Do People of Color Care about the Environment?

These days, the term “diversity” isn’t a strange one. We hear it all the time, in the workplace, in politics, and increasingly, in the environmental movement itself.  The reason for this isn’t coincidental: our world is getting smaller and smaller, even as the number of people grows.

Why then, do traditional* environmental movement organizations still comprise mainly of middle- and upper-class white people in their staff, board, and members? Why is there much more funding for majority white environmental organizations than environmental organizations led by majority people of color? Why, in a recent environmental forum, did Yale Environment 360 fail to ask any environmental leaders of color to offer their opinion? (Dr. Julian Agyeman offers a reaction to the forum here.)

Is it because… people of color don’t care about the environment?

Well, let’s nip that in the bud – people of color do care about the environment, often more than their white counterparts. In a 2009 national survey, voters of color prioritized environmental issues higher than white voters and were willing to raise taxes and donate to these causes.  A 2011 survey shows that African-Americans (85%) and whites (88%) support oil and gas drilling fees going to conservation, while Latinos showed even more support (95%).

So where is the disconnect? Why is “diversity” still so foreign and difficult to traditional environmental movement groups?

(And the underlying question should not be: “How can we get more people of color to be our donors?” Instead, it should be: “How can we ensure that environmental rights of all people are protected?”)

Here are some thoughts I have to offer regarding potential solutions.

  • Local vs. national issues: In some ways, the issue is about access and immediacy in people’s lives.  While national conversations on the environment are being heard by people of color (whether or not their opinion is invited), they are often discussed in silos and separate from other policy issues. Local environmental groups that are more diverse have successfully woven environmental issues in with other issues of concern: health, jobs, and safety.  Asthma from local air pollution is causing my kid to miss school, and me to miss work: discuss.
  • Change the culture, not just the faces: It’s not just about hiring different shades of people, it’s about changing the culture of an organization to ensure a welcoming place where all opinions, backgrounds, and beliefs are valued. People are not going to stay where they are not welcomed. Diversity, inclusivity, and cultural competency is lifelong work, but we have to start somewhere.
  • Educational pipeline: A diverse pool of trained environmentalists, scientists, and policy leaders will only ensure that we will be more successful in our efforts.  That means youth of color must receive the same educational opportunities as their white counterparts. At Environmental Learning for Kids, we explicitly connect outdoor science and environmental activities with careers in those fields to indicate to our youth that they have a future in the environment.

These are not at all representative of what all people of color think about diversity and the environment, and do not in any way reach the scope of solutions that are out there.  However, I hope this is a start.

For more information:

*I use the term “traditional environmental movement” here to denote the U.S.-based conservation and preservation movement that emerged in the beginning of the 20th century, with leaders generally acknowledged to include Gifford Pinchot, Theodore Roosevelt, and John Muir.

Reposted from the Alliance for Sustainable Colorado’s blog.


One thought on “Do People of Color Care about the Environment?

  1. Great posting and analysis. The “traditional” or “mainstream” environmental movement has and will continue to have a lot of work to do in the diversity and equity arena.

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