Transforming with Heart: An Interview with Marcelo Bonta

Marcelo Bonta is Founder and Executive Director of J.E.D.I Heart, which provides consulting to organizations on justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. Originally trained as a conservation biologist, Marcelo decided to dedicate his career to JEDI after finding himself the sole programmatic person of color at a national wildlife organization, experiencing firsthand the diversity challenge in mainstream environmental groups. His experiences led him to create the Center for Diversity & the Environment and run it for a decade, providing transformational trainings for thousands of leaders and organizational change processes for dozens of institutions. He also founded the Environmental Professionals of Color, a network for leaders of color to survive, thrive, lead, and innovate.

I spoke with Marcelo Bonta about the state of diversity in the environmental movement and how diversity, equity, and inclusion can help the climate movement. This interview was conducted August 25, 2018.

Thank you for speaking with me, Marcelo. You have been working on diversity and the environmental movement for a long time. How did you get here and why have you chosen to do this with your life?

It was never my plan. According to my plan, I’m supposed to be hanging out with endangered species and wildlife and supporting policies to protect them. Right after graduate school, my first job was working for a field office of a national conservation organization. I don’t like to say the name of the organization because I don’t want people to conclude, “Oh, that’s that organization. They’re bad. They’re racist.” I just want to say ambiguously, it is a national conservation organization, because you could find horrible experiences for people of color in any of these organizations. And I know a lot of these stories that are not said publicly because of just the work that I do, and the environmental professionals of color network that I started. That’s another piece of work I’m trying to see in the future, how do we uplift these experiences and these voices of what’s really going on, the underbelly of the environmental movement.

So, when I was at this organization, I quickly found out that I was the only person of color in the whole conservation staff across the country. There were people of color in support staff in the main office, but no one ever told me that. I found out once I visited headquarters. They said, “Oh, you’re the only person of color in the organization,” and my response was, “Okay, first of all, that’s sad. And actually, I’m not the only person of color, and by
making that statement, you totally dismissed their whole experience and what they give to this organization.” So, there were people of color working at the entry level or support staff level, but not the face of the organization, like in conservation work and definitely not at the top leadership–on the board, or President, or VP level.

That was my wake-up call the first week at the organization, and it just led to a lot of challenging experiences from there. I felt something was wrong, but I didn’t have the language and I didn’t have the tools or skills, I was just trying to do whatever. I tried to do some work with a VP to move things forward, and then that VP left and the whole effort went down the tubes. I also faced a lot of issues with overt and covert racism. Some of it was just ignorant language, such as referring to Asians as “little Orientals.” I’m half Filipino, and I found it more offensive to be called “little” because that’s a thing for Filipinos who have been referred to as “little” by racist, White Americans in the past. There was also the institutional, systemic, and cultural racism. For example, I was the newest employee who just got out of graduate school, and I knew the latest approaches, especially for protecting habitat and biodiversity, and my boss would totally ignore me, make jokes about what I was saying, and then the second-in-command would repeat the same thing, and my boss would listen to him, and things would move forward.

I stayed there for four years, and it was really, really tough. It was the low point in my career. As someone who feels like I always have to give 150% to the work, I struggled a lot. I was trying to leave after the second year but couldn’t find another position or job to go into. So, I finally left, not on great terms with that organization. That was back in ‘04, and back then in my heart and still in my heart today is the reason why I focus on environmental work and supporting environmental groups–I love wildlife, I love protecting species and habitat, and as I thought back then and still today, the only way we can responsibly and most successfully protect wildlife, habitat, and our planet, is if we’re able to do diversity, equity, and inclusion right. Until then, the environmental movement’s doing a disservice to its very mission, which is protecting the planet.

As you see in the country and in the world, environmentally-focused policies and approaches are struggling. Some would say we’re failing, other say we’re succeeding, but if we’re succeeding, we’re barely succeeding. If we really engage a broader constituency, do it in an inclusive way, all studies show that we’re going to outperform what we’ve been in the past. And that’s what excites me the most to do this work. If we’re able to do this really well and effectively, we are going to see success beyond our wildest dreams, beyond anything we’ve ever experienced as an environmental movement. But in order to get there, we need to be honest and understand where we are now; understand the limitations that having a homogenous, White dominant culture has given us, how it’s really hurt our mission and our work that we’re trying to do; understand, dismantle it, break it down, and regroup, and co-create what we really need to have. It’s only going to be then that we’re going to get to the next level.

