Posted on December 17, 2014

For Green Groups, Police-Shooting Protests Are a Path to Diversity

Jason Plautz, National Journal, December 15, 2014

Green groups know they have a diversity problem. Less than a fifth of the staff at the major environmental lobbies are minorities, a figure that critics and insiders admit can skew their priorities. With minority communities facing more-immediate and stronger impacts from pollution and climate change, insiders and critics say it’s more important than ever to shake up the voices within the movement.

“We’re doing work that we need to do to make the environmental movement more reflective of our country writ large, and that has many aspects,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. “Part of it is making sure our leadership reflects the population, part of it is making sure our campaigns reflect demands, and part of it is speaking out on issues where there’s an overlap in the mission of our organizations and the interests of the community.”

The first steps are emerging in the form of simple solidarity. As hundreds of thousands march across the nation, hold die-ins, and speak out for social justice after the grand jury decisions in the deaths of Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York, green groups are stepping outside their traditional bounds to weigh in.

The Sierra Club’s Facebook page–amid pictures of national parks and entreaties to stop the Keystone XL pipeline–featured a pair of statements, the latter a picture and note expressing “solidarity with the organizations who are protesting and demanding justice in the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and every other victim of injustice.” Friends of the Earth blacked out its Twitter profile picture and replaced its background with a picture featuring the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Incoming Natural Resources Defense Council President Rhea Suh wrote in her first blog post for NRDC that the group could not abide “another injustice afflicting communities of color.”

It would seem that social justice and unrest is beyond the normal bounds for environmental groups, but Friends of the Earth President Erich Pica said he felt the group couldn’t stay silent any more. After the Ferguson decision, FOE U.S. Chairman Arlie Schardt said in a statement that it exposed “the same types of social, economic and racial injustices” that the group’s international arms deal with abroad.

“When we see what happened in Ferguson and with the Garner case . . . we see there’s something fundamentally wrong with our society,” Pica said. “We as an environmental organization feel the need that we should at least help call it out, to demonstrate solidarity and do some deeper thinking about how we do our campaigns and our advocacy.”

Officials from the environmental movement said the early statements are part of a bigger shift to engage more across society. In an essay posted on her group’s website, Strategic Partnership Coordinator Deirdre Smith wrote in August that climate groups needed to engage on racial justice to better understand how all communities are affected by climate change.

“Part of that work involves climate organizers acknowledging and understanding that our fight is not simply with the carbon in the sky, but with the powers on the ground,” she wrote. “We need to account for these things if we truly want to build the diverse movement leadership that we will need to win.”