Environmental organizations all over the country are missing the mark when it comes to addressing the interconnectedness between racial and economic inequality and the climate crisis. This can be attributed to the underrepresentation of Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) within these organizations. While there have been efforts in increasing diversity within environmental organizations, these initiatives have still been geared mainly toward gender mainstreaming and as such, white women have been the beneficiaries of these reforms. Thus, there is a need to include more BIPOC in environmental organizations to enact more effective, inclusive and sustainable change.
Ethnic minorities hold a mere 16% of staff positions and 12% of leadership positions within environmental organizations. These statistics can be attributed to the lack of recruitment being done in BIPOC communities. Scholarships, fellowships and other entry-level positions are heavily advertised online, posing a problem to BIPOC communities due to the racial digital divide. Nearly half of those without at-home internet access are people of color. Home internet access requires families to be in good financial standing which includes the ability to pass a credit check, historically associated with racial discrimination. Organizations that seek to diversify their staff must consider the racial digital divide and advertise their positions by entering BIPOC communities.
There is a damaging misconception that minorities are not concerned with environmental issues. The truth is, environmental concerns emerged relatively concurrently to the civil rights movement, therefore minorities believed that the environmental movement would undermine the work that needed to be done in the name of racial equality. Even prior to the 1960s, the idea that there were not people of color who immersed themselves in environmental work is a fallacy. In 1898, W.E.B. DuBois’s study of health and housing conditions of African Americans living in Philadelphia revealed the connections between environmental conditions and social inequality.
Racism and economic inequality impede folks from living sustainable lives. Police brutality and the climate crisis are both manifestations of structural violence, stagnating sustainable growth in BIPOC communities. BIPOC face environmental hazards and risks in the forms of contaminated drinking water, schools near toxic plants and building nuclear waste dumps near communities of color. For example, in a 2019 study of exposure to fine particulate matter, it was found that namely Black and Latino communities face nearly 40% more exposure to toxic air pollution than their white counterparts who as a matter of fact, generate more pollution. Environmental organizations that are dominated by white voices often leave out how environmentally degrading industrial practices inflict violence upon human lives, making it clear that we must include Black and brown experiences in these organizations. Broadening the diversity among these organizations would also broaden their capacity to address complex environmental issues that are deeply intertwined with racial and economic inequality.
The sensationalization of white environmentalism, mainstreamed by social media influencers primarily in the form of mason jars and metal straws, ignores issues of environmental racism upheld by devastating capitalist production. For example, the packaging that we receive these zero-waste products in are wrapped in plastic and transported across long distances, further contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. As a result, these seemingly zero-waste products are improved means to an unimproved end. Ideally, sustainability lies in reducing one’s ecological footprint through reusing materials you already have. Educated consumer choices are a step in the right direction, however, the initial response to a climate crisis shouldn’t be to replace all of your commodities with eco-friendly versions.
Instead, a more sustainable alternative would be to first, consume less. For example, within various Indigenous cultures, the concept of sustainability is already ingrained into Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS). Indigenous peoples engage with conservation and preservation practices that enable sustainable development and don’t engage with capitalist or materialist practices. We must acknowledge and highlight alternative values, practices and belief systems that sustainably engage with the ecology of their environments rather than promote a culture of polluting consumption. In other words, because BIPOC are not getting a seat at the table of environmental organizations, their unique perspectives that can offer us a paradigm shift towards sustainable environmentalism are left unexpressed and unpracticed.
The underrepresentation of BIPOC within environmental organizations suggests that issues important to these communities are being neglected. While environmental organizations are involved in the protection of the natural environment and its inhabitants, they have ignored calls for environmental justice. The dominant presence of white men and women within these spaces alienates BIPOC from getting involved in important environmental work. Dorceta Taylor, an environmental sociologist at the University of Michigan suggests that environmental organizations must “stop being so afraid of people of color” and recruit them in their spaces. In addressing impediments that prevent BIPOC from obtaining and retaining positions, environmental organizations would be more equipped to instill sustainable change.