Orion Magazine hosted an online meeting, “Bringing Cultural Diversity to the Environmental Movement,” on June 19. The speakers set the stage for the conversation by talking about alienation. They’ve noticed a culture of subtle silencing, unintentional exclusion, and institutionalized discrimination in the environmental movement which shuts down the contributions of people of color.
When environmental professionals of color meet one another, said presenter Marcelo Bonta, they begin telling stories about their innovations which have not been accepted by their employers. They also talk about the social exclusion they experience regularly.
“I always feel like an outsider,” Bonta said. He founded an organization, Environmental Professionals of Color, to provide a structure where environmentalists of color can connect with one another and advise organizations about diversity.
This bleak environment still exists despite a backdrop of increasing diversity in the United States. 2011 was the first year since the country was colonized when more ethnic minority children were born here than white children. This trend is likely to continue and could affect the long-term viability of the environmental movement in the United States. If environmental organizations do not diversify, social justice organizations may end up taking on their responsibilities.
Minority communities do take an interest in environmental issues, careers and activities, Bonta said. Since environmental groups and degree programs are failing to connect with minority communities, social justice organizations have stepped in to fill this role and are engaging in sustainability and environmental justice efforts.
One of the presenters, Ginny McGinn, leads a retreat called Young Leaders Reimagining Conservation where she encourages environmentalists to examine issues of privilege and race. The program is based at the Center for Whole Communities. Half of the attendees at the retreats are environmentalists of color.
Monica Smiley, executive director of Tualatin Riverkeepers in Oregon, says the retreat was one of the most profound experiences of her life. “It really lit the fire,” she said. She returned to Oregon determined to diversify her organization’s staff, board and outreach. Tualatin Riverkeepers is in a watershed region with a mostly Latino population; Smiley resolved to reach out to Latinos and include them in environmental programs and decision making.
From Bonta’s perspective, linking sustainability to equity will open the doors of the environmental movement to more diverse points of view – a change which he feels is urgently needed. “That’s the future – not just of the environmental movement, but society in general,” he said.
“Conserving [and] preserving the environment is also about people,” McGinn said. “Van Jones really got it once he began to connect the dots.”
McGinn pointed out that environmentalists understand the value of biodiversity; diversity of background and opinion is just as valuable as biodiversity, from an organizational standpoint. “Diversity is what creates a healthy environment,” she said.
To listen to the audio recording of the event, visit the Orion Magazine multimedia website.