The following is a guest essay by Marcelo Bonta. Marcelo is founder and director of the Center for Diversity & the Environment and the Young Environmental Professionals of Color. He is also a senior fellow with the Environmental Leadership Program and a member of the advisory board of the Orion Grassroots Network.


Marcelo BontaHow Do We Diversify?

Diversifying the environmental movement is one of the greatest challenges we face this century. Not only is it the right thing to do, but the movement needs to keep up with the rapidly changing demographics of the U.S. if it is to remain effective. Today, people of color in the U.S. amount to over 100 million people (about one third of the population), and by 2050, their numbers will more than double, growing to almost 220 million (over 50 percent of the population). People of color already constitute a majority of the population in California, New Mexico, Hawaii, and Texas.

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The political and social implications of an increasingly diverse population and nation are vast. Communities of color have a mounting influence on society and politics, including the distribution of public finances, the way cities develop and grow, and the strength and creation of environmental laws and policies. Diversifying is not only a great challenge but also a great opportunity.

Can you imagine if the environmental movement was effective at engaging people of color and leveraging their substantial support and talents? Millions of new supporters would surely translate into more political victories for the environment, more public support, more members, a larger volunteer base, richer partnerships and more financial support. In other words, the movement would be potentially more successful and influential than it ever has been before.

Furthermore, people of color support environmental issues at a higher level than their white counterparts.

An exit poll for a 2002 California multibillion-dollar bond issue for open space protection revealed that 77 percent of African Americans, 74 percent of Latinos, 60 percent of Asians and 56 percent of Caucasians approved the measure. Another recent poll commissioned by The Nature Conservancy and Trust for Public Land showed that 77 percent of Latino voters (versus 65 percent of all voters) support a tax increase to protect water quality and open space.

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This news should be encouraging, right? Yes, to a certain degree, but it also highlights a serious problem that exists in the movement. The movement continues to struggle with diversity, whether it’s in outreach, collaborations, hiring and retention practices, or other facets.

Not many people of color work in the environmental movement. The Minority Environmental Leadership Development Initiative found that out of 158 environmental institutions, 33 percent of mainstream environmental organizations and 22 percent of government agencies had no people of color on staff. In another study, the Natural Resources Council of America found that people of color make up only 11 percent of the staff and 9 percent of the boards of member organizations.

Although it is concerning to see this lack of involvement of people of color, these numbers are actually symptoms of a much deeper problem. They reflect the root cause of the movement’s diversity crisis — a homogeneous, unintentionally exclusive culture that pervades most environmental institutions. [For a more detailed layout of the movement’s diversity-related problems see “Diversifying the American Environmental Movement” (PDF)]

If we are to work on our diversity crisis, we will need to effectively tackle cultural change as well as a slew of other areas where we can diversify. Nothing short of a comprehensive strategy that will sufficiently address the diversity crisis and create sustainable and lasting change will do.

A Strategy to Diversify

Diversifying the movement is complex, and it will take a diversity of approaches to succeed. A comprehensive strategy for diversifying includes working on cultural change, outreach, partnerships and collaborations, recruitment, retention, leadership development, and the educational pipeline. [See “Diversifying the Conservation Movement” (PDF) for a detailed description of a comprehensive strategy].

We need to work on making the movement and our organizations attractive places to work for a diverse array of people, while also drawing out the environmental values of people of color — especially to the point of pursuing an environmental career. In order for diversity efforts to succeed, it is absolutely crucial for leaders to view diversity as a top priority, and to commit resources (i.e., money and staff time) to the effort. Most importantly, we all need to commit to the cause to the point of taking action. Movement-wide, we must focus on four major areas in order to initiate effective change:

  1. Seek Partnerships and Collaborations. We need to seek strategic alliances both within and outside the movement. Within the movement, we will need to work together to share information, efforts, and lessons learned about diversifying while more efficiently using resources and keeping costs down. Collaborating with each other on our diversity efforts is essential so we can move forward synergistically and grow exponentially. We also need to work across movements, including the labor, civil rights, and faith movements. We especially need to partner with groups that already effectively work with communities of color. Most importantly, these partnerships need to be based on equity, meaning all parties equally share resources, power, and decision-making responsibilities. Expanding our list of partners will extend our reach, improve our understanding, and ensure our relevance.
  2. Engage Young People. Working along the educational pipeline by providing experiences for young people of color from infancy to graduate-school age is essential to achieving a diverse environmental community for generations to come. How we engage young people today will have significant effects far into the future, since many of these same people will be our environmental leaders when people of color make up our nation’s majority. Providing opportunities for youth to exercise leadership skills and voice their opinions is an effective way to engage young people. Since internships are often the entry point to environmental careers for young folks, paid internships are essential to attract students of all socioeconomic backgrounds.
  3. Connect the Generations. We need to unify the generations that are currently working within our movement, and cultivate emerging leaders of color. Experiences, wisdom, and lessons learned need to be passed from one generation to the next if we are to build upon the progress already made. Baby boomers need to identify and mentor emerging leaders who can carry the mantle forward. Likewise, young emerging leaders need to take the initiative in connecting with more experienced leaders in the movement.
  4. Create Cultural Change. Creating cultural change is the most important aspect of diversifying. Cultural change means having an inclusive, diverse mindset that translates into actions, behaviors, and attitudes that exemplify multiculturalism and equity. Transforming into a multicultural movement requires continually addressing diversity and providing workplaces where all staff feel comfortable and are attaining their true potential. Eventually institutions that become multicultural will discover that people of color will want to work for them and stay for the long term. By initiating effective cultural change, we will build a movement that is relevant to all Americans. (As the environmental movement’s history has shown repeatedly, limiting diversity efforts to recruitment only, especially at entry-level positions or for support staff, will fail more often than not. To be successful and sustainable, diversity efforts need to include cultural change issues.)

