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The GreenBiz Interview

Whitney Tome: How to diversify the sustainability C-Suite

Green 2.0 's executive director explains why diverse green leadership is key, and how to ensure everyone has a seat at the table.

Climate change most heavily impacts people of color and low-income populations. Yet people in diverse communities are coming up with stellar solutions to environmental problems. Some answers originate within corporate boardrooms, but even environmental executives aren’t immune to racial hiring bias, whether conscious or unconscious.

According to nonprofit consultancy Green 2.0, people of color comprise only 12 to 16 percent of staff at environmental organizations and agencies. The group has created a checklist for hiring managers to reverse the statistic, but change runs deeper than “checking off boxes.” 

Whitney Tome, Green 2.0’s executive director, is a lawyer at the Raben Group who has worked on the Environmental Defense Fund’s oceans program and established diversity metrics for the National Parks Conservation Association. GreenBiz spoke to Tome about the steps environmental professionals must take to include everyone on the journey towards sustainability. 

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Anya Khalamayzer: Why are people in environmental leadership good stewards of environmental strategy, but not diversity?

Whitney Tome: The environmental movement started full-throttle in the late 1960s and 1970s with the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. That trajectory began the modern era of the environmental movement, and a lot of those things were largely done by upper- to middle-class whites. We also had the advent of the environmental justice movement, which was mainly driven by leaders of color based on local — and sometimes national — issues that impact communities. It focused on things like power plants that are polluting water, soil and air across the street from their home.

You can even go back to the founding of our country and recognize the places in history where people of color, namely Native Americans, were pushed out of the mainstream. Then there was the advent of the protection of wilderness for people of wealth and ability. By default, that turned into the modern environmental movement. It needs to be catalyzed to be more heterogenous.  

Khalamayzer: What are the problems and obstacles that minorities face when trying to reach the environmental C-Suite?

Tome: A couple of things are happening here. One is the [insularity] of the environmental movement to date. Largely, in most sectors, you go to the people that you know or people that you see that do the work in this movement. As a result, when people of color start to move to that upper management level, they realize they’re going to be the first stepping into that role.

As an organization, you’re going to have to be ready to support that person, potentially in a different way than anyone else who has stepped into that kind of role. Is the movement ready to systemically tackle issues for communities of color?

What often happens is that the person of color becomes a champion for these issues, whether they always want to be or not. If you’ve been pushing for years to get that across at the senior level, are you ready to take those issues across the board? And sometimes, the organization wasn't ready to tackle those issues. So the person left and went to another organization that they felt were ready, or into consultancies.

How do you hold yourself accountable — create systems and structures in place — to ensure that both the advancement and commitment to diversity happen at all levels of the organization?

Khalamayzer: What can white people do to be better allies for our peers to move up in environmental leadership?

Tome: There are some people who are already doing this well, who really cultivated, even in their own team, diverse teams of people. They are thinking of what they do that for themselves or to help elevate others over time. What you need to recognize is that being a white ally, or a person of color being an ally, both of these things can co-exist.

Think about what does that that person actually want to do or can do? Not everyone of color is going to want to be the champion for diversity issues. If a person wants to champion these issues on a regular basis, how do I give them the breadth and depth of access to information for leadership decision-making?

How do you hold yourself accountable — create systems and structures in place — to ensure that both the advancement and commitment to diversity happen at all levels of the organization? That means committing to diversity through benchmarks, measures and performance reviews to get the whole organization to think more systemically about these issues.

Khalamayzer: How can environmental leaders create solutions to diversify their organization?

Tome: When you’re looking for diversity, be very clear about what that means for you as an organization. Then, make sure your interview panel, and slate of candidates you get, is diverse from the outset. If it’s not, are you willing to get a diverse slate of candidates? And if not, why not? Is it something so pressing that you will lose funding? Or maybe waiting means you don’t have another person for a month or two.

That diverse candidate slate is definitely one of the benchmarks. We’ve seen it through the Rooney Rule at the NFL, or studies at the Harvard Business Review, showing that having at least one, and even just diverse two candidates — women, people of color — will substantially increase the likelihood that you will hire them. That is a huge step in the right direction to making this change happen across the board.

Khalamayzer: What does diversity mean to you?

Tome: For me, diversity includes everyone from the legal protected classes. Because I’m a lawyer, I think about race, gender and nationality, but also the ones that are slowly starting to be protected: sexual orientation, sexual identity, gender. When I think of diversity, I think of it broadly.

When you have more diverse people tackling problems, you usually get more durable, profitable and comprehensive solutions to problems. It’s a simple business case.

Khalamayzer: The report was mostly targeted towards environmental movements and NGOs. How can we tailor it to sustainability officers in executive corporate roles?

Tome: When it comes to the corporate side of the house, I’m sure that a lot of the findings would probably be applicable to the corporate suite as well, including unconscious bias.

The corporate sector has a lot of money, and a lot of people are initially drawn to that space initially because of the financial reward. A lot of things that apply to [nonprofits] apply to them, and that’s also that we are human.

What kind of institution have you created? And how do you want to change it to the coming demographic of the U.S. population? What kind of barriers have you created or opportunities to allow that next generation to come into play?

Khalamayzer: Why is it important to diversify the environmental movement?

Tome: When I think about the environmental challenges that are happening right now, from the new energy economy to ocean acidification, who is prepared to give us the best solutions to all of the challenges when it comes to clean food, water and air?

I want everyone to have a seat at the table. When you have more diverse people tackling problems, you usually get more durable, profitable and comprehensive solutions to problems. It’s a simple business case.

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