Bay Journal

The ‘green ceiling’: Environmental organizations lack diversity

Survey reveals low number of minorities in groups, especially in their leadership.

  • By Whitney Pipkin on November 27, 2014
 (Green 2.0)  (Green 2.0)

A new report out this fall confirms what many have noted anecdotally: Environmental organizations and causes often do not reflect the country’s racial diversity.

The report, “The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations,” surveyed nearly 300 environmental nonprofits, government agencies and grant-making foundations to find a “green ceiling” that leaves people of color underrepresented at these organizations, especially in the higher echelons of leadership.

“For decades, environmental organizations have stressed the value of diversity…(But they) are not adequately reaching out to organizations representing people of color communities,” states the report produced by the Green 2.0 working group and authored by Dorceta E. Taylor, a professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment.

The report finds that although people of color constitute 36 percent of the U.S. population and 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce, they did not exceed 16 percent of the staff at any of the organizations that were surveyed.

In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the disparities are more pronounced, according to research compiled by a volunteer with the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, Shanita Brown, whose capstone project for the Chesapeake Conservation Corps focused on diversity in Bay restoration efforts.

Forty percent of the more than 15 million people living in the Chesapeake Bay region are African American, Hispanic or another minority. But, for example, Brown found that the Alliance had only three minority employees on its Annapolis-based staff of 24, or 12 percent.

“Why isn’t the face of the environmental movement changing as quickly as the nation’s demographic?” she asked in a March column for the Bay Journal titled, “How can we diversify participation in Bay restoration efforts?”

Leslie Fields is the Washington, DC-based program director for the Sierra Club’s Environmental Justice and Community Partnerships, which provided some funding for the report. She said the findings support what many working in the environmental sector have noted for years.

“It’s not just our anecdotal experiences anymore,” Fields said. “We hope that [this report] will start driving these organizations to really change their culture.”

The report found that an “unconscious bias” and recruiting for positions within a “green insiders’ club” contributed to a lack of equal representation at these organizations, though the majority of those surveyed said diversification adds or would add value to their organizations. This lack of representation is even more pronounced because of two other factors, the report points out:

“The failure of environmental organizations and agencies to increase recruitment and retention of people of color comes despite the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on communities of color and the fact that people of color poll higher than whites in support for environmental issues,” it states.

Fields added that, when it comes to diversity, there are two types of environmental organizations: the “grassroots” groups working on the ground and in the community, and the larger organizations that typically receive more grant funding.

“The real issue is the funding,” she said. “We have basically two environmental movements: A well-funded movement and then the environmental justice movement.”

Many of the diversity issues noted at a national level are playing out in parts of the Chesapeake watershed. Along the Anacostia River, for example, minority-led grassroots organizations like Groundwork Anacostia are making progress in the urban communities that are most impacted by poor water quality. They are encouraging communities to take ownership of the cleanup effort and, increasingly, for those community members to fill positions at environmental groups.

In Annapolis, Brown noted in her column that, despite its racial diversity and its culture as the epicenter of Bay-focused activities, there is little participation by minority groups in Bay programs.

“Determining how to best include minorities in the mainstream environmental conversations is essential if the Bay movement is to remain relevant in a racially changing world,” she wrote.

Racial groups now defined as minorities are projected to make up more than half of the population in the country by the middle of this century.

Green 2.0’s report suggests steps that environmental groups should take to ensure they better represent that changing composition in the future.

Foundations, nongovernmental organizations and government agencies, it states, should track and encourage diversity in their ranks by establishing concrete goals and regularly assessing their progress.

The report noted that the increased representation of women in environmental groups is evidence that a concentrated effort on recruitment goals can help achieve more diversity. Because of concrete initiatives, women, most of them white, now hold more than half of the leadership positions at the organizations that were surveyed.

The Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement of 2014 includes stewardship goals that would increase the number of citizens involved in environmental projects and address a lack of diversity among the watershed’s stewards. Though these diversity goals are often difficult to quantify or measure, compared to other types of water quality initiatives, this latest report urges that environmental groups tackle the issue anyway.

Read the full report at www.diversegreen.org/report.

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About Whitney Pipkin
Whitney Pipkin, writes about food, agriculture and the environment. She lives in Alexandria, VA, and is a fellow of the Institute for Journalists of Natural resources and blogs at thinkabouteat.com.
Read more articles by Whitney Pipkin

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