Leadership Program, Diversity Matters, and Green for All are laying the foundation for a more diverse movement. These people and groups, through their leadership, speeches, articles, books, trainings, and workshops, are raising awareness around diversity issues, committing themselves to action-based solutions, and paving the way to a better tomorrow for our children.

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But in order to succeed on a movement-wide level, every environmental organization, foundation, agency, business, and academic institution must follow suit and begin comprehensively diversifying now so that the movement will be ready to successfully pass the mantle to Kyra’s generation. This strategic approach entails committing a flood of support and resources toward creating multicultural organizations, recruiting and retaining people of color at all levels of staff, engaging young folks in positive environmental experiences, effectively reaching out to communities of color, and establishing diverse partnerships.

If the environmental movement entrusts itself to this approach, it will be in a much better place 15 to 20 years from now — a time when people of color will be over 140 million strong in the U.S. Simply by heading in this new direction of diversifying and effectively engaging people of color, the movement may solve its most pressing problems and encounter success beyond its members’ wildest dreams. If it doesn’t make the shift, the movement will be at grave risk of losing its relevance and influence. It will be a movement for a few instead of a movement for all.

Brushing aside my worries, I come back to the moment. My eyes focus on Kyra leading the way down the path, and I realize that I am just here to guide and teach her. Which way she goes is ultimately up to her.

Seeing Kyra smile back at me as she hums and skips with flowers in her hand reassures me, as I have no choice but to smile back and follow her.

For now, life’s perfect. Kyra’s happy. I’m happy. We’re hiking on Kyra’s path.