As statues and flags memorializing the Confederacy are falling, the environmental movement is grappling with its own dark history. Environmental organizations have long been criticized, rightly so, for their whiteness. From the communities they engage to the people they hire to lead them, it is hard to ignore the large, white elephant in the room. And while most environmental organizations work and strive for diversity, this culture persists.
Why is this the case? Because, like America, a legacy of racism haunts the conservation movement.
Men considered “fathers of conservation,” like John Muir — the founder of the Sierra Club — Madison Grant, Gifford Pinchot, and many others, made important contributions to protecting America’s most precious resources. But with actions ranging from supporting racist views to, in the case of Grant, actively advocating for eugenics and white supremacy, the environmental movement’s history is rooted in white supremacy culture. The Sierra Club recently apologized for derogatory comments and racist views of Muir.
It should be no surprise then that these systems of inequity persist. Look no further than the lack of diversity within environmental and conservation groups. A 2014 report found that people of color comprise 36% of the U.S. population but account for only 12% of the staff of environmental NGOs. And while the 2019 Green 2.0 Diversity Report Card revealed positive trends in diversifying organizations, their subsequent report Leaking Talent showed that environmental organizations are experiencing high burn out and turnover rates of people of color; a reminder that just hiring a diverse candidate is not enough.
The environmental community must reform its internal culture to one that embraces the vast benefits of diverse ideas, opinions and perspectives. When people of color are part of the decision-making process, we create a work environment which fosters more innovation and creativity, and we begin to truly represent the communities in which we serve.
The Chesapeake Bay restoration community has long discussed the desire and need to engage with diverse communities in our watershed. Still, some conservation organizations may argue that focusing on dismantling systemic racism is a distraction from their core environmental focus. However, what we as a community need to understand is that people of color in this country are at greater risk of violence when they are participating in the very activities that we encourage people to engage in. Going for a run, hiking in the woods or birding in a city park can put people of color into life or death situations. Merely protecting and restoring our public lands and waterways is not enough. Until nature is accessible to all without fear of harm or discrimination we have failed in our mission.
The environmental movement can no longer ignore its history.
We must acknowledge the pain inflicted by the actions and silence of the environmental movement. At the Choose Clean Water Coalition, we are working intentionally with our 250 member organizations spread throughout the bay region to make racial justice part of the core of our missions, rather than on the fringe of our focus. This includes, but is not limited to, unpacking our dominant white culture within our organizations, building a movement that consistently includes diverse voices and elevates their talent into leadership positions, and endorsing environmental justice policy and legislation that addresses systemic inequities within our society.
America’s recent response to the pernicious influence of racism is long overdue. Building awareness and understanding is a good first step, but environmentalists need to join this movement and act. By looking internally at ourselves and our organizations, those in the community working to protect and restore the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and streams can take a small, incremental step toward progress. We will continue the journey toward equity and justice by recognizing the dark history of the conservation movement and committing ourselves to a brighter and more inclusive future.
Mariah Davis (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Choose Clean Water Coalition’s policy and campaigns manager. The Choose Clean Water Coalition is an organization that harnesses the collective power of more than 250 local, state, regional and national groups to advocate for clean rivers and streams in all communities in the Chesapeake region.