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The environmental movement can’t afford to exclude anyone. Yet green organizations have typically ignored people of colour.
Suzuki’s childhood also shows that diverse communities have much to teach environmentalists. He recalls his parents taking pride in a coat they bought for him that was later handed down to each of his three sisters. “The idea of a throwaway society wasn’t a part of my childhood,” he says. “When you’re poor, you make do with whatever you have.”
Dong’s mother, a Chinese immigrant, had a similar upbringing. “She composts, recycles and grows her own food. She was poor when she was young,” she says. Yet Dong’s mother doesn’t self-identify as an environmentalist. Says Dong: “I think about all the people who wouldn’t call themselves environmentalists, yet should be involved with the discourse because they do all [the right] things.”
Following tradition from the motherland can lead to green actions, too. Suzuki recalls visiting a friend’s Italian parents who grow their own vegetables, can their own sauces and make their own sausages.
“They’re living like they did in Italy,” he says. “I said to my friend, ‘This is what we’ve got to rediscover.’ He was kind of embarrassed they’re still clinging to [tradition.] But this is where a huge amount of the movement has got to go: becoming much more local and self-sufficient. Immigrant groups that come here having a much smaller ecological footprint are going to be instructive in how to live with much less of everything.”
To that end, ENGOs need to realize they can have two-way conversations with diverse communities and forge reciprocal relationships.
“Go out to events,” says Dong. “Learn about the culture and ask what people are interested in before you start talking about your organization. We tend to think we know what’s best—it’s almost paternalistic. Don’t think you’re the expert and [that only] they are going to benefit from the discussion.”
Winnie Hwo, a DSF climate change campaigner and award-winning journalist from the Chinese-Canadian media who is active in Vancouver’s Chinese communities, agrees. “Every time we do outreach, it’s a two-way conversation.”
Hwo has found immigrants are “the doers” because they want to save money. “We’re learning from them,” she says. “We need to widen our thinking as environmental activists and tell [immigrants] they’re doing the right thing.”
Dong cautions the alternative to such engagement can be costly and counterproductive.
“We’ve heard from groups who have invested in translation services, and have stacks of literature in their office because no one wants it,” says Dong. “You need to understand whether or not those translations are meaningful to that community. It’s like looking for a job and adjusting your cover letter accordingly.”
That means removing jargon from pamphlets that even native English speakers stumble over. “How do you explain environmental capacity-building?” Dong laughs. “You can do a straight translation but it’s not going to make sense.”
As such, ENGOs are demanding assistance—and Dong is more than happy to provide it via Sustainability Network’s ENGO-geared Environment and Diversity Project. For instance, the network’s Aboriginal training session for ENGO employees in 2009 turned out to be one of its most popular workshops.
“We’re just not informed about the people who really founded this country. There’s this steep learning curve,” she says. “But because there’s an urgency to work on these issues, we want to just fast-track through it. It doesn’t work that way.”
While some feel diversity is an end goal, Dong says it’s a journey that’s never done. “You have to work at it. There’s always something you need to learn. We need to listen to the feedback coming back to us.”