Expanding the Cultural Reach Of Environmentalism Through Diversity

In the fall of 2005, Yale graduate student Emily Enderle was asking some uncomfortable questions about faculty diversity at the university’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. She writes:

“With a faculty of 43, 18 of whom are tenured, there are only one female and one international tenured faculty members and no domestic faculty of color. In a school where the majority of students are women, 16 percent are domestic minorities, and 30 percent are international students, these faculty statistics are disheartening.

After speaking with faculty and students about the state of diversity at the school and within the movement, she realized that “many prestigious environmental professionals didn’t know why diversity is important, despite their professed belief in its importance.”

This realization sent her on a journey of discovery that she shares with the rest of us in Diversity and the Future of the U.S. Environmental Movement, a collection of essays from 15 diversity leaders and practitioners, including Enderle.

Enderle’s essayists address the question, “Why is diversity important?” and also offer recommendations about how to develop and sustain a vibrantly diverse environmental movement and work force. The answers are fascinating and sometimes contradictory. Taken together, however, they paint a picture of environmental organizations, government agencies and businesses that are achieving only limited success in their diversity efforts.

Although some of the essayists nod to the many ways that people are different (age, gender, personality, ability, etc.),most are focused on race and class. Almost without exception, the selected writers appear to share certain assumptions about environmentalists and environmentalism, including the following:

• Environmental political issues, as conventionally presented, are often a higher priority forWhite Americans in the higher income brackets with college degrees than minority groups;

• The work forces of environmental organizations and agencies, especially at the leadership level, are predominantly drawn from this same group of Anglos;

• The memberships of environmental organizations share this same demography;

• College degree programs that prepare people for careers in environmental protection, natural resource management and conservation have a higher percentage of White students from higher income backgrounds than do other college majors; and

 • The basic themes, values and heroes of American environmentalism are drawn from and designed to appeal to the cultural experiences of White Americans with higher levels of income and education, compared to the general population.

Having presented us with an image of an environmental movement that is White and wealthy, the essayists then make the case for an inclusive environmentalism that is more broadly defined so that it appeals to Hispanic, Black, Asian and Native Americans and lower-income people.

For those who work primarily at the organizational and professional level — recruiting, building and sustaining diverse environmental work forces — two essays, in particular, are worth reading.

“Diversifying the American Environmental Movement,” by Charles Jordan, chairman of the board of directors of The Conservation Fund, is a good overview of current demographic realities with specific suggestions to guide diversity work within organizations and coalitions. In “Mission Critical: A New Frame for Diversity and Environmental Progress,” Angela Park, founder and director of the consulting firm Diversity Matters, weaves together important strands from organizational development theory, sustainable economic development practice, personal psychology, cultural understanding and power politics. She includes a list of recommendations for leaders that could serve as the backbone for a successful organizational diversification strategy.

There are some darts to be thrown at Diversity and the Future of the U.S. Environmental Movement. My perfect book would have included one or more successful case studies of environmental agencies or companies that “get it,” that are working on it successfully, and that have lessons to share with the rest of us. It also seems to me that the stereotype of a “traditional” environmental movement is somewhat dated and that slightly more progress has been made than most of the essayists care to comment on. Finally, many of the writers leave us wanting more “how to” details that we might incorporate into our own work.

For free download or to purchase online, visit www.yale.edu/environment/publications, and click on environmental politics and management.

 — Kevin Doyle is the president of Green Economy, a Boston-based research, education, training and consulting firm that provides assistance to the individuals and institutions building a more sustainable world. He welcomes your comments at kevinldoyle@gmail.com.

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