Making the Environmental Community More Diverse and Inclusive

Across the United States, people of color make up less than 16 percent of the staff of major environmental organizations. That’s a problem, both for the environmental movement and for the communities they serve.

So what can the environmental community do to address this problem? How can it change and grow in order to become more diverse, inclusive, and representative of the communities that are most affected by problems like climate change and pollution?

That was the topic of discussion at the “Exploring the Role of Diversity in Sustainability” panel discussion held at the Urban Co-Lab in East Austin last month.

Adding Color To Your Green Agenda

The panelists included:

A podcast recording of the panel discussion is above. We highly recommend that you give it a listen, but, if you don’t have the time to enjoy the entire thing, we’ve listed a few of the key takeaways below:

Make environmental justice, diversity, and inclusion top priorities.

Remember the people who are actually being affected by environmental problems.

“… In the environmental movement, at least very much so in these white enviro organizations, we focus so much on numbers and policy, and we forget the numbers we’re looking at are people’s lives, and people being affected in communities that are predominately people of color.” – Vanessa Ramos

Work together with frontline communities. Allow the communities being affected to lead and tell their own stories.

“…We utilize the Sierra Club name to kind of elevate other people to tell their stories… Rather than saying okay, I’m the communications person for the Sierra Club, let me write this press statement or send this media advisory on behalf of these people. No. Let them write it themselves, and then we will use our contacts, our brand, and all of those things to actually get the word out…That way you allow people to tell their own stories rather than speaking for them and I think that’s something that’s really important and that’s something that has been a success in our work.” – Olka Forster

You have to show up. You have to be an ally.

“And it can’t be just environmental focus… Are they struggling with police brutality? Are they struggling with immigrant rights issues?… What are they struggling with? And go out to these events, I mean, that’s where the trust is built because you’re saying, ‘I’m showing up to your struggle, because our struggle is together.'” – Vanessa Ramos

Provide your staff with undoing racism trainings.

Several local organizations provide these valuable workshops and trainings, including Undoing Racism Austin.

Share your knowledge with others who haven’t traditionally participated in the environmental movement.

“…There is a lot of institutional knowledge that people have…so if you’re going to say okay, I’m probably going to retire in 10 years… just share that knowledge, and that institutional knowledge specifically, with people that they don’t usually come in contact with. That’s a really good way of training other people…” – Ruthie Redmond

Hire more people of color. And when hiring, look for majors behind just environmental studies.

“…In order to get more people of color into the environmental mainstream movement, it would really be helpful to kind of loosen that criteria… We can’t be this one issue organization. I don’t think that’s really possible anymore…People can learn about the environment. People can learn about water. But to have the knowledge of what that actually looks like on the ground when people are affected by bad water quality, that’s a really important skill to have.” – Ruthie Redmond

Create a welcoming and inclusive community.

“I think community is how we drive people in. I mean, without these women on this couch with me, we wouldn’t be here.” – Vanessa Ramos

Don’t sacrifice your values to “get things done.”

“What does getting things done really mean? And for who? And how far are you going to kind of erode your values…before it’s like, okay, well now you’re in the wrong.” – Olka Forster

Understand the value of diversity within your organization.

“You’re not going to grow if you don’t go there and if you don’t understand that the environmental movement has been weaker because that part of the population has not been involved…” – Ruthie Redmond


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