Four Ways the Green Movement Can Provide Environmental Justice for All

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This post was written by Ellicott Dandy of OneAmerica and Nicole Vallestero Keenan of Puget Sound Sage.

Four Ways the Environmental Movement can incorporate Environmental Justice
By: Nicole Vallestero Keenan, Puget Sound Sage and Ellicott Dandy, OneAmerica
 
We know that climate change is a social justice issue, and that communities of color continue to suffer significantly more than their white counterparts at the hands of environmental degradation.  Although it is often overlooked, addressing environmental inequality is an essential of moving strong policies that make our environment healthier for everyone. Why? In part it’s about doing what’s right, but it’s also necessary.
Research, by environmental justice organization Green for All, shows that people of color are more likely to care deeply about the environment.  As in the rest of the nation, the number of people of color living in Washington State is growing.  Census data shows that population growth rates among black, Latino, and API communities outpaces the growth of white communities, and the trend is predicted to continue.  As the environmental movement considers strong policies for healthier people and a healthier planet, it is logical to craft policies that serve the interests of the people most impacted, and the people whose voting base is growing.
Even though there is a growing population of people of color in Washington, who are likely to support environmental sustainability, a recent report from Green 2.0, finds that organizations at the forefront of the environmental movement are ill-equipped to engage and empower people of color in their movement. Green 2.0 finds environmental government agencies, foundations, and NGOs are often guilty of unconscious bias, apathy in addressing diversity, and of inadvertently maintaining a “green ceiling” such that the percentage of ethnic minority employees has not grown in decades.
 
In this context, many of Washington’s environmental organizations are searching for ways reverse the trend found by Green 2.0 and better engage with communities of color.  Here are four ways environmental organizations can better incorporate social justice into their work.
 
1. Re-think communications: As long-time environmental activist Gail Swanson says: “You can’t enlist all humanity if you only speak to half of the population.” Communications experts in environmental organizations know they have to change the way they talk about the environment to be more relevant to people’s every-day lives, and many have taken important steps to talk about health, safety and jobs.  However, communications is just one step to increasing engagement with communities of color, and will often come naturally if an organization applies a social justice lens to their work.    
2. Train staff to apply a critical racial lens: Trainings that teach staff to understand and address racial inequities are important, but it’s even more crucial for staff to learn how to and practice applying this awareness to their work.  How does this policy affect communities of color or low income communities? What barriers inhibit communities of color from fully engaging in this program? Has my organization sought out and included people of color in crafting this program or policy? The process of asking and seeking answers to these questions and open pathways to deep collaborations with people of color and community based organizations.
3. Actively seek out the expertise of community-based organizations: No need to reinvent the wheel! Fortunately for environmental organizations, there are people who have been doing incredible environmental justice work in communities of color for years. The mainstream environmental community can and should seek them out and work to support their programs and policy agendas. They should incorporate their input in policy design with the understanding that the policy’s success depends on local expertise of the problem and its possible solutions.  Many environmental groups have already begun doing this work, and we encourage strong and socially just partnerships.
4. Promote and hire people of color into management positions: The Green 2.0 report finds that the few people of color employed by the environmental organizations and agencies studied tend not to hold leadership positions, with the exception of the “diversity manager” role. Even genuine attempts to include people of color in the environmental movement, may be misguided nonetheless. Ensuring people of color have institutional power in environmental organizations is critical for diversifying the environmental movement. This means recruiting people of color to the board and to management-level positions, which means they must expand beyond established networks. When people in charge of hiring are from the communities their organization hopes to engage, more people from these communities are more likely to join the team. 

We know that climate change is a social justice issue and that communities of color continue to suffer significantly more than their white counterparts at the hands of environmental degradation.  Although it is often overlooked, addressing environmental inequality is an essential part of creating strong policies that make our environment healthier for everyone. Why? In part it’s about doing what’s right, but it’s also necessary.

Research by environmental justice organization Green for All shows that people of color are more likely to care deeply about the environment.  As in the rest of the nation, the number of people of color living in Washington State is growing.  Census data shows that population growth rates among black, Latino, and Asain Pacific Islander communities outpaces the growth of white communities, and the trend is predicted to continue.  As the environmental movement considers strong policies for healthier people and a healthier planet, it is logical to craft policies that serve the interests of the people most impacted, and the people whose voting base is growing.

Even though there is a growing population of people of color in Washington, who are likely to support environmental sustainability, a recent report from Green 2.0, finds that organizations at the forefront of the environmental movement are ill-equipped to engage and empower people of color in their movement. Green 2.0 finds environmental government agencies, foundations, and NGOs are often guilty of unconscious bias, apathy in addressing diversity, and of inadvertently maintaining a “green ceiling” such that the percentage of ethnic minority employees has not grown in decades.

In this context, many of Washington’s environmental organizations are searching for ways reverse the trend found by Green 2.0 and better engage with communities of color.  Here are four ways environmental organizations can better incorporate social justice into their work.

1. Strive for more inclusive communications

As long-time environmental activist Gail Swanson says: “You can’t enlist all humanity if you only speak to half of the population.” Communications experts in environmental organizations know they have to change the way they talk about their mission to be more relevant to people’s everyday lives, and many have taken important steps to reach out to a broader base by appealing to health, safety and jobs. However, communications is just one step to increasing engagement with communities of color, and will often come naturally if an organization applies a social justice lens to their work.


2. Train staff to recognize their impact on all communities

It's important to train staff to consider racial and social inequalities, but it’s even more crucial for staff to learn how to and practice applying this awareness to their work. How does their work affect communities of color, low-income communities or immigrant communities? What barriers inhibit these communities from fully engaging in their programs? Has the organization sought out and included a diverse range of stakeholders in crafting a program or policy? The process of asking and seeking answers to these questions is the first step to better collaborations with ethnic minority and community-based organizations.


3. Actively seek out the expertise of community-based organizations

No need to reinvent the wheel! Fortunately for environmental organizations, there are people who have been doing incredible environmental justice work in communities of color and other under-represented groups for years. The mainstream environmental community can and should seek them out and work to support their programs and policy agendas. They should incorporate their input in policy design with the understanding that the policy’s success depends on local expertise of the problem and its possible solutions.  Many environmental groups have already begun doing this work, and we encourage strong and socially just partnerships.


4. Promote and hire people of color into management positions

The Green 2.0 report finds that the few people of color employed by the environmental organizations and agencies studied tend not to hold leadership positions, with the exception of the “diversity manager” role. Ensuring people of color have institutional power in environmental organizations is critical for diversifying the environmental movement. This means implementing a more inclusive recruitment strategy for board and management-level positions, which means that organizations must expand beyond established networks. When people in charge of hiring are from the communities their organization hopes to engage, more people from these communities are more likely to join the team. 

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