You said in your article “Diversifying the American Environmental Movement” (2008) that the next 10 years are going to be critical for the environmental movement depending on how they manage to expand their base of supporters. How do you think the movement has done on diversity in the last 10 years? What impact has this had?

The last ten years the environmental movement has made the most progress on diversity, equity, and inclusion it has ever had. Back then, there were at most 12% people of color on the staff at environmental organizations, now it’s more like 16%. Back then there were three DEI consultants that worked with environmental groups, and less than a dozen environmental groups doing anything on DEI, and none of them were effective. Fast forward 10 years, there are tons of consultants working with environmental groups. There’s so much demand there aren’t enough consultants. Consultants have to turn work down because there’s so much. I like to say I have a good handle of what’s going on in the environmental movement, but there are way more environmental organizations out there that are doing the work that I don’t even know all of them.

Now, there’s funding going to this work too. There are probably a handful of funders supporting DEI capacity building for organizations through programs. There are a lot of other foundations that opportunistically give to organizations around partnerships, trainings, and other things. There are also more organizations in this space like Green 2.0. Back then, the Center for Diversity and the Environment, and maybe one or two that weren’t really active organizations, were doing some sort of DEI work. Now, there are a lot more organizations really focusing and trying to move the work forward in various ways, including Green 2.0, Center for Diversity and the Environment, and Green Leadership Trust. There are a lot of culturally specific POC led organizations that have started like Outdoor Afro, Latino Outdoors, Green Latinos. So, there’s a wealth of organizations filling in that void around equity and the environment.

I think there’s been a lot of progress, but still not enough, in part because we dug a hole for ourselves and we are still trying to dig out of that. So, if you look in 2014, at Dorceta Taylor’s report that Green 2.0 commissioned, it shows that people of color in environmental organizations, government agencies, and foundations were 12 to 16%. Before that, all of the studies from 2000-2010 showed anywhere from zero to 12%. So, we went from zero to 12%, to 16%. The studies that I found are not consistent in methodology and approach, but Dorceta Taylor’s Green 2.0 report was the most comprehensive and probably the most accurate. But numbers don’t tell us everything, they don’t measure the homogenous culture that is just so dominant in the environmental movement, which is the biggest barrier.

What do you think are the challenges for environmental organizations trying to advance diversity, equity and inclusion in their organization?

Environmental organizations have made progress, but we’re still behind and just because there’s all this activity happening, doesn’t mean it’s effective work. I would argue that a lot of it is actually ineffective, and a lot of it may be causing more damage than good, because a lot of nonprofits and environmental groups come to me wanting to hire more people of color or get more board members of color, or to partner and work with a community of color. Both are good things to do as part of a broader strategy, but if they’re done in isolation, you’re going to make mistakes and you’re going to probably do more damage than good.

For example, an organization wants to work with a community of color, but they bring this oftentimes arrogant dominant culture attitude like, “Hey we’re the environmentalists. We know best.” They’re with another culture that does things differently from the way they do things, which is also a right way of doing things, but the environmental group says, “You’re not doing it right. This is how you do it,” and then it just all goes downhill. They don’t understand that there’s a different way of doing things in different cultures. They don’t understand how to co-create, how to bring inclusive voices, and the repercussions and the impact of that is that you’ve just offended and hurt the very community you’re trying to support. Trust has been broken, and now you’re in a harder position than you were in before, because now you have to build up trust, you have to apologize, you have to understand your mistakes, come with humility, come with compassion and understanding, and hope that this community forgives you and opens their arms to you again.

