Why it's (finally) time for sustainability to diversify

Why it's (finally) time for sustainability to diversify

Barbara Grady
"Breaking the Green Ceiling" panelists Hank Williams, CEO of Platform; Peggy Saika, president of Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy; Tomas Torres, EPA San Diego office director; Laura Butler, PG&E vice president and chief diversity officer, and musician Malik Yusef, producer of H.O.M.E. Climate.

The sooty diesel emissions drifting into the air from the Port of Oakland settle thickly in the adjacent neighborhood of West Oakland. Children in the mostly African-American neighborhood are hospitalized for asthma at seven times the national average.

In Alabama, coal-fired power plants are situated in what census data indicate are low-income communities of color, which also happen to be towns with high rates of cancer and respiratory disease. The infamous Cancer Alley, an 85-mile stretch along the Mississippi River where petrochemical pollution has been linked to heightened rates of cancer, winds through communities where ethnic minorities live.

And, in the Central Valley of California, where pesticide runoff is tainting ground water (PDF), the farming Latino communities are left without potable water.

For all the evidence that pollution and climate change hurt low-income communities of color the hardest, the mainstream environmental movement is generally led by people who are white and affluent — yes, still. And so are the boards of the foundations that fund them.

Although comprehensive workforce diversity data is still hard to come by in many industries, a recent study of 191 environmental NGOs, 74 government environmental agencies and 28 philanthropic environmental grant-making organizations conducted last year found that only 12 percent of the leadership and senior staff of the NGOs and philanthropic organizations are people of color, according to Green 2.0, which commissioned the study. People of color, defined as including Asians, African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans, make up 19 percent of managers at government environmental organizations, the report said. 

Board representation by ethnic minorities is even more rare — about 6 percent of the board members of NGOs and 13 percent of foundation board members are people of color. 

In an industry-wide moment of self-examination last week, the largest environmental organizations and philanthropies gathered and challenged each other to diversify their leadership, boards and staff. The next frontier: Might the private sector be compelled to follow suit?

Climate change "is the big challenge of our time, and I don’t think we will win this unless we are diverse,” said Tom Steyer, philanthropist, renewable energy advocate and founder of NextGen Climate, at that gathering. “You can show in the private sector that diverse companies do better. You get better decision-making when you have different points of view.”

Steyer's remarks came in a packed meeting room at the San Francisco Commonwealth Club during an event organized by Green 2.0, whose purpose is to encourage mainstream environmental organizations and grant making institutions to diversify their leadership, and cohosted by New America Media, which has been doing similar work in the media by bolstering ethnic media outlets.  The leadership of dozens of environmental organizations, as well as their more diverse rank and file staff, called upon one another and themselves to reflect the constituents they represent — literally everyone on earth.

If people around the globe are to pull back from the brink of letting the planet overheat — to take steps to prevent more than a 2 degrees Celsius rise in global temperatures — they all need a seat at the table.

Earthjustice president Trip Van Noppen said his organization has been shifting its focus toward the justice side of its mission after asking itself, "Who are the ones experiencing the problems?" Now, it is trying to hire people from a wider range of backgrounds.

Peggy Saika, president of Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy, said that if all organizations truly diversified their leadership, it could be “a game changer” for the environmental movement. To be sure, progress is already happening.

“When you’ve got the head of the EPA and the head of the NRDC both women of color, this is game changing,” she said, referring to recently retired EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and the newly elected president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Rhea Suh. Jackson now leads sustainability efforts at Apple.

Digging for data

Although the modern environmental movement has evolved over decades, some question what might be gleaned from the very recent and very public diversity struggles of a younger industry: high tech.

"What is interesting is there is a parallel movement in tech industry. It's under a lot of pressure right now," said Hank Williams, a tech entrepreneur and CEO of the company Platform. As an African American, he said it has often been a lonely road in the tech industry. But "wonderful things" have resulted from the pressure on the industry and now Google, Twitter, Yahoo, Facebook and Apple are making efforts to hire more widely and prepare a pipeline of computer scientists by funding education and internship initiatives. "If tech can do it," Williams said, there's no reason the environmental movement can't. 

