For more than 40 years, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay has been dedicated to expanding citizen participation in Chesapeake Bay watershed restoration efforts. The Alliance has always believed that the ultimate key to success lies in a strong sense of stewardship among the residents and visitors to this watershed.
Indeed, success will require a broader cross section of society who care about nature, believe that restoring and protecting the Bay and its rivers is important, and are willing to make a sacrifice or two to achieve it.
Mainstream environmentalists are adept at explaining water quality issues and biodiversity in detail. They are less adept at explaining the role of people in the environment in a way that is relevant to a diverse population. Minorities are quickly becoming a larger segment of the U.S. population. It is projected that, collectively, today’s minorities will make up 57 percent of the population by the 2060. The conservation movement, too, is lagging far behind in terms of its own diversity.
Many environmental organizations work to diversify their staff and volunteer base but have had far too few results to celebrate. Like the face of other environmental organizations in the Bay region, the Alliance has only three minority employees on its staff of 24, about 12 percent. Why isn’t the face of the environmental movement changing as quickly as the nation’s demographics?
The answer isn’t simple. Social scientists agree it’s complicated. First, the the lack of diversity in the environmental community isn’t because minorities do not care about these issues. Art Haddaway, writing about stormwater in “Water World,” offered this explanation: “The values of the mainstream environmental movement don’t focus on the needs of people. They focus on clean air, water, fish, wildlife, climate, etc. Communities of color care about clean air and water but more often they see the environment through the lens of social and economic conditions and justice, causes that are not often championed by mainstream environmental groups.”
In fact, a 2010 Yale poll suggested that nearly 89 percent of African Americans supported policies to address carbon emissions compared with 78 percent of whites.
If this is so, why isn’t it more common to see participation in the Bay restoration effort more representative of the 7 million African Americans, Hispanics and other minorities, living within this watershed — 40 percent of the 15-plus million total population. What is keeping minority groups from participating in Bay-centered initiatives? What can watershed advocates do to change this?
As a Chesapeake Conservation Corps volunteer for the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay in Annapolis, I am hoping to start a dialogue that can help regional environmental organizations and local governments address this issue.
I did not discover this issue and some work has been done to understand why minority involvement is lacking. A common theme in past studies points to social and economic disconnects and the lack of inclusiveness of environmental groups as reasons for low minority participation. Clearly, we need to do more to understand and discuss ways we can change these factors locally and across the watershed.
The Alliance is an organization that has long been a catalyst for environmental change through the many programs it implements across the watershed. As my CCC “Capstone” project, I will focus on the Alliance’s goal to “engage local communities” by reaching out to a group of people that the Bay restoration effort has a hard time reaching — low-income minority individuals.
Annapolis is at the epicenter of Bay culture and environmental action. In addition to the Alliance, nearly a dozen Bay-related groups have their headquarters here. Combine that with federal, state and local governments and there is a lot of outreach and planning going on related to the Bay.
Annapolis is also a racially diverse town, but as a community, it is far from homogenous and not highly integrated. There are many low-income, minority neighborhoods spread out in small enclaves away from main roads that are often both physically and socially separated from higher income areas more likely to be frequented by visitors or directly connected to recreation on the Bay. For this reason, their voice, culture, and experiences can go unnoticed by the environmental mainstream.
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.
As a part of this project, we will organize and facilitate small focus groups with the help of Opinion Works, the Housing Authority of the City of Annapolis, minority houses of worship and other community-based organizations. The objective will be to learn about the concerns of low-income (mainly African American and Hispanic) communities, understand their experiences with environmental organizations and get an idea of the level of understanding and feelings they bring toward the Bay restoration movement.
Discussions will center on what concerns are most important to the community; the nature of a community’s relationship to the Chesapeake Bay; past involvement in local restoration efforts; how environmental agendas can address social concerns; and whether people feel connected to environmental groups or causes and if not, what would connect them.
Through a process of local dialogues, I hope participants will express their ideas in ways that will allow us to see the barriers we need to overcome to do a better job of engaging and retaining minority support for the Bay. Diversity will not only attract more new faces to our work but also new ideas, cultures and approaches to consider.
If we hope to sustain and increase the Bay restoration movement as a powerful force in society, we must begin to address the needs of communities of color. Expanding the breadth of issues we are willing to discuss and reaching out to these communities may bring about a partnership more beneficial to all.
If you would like to offer your views on this endeavor, contact Shanita Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Shanita Brown is a Chesapeake Conservation Corp Volunteer working for the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay in Annapolis. CCC Volunteers are sponsored through a program of the Chesapeake Bay Trust.