Make the environmental movement more green, and less white
Our environment is constantly changing, and it seems as though there is an environmental event or awareness initiative happening nearly every week. In 2017, we saw unprecedented devastation caused by hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria here in the United States. All across the country and world, there’s been an increase in the use of fossil fuels and, without effective regulation, a growing air, land, and water pollution problem.
These events are not to be taken lightly and are cause for concern to those who work and care about protecting the environment. Given the times that we live in today, a demanding and unpredictable environment needs strong, educated and diverse individuals in leadership positions within the industry.
For too long, white environmentalists have ascended to leadership roles because it is generally suggested that they’re more equipped, knowledgeable, and passionate about issues that affect the environment. This belief is a myth and adversely impacts the progress we have made on a variety of environmental issues. If we want to continue making advancements in the climate change movement, we should be more inclusive and ensure leadership positions are held by a diverse group of experts. This lack of diversity is hurting the movement and stalling progress that’s been made to address the issue of climate change.
My passion for diversity blossomed during a 40-year career with the U.S. Coast Guard. To my great fortune, my mostly-white male supervisors nurtured and enabled my success. In 2010, I was honored to become the first African American to attain the rank of Coast Guard three-star vice admiral.
While at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) during the last two years of the Obama administration, I joined then-Administrator Dr. Kathryn Sullivan to advance the cause of diversity, equity, and inclusion throughout NOAA. Top leaders engaged in a series of crucial conversations with our people to drive enhancements to organizational climate and culture.
Our strategy is best summarized in a quote by Joe Gerstandt, co-author of “Social Gravity: Harnessing the Natural Laws of Relationships:” “If you do not intentionally, deliberately, and proactively include, you will unintentionally exclude.” Organizations that value diversity and inclusion inspire greater motivation and commitment from their people, thereby enhancing organizational performance.
I share my story and experiences to highlight that’s there’s a lack of diversity in a specific sector in the environmental movement: oceans.
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, if important changes are not made and protections are not put in place, more than half of the world’s ocean species may be extinct by the year 2100. Oceans are home to thousands of marine species that are vital to humankind, and that deserve our attention and protection. Another organization dedicated to ocean preservation, the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative, states that while we have made some progress on ocean issues, there is significant work to be done, such as ensuring that U.S. leaders discuss the ocean during international climate conversations. Congress must also ratify the United Nations’ Convention on the Law of the Sea, a global ocean governance document.
No matter the issue of focus, if we do not involve communities of color in our nation’s environmental movement, we are putting all environments at risk. We need the brightest, smartest, and most passionate minds at the table and our nation’s minorities can no longer be excluded.
Professor Maya Beasley of the University of Connecticut surveyed more than 100 environmentally-focused organizations to understand how they prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) within the company. The study found that nearly 60 percent of environmental organizations do not have a diversity plan in place. This is the root of the problem. If environmental organizations do not prioritize the establishment of DEI initiatives and hire people of color into leadership roles, communities of color will continue to be left out of the conversation and the environment will suffer.
This is the mission of Green 2.0, an initiative that works with NGOs, foundations and government agencies to promote diversity in environmental issues. Since the report, “The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations: Mainstream NGOs, Foundations & Government Agencies,” Green 2.0 has spurred 32 of the top 40 NGOs to submit their diversity data with over 500 foundations and nonprofits willingly submitting their data to GuideStar.
Surprisingly, ocean focused organizations are lagging behind the rest of the environmental movement. But data is only the first step. The movement now must act.
While our problems are vast, the solution is simple — we must increase the diversity of leadership in our environmental organizations in order to effectively tackle the challenges ahead. Our environment depends on it.
Retired Vice Admiral Manson K. Brown is a former assistant secretary of Commerce for Environmental Observation and Prediction and deputy administrator for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.