It's lonely being a person of color in the sustainable energy sector

Back in November, I started my job at a small progressive advocacy group in Maryland. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I had a lot in common with the other new hire, who started on the same day. Not the least of which was that we were the only people of color in the office, effectively increasing the office population of folks like us from 0 to, well, 2.

My job is to coordinate a campaign for an affordable, socially just and environmentally responsible transition to clean energy in Maryland. So I meet frequently with the leaders of groups that work on climate action, clean energy, public health, green jobs and social justice. I admit that I’m still learning the ropes, but it surprises me — and increasingly worries me — that the majority of the leaders I meet are white.

I’ve been comforted to find that I’m not the only one who noticed. A group called Green 2.0 first called attention to this phenomenon in 2013 with the release of their seminal survey-based report, “The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations.” The results revealed an overwhelmingly white “Green Insiders’ Club,” where racial diversity among staff hadn’t broken 16 percent — the so-called “green ceiling.”

Results were no better at the leadership level. Green 2.0’s April 2017 diversity scorecard likewise showed that, among the top 40 environmental NGOs, people of color represented only 14 percent of senior staff. Despite their socially progressive reputations, these groups clearly need to do a better job of putting their money where their mouth is when it comes to diversity.

A similar phenomenon is happening on the industry side. To my knowledge, there hasn’t been a directly comparable investigation into diversity in the clean energy industry, but several industry leaders have highlighted the reality.

Among them is Michael Liebreich, the chairman and founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance. He has long called for more women and people of color in clean energy leadership. His closing speech at Bloomberg’s 2016 Energy Summit included an appeal for a “social miracle” in the clean energy sector, where the leaders didn’t “look the same as their current equivalents” in fossil fuels.

Mr. Liebriech is a savvy businessman looking to serve the 1.2 billion people globally who don’t have access to electricity — most of whom are people of color, and many of whom are female. Designing the products and services to serve the needs of the un-electrified cannot be done by a boardroom of people who don't represent them.

The same logic applies to clean energy across our nation, where environmental concerns can't be separated from other social inequities.

For example, did you know that race is the number one indicator of the likelihood you'll live near toxic facilities, like coal fired power plants and trash incinerators? I fear that without diverse leadership representing the experiences of communities most impacted by energy injustice, the clean energy transition will fall short of its progressive goals.

Thank goodness for people like Gilbert Campbell, named one of’s 50 Fixers of 2017. Co-founder of Volt Energy, Mr. Campbell strives to provide “ladders of opportunity” to fellow black Americans in clean energy. This ladder isn’t “up” so much as it's "through" — a foot in the door to an otherwise closed network of mentors who can groom today’s young individuals into tomorrow’s industry leaders.

My experience, and that of several peers and colleagues, speaks to the importance of these networks. It'll take a real commitment — and real courage — from the often homogeneous senior leadership of big green groups to curtail the insular hiring practices that cut off opportunities for people of color.

If you happen to be one of those leaders: Be courageous! Host or attend a workshop in a community that's impacted by the issues that interest you. Listen to those who speak up; they're usually the ones who are most concerned, and they can become invaluable resources.

To my fellow people of color in clean energy: Open yourself to mentorship. Let’s meet and nurture new, young minds in the industry — and be resources to each other.

After all, the whole planet needs to change. We all need a seat at the table.

Lyn Griffith Taylor ( is a New Economy Maryland Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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