The Republican Party isn’t the only political force that has a diversity problem.
Environmental activists say their own movement needs to step up its game if it wants to play much bigger in Washington.
The green movement dreams of pushing major bills through Congress on the scale of President Barack Obama’s health care reform law and the immigration overhaul expected to begin next year.
But those issues enjoy something the green movement does not: wide and deep support across key Democratic groups, including Latinos and African-Americans.
“You should fish where the fish are biting,” said Van Jones, the former green jobs adviser to Obama. “All causes that want longevity need to look to influence the emerging majority, which will be a nonwhite majority.”
The greens say their plight is less dire than the GOP’s, insisting that diversity exists in environmentalism, especially at the local level. It’s nationally that environmental organizations—and the face they present to the country—too often drive the perception that green issues are the purview of white liberals.
“The opposition said, ‘This is going to hurt low-income communities of color,’ and it created a case of divide and conquer,” said Vien Truong, director of environmental equity at the Greenlining Institute, a California-based think tank.
Longer term, it’s been four decades since Congress passed landmark environmental protection bills like the 1972 Clean Water Act and 22 years since the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments—and addressing problems like climate change will require legislation with the same wide-reaching effects. Many activists say there’s no chance of a climate bill passing Congress unless they get support from more people within communities of color.
“If we’re going to be successful, we need to reflect the population,” said Adrianna Quintero, founder of Voces Verdes, a coalition of Latino environmental leaders.
That means green groups need to change, she said.
“They need to diversify their leadership, the membership and their staff at all levels,” Quintero said. “But mostly, the vision needs to look toward a world that looks more diverse, that takes into account cultural nuances and different life experiences.”
Right now, the images people see when environmental causes rise to the top of the national agenda often have one thing in common: They’re white images.
Rising leaders such as Bill McKibben, the 350.org founder who was named one of Time’s “People Who Mattered” in 2011—white. Eco-celebrities such as Mark Ruffalo and Daryl Hannah—white. Leaders of the big environmental organizations, such as Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune—also, for the most part, white. (On the other hand, Sierra Club President Allison Chin, who serves on the group’s board of directors, is the first person of color to hold the top post in the 120-year-old organization.)
And signs of diversity are increasing.
The top three environmental leaders in the Obama administration—Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson—are people of color. Jackson has made a priority of “environmental justice,” the effort to ensure that poor and minority communities enjoy the same protections as affluent white ones—or as she put it last year, addressing the fact “there are still communities in this country where there’s a disproportionate collection of smokestacks and tailpipes.”
Supporters of California’s cap-and-trade program likewise say they stressed its importance to reducing pollution and asthma rates in minority communities in Los Angeles.
Coalitions among environmental groups and the NAACP and Hip Hop Caucus, a youth social issue initiative, have sought to unite for issues of air quality, green jobs and other rights. In February, the Sierra Club, 350.org and the Hip Hop Caucus are partnering for a Presidents Day rally against the Keystone pipeline.
“It just adds so much value to the conversations,” said Chin, the Sierra Club president. “Any partnership requires getting to know one another. It’s about spending some time where you share common ground and common goals. And part of that is going to be understanding where you may not have strong agreement or aligned values but then agreeing to focus on the shared ground. And that is how we approach it.”
While the collaborations are a good start, diversity and inclusion can’t just be tactics to gain a political victory, said Quintero of Voces Verdes.
“It simply can’t be, ‘We’ll talk to you when we need you,’” said Quintero, who is also a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “There needs to be a give and take.”