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As many people look more closely at systemic racism, more attention is being paid to how pollution and climate change inordinately impact people of color. Environmental groups are speaking out about anti-racist action, and some are looking at how they can change to promote racial equality – within their own organizations, in the communities they serve, and even how they define their missions.

LISTEN: How Environmental Groups are Reckoning with Racial Bias

A Quickly Changing Climate

When the environmental advocacy group PennFuture adopted a new strategic plan last year, one goal was to increase diversity. The prescription in that plan, which included forming committees and reworking job descriptions, has quickly become outdated, according to president and CEO Jacquelyn Bonomo.

“Our thinking about what this work would look like has been upended…the world has changed,” she said.

In the protests following George Floyd’s death, environmental groups from the National Audubon Society to BikePGH to PennFuture sent out statements of solidarity. Thirty-one Pittsburgh environmental groups, signed a joint letter in which they promise to help create, “…a responsible recovery from COVID-19 and from the terror of racism.”  

As for the mission of PennFuture, Bonomo says polluters are no longer the only ones who need to be held accountable. Her group, which has a handful of people of color on staff, also needs to work internally on being anti-racist.

“We realize that we need to do a heck of a lot more listening than we’ve done in the past,” she said. “And more importantly, understanding the role that that our organization plays in promulgating these systemic prejudices. So we’re figuring it out.”

Most environmental groups are well-intentioned, and care about communities that are impacted by pollution, according to Rachel Filippini, executive director of the Pittsburgh-based Group Against Smog and Pollution or GASP. But, she said, they need to change how they engage with the people who live in communities impacted by environmental degradation. 

“Unfortunately, there has been this approach that is kind of paternalistic instead of collaborative,” Filippini said. She describes white-led organizations telling minority or low income communities what’s causing their pollution problems, and pushing their own plans to fix it, without understanding the people who live there.

Evidence is growing that communities of color, and those with lower incomes, are more likely to face pollution exposure, and associated health risks.

“If we are going to work on that problem effectively, then I think we’ve got to do a better job of incorporating or including the voices of those most impacted,” Filippini said.

Environmental Groups Broaden Their Perspective 

Some of the nation’s largest environmental groups are rethinking their work too.

The six-million member National Wildlife Federation has focused on protecting wildlife and natural habitats for 80 years. When the pandemic hit, NWF stepped in to make sure water utilities in Flint, Michigan kept the taps running for people who were struggling to pay their bills, according to president and CEO Collin O’Mara. If his group is protecting water for aquatic life, he said it must also protect water for human life. His membership, which includes hunters, anglers and nature enthusiasts, seem to understand that now. 

“I think the assumption three, four years ago would have been that we would have received massive pushback,” O’Mara said. “But something’s changing in this country. I think it’s seeing, and not just hearing and reading about incidents, but it’s actually physically seeing them, and that folks of all backgrounds are saying now’s the time to change the system.”

One video that went viral, of birder Christian Cooper, a black man, in Central Park brought the reality of this problem into focus for many people. It showed Cooper asking a white woman to follow park rules and leash her dog, and the woman threatening him by calling the police. 

Audubon Pennsylvania executive director Greg Goldman says his group has been working for years to make outdoor spaces more inclusive. It co-created the Discovery Center in 2018, a wildlife sanctuary and migratory bird stopover, near Philadelphia’s Strawberry Mansion, a mostly Black neighborhood. Audubon recruits employees from the community. 

“We really just wanted to make a real concerted effort to find the best possible people to staff our center and to reach out to the community,” Goldman said, “to bring community members into this work and to provide this education.”

Underrepresentation of Minorities in the Staff, Leadership of Environmental Organizations

A 2014 survey of 191 conservation and preservation organizations around the country as well as environmental agencies and grant-making foundations, found that less than 16% of employees were people of color, compared with 38% of the general population in 2014. In those conservation and preservation organizations with an annual budget of more than $1 million, none had a person of color in the top leadership position.

“Quite a disconnect,” said Whitney Tome, executive director of Green 2.0. Since that survey, her group has been focused on tracking equity in the environmental movement, “…because it wasn’t engaging people of color, wasn’t reaching out to them when it came to the hiring, when it came to the recruitment of board members, etc.,” Tome said.

Over the past few years, Green 2.0 has conducted an annual survey of the top 40 environmental organizations annually on their hiring practices, and in 2019 found that diversity in the senior staff at these groups increased slightly. “Now we’re starting to see at least a moderate increase across those 40 organizations,” she said. “But we’ve still got a long way to go.”

Lacking Diversity Data from Environmental Funders

Green 2.0 has also been trying to get the major foundations that fund environmental work to disclose the racial and ethnic diversity of their staffs and boards of directors in the interests of transparency. Tome says few foundations have to provide data.

In an open letter, Green 2.0 called out 26 of the top 40 environmental funders that did not respond for their calls for transparency, including three from Pittsburgh: Alcoa Foundation, The Heinz Endowments, and the Richard King Mellon Foundation. (The Allegheny Front receives funding from Heinz and R.K. Mellon.)

John Ellis of The Heinz Endowments said in an email that they have no record of any request for information from Green 2.0, but shared that of its total staff of 34, six are African American, one is Hispanic and 22 are women. Its board of 17 people includes three African Americans. They added that equity has been the main focus of their work since 2017.

“We are acutely conscious and concerned about the disparity that exists in our region, and nationally, in terms of the ways that environmental degradation, including air and water quality, disproportionately impacts poor and Black communities,” Ellis said. “It is an area that we consistently address with substantial investment in our community.”

Alcoa Foundation said in a statement that it did not recall receiving a request for information from Green 2.0.and that its staff and board are listed on their website, and that the foundation participates in an annual corporate survey which includes detailed questions about its team and leadership.

The Richard King Mellon Foundation did not respond to our request for comment.

Whitney Tome of Green 2.0 says her group sent communications to the Heinz Endowments and the Alcoa Foundation for the last several years on its calls for data and has never received a response or acknowledgement.  

“I would hope that this level of transparency, which for me is a pretty low bar, which is like, just sharing your data, is something that people are willing to step up and do. Because at this point, what do you have to lose?” she asked.

Tome says making these data public is one way foundations can demonstrate they are serious about diversity, inclusion, equity and justice.

Looking Ahead

Environmental justice pioneer Mustafa Santiago Ali predicts that the environmental groups with a diverse board and leadership, and that weave diversity and equity into the fabric of their work are the ones that will survive long term. 

“If I am a person of color, and I do not see myself represented in the leadership on the boards, into the sets of priorities that you are focusing on, then I’ll probably make the assumption that this is not an organization for me,” he said. 

Ali worked 24 years at EPA, and is now vice president of environmental justice, climate, and community revitalization at the National Wildlife Federation. While the 2014 study found that few minorities are members or volunteers of environmental organizations, Ali says a growing number of people of color see the importance of protecting clean air and water in the environment, and in their own communities. 

“So there is a financial aspect that organizations need to be focused on, if you want to grow your base, you’d better be in step with what the country is asking for,” he said.

At Audubon Pennsylvania, where they’ve worked to increase diversity of their staff, director Greg Goldman admits their board of directors includes only one person of color, and no African Americans.

“One thing that we’ve learned is that you never stop, right? It’s not like, ‘okay, check mark, we’ve taken care of diversity now, and we’re good to go back to whatever we were doing before back on our path,‘ ” he said. 

One group or type of individual can’t solve the world’s environmental problems, Goldman says, and the environmental movement needs to educate, listen and engage as many as possible in caring for it.