A couple weeks ago, I attended a lunchtime seminar hosted by the Hill Country Conservancy as part of a new series of talks aimed at promoting diversity in the ecological services. The Shades of Green learning series hosts panelists working toward diversity and inclusion in non-profits and educational settings. The panelists included Huston-Tillotson University’s Director of Community and Public Health Initiatives, an organizer from the Sierra Club fighting environmental injustice perpetrated on historically poor communities, and an attorney whose firm works to help non-profits form. In addition to highlighting their personal backgrounds, they outlined the main challenges their organizations face in reaching different underserved communities, and how their ideals for engagement have changed and grown. Afterward, the panelists took questions from the audience.
I have always felt CAMN includes a good mix of all ages, ranging from college students to retirees, and a very balanced gender mix. I stress this is simply my feeling based on casual observation, however. We do not keep any records of member demographics to back up my feeling. Our success, at least for these measures, is probably largely haphazard, a reflection of Austin’s higher education population, activist tendencies, and relative wealth. To my knowledge we’ve never sought or promoted any particular policies to sway the mix of our membership one way or another. In fact, for most of our history, we’ve been somewhat blind to any such demographic factors with our (largely) first-come/first serve application that doesn’t ask any questions that might be used in specific inclusionary OR exclusionary ways. I think a core genetic building block of our brand of citizen science is often a belief in the decency of humankind, and that decency – at least in outward practice – has no need to exclude anyone with a passion for their natural surroundings, regardless of where they come from.
That said, we are practically a racial monoculture. To be sure, we are not by any means unique in this regard among volunteer-driven, environmentally-concerned non-profits in Austin. Many volunteer coordinators and outreach people I’ve talked to have at one point noted the racial monoculture in their membership pool. Many have expressed concern, but have never found solutions to the predicament of how to include more people of color in their membership.
When I became president of CAMN, I listed increasing our racial diversity and our reach to underserved communities as a goal. I promptly failed to do much to reach it, however. I didn’t know where to start, what tools to employ, or even who to talk to outside my typical middle-class white circles. As someone at the talk remarked, it’s incredibly difficult even to start conversations that revolve around race, let alone dive into how to solve the considerable issues. Furthermore, it’s difficult to break out of our usual zones of comfort – our typical circles of friends, colleagues and associates – to even find ways to connect and include new people.
And minority members of our community may perceive different, subtly hostile elements of interpersonal dynamics when they visit organizations outside their typical circles. What one group may find as perfectly acceptable, another may find unwelcoming. And if they feel unwelcome, they’re likely not to engage or return.
The reasons the environmental movement is so racially fractured are numerous and varied. I’ll get into that in a moment with some help from the notes of one of the other attendees. But solving some of these issues, I believe, is core to the survival of organizations like CAMN, and more universally, broadly-accepted protection of the environment as a movement. All communities need environmental protection in one form or another, but so many of those protections come in efforts to safeguard pristine and sometimes remote tracts of land that are geographically disconnected from many urban, underserved communities. Putting myself in the shoes of a far east-side resident, it would be hard for me to care about efforts to protect the preserves that surround the wealth of Steiner Ranch, for example. Efforts to protect those spaces often ignore urban creeks, parks, green spaces, community gardens, etc., places people of color might find connection themselves. And when a demographic loses connection to natural environments, it has no immediate incentive to learn about them, restore them, to protect them. To speak up and vote for them. Before long, we find ourselves with gutted state and national policy related to clean air, water, endangered species or parks.
What can we do about it? I’m going to let the notes of Mikael Behrens, birder and volunteer extraordinaire (and applicant to the 2016 class), speak to this. He was the one who alerted me to the seminar, and did a great job at capturing the main themes of the conversation. (He, I and several other CAMN members attended.)
- David Buggs, Director of Diversity and Inclusion, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department
- Dominique Bowmen – Huston-Tillotson university. Has environmental studies major. Has Green is new Black student organization.
- Marisa Perales – law firm partner focusing on environmental issues. Also helps people form non-profits. It’s a for-profit law firm, though they don’t do much environmental justice work or work with many people of color.
- Dave Cortez – Sierra Club. Sierra Club was originally only white males. Decolonization. Beyond Coal campaignThemes
- People of color (POC) need their needs met by environmentalists. And environmentalists need to learn what those needs are. Ex: access to parks via having local parks or having parks accessible via public transportation.
- Out of necessity, POC are often more concerned with environmental justice issues than conservation. Dave has used reducing utility bills to interface with low income segments, and get them interested in conservation as a way to lower their bills.
- Environmentalism is more than preserving pristine areas. Urban environments should be a priority too, so we don’t have to travel. Where we work and live everyday.
- There is a perceived cost and privilege to environmentalism. POC more often view possessions as symbols of having arrived. Green insiders club has formed due to unconscious bias. Contact historically black universities with environmental studies programs. Go into minority-frequented places even if it makes you uncomfortable.
- Gentrification — often new residents don’t know history of a neighborhood they are joining. There are often already passionate local organizations who know the neighborhood better than the newcomers and have already identified the most important local issues. Need to work with people already there and follow their lead. Ex: urban farms battle didn’t respect neighbors already there. Help instead of lead.
- How do we engage environmental justice crowd with privileged land conservation crowd? Be open, listen, learn, get out of your comfort zone.
- Transportation is an undercurrent way environmental justice causes are being undermined. Tollways are limiting access to highways to those who can afford it. Access to public transportation.
Please… join me in the conversation. I would welcome comments here or on our Facebook page. What can CAMN do better? What contacts can we make? What am I missing?