Jon Christensen writes: A dramatic, wrenching, and potentially pivotal story is unfolding in the environmental movement right now. It is a test of whether the movement--and particularly its most powerful organizations--can really represent the interests and concerns of diverse Angelenos, diverse Californians, diverse Americans, and diverse citizens of the world.
The test came to a head last week after Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, posted messages in solidarity with #blacklivesmatter--the hashtag