The other mistake is jumping into hiring too quickly. Again, lack of preparation is the problem. They hire someone or bring in a board member of color. They set this person up for failure because they don’t know how to work across difference. They try to make this person fit within the homogeneous culture that’s already there. They start doing subtle things implying that the person of color’s experience and approach is not the right way. The White way is the right way here, and things break down, and either the person leaves on bad terms or the person underperforms because they’re being forced to conform and fit into a box that’s not who they are, and they can’t bring their whole selves to the work. It usually ends with that person struggling to survive and still thinking in their head whether I should stay or not, and lots of times, they end up leaving.

Why is diversity, equity, and inclusion important for the environmental movement?

Some of the work that I do with organizations, as well as change agents who are trying to move this work, is being clear on their “Why?” For me, there are a few reasons. One, it’s the right thing to do. Second, it’s the wise thing to do. I mentioned earlier, all the studies show the highest performing groups are the ones that are diverse and operate in an inclusive manner. The demographics are changing. If we continue having this homogeneous White culture, our relevance will continue to shrink, and arguably, over the last twenty years, it’s already shrunk. We’re not a top ten issue in the country anymore. When I started at the conservation organization in the early 2000s, it was just dropping out of the top ten. Climate change has been brought up probably the most in terms of environmental protection but there haven’t been any huge gains on a federal policy level. There have been some policies here and there, but no big bills have been passed.

Also, not only are the demographics changing and we need to be more relevant, but we’re losing a huge opportunity. You mentioned all the studies out there that show that people of color are concerned about and support environmental issues all across the board, more than Whites. Environmentalists always complain, “We keep on speaking to the choir.” There’s another choir out there that you’re not even speaking to. There’s a huge opportunity to engage people of color, environmental organizations, and leaders. If we want change, it has to start with ourselves. If we want transformation on an organizational or movement level, then we need to transform on an individual level. And there are a lot of individuals in the environmental movement who think they could just shift and change, and it’s not like that.

Think of DEI work as going to school. You start as a kindergartener, you go on to elementary school, high school, and eventually college. Maybe you go graduate school; you become a professor. For the White environmentalists who decide they’re going to do DEI, their liberal attitude is actually a barrier to thinking realistically of what they need to do. They think they can go from being a kindergartner to a graduate student overnight, then they try to make decisions like they’re professors or experts in the field. I want you to get there and I’ll support your growth to get there, but right now, you’re a DEI baby and you should not be making decisions in this space. You should leave the decisions to the experts or the people who are the DEI graduate students or professors. And oftentimes in organizations, it doesn’t correlate to the hierarchy and the status of the positions. You find the DEI leaders as support staff, mid-level folks, and you won’t know until you explore it.

What are the barriers for people of color to engage with environmental organizations?

I think there’s a big cultural barrier. People of color are thinking, “Your group is predominantly White. I don’t see anybody who looks like me there. I don’t see you doing any programming in my community. I don’t see anything to support my approach and what I’m looking to do. So why would I go there and waste my time? My community is suffering right now and needs help right now. I can’t be patient with these White groups that don’t understand, who are going to make mistakes, who are going to offend me, who are going to get in the way of the immediacy of the needs that I have. So, what am I going to do? I’m either going to the social justice or community-based organization that knows me, or I’m going to just start something myself, because I’m going to get way more headway than trying to work with this group that doesn’t get me.”

Even though there’s a culture gap, that doesn’t mean people of color are not doing this work or are not concerned. They are just doing it in their way. If we open our eyes to understand that supporting climate change or supporting the environment comes in different ways and different approaches, we’ll start seeing a lot more people in organizations doing this work. This is what’s happening on a local scale in Portland and now on a national level. A lot of racial justice and racial equity groups over the last ten years have started their own environmental programs because it’s filling a gap they’re seeing in these mainstream organizations.

Environmental organizations are in this tough place of being at the beginning stages of this work, because even if there are groups that have made headway in the past few years, they still have a reputation as not being really sensitive to the needs of communities of color. To really break out of that they need to take some risks. Part of it is putting down your power, being humble, serving these communities, listening to them, and bringing what skills and information you have to support and uplift these communities, versus lots of times, the attitude’s the other way around, like “Hey communities of color, how can you support us?” And if you start from that point, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

How can environmental organizations support people of color?

