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Race, Values, and the Environment (Part 2/2): How do we repair the racial schisms within the environmental movement?

Guest Blogger • Nov 29, 2011

photo taken from vinmarshall's flickr page

by Nicole Loeffler-G​ladstone

Barry Yeoman’s article “Facing the Future” carefully spells out the issue of “diversity,” as it were, both in the environmental biosphere and the environmental non-profit sphere.

Yeoman pointedly shows that issues of race, conservation, and justice have always gone hand-in-hand, mentioning how early conservation was fueled by a a desire to “set aside wildlife for the worthy” at the expense of subsistence farmers and hunter/gatherers. He also notes how struggles against industrial pollution were considered won when those industries were moved to poor neighborhoods. Yeoman also writes that mainstream environmental organizations have always been criticized for marginalizing the voices of people of color, and have often grasped at tokenizing solutions that would be offensive, so to speak, were they not so laughable. Apparently certain criticisms in the 1990s prompted then director of the Sierra Club, Michael Fischer, to call for a “friendly takeover of the Sierra Club by people of color.”

Since then, mainstream environmental groups have made some minor improvements to their hiring track records. However, a larger trend has become apparent. These organizations speak in terms of their “constituency” and the overall political effectiveness of the environmental movement.

The examples discussed in Part 1 of this two part piece clearly show that the interconnections among environmental justice and conservation issues often bring human rights to the forefront of the environmental debate. It is hard not to wonder then why issues such as immigrant rights are often viewed separately from the larger environmental movement in general, and from environmental conservation in particular. If these issues are considered at all, they are often put into the category of environmental justice, which as discussed in Part 1 are not usually a talking points for mainstream environmental groups.

A solution lies not just in the overall lack of racial and ethnic diversity within the mainstream environmental movement, but also within the lack of diversity concerning viewpoints and experiences. These crucial, missing elements are what have lead to this schism between the environmental justice movement—its relationship to racial justice and immigrant rights—and the conservation movement. Looking again at Yeoman’s article in Audubon Magazine, he writes that mainstream environmental groups often continue to remake themselves in their original, white image, while also not emphasizing hiring or other practices that might begin to actually include people of color.

More important than hiring practices, though, is the way that different organizations frame their issues and practice ownership over their struggles.

Successful framing can come from successful coalition building, but groups like the Sierra Club and the NRDC must first abandon the idea that they need to “include” people of color in “their” (white) struggle. Environmental struggles belong to everyone, and the concept of “making room at the table” not only sounds recalcitrant but can also become dangerously tokenizing.

Frighteningly enough, many of the pseudo-environmental groups that we are familiar with, like Progressives for Immigration Reform (PFIR), link environmental conservation and immigration issues as their main platform.  They have always equated immigration with environmental degradation, which is the exact opposite of what these blog posts are advocating for; however, it is worth noting that instead of bridging said gap between conservation and human rights purely for the benefit of all, groups like PFIR have twisted the issues-at-hand purely to serve their own anti-immigrant agenda.

If nothing else, as activists we cannot allow them to co-opt the language of coalition-building and pervert it for such a bigoted/nativist program.

Instead, to begin successful coalition-building, mainstream environmental groups and community groups must come to a mutual understanding over how to frame relevant issues in their communities.

It is likely that both aspects of the environmental movement will benefit from what the other has to say, and such practices will begin to lay the groundwork for (actual) future collaborations. Hopefully mainstream environmental groups, which so often wield more political clout than community groups, will begin to realize that they cannot continue enlisting “allies-of-color” only in times of crisis; and they cannot focus on building their constituencies at the expense of forming partnerships with organizations that are moving forward without them.

Environmental justice groups and/or organizations led by people of color will continue to win victories for their communities, as they always have. We can only hope that mainstream environmental groups will soon wake up to their overwhelming need to create new, equitable partnerships. Shifting the emphasis of the environmental movement as a whole would not take away from mainstream issues, but such a shift would add essential perspectives to create a much larger, poignant, and impactful movement for justice.

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