Dear White Enviros: You can’t fight climate change without communities of color
In the summer of 2020, amid America’s national reckoning with its white supremacism and systemic racism, lovers of nature and conservation began to ask questions about how our national parks and other public lands fit into this reckoning.
They took a closer look at beautiful, nationally prized landscapes, like the Grand Canyon and Yosemite National Park, that reflect the work of early conservationists who envisioned vast protected swaths of pristine, untouched wilderness for future generations to enjoy.
And then they saw the truth. When conservationists claimed these lands, they were already richly inhabited by Indigenous Peoples who had had been cultivating, conserving, and connecting with them since time immemorial.
But conservationists’ vision for these landscapes did not include Indigenous Peoples. Armed with this belief and other racist ideals, white people and government leaders embarked on the violent, forcible removal of Indigenous communities from their ancestral homelands.
Environmental and social justice champions like us can’t pretend that our feelings about America’s conservation history aren’t complicated. How can we appreciate a movement that created places of refuge for both humans and wildlife when that same movement tried to erase the existence of Indigenous Peoples from those very places?
Unfortunately, modern day conservation efforts haven’t fully removed this stain on its history; environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs) continue to be white-dominant spaces, perpetuating—albeit more subtly—the stigma of the past.
A groundbreaking 2014 report by Green 2.0, an independent non-profit organization that aims to increase racial and ethnic diversity in the environmental sphere, showed that only one in eight NGO staff were people of color. More alarmingly, only one in 20 board members were of color.
Green 2.0 and the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources know we need a change. On Feb. 8, the committee is holding a congressional hearing to talk to some of the country’s foremost experts about the environmental movement’s diversity problem and its impacts on federal environmental policymaking.
The committee will have new data on hand from Green 2.0’s most recent 2021 Transparency Report Card showing that, while NGOs have made some progress in diversifying staff over the past several years, NGO leadership is still nearly 75 percent white. This lopsided scenario isn’t an unfamiliar pattern. When organizations work to increase diversity simply for diversity’s sake, but don’t make transformational changes that bring more inclusivity, justice, and equity to the workplace, their efforts fall short.
For the first time this year, the report also examined where environmental grantmaking foundations are sending their money. The results were disappointing, but not surprising. The foundations that were willing to respond reported funding white-led environmental NGOs at nearly double the rate of NGOs led by people of color.
Witnesses at the hearing will talk about how environmental NGOs and foundations can do better—not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because the climate crisis requires it. Those most impacted by an issue must be at the table when finding solutions to address it.
Communities of color and Indigenous Peoples are overwhelmingly on the frontlines of climate change; they’re the ones bearing the brunt of higher temperatures, sea level rise, and stronger and more frequent severe weather events, including hurricanes and heatwaves. They’re the ones whose communities have been infiltrated by polluting petrochemical plants and fossil fuel production facilities. Yet, they’re also the ones who are being left out when environmental organizations are deciding how they’ll address climate change.
Excluding Indigenous voices from the conservation conversation is especially misguided. Indigenous Peoples maintain an invaluable wealth of Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge (ITEK) that has been accumulated through their relationship with the natural world and passed down through oral and written histories. ITEK should be at the forefront of solutions for more sustainable and responsible stewardship of our environment. The White House recently issued an executive order to formally recognize ITEK as a body of knowledge that should inform federal decision-making; environmental NGOs should follow a similar course.
We can’t change the American environmental movement’s dark history of white supremacy. But if we want to light a sustainable and equitable path through the climate crisis, the environmental movement must close shop on the ivory tower and open the door to more diverse voices for a more just and inclusive future.
Raúl M. Grijalva chairs the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources. He has represented Southern Arizona in Congress since 2003. Andrés Jimenez is the executive director of Green 2.0.