At clean water conferences throughout the country, Jill Witkowski says someone usually stands up and makes a comment along the lines of, “Why are we so white?”

At the Choose Clean Water Coalition conference this week, which she organized, she encouraged environmental groups in attendance to make that more than a passing observation. Attendees filled out diversity surveys at the registration table to help the coalition collect baseline data about the demographics of the attendees and the groups they represented. And they had the chance to hear from speakers who specialize in both diversity and environmental justice, areas of admitted weakness for several Chesapeake Bay organizations.

“Our priority is ensuring that all the investments we make in the Bay and in the Bay cleanup are shared equitably,” Witkowski said. “People across the region should all share in the benefits of clean water.”

Witkowski brought in Jalonne White-Newsome, a D.C.-based federal policy analyst with We Act for Environmental Justice, as a lunch speaker at the two-day conference. Her Manhattan-based advocacy group advocates for environmental justice on a national scale, but White-Newsome took the time to counsel local organizations that want to cultivate diversity on their staffs and among their volunteers.

White-Newsome also served on the Green 2.0 working group that last year released an unflattering report on the state of diversity in environmental organizations. It found that environmental organizations and causes do not reflect the country’s racial diversity.

Witkowski, who also serves on the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, wanted to help her coalition’s members do something about it.

Along with a presentation from White-Newsome, the conference offered a workshop on “Increasing Diversity in Your Organization” to help groups aim their hiring processes, internships and programs toward diverse audiences.

During a panel, Halle Van der Gaag, executive director of Blue Water Baltimore, talked about the struggle of diversifying her organization after realizing it wasn’t representative of the communities it serves.

Over the past two years, she has recruited African-American board members. Though the organization draws volunteers from a more diverse pool, Van der Gaag said she’s still uncomfortable with her staff of 25 being “mostly white.”

“We’ve really in the last two years taken a step back and acknowledged what we need to do. We are no longer just the white staff of Blue Water Baltimore,” Van der Gaag said.

Participants in the diversity workshop said that, even after they’ve realized they’d like their organization to be more diverse, they’re not sure how to go about it. Several talked about wanting to find a person of color, for example, to fill an open position, but having little luck. They tried posting the opening to diversity-focused job boards but found many of them charged high prices.

Witkowski and Chante Coleman, also with the Choose Clean Water Coalition, shared pointers for the organizations and encouraged them to weave diversity into their mission statements. As an example, they showed the Audubon Naturalist Society’s mission statement, which “seeks to create a larger and more diverse community of people who treasure the natural world and work to preserve it.” 

The verdict was that organizations have to be intentional and strategic to foster diversity. Witkowski, who previously served as waterkeeper for San Diego Coastkeeper, said one of the methods that has worked for her is to start reaching out to new audiences through internships and youth leadership programs.

When she led the San Diego organization, she noticed that, for all its expertise on marine debris or stormwater issues, its staff didn’t know much about some of the diverse communities that relied on the water for fish and recreation.

“I felt like we had become an ivory tower organization. I wanted to better connect with the communities in San Diego County,” Witkowski said.

After researching where to start, the organization created a youth leadership program geared toward schools with a diverse mix of students. It recruited some of those students for internships, providing the training that would be needed if organizations like hers wanted to hire them in the future.

One of those interns was Chante Coleman, who’s African-American. When Witkowski found herself wanting to fill an open position at Choose Clean Water, she gave her a call.

“What can your organization do to help so that we have a better pool of diverse candidates?” Witkowski challenged the group. She also challenged them to sign a pledge from the Green 2.0 group to voluntarily collect diversity data from their organization to start forming a baseline analysis for Bay groups.