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Monday, March 25, 2013

Breaking (old) news: enviros are racist

While noted leaders of color are taking more control of their own destiny, the net effect is we are enabling another silo alongside sustainability. A doctrine that espouses inclusive systems thinking is spawning an apparatchik marked by separatism, not integration.

By Dave Newport

Sadly, it is old news.

A lot has been written about this. I recalled Tufts professor Julian Agyeman’s stirring challenge to us all at the Denver AASHE conference in “The Death of Campus Sustainability” last year.  Marcelo Bonta wrote a great “what to do about it” piece in Grist in 2008. The New York Times covered eco-diversity pioneer Jerome Ringo in 2009. And so forth.

Yet the lack of diversity is still endemic among the community of sustainability professionals, our leadership, our professional organizations, and the universities, companies, and governments we work for.  Just in higher education, AASHE reports that 92 percent of sustainability folks are white.

All old news.

Yes, I am an old white guy, and a borderline racist, it appears.  Not the hate-driven kind that runs around burning religious symbols in peoples’ front yard. No, mine is the unintentional, passive, clueless kind of racism born out of privilege.

My wake up call went like this:

Some years back a very sharp and wonderful African American student who worked in our Center outted me. We were talking about the excessive GHG emissions embedded in a meat diet vs. the less carbon intensive vegetarian diet.

“Don’t come to my neighborhood and talk about veggie burgers,” she admonished me. “Black people haven’t worked hard trying to climb past discrimination so we can earn income sufficient buy a steak just to have white-privileged Boulder greenies tell us to eat tofu.”

Serious reality check.

So when I read the Post’s story I expected to get an update on what else I hadn’t noticed. I was looking for new news. I found it in the comment section, not the story.

The father of the environmental justice movement, Robert Bullard, spurned the idea that people of color even wanted the mainstream environmental groups to integrate.

“It was never the intent of our largely people of color movement to "fold" ourselves into the national environmental and conservation movement,” Dr. Bullard commented under the story.  “The core of our movement has always been, ‘We Speak for Ourselves!’”

Indeed, why should people of color supplicate to the mainstream enviro groups and beg for inclusion? Other leaders note that even when people of color are partnered with enviro groups, they are only allowed to play supporting roles, not the lead.

“As the first and only female Hispanic appointed by a [California] Governor to serve on the South Coast AQMD Governing Board, I observed this far too often,” noted Cynthia Verdugo-Peralta, who is also President and CEO of SEETA, (Strategic Energy, Environmental and Transportation Alternatives, Inc), an NGO. “When the large established enviro group "partners" with a minority enviro group, they have them in the background, not out front where they need to be.”

Which explains where leaders of color are apparently going these days: solo.

Majora Carter spoke on campus a few weeks ago. She never said “sustainability.” She said “empowerment.” She didn’t say “environment.” She said “quality of life.” She never said “crime.” She said “hometown security.”  She didn’t even say the word “justice.” She said, “end bright flight.”

Most of all, she said it by herself just fine. The Sierra Club wasn’t there.

Indeed, Carter’s organization is leading its own charge. And she’s not alone.

We all have come to know Van Jones pretty well over the past few years. Jones’ wiki reports he is “co-founder of four non-profit organizations including Rebuild the Dream, of which he is president. In 1996, he founded the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, a California non-governmental organization (NGO) working for alternatives to violence. In 2005, he co-founded Color of Change, an advocacy group for African Americans. In 2007, he founded Green for All, a national NGO dedicated to "building an inclusive green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty.”

People of color apparently have little hope that the mainstream enviro movement is ever going to adequately represent their interests—so they are going it alone. More power to them, literally!  I love seeing Van Jones citied as an environmental expert on CNN where he is on camera seemingly 24/7.

Separate, but unequal

Yet while Jones, Carter, Bullard, Verdugo-Peralta, and other noted leaders of color are taking more control of their own destiny, the net effect is we are enabling another silo alongside sustainability. A doctrine that espouses inclusive systems-thinking is spawning an apparatchik marked by separatism, not integration.

While there has been incremental progress on social justice, it is still our least developed—yet perhaps most powerful—argument for change. The group privilege that inbreeds among white-dominated enviro groups and sustainabilistas perpetuates my brand of unintentional racism informed by ignorance, not malice. But it’s racism nonetheless.

Bob Bullard has seen this trend for a long time.

“Having written more than 18 books on the topic over the past 25 years, beginning with "Dumping in Dixie," its rather clear that environmental injustice and environmental racism are real and alive and well in the U.S. and around the globe,” he writes in the Post.

The environmental justice challenges faced by communities of color stemming from close proximity to pollution sources are sad and terrible--and tangible issues. The challenges the sustainability movement faces from being clueless are more vexing in that intangibles are harder to fix. As former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld amply proved, “you don’t know what you don’t know.”

Where do we start?

