Puzzling Lack of Ethnic Diversity in the American Environmental Movement

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Samnam Phin, manager, Copicut Woods, the Trustees of Reservations

The American environmental movement was founded on racism, Barry Yeoman points out in Audubon Magazine (September/October 2011). Wealthy conservationists credited themselves with discovering pristine wilderness areas, then promptly evacuated Native Americans and “preserved” the land for sportsmen. John Muir himself said Yosemite Valley’s Mono Indians were “hideous” and lacked any “right place in the landscape.” Things have come a long way since the 1800s, but environmental groups still struggle to diversify their mostly white organizations.

A 2009 survey conducted by the Democratic Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin & Associates and the Republican Public Opinion Strategies shows that 61 percent of African Americans consider climate change a serious problem, while only 39 percent of whites feel the same. And yet, at the National Wildlife Federation, the country’s largest nonprofit conservation organization, the management is 93 percent white. The hierarchy at the National Audubon Society, with its powerful network of state chapters preserving birds and wildlife, is 91 percent white.

“For the environmental movement to survive,” writes Yeoman, “it must cultivate new leaders who mirror the demographics of a nation that’s now 36 percent minority.” The annual Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences conference draws 400 of the country’s brightest Hispanic and black students but few environmental groups, even as agriculture businesses like Monsanto and Cargill snap up talented prospects. Among the dozens of people Yeoman interviewed, white managers seemed uniformly puzzled over how to diversify their ranks, while people of color described being consistently rejected.

Although not addressing management-level segregation, some groups have made positive steps toward inclusiveness. Rather than battling Native Americans, the Sierra Club now partners with tribes to oppose uranium mining in the Southwest. And the Trustees of Reservations, a New England-based land preservation group known for its privileged heritage, has shifted from protecting only remote wilderness–inaccessible to urban populations–to also preserving farmland and urban gardens, with nearly 25 percent of its recently acquired land located in or near cities. Many inner-city immigrants have rural roots, which led the Trustees to partner with a Boston nonprofit that maintains community gardens cultivated by Haitian, Vietnamese, and Puerto Rican immigrants.

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