Diversity in the U.S. Climate Movement

A few years ago I attended a national conference in Washington DC with over a thousand participants coming together to take action on climate change. The passion and wisdom from the inspiring speakers, dedicated volunteers and tireless staff was awe-inspiring. The attendees were (mostly) old and young, male and female from all over the country and overseas. But there was one group that was conspicuously missing from the event: there were hardly any people of color.

Graduating from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, May 2010. I’m on the far right.

The absence of racial diversity at this climate conference is hardly exceptional; other environmental organizations and events in the U.S. also struggle with diversity. I have experienced the lack of diversity at the many AASHE (Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education) conferences that I’ve attended. Research on the People’s Climate March and March for Science also reveals low rates of participation from people of color. We have a sense that this is bad, that the environmental movement is not representing half of the U.S. population, and that it’s not helping us be effective in addressing these challenges that affect people of color the most. Yet we have very little knowledge how this came about or how to change this.

As a person of color, I know that many of us care about the environment, but many of us are not at home in the culture of the environmental movement. For example, many of the environmental and socially conscious peers that I went to school with had parents that were activists or progressive, and they grew up with these topics around the dinner table or attending protests as a family. My parents were immigrants and therefore unfamiliar with American social movements or activism, and they came from a country where activism was punishable with death and imprisonment. In fact, my father spent twenty years as a political prisoner because he said something in his youth that was contrary to Communist Party lines. You can imagine that activism was not exactly encouraged in my family.

When I went to the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, the cultural gap between White environmentalists and people of the global majority became even clearer to me. Many of my white peers were outdoor enthusiasts with lots of experience in hiking, camping, and conservation activities. My POC peers typically did not have that. Environmental studies today is a vast field that includes areas such as corporate social responsibility, air pollution, and urban planning, yet the idea that environmental studies is about protecting nature is pervasive but untrue.

Therefore it was very interesting to me to investigate the reasons behind the lack of diversity in the environmental movement as part of my PhD at Antioch University. The research led me back through the history of the environmental movement to its privileged and exclusive origins. It led to environmental justice and the systems of oppression that have precluded people of color from accessing healthy environments. It led to understanding the ways in which we talk about climate change that frames it as a “White” problem. It led to a year of blowing previous conceptions of the environmental movement and over 100 pages writing.

In the following reports, I present an overview of the challenges of diversity in the U.S. climate movement, and some strategies for overcoming them.

Diversifying the Climate Movement

People of color are more concerned about climate change than the general population in the U.S. yet they continue to be underrepresented in environmental organizations. This report summarizes the historic and cultural barriers for civic engagement on climate change for people of color, their perceptions of climate change, and strategies that environmental organizations can take to improve their diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Diversity and Climate Change: Four Interviews

What is the current state of diversity in the environmental movement? Why are people of color underrepresented in the climate movement? What can environmental organizations do to engage more people of color on climate change? In this report, I interviewed four experts in the environmental field about their perceptions of diversity in the climate change movement:

  • Marcelo Bonta, Founder and CEO of J.E.D.I Heart
  • Nellis Kennedy Howard, Director of Equity, Justice, and Inclusion at The Sierra Club
  • Thomas Easley, Vice Dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies
  • Jacqueline Patterson, Director of Climate and Environmental Justice at NAACP

Presentations

April 18, 2019. Citizens’ Climate webinar. The recording of my presentation and the slides are available online at Citizens’ Climate University.

June 7, 2019. Citizens’ Climate International Conference Seminar. Omni Shoreham Hotel, Washington, DC.

June 28, 2019. Association for Environmental Science and Studies Conference, University of Central Florida.


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