Missing persons

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.”

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.”

Harpreet Johal, a fellow climate campaigner with DSF, says the feedback she’s seen is a hunger for more environmental information in the Indo-Canadian communities. “They’re really happy when we come knocking on their doors and ask for input on what role we can play,” Johal says. “A lot of people are already doing more than the average person for the environment, just for different reasons.”

She and Hwo are pleasantly surprised at Suzuki’s name recognition in ethnic communities, and enjoy bringing him onto Vancouver’s ethnic radio shows to engage with diverse communities.

“Even though he needs translation, he’s talking directly to the audience. They call in and try to impress him,” Hwo says. “They say things like, ‘Can you tell David I don’t eat meat three days each week, even though he suggests starting with one day a week?’ ”

Hwo and Johal connect with ethnic community leaders who recognize Suzuki’s name and are receptive to the green message. These leaders then spread that message within their neighbourhoods. It’s this type of grassroots effort, experts agree, that will lead to more inclusive and lasting change.

Other shades of green

The Multicultural Environmental Leadership Development Initiative (MELDI) is a project housed at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment. MELDI aims to increase diversity in environmental organizations as well as within the broader environmental movement. It also promotes greater leadership diversity in the environmental field.

MELDI’s faculty and staff conduct research on environmental workforce dynamics and provide resources such as jobs directories, a listing of environmental justice researchers and organizations, and a database of over 200 minority environmental professionals.


Hip Hop Caucus
The Hip Hop Caucus is an American civil and human rights organization that began in 2004. Its vision is to create a more just and sustainable world by engaging more people, particularly youth and people of colour, in the civic and policy making process. With over 650,000 supporters across the U.S., its makeup is quite diverse: 70 per cent are under 40 and 60 per cent are female; a majority are African-American and Latino, with a large white contingent, as well as Asian-American and Native American.

“The environmental movement needs to connect with young people, and the best way to do that is with popular culture,” says Ayana Meade. “Particularly with young people of colour, it’s the hip hop culture.”

Green Change
The Green Change project is an initiative that was started in 2009 to reach out to residents in the Jane-Finch corridor of Toronto on environmental issues. The area has a multicultural population that includes refugees and low-income earners, and it frequently struggles with gang violence. The project trains local youth to talk to residents about reducing waste, conserving energy and other money-saving green ideas.

Sonia Dong says the project is successful because of the grassroots approach. “Other environmental groups were coming out and asking, ‘Why do you have a space heater in your apartment?’ or ‘Why are you opening the window when the heat’s on?’ ” What these other groups didn’t understand, she says, is that residents of community housing [generally] do not have control over the thermostats.

“People are familiar with the youth ambassadors and trust them,” Dong says. As a result, these ambassadors are able to gain more insight into residents’ needs. Resulting initiatives include a green jobs project that will see carpenters providing technical skills training for green renovations.

Latest from Climate Crisis

current issue