In Oregon and U.S., green groups are mostly white

Oregonlive_jpegOriginally posted Jan. 27, 2008
by Scott Learn, OregonLive.com

In the mainstream green movement, being any color but white
can be a little lonely.

Take it from Marcelo Bonta, who’s half Filipino. He
got a job with the Portland office of a wildlife nonprofit,
then began going to national environmental conferences.

"I’d see only one or two or three people of color
out of 100 to 200 people in the room," he says. "I
felt like I’d stepped back a few decades, if not more,
in terms of race and ethnicity."

Despite decades of hand-wringing by the typically liberal
organizations, more than one-third of mainstream green
groups and one-fifth of green government agencies in the
United States don’t have a single nonwhite person on
their staff, according to a University of Michigan
survey.

And about 90 percent of the staff and board members for
groups belonging to the Natural Resources Council of America
are white, according to a 2002 survey for the group.

Oregon is no exception. The 115 staff members for the
Oregon League of Conservation Voters, Oregon Environmental
Council, Ecotrust, Oregon Wild and the Audubon Society of
Portland include two Latinos, two Asian Americans, one
Native American and no African Americans, their leaders
say.

Ecotrust has two Native Americans on its board. Of the 56
board members for the four other groups, 55 are white and
one is Asian American.

Bonta, 34, now a Portland-based green consultant, is
teaming with Charles Jordan, 70, a former Portland city
commissioner and parks director, to help mainstream green
groups walk their progressive talk.

The two co-wrote the keystone chapter for a just-released
Yale School of Forestry book on diversifying the green
movement. Bonta advises environmental groups on how to
diversify, and he started a center for diversity and a group
for young environmental professionals of color in Portland.
Jordan, the first African American board chairman of a
national group, The Conservation Fund, has emphasized the
importance of green diversity for years.

The clubbiness of mainstream environmental groups threatens
to leave out the fastest-growing portion of the population.
That limits outreach to nonwhites and contributes to a
segregated green movement, with more minorities heading to
grass-roots environmental justice groups.

It also helps opponents cast the powerful mainstream groups
and their causes as elitist, even though surveys indicate
that nonwhites care about environmental issues at least as
much as whites.

 

Monoculture

With one-third of the United States nonwhite, the
monoculture in the mainstream green movement "is
obvious to anybody involved," Bonta says.

Environmentalists haven’t ignored the problem. In the
1990s, after being berated by civil rights leaders, the
Sierra Club and others tuned in to environmental justice
issues, such as inner-city asthma and pollution in poor
neighborhoods.

In Oregon, leaders of environmental groups say they want
more racial diversity. Many are building relationships in
minority communities and tweaking recruiting practices.

That’s true for Meryl Redisch, director of the Audubon
Society of Portland. But the group’s 15-member board
remains all white, and it has one nonwhite, an Asian
American, out of 22 staff members.

"We could do better," she said. "We are so
not there."

Part of the challenge is the lack of diversity in Portland
and Oregon — with 26 percent nonwhites and Hispanics in the
city and 19 percent statewide in a 2006 Census Bureau
survey. But the numbers among the environmental groups and
agencies are considerably lower than the population at
large.

One example: At last count, Portland’s Office of
Sustainable Development had no minorities among 17 community
relations positions, though a city analysis indicated that
minorities made up nearly 20 percent of the qualified job
pool.

 

Elitist beginnings

The environmental movement began with an elitist tinge,
says Matthew Klingle, an environmental historian at Bowdoin
College in Maine. At the beginning of the 20th century, its
leaders were white and its interests were protecting
wildlife and wilderness from the masses.

Bonta and Jordan say the most common explanation for the
continuing lack of diversity has been that minorities care
less about the environment than whites. They’re poorer,
the theory goes, and have more concrete things to worry
about.

But hang on. Surveys indicate that nonwhites care at least
as much as whites about environmental issues, including
climate change, preservation of open space and tropical
deforestation.

African Americans interviewed for a 2002 Detroit area
survey were more likely than whites to see the loss of
natural places as "very serious," University of
Michigan researcher Paul Mohai found. Ditto air pollution,
pesticides in food and the loss of rain forests.

Nationwide, those patterns held true, according to
Mohai’s analysis of the University of Chicago’s
social surveys. By 2000, larger percentages of African
Americans than whites surveyed viewed the greenhouse effect
and air pollution from cars and industry as "very"
or "extremely" dangerous.

Latino numbers are harder to find. But a 2004 opinion poll
of likely voters found Latinos more likely to support a $50
annual tax to buy open lands, and two-thirds said they
considered themselves environmentalists. Exit polls for Los
Angeles-area environmental measures found similar results.

Dorceta Taylor, a University of Michigan professor,
recently surveyed college students in the science and
engineering pipeline. Nonwhite students are as willing as
whites to work for the lower pay of the nonprofit groups,
she says.

"Students of color are in the majors, they’re
getting advanced degrees, and they don’t want too much
money," Taylor says. "So something else must be
going on."

Many nonwhites choose to work for environmental justice
groups over mainstream groups. Bonta says the explanation
lies partly in the homogenous culture of the mainstream
green movement.

The groupthink extends beyond race. Environmental groups,
long focused on regulations and lawsuits, often have a wonky
orientation, Bonta says, valuing PowerPoint presentations
over conversations.

Taylor’s research also indicates that minority
candidates are much more likely than whites to value
multicultural workplaces. Leaders need to go beyond just
recruiting nonwhites and set aside time to openly discuss
racial issues, Bonta says, from comments seen as racist to
good-old-boy hiring practices to concerns about plum
assignments going to whites.

"A lot of people of color are tired of the pressure of
always being the educator and checking someone," he
says.

 

Push for diversity

Three of the Portland Office of Sustainable
Development’s past five hires have been nonwhite,
bringing its unofficial totals to six nonwhites out of 43
employees. In part that’s because of a leadership push
for racial and economic diversity.

"We don’t want to be a bunch of greenies all just
talking to each other," director Susan Anderson says.
"We need real people."

The city’s human resources office requires a formal
hiring process and bird-dogs bureau diversity numbers.
Taylor’s surveys indicate that most green groups rely
on informal personal networks and word of mouth — a problem
because people tend to refer candidates of their own race
and class.

Late last year, the Oregon Environmental Council brought on
Lily Guajardo, a 25-year-old biology graduate from Texas, an
AmeriCorps member and the organization’s second
nonwhite worker.

Environmental groups need to realize that the messenger
matters, Guajardo says. "For the Hispanic community,
the information will be more trusted if it comes from
someone of their background."

The messenger is important for African Americans, too, says
Jordan. In 1992, Jordan warned about the mainstream
environmental movement’s "increasing isolation
from the grass roots."

Now, Jordan says, mainstream groups are improving, and
concern about global warming is spreading among all races.

"Once society sees this is really going to be
color-coordinated, I think we’re going to perform
miracles," he says.

Scott Learn: ; [email protected]

 

 

 

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