That sentiment was amplified by Robert Raben of the Washington D.C.-based consultancy the Raben Group, who founded Green 2.0 for the very purpose of diversifying the movement.  

Green 2.0, along with nonprofit partners GuideStar and the D5 Coalition, launched the effort to gather diversity data on the environmental sector, which led to a December report on "The state of Diversity in Environmental Organizations: Mainstream NGOs, Foundations & Government Agencies." More recently, it challenged environmental leaders to reveal their employee demographic statistics as a first step in changing. Their call is #pledgediversitydata.  

Five major philanthropic funders and about 60 environmental organizations pledged last week at the Commonwealth Club to take stock of their diversity numbers, report them to the public and then work to recruit leadership and board members who are people of color.

From "The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations: Mainstream NGOs, Foundations & Government Agencies."

From "The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations: Mainstream NGOs, Foundations & Government Agencies," December 2014.

Among philanthropies, the Bullitt Foundation, whose founder Dennis Hayes launched the environmental movement with the first Earth Day; Hewlett Foundation; Kresge Foundation, Meyer Memorial Trust and Rockefeller Brothers Fund have agreed to submit their diversity data to their GuideStar profiles by the April deadline in order to establish a baseline.

Sierra Club; the Natural Resources Defense Council; Earthjustice; the Environmental Defense Fund; Greenpeace USA; Green For All; the Nature Conservancy; some of the oldest environmental organizations in the nation such as the National Audubon Society, the National Parks Conservation Association and the Union for Concerned Scientists; and 50 other environmental NGOs also signed the #pledgediversitydata to release statistics on the makeup of their boards, executive staff and employee base. 

"The first Earth Day in 1970, of which I was the principal national organizer, embraced inner city groups fighting freeways that were poised to crush their neighborhoods and farm workers who were suffering nerve damage from the pesticides being sprayed over their heads," said Hayes in a statement published in the report. "At its birth, the environmental movement was a big tent, welcoming to all who shared its basic commitment to a healthy, resilient, equitable, peaceful future. We need to return to those roots." 

'Breaking the green ceiling'

One recurring theme in the conversation about "breaking the green ceiling" is going beyond diversity for diversity's sake, and instead focusing on parlaying ethnic and cultural backgrounds into more effective environmental action.

Tomas Torres, EPA regional director from the agency's San Diego office, said at the event that the key reason to diversify a staff or leadership is to be more effective.

“If your organization does not reflect the communities and constituents you serve, you are going to have a difficult time being effective,” he said. He said the EPA has found communities will trust an EPA decision if the local EPA leadership implementing a decision has people on staff who look like them.

Malik Yusef, five time Grammy award winning musician who produced the H.O.M.E. Climate Album about saving the planet, said a key is that "connectivity between do-gooders" across cultures and socio-economic differences makes their work much more effective it appeals to everyone. 

Perhaps ironically, a major element given scant attention during the conversations was the emergence of new green and grassroots organizations founded by people of color in recent years.

Most famously, Green For All was founded by Van Jones to bring environmentalism to inner city neighborhoods and build a green jobs movement that could lift people out of poverty. Jones went on to be an advisor to the White House Council on Environmental Quality, but since has returned to non-profit work.

Sustainable South Bronx started by environmentalist Majora Carter has spread the concept and will to bring those most affected by pollution into mainstream activism — an effort occuring alongside those of the nonprofit Green Bronx Machine, where a public school teacher in the South Bronx has worked to bridge urban farming and economic opportunity for students who are overwhemingly poor minorities.

And of course, Apple sustainability head Jackson, an African-American chemist, helped change the conversation. Jackson is from the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, the section of the city hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina, reinforcing the urgency of climate change and the need for climate resilience.

Finally, back in West Oakland, the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project was started by the very low-income African American residents who live there.  

Their work resulted in the massive Port of Oakland's changing how it does business, no longer allowing the idling of diesel spewing ships and trucks, but instead providing electrical outlets and gear so the container ships and tractor trailer trucks can power their moving equipment by electricity rather than diesel gas — a change that significantly has lowered emissions from the port. The change is beginning to slow down new asthma cases in the neighborhood.

As Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said at the Commonwealth Club gathering, to change things "we need everyone" at the table.