Conservation has evolved leaps and bounds since the 1970s. The catchy “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” narrative has become more serious as more and more people directly experience the impact of climate change. But one aspect of the green movement has stubbornly remained stuck in the past: diversity.
The green movement’s diversity problem
Although climate change affects all people, communities of color often have greater exposure to environmental risk. These risks often intertwine with socioeconomic inequality and other forms of privilege.
Making environmental issues worse
Nearly every issue related to climate change has a disparate impact on vulnerable and marginalized communities.
For example, areas with a lot of concrete and no trees — a mix that’s common in many low income communities in Los Angeles — are often hotter, Isara Ongwiseth, sustainable landscape designer at FormLA Landscaping, says.
“Hotter surroundings make for higher energy costs. So, we add a challenge to those already struggling when we choose a palm tree over a shade-producing native oak tree,” Ongwiseth explains.
And the reliance on pollution-heavy, carbon-intensive fossil fuels produces higher levels of toxins in low income communities, and these areas tend to have larger populations of people of color, Simon Tam, marketing director at Oregon Environmental Council, adds.
Also: Improvement initiatives, such as alternative sources of power, often have a cost that is more easily absorbed by people with power, privilege, and income. Environmental organizations must remain mindful of the possible unintended consequences of legislative bills and proposals. These environmental improvements, while positive, could place additional burdens on marginalized groups. This consequence can be avoided if people in privilege positions listen to people of color, and not just speak on their behalf, Tam adds.
Changing the green movement
The green movement only can improve once organizations and entire communities become involved.
Too often, people of color are seen as "tokens" within organizations. However, true diversity can only be achieved when qualified people of color are hired into leadership positions.
Leaders who have diverse backgrounds offer a broad set of perspectives — these perspectives ensure different needs and experiences are represented. And a diverse staff, in general, can help an organization gain credibility and convey a more sincere commitment to diversity and inclusion. This allows coalition building with other groups, such as advocacy groups of color and the LGBTQ community, Tam says.
“[And] people respond best to those they see as like them,” says Shel Horowitz, green and transformative business profitability expert.
“If an organization only has white, economically comfortable, straight staffers, it's tougher to organize in communities that need it most. As a movement, we are much stronger [with] diversity.”
The environment is a social justice issue
Since the Trump administration moved into the White House, climate activists have felt more compelled to fight for change. “[With] a government that is openly hostile to poor people, people of color, and the planet, the rise of intersectionality — seeing multiple issues as linked — [is] a major factor in the resistance,” Horowitz says.
The modern green movement can harness this momentum by improving one community at a time. For example, many poor communities are food deserts and have inadequate supermarkets and convenience stores that often only offer low-quality, overpriced food.
One seemingly small but meaningful way the resistance can do this is through increasing neighborhood food self-sufficiency.
For example, an environmental organization could help convert urban rooftops and empty lots into high-quality, organic food sites. These spaces could feed people while addressing climate change (eliminating transport, oxygenating polluted air) and economic disenfranchisement (creating jobs, lowering food costs).
“We need to 'walk our talk' around inclusiveness and intersectionality," Horowitz adds.
"[That means to] show up for other communities when they need us. We are all stronger when we look past our own immediate self-interest [and] build [the] movement."
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