The environmental movement can’t afford to exclude anyone. Yet green organizations have typically ignored people of colour.
When Sonia Dong first pitched the idea of a conference on diversity, some participants thought they would be learning about ecosystem variation.
In fact, the environmental NGO (ENGO) staffer had to explain, it was going to be about increasing the diversity of voices within the environmental movement—an issue such organizations have historically failed to recognize.
That’s a problem, says Dong, because at the moment, the predominant voice is likely to be middle-class and white, despite an increasingly diverse population. As the diversity project manager at the Sustainability Network, a Toronto-based ENGO, Dong sometimes finds herself the only non-white attendee at environmental events.
“Most ENGOs today have little diversity and don’t reflect or authentically engage the communities they serve,” she says. For instance, the executive directors of the David Suzuki Foundation (DSF), Greenpeace Canada, Pembina Institute, Sierra Club of Canada and WWF-Canada are all white males.
It’s a North American problem, too. American environmentalists of colour such as Lisa Jackson, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and Marcelo Bonta, executive director of the Center for Diversity and the Environment in Oregon, have coined the phrase “tyranny of fleece” to highlight the movement’s homogeneity.
Perhaps top ranks aren’t filled with people of colour because ENGOs don’t think diversity is necessary. A 2009 report by Earth Day Canada found ENGOs mistakenly believe visible minorities are not interested in environmental well-being. In a time when mainstream environmental interest is fading—contrast the discourse of the 2008 and 2011 federal elections—ENGOs must extend their reach into diverse communities more than ever.
Looking in the mirror
“The environmental movement is failing,” says geneticist and broadcaster Dr. David Suzuki. “I don’t call myself an environmentalist anymore. It’s time to broaden our tent and realize if we are working for a sustainable society, any group facing terrorism, genocide or war is not going to give a damn about the environment.”
Freelance journalist Ayana Meade agrees that when survival is at stake, environmental issues aren’t top of mind. Meade, who is based in New York, founded the Society of Environmental Journalists’ Diversity Task Force in response to the low percentage of journalists of colour reporting on environmental issues.
“Poor people of colour aren’t going to be concerned with existential happenings like global warming,” says Meade. “The movement needs to connect with their immediate concerns: economic and social development.”
This is vital, since environmental degradation disproportionally impacts people of colour. A 2005 Associated Press study found black Americans are 79 per cent more likely than whites to live in neighbourhoods where industrial pollution is suspected of posing the greatest health danger. While there hasn’t been an equivalent Canadian study, as of January 2011, almost one in five First Nations communities—117 in total—were under drinking water advisories.
For that reason, says Meade, “it’s important the face of the movement is not just a white face. It should reflect the people most affected by these issues.”
To achieve that reflection, ENGOs need to take off their blinders and realize “hunger and poverty are [their] issues,” Suzuki says. “We’ve got to look at issues of equity and peace [because] they work against truly sustainable societies.”
Reflecting the community
When reaching out to ethnic communities, the DSF tries to remind people social justice and the environment are linked. Suzuki uses his own family history as an example.
“My grandparents came to Canada from Japan in the 1900s for the fish,” Suzuki says. “Many in the East Indian community came for the trees and are still involved in farming in the Okanagan. We explain those resources are all heavily under assault. We’re also trying to tell people the way we live means many of the oil companies are going into more extreme areas to drill, impacting the countries many of our immigrants come from.”