Sustainability is another word for justice, for what is just is sustainable, and what is unjust is not. ~ Rev Matthew Fox

This year we are going to try a different approach in my Center and see where it takes us. For starters, our Energy And Climate Conservation program is renovating its name to the Energy And Climate Justice program. What will that do? Seems like a little thing. Fair question. We will find out. But my hypothesis is that by following Aeygman’s advice and putting the “justice” emphasis out front, we will signal to people of color what we’re about.

Then we have to back it up. So the program folks are looking at re-messaging all their outreach about energy and climate to feature the justice elements therein. To do so, they will reach out to people of color and hopefully foster a dialogue that helps evolve message content that is both respectful and effective. The reaching out part is hard, requires consistent effort, and will face serious skepticism. But eighty percent of success is showing up. Other programmatic elements will also emerge from this brainstorming, I hope. Stay tuned.

It’s important to remember another fundamental truth of campus sustainability: students get it; follow their lead. It’s staff and administrators like me that are behind the ball. For instance, the Energy Action Coalition and the California Student Sustainability Coalition have done anti-oppression trainings as a requirement for all their staff and student leaders for years. The CSSC chapter at UCLA is called E3 (for Ecology, Economy, Equity). Why? Because they have to be relevant to students, and especially at UCLA, students are more ethnically, and (more so than a lot of universities) socioeconomically diverse. The CSSC chapter at UC San Diego also actively applies the three-legged stool model of sustainability, integrating environment and justice.

Marcelo Bonta is the director of the Centerfor Diversity & the Environment. The Grist article referenced above offers a tangible path towards increased diversity any of us can navigate. He writes:

  • “Find opportunities to diversify within your spheres of influence. Figure out what you can start doing today. What organizational responsibilities do you control and have influence over? For example, if you have access to discretionary funds or control of budgets, earmark money toward diversity activities. If you work on outreach, learn how to become culturally competent, and expand your outreach activities to include communities of color.
  • Seek opportunities to broaden your experience, expand your network and continue learning. Attend or organize diversity workshops, sessions, and trainings, which are becoming common at environmental conferences. Become involved in efforts that bring a broad range of organizations and people together, such as the Diverse Partners for Environmental Progress series of national summits and regional roundtables. Reach out to and learn from organizations that work on diversity issues, such as Environmental Learning for Kids. Numerous diversity resources can be found on the websites of organizations, including the resources section of the Center for Diversity & the Environment. The book Diversity and the Future of the U.S. Environmental Movement is one of the premier resources on the topic.
  • Find allies. Talk to others at your workplace and to people working on diversity issues outside your organization. Organize a lunch discussion about diversity issues at your workplace. Find or create a network of people with which you can comfortably discuss diversity issues. For example, a group in Portland, Ore., aptly named the Young Environmental Professionals of Color, meets monthly to network, strategize, and discuss various environmental topics that affect them.
  • Broaden your thought processes. Think long-term with an expansive vision. Constantly question your “business as usual.” Ask yourself questions like “For whom am I protecting these lands or waterways? When thinking of the communities or constituencies I serve, who do I think of? Who should I think of? What type of people would find working at my workplace appealing or not appealing? Why?”
  • Engage leaders at your workplace and foundations. Talk to leaders about adopting diversity as an organizational priority and taking action. Ask for a commitment of resources, especially money and staff time. Lack of funding devoted to diversity severely limits the scope for diversifying the movement. Ask your funders to provide grants for diversity efforts.
  • Start building relationships with communities and organizations of color now. If you want to start engaging people of color, you will need to invest time building relationships and trust, and provide something of value. You will need to do your homework about the community members, meet them, and speak to their environmental values.” 
Some of these strategies might work sometimes, and sometimes not. Different approaches for different contexts. Either way, I should probably have been doing more of this right along. But I am clueless, it seems. There are a lot of people smarter than me working hard every day in sustainability. I suspect we vote the same, worry about the same things in our society, and all try in our own ways to make things better. And we may be unintentional racists not because of hatred or bigotry, but because we are white people with a worldview informed by a relatively privileged life and devoid of the experience many people of color naturally acquire. So I am going to use the racist word to hopefully highlight the challenges we face—and the talent that we have to fix it.

Racism is a tough word itself beset by controversial definitions and interpretations—but we live in tough times.  The National Council of Churches Racial Justice Working Group defines racism as “the intentional or unintentional use of power to isolate, separate and exploit others . . . Racism is more than just a personal attitude; it is the institutionalized form of the attitude" 

Here’s my attitude: If we don’t address the diversity and social justice deficit in the movement to institutionalize sustainability WE will ALL be old news.



  1. Thanks for the thought provoking piece, Dave. I appreciate hearing how you and your team are thinking about racism, sustainability and their intersection - and most importantly how you are taking action to address it. Please give us a report back next school year. -Sam

  2. Google "e-waste racism" or "accidental racism". Profiling of the "e-waste" reuse trade is putting people in prison... Africans, mostly. Despite studies showing their reuse levels rival new in store sales in the USA (11% returns of electronics to Wal-Mart, 95-90% of computers imported to Egypt, Ghana, Peru, Nigeria are working.