One thing they can do is to create true and equitable partnerships, entering the space with humility, listening to understand, not starting with your agenda. Start by listening to their work and their agenda and using your creativity to understand how your work can really support theirs. If there’s an opportunity to work together, continue to step back with your leadership. Get to the space of co-creation. Everybody who’s co-creating sees themselves in the creation of a project and the result. That needs to be an inclusive approach. It’s not, “Hey, we’re trying to protect the river. Come help us, even though your goal is not the river. Your goal is clean water for your people, but rivers first.” There has to be a connection; it has to be both. How can we uplift clean water and river protection? To support clean water folks, river protection may be a part of it, but we need to step up and support them in passing bills and getting funding that’s going to support new infrastructure and pipe systems that are really outdated. That may not be what my river group does but I’m going to step up and do that if I’m going to be in this partnership.

Organizations can help introduce these groups to funding and funding opportunities. What normally happens is the mainstream environmental group gets the funding, they keep half or most of it, and then funnel money down to the community organization and the community organization does all the work. The environmental group keeps most of the funding and credit, and the funder only hears from the environmental group. But when funding goes to the local group that is actually doing the work, the funder gets to hear specifically from the community, so they can start building relationships, and hopefully, it will continue to get funding over the years.

Do the work. Do the right thing. Do it with humility. Don’t brag about it. Share it with other environmental groups as examples of what they can do, but don’t try to get credit from it, because all the work is really coming from the local organization. So that’s an example of how you serve and support an organization.

CCL works specifically on carbon fee and dividend, and that’s all they do. So how can an organization with that kind of focus have partnerships with communities when the federal carbon fee and dividend is at the federal level?

These policies have to get supported and passed by people. Who gets the benefits and the resources if this policy passes? If it’s a carbon fee and dividend, who gets the result of the dollars at the tail end? White privilege is when White people get in the room and make important decisions for the rest of folks. There may be a few people of color, but those people of color may be forced to conform to White thinking. And they may think that the best dividend is where everybody gets $100 kickback, but maybe that’s not the most equitable way. Maybe if you make more than $100,000 a year, you don’t get anything and then scale it down the opposite way where the poorest of the poor gets the highest dividend. When you engage and listen and allow others to be part of the decision-making, you get creative solutions that’s going to serve a broader set of folks. You’re going to have a broader support. The more you bring a diversity of thinking in this work, the more you’re going to get innovation.

I think for any policies, on climate change or anything, it’s super irresponsible to not engage a broader base or perspective. That’s how you end up with problems and unintentional consequences. A recent example is Starbucks, who said they’re not going to carry straws anymore, because “we’re environmentally responsible, so no plastic.” They move forward with this idea, then they get pushback from the disability community, saying, “I’m paralyzed. I need a straw to drink. What am I going to do when I come to Starbucks?” And some people say, “Bring your own straw.” Well, that goes back to the attitude of oppressing others like, “You take care of yourself. Don’t put pressure on the dominant culture to do anything.” So, if Starbucks had folks from the disabled community at the table, they could have thought this through and found some other solution such as, “Maybe we should actually keep a few straws so those from the disabled community can request them.” I think simple answers could really avoid these missteps. I don’t know what that is for carbon fee and dividend, but you never know until you bring in these broader and diverse perspectives around what you’re doing. And it’s your organization’s job to try to create this accessible language and explanation of what you’re doing.

Right. If you engage a broad coalition early in the policy creation process, you are more likely to get their support later on.

In the state of Oregon, we’re trying to pass some statewide carbon tax, and anytime someone asks me to push something environmental, I want to protect the environment and do my due diligence, but I want to know have you worked with and listened to all communities? Let’s say you guys are successful. You put something on a ballot, and you’re looking for my vote. If you haven’t engaged me and I don’t see the partnerships or the voices or communities of color, there’s a good chance, right now, that I will lean towards not voting yes, but with a caveat. I will vote yes in the future if you engage and listen to communities of color or you do some messaging and you’ve done your homework. You have to recognize people think, “I care about climate change, but you know what, I care about my community more,” or “I care about climate change, but I care about education more,” so think about the different levels of impact that people have in supporting something like climate change. For some people, it’s top of the list; it doesn’t matter what’s going on, and I think that’s what a lot of us enviros are part of, but we also have to understand there are competing priorities for normal, non-environmental people. So how do we speak to those people?

