Green groups know they have a diversity problem. Less than a fifth of the staff at the major environmental lobbies are minorities, a figure that critics and insiders admit can skew their priorities. With minority communities facing more-immediate and stronger impacts from pollution and climate change, insiders and critics say it's more important than ever to shake up the voices within the movement.
"We're doing work that we need to do to make the environmental movement more reflective of our country writ large, and that has many aspects," said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. "Part of it is making sure our leadership reflects the population, part of it is making sure our campaigns reflect demands, and part of it is speaking out on issues where there's an overlap in the mission of our organizations and the interests of the community."
The first steps are emerging in the form of simple solidarity. As hundreds of thousands march across the nation, hold die-ins, and speak out for social justice after the grand jury decisions in the deaths of Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York, green groups are stepping outside their traditional bounds to weigh in.
The Sierra Club's Facebook page—amid pictures of national parks and entreaties to stop the Keystone XL pipeline—featured a pair of statements, the latter a picture and note expressing "solidarity with the organizations who are protesting and demanding justice in the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and every other victim of injustice." Friends of the Earth blacked out its Twitter profile picture and replaced its background with a picture featuring the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Incoming Natural Resources Defense Council President Rhea Suh wrote in her first blog post for NRDC that the group could not abide "another injustice afflicting communities of color."
It would seem that social justice and unrest is beyond the normal bounds for environmental groups, but Friends of the Earth President Erich Pica said he felt the group couldn't stay silent any more. After the Ferguson decision, FOE U.S. Chairman Arlie Schardt said in a statement that it exposed "the same types of social, economic and racial injustices" that the group's international arms deal with abroad.
"When we see what happened in Ferguson and with the Garner case "¦ we see there's something fundamentally wrong with our society," Pica said. "We as an environmental organization feel the need that we should at least help call it out, to demonstrate solidarity and do some deeper thinking about how we do our campaigns and our advocacy."
Officials from the environmental movement said the early statements are part of a bigger shift to engage more across society. In an essay posted on her group's website, 350.org Strategic Partnership Coordinator Deirdre Smith wrote in August that climate groups needed to engage on racial justice to better understand how all communities are affected by climate change.
"Part of that work involves climate organizers acknowledging and understanding that our fight is not simply with the carbon in the sky, but with the powers on the ground," she wrote. "We need to account for these things if we truly want to build the diverse movement leadership that we will need to win."
And although the Environmental Defense Fund has not publicly put out a statement, spokesman Eric Pooley said the events had "triggered a powerful conversation among EDF staff and leadership about what more we can and should be doing to ensure that our goals are aligned with a broader vision of a society in which people live in greater harmony with both the environment and one another."
It also represents an outstretched hand to a community that many say the movement has been blind to for far too long. A report released this summer by University of Michigan professor Dorceta Taylor found that people of color only make up 12 percent of the staff of environmental NGOs and 16 percent of relevant government agencies.
The Green 2.0 report quotes Parker Henderson, a 15-year veteran of conservation organizations, as saying that an "old guard" of "50-, 60-something White males "¦ continue to set the agenda without having real sensitivity or awareness to the lived experiences of other folks in particular to people of color."
Communities of color are often most affected by pollution because of their proximity to industrial sites or location in sites at risk of climate change, a fact brought startingly to life in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. NRDC's Suh acknowledged in her blog post that minority communities "too often suffer first, and suffer most, from pollution that poisons our waters and air, our communities, and our food."
Danielle Deane, director of Green 2.0, said that groups are making moves to recruit minorities more heavily, developing partnerships and doing outreach into media in minority communities. A briefing last week ended with six major groups committing to publicly releasing their diversity information by February.
"Some organizations may be doing better than others, but if you care about health impacts you need to be looking where the populations are most affected and understand those areas," Deane said. "You should understand how leaders from different backgrounds experience the world differently and experience different impacts, whether that's environmental justice or just how society is organized."
Of course, it's not just about greens understanding another community, but in broadening their political portfolio. In a 2013 report on environmentalism, Harvard University political scientist Theda Skocpol wrote that the lack of a "coalition" of diverse groups in part doomed a 2010 energy bill and that a "broad alliance" would be necessary for further success in the future.
Many green groups have gotten engaged on campaign finance and filibuster reform, saying that leveling the playing field in the political process is necessary for them to advance their agenda. Action on other progressive causes has come in fits and starts. This summer, green groups touched on Democratic issues from education to gay marriage during the midterm campaigns, while others have been involved in promotion of health care reform.
Just before the social-justice statements, Sierra Club had written in support of President Obama's executive order on immigration, calling it "important and necessary first step." That's an issue Sierra Club has been engaged on for years since voting in 2013 to back immigration reform (a major reversal from its anti-immigration stance in previous decades).
But that comes with the risk of alienating supporters who may disagree, or may just want unrelated politics out of their environmentalism. A Facebook post by California-based Pesticide Action Network saw a handful of negative comments, including one that read in part "would of [sic] respected you more if you had just stayed out of it and focused more on um pesticide awareness" and another asking out of the organization altogether.
RL Miller, founder of the Climate Hawks Vote super PAC, said that while the statements were "well-meaning," they may miss the mark without more direct engagement with those affected.
"We need to do more listening. It's all well and good to talk about why we need to take action ... but we need to be respectful of the fact that the overwhelming priority has to be justice other than climate justice. That's justice from police and from a badly skewed system," Miller said. "These cases are horrific and we need to show up, not just speak up."
Brune said that he understands the difference between talk and action and that Sierra Club would keep coming from a "place of principle" to intervene on issues where it sees space.
"When we see things that threaten democracy, whether its the influx of corporate money or the erosion of voting rights or a violation of human rights, we feel it's important for our organization to express itself," Brune said. "People seem to be energized at the prospect of one of the largest grassroots environmental organizations being supportive. It might be overdue, but we're making the effort."
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.