So What Can You Do?

Most people that I talk to in the environmental movement agree that the lack of diversity is a problem, yet the amount of interest far outweighs the amount of action committed to the cause. Whatever the cause for apathy — whether it’s lack of time or resources, a fear of venturing into the unknown, or a passing of responsibility — we need to get over it and start taking action. We, as a movement, have cornered ourselves into this predicament. Now we collectively need to solve it. It is imperative to begin diversifying our movement immediately and seek bold change. Simple steps from each and every one of us can take us a long way. Here is what you can do today to push forward on diversity issues:

  • Find opportunities to diversify within your spheres of influence. Figure out what you can start doing today. What organizational responsibilities do you control and have influence over? For example, if you have access to discretionary funds or control of budgets, earmark money toward diversity activities. If you work on outreach, learn how to become culturally competent, and expand your outreach activities to include communities of color.
  • Seek opportunities to broaden your experience, expand your network and continue learning. Attend or organize diversity workshops, sessions, and trainings, which are becoming common at environmental conferences. Become involved in efforts that bring a broad range of organizations and people together, such as the Diverse Partners for Environmental Progress series of national summits and regional roundtables. Reach out to and learn from organizations that work on diversity issues, such as Environmental Learning for Kids. Numerous diversity resources can be found on the websites of organizations, including the resources section of the Center for Diversity & the Environment. The book Diversity and the Future of the U.S. Environmental Movement is one of the premier resources on the topic.
  • Find allies. Talk to others at your workplace and to people working on diversity issues outside your organization. Organize a lunch discussion about diversity issues at your workplace. Find or create a network of people with which you can comfortably discuss diversity issues. For example, a group in Portland, Ore., aptly named the Young Environmental Professionals of Color, meets monthly to network, strategize, and discuss various environmental topics that affect them.
  • Broaden your thought processes. Think long-term with an expansive vision. Constantly question your “business as usual.” Ask yourself questions like “For whom am I protecting these lands or waterways? When thinking of the communities or constituencies I serve, who do I think of? Who should I think of? What type of people would find working at my workplace appealing or not appealing? Why?”
  • Engage leaders at your workplace and foundations. Talk to leaders about adopting diversity as an organizational priority and taking action. Ask for a commitment of resources, especially money and staff time. Lack of funding devoted to diversity severely limits the scope for diversifying the movement. Ask your funders to provide grants for diversity efforts.
  • Start building relationships with communities and organizations of color now. If you want to start engaging people of color, you will need to invest time building relationships and trust, and provide something of value. You will need to do your homework about the community members, meet them, and speak to their environmental values.

Every situation is different and will require a unique strategy. For effective efforts, environmental entities need to conduct a diversity assessment and develop a diversity action strategy specific to their workplace. A number of organizations and consultants can point you in the right direction, such as the Kenian Group and DR Works. And the Center for Diversity & the Environment website provides information about efforts, organizations, people, research, and strategies that are diversifying the movement.

As the nation continues to diversify, the environmental movement faces one of the greatest challenges of this century. Will we diversify so that we can be successful and relevant for generations to come, or will we ignore our diversity problem and continue to compartmentalize ourselves into a continually irrelevant and ineffective movement that only appeals to homogeneous elites? I don’t think it’s a choice anymore. Diversifying is essential to creating a healthy, influential, and sustainable movement.

The environmental movement has overcome immense problems and has achieved great feats in the past. There is no reason why we can’t be up to the task again. The first and most important step is to start taking action.

So what do you plan on doing today?

For more on this topic, read Diversity and the Future of the U.S. Environmental Movement and “Diversifying the Conservation Movement” (PDF) by Marcelo Bonta and Charles Jordan (published in the Land Trust Alliance’s Special 25th Anniversary Issue: A Report on the Future of Land Conservation in America.)

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