That’s the way to get support for the policy. How do you get their input or buy-in for your strategy?

I think we need to do a better job in the climate change space and say why is climate change important to a farmer? Why is climate change important to a Republican? Why is climate change important to a single mom? Why is climate change important to Latinos? We need to be able to address and tailor our relationship-building to the different communities we’re trying to work with and get support from. The answer, with the climate policy that we want to move forward at a federal level, is always going be engaging with a broader group of folks, which means communities of color. If we, as a climate change movement, can work with, support, partner with, and co-create with communities of color, we can be successful at moving forward any climate change policy.

So, on one level, bringing in diverse perspectives around the solution, and then having different people think through, “How is this going to benefit groups in a way that we’d want to support it,” and then there’s the process of getting it passed, like “how are we actually going to build a political will to get it to pass,” and then getting feedback from more communities, like how they would like to be involved with that?

With Citizens’ Climate Lobby, there is a strong focus on one solution, the Energy Innovation Act, and our advocacy methods, which we try to teach. There’s a lot people who don’t know how to do any of it, like they don’t know how to contact their members of Congress, they don’t know anything about climate policy, so there is some value in being really clear in what you’re asking for. But it sounds like that’s not giving enough space to have additional input, because people have already decided on the method and the solution. Do you think there is a middle ground in that?

So, I do trainings and I teach and coach enviros on how to do better around DEI. I’ve seen that probably the most unsuccessful way of doing the work is going into a group and saying, “This is how you do it. Now go do it, and I’ll support you in doing that.” The most successful way is co-creating. This is why I love the work so much, because it’s still a challenge. I know in my head what would be best for this organization, but it’s not going to be successful if I say, “You need to do this, this, this, and this. Do it in this time frame, and I need these people, and if everybody’s fully engaged and on board, we’re going to take this organization to the next level in no time.”

For example, a DEI statement is a foundational element for an organization pursuing DEI. But why is it important to have one? I let them tell me, how do you think we should go about doing it? And they tell me, or they come to me with questions, like, “I can’t answer that question, but tell us in your experience, what has been the most effective way of doing things?” That’s a whole different thing when someone asks me, because they’re thirsty for the knowledge at that point. If I tell them, “Hey, you need to do a statement, and this is how you do it,” and they say, “Okay, sure,” in the end they put something together but they’re not really sure why they did it and why it’s important, and it becomes the shell of what it could be instead of something that has a soul to it.

I don’t know if there are some parallels in your situation, but I think there’s this dance. I think there are some things you well know in the policy realm, but part of what I love about DEI work is another piece, the co-creation. I say to my client, “Can you agree that we need a statement? Let’s talk about how we get there.” This is what I’ve learned over the years; If we can agree on the goal or the outcome, give people the freedom on how to get there. For you, it might be, “One of the most effective things for moving forward is engaging your policy makers, your politicians, whoever that may be. What do you think is the best way of engaging them?  And I could see a plethora of different ways.

That’s a lot like good teaching, when professors are able to get the students to arrive at the answers instead of telling them what it is. They feel more engaged and invested if they come up with the answers. What do you think we need to do to move forward on diversity, equity, and inclusion?

We need more information and studies and thought-provoking work at that movement level, which I feel is where you’re going with the connection between organizations and movement. A lot of organizations are into their organizational work like, “Diversity, equity, inclusion– let’s look at our organization and change,” but then they don’t necessarily see what they’re doing in context of the broader movement. Also, what does this mean on the individual level? My theory of change and approach to this work is that in order for us to approach institutional systemic racism, White privilege, and White dominant culture, we need to be working at each of these levels: at the individual level, at the organizational, and the movement-wide level with the idea that all feeds into each other to inform and move the world forward.

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