— The Great Silence, by Ted Chiang
I have been thinking a lot about breath. Lack of breath is at the center of the largest civil rights movement in history. Lack of breath is a symptom of COVID-19. To fight for breath is to fight for humanity. To say “I can’t breathe” is at once a call for help and empathy and a call to action.
Too often those calls are silenced. The past few months have caused humanity to hold its breath, terrified, facing a global pandemic. But this is not a new feeling for communities of color, who are historically and currently oppressed and disproportionately impacted by environmental injustices like a lack of clean air to breathe, and now, COVID-19.
It’s time to amplify the voices and aspirations of people of color. By acknowledging conservation's racist histories, then actively challenging racism and oppression, we can be co-conspirators in rebuilding the conservation movement, to give us all room to breathe.
For decades, the greater environmental movement has been working in a silo, without considering the intersections of racial and social justice. I commend the recent Bay Journal article, Chesapeake restoration under scrutiny for lack of diversity, which brings to light the connections between the racist origins of the conservation movement and how people of color have been systematically silenced over time.
Among others, the Sierra Club has been outspoken about the racist forefathers of conservation, and some environmental organizations are finally waking up to the white supremacy culture in which they were built. What does white supremacy culture mean? As described by Showing Up for Racial Justice, a national network of groups and individuals working to undermine white supremacy and work for racial justice, “Culture is powerful precisely because it is so present and at the same time so very difficult to name or identify.” Mariah Davis of the Choose Clean Water Coalition brilliantly wrote about this in the Baltimore Sun article, “Sierra Club founder not the only symbol of racism the environmental community must reckon with.”
Through this process, the voices and aspirations of Black and Brown people must be centered. To do this, Chanté Coleman, vice president of equity and justice at the National Wildlife Federation, says we need more than “quick fixes” and “virtue signaling,” as these problems cannot be solved with one-off actions such as statements and diversity fellowships. “We must pause, listen, learn and change for the long term,” Coleman says.
Intersectional environmentalism means to dismantle systems of oppression in the environmental movement. This work is now about actively being anti-racist and shifting systems of power, internally reflecting to understand why the conservation movement and our organizations are not attracting people of color and, better yet, why we are not retaining them.
Hierarchical and bureaucratic systems are stifling the voices of people of color and young creatives, and they are silencing by design. This is not simply about bringing “new” voices to the table — it is about breaking down the walls of the room the table is in and rebuilding. “Given the embedded nature of racism and oppression, we must first shift our organizational cultures to center the needs and voices of Black staff and non-Black staff of color, build the competencies of our white staff, and build an informed strategy for coordinated action,” Coleman says.
There is hope in the conservation movement. I see it with the incredible growth of the Chesapeake Conservancy, where I work, on this journey. Anti-racism starts with the individual and it is a personal journey for each of us.
At the conservancy, we are intentionally focused on internal reflection, actively listening and shifting our organizational strategies to be anti-racist to truly achieve our mission of protecting and restoring a healthy Chesapeake for all. Crucial to these efforts is leadership at the highest levels, including the board, guiding and supporting this work, and the passionate energy of our staff and interns who want to do better for the future of conservation movement.
I have hope in the growing community of conservationists championing this work and collectively breathing equity and justice into their organizations. This is a village of people, usually people of color, who often feel alone and are exhausted from shouldering the burden, and we rely on each other for support. We are here, and we are shifting the narratives of the conservation movement. Listen to us. Give us power.
My aspirations for this movement are to redefine what it means to be an environmentalist. To be more inclusive of all voices. To shift power to those who have been marginalized to become the movement's next leaders.
We all have a role in this, it is the responsibility of everyone in the conservation community, especially white people. A teacher once told me that responsibility is your ability to respond to a situation. You can choose to respond with mindfulness and intention, in an equitable and inclusive way. But you’ll have to make that choice.
There is a lot of learning and unlearning that needs to happen right now in our country and in our Bay community. The future of the environmental movement will neither look nor sound the same as it does today. From my own experience in this movement, we have a long way to go.
So here are some recommendations to the white leaders of the Chesapeake conservation movement:
- Commit to intentional self-reflection: listen, learn, ask questions, have difficult conversations. Take a deep breath, and start again. Growth happens in discomfort.
- Apply an anti-racist lens to all decisions in the organization, which may mean slowing down to dismantle a culture of white supremacy.
- Diversify your staff, leadership and board to ensure that the future leaders of the environmental movement are represented.
- Uplift, support and listen to people of color in your organizations and properly compensate them for their work.
- Inclusion is not what you do, it is who you are.
People of color have been separated from leading this movement for far too long. I am calling on the Bay community and challenging you to ask, “What are the aspirations of communities of color?” To breathe? To have a voice? To have hope? I hope it’s all of the above.
Gabrielle Roffe is the manager of equity and community engagement at the Chesapeake Conservancy. She acknowledges and expresses gratitude to Brittany Omoleye-Hall, Lauren A. Mariolis, Chanté Coleman and Michael Bowman for their contributions to this piece.
The views expressed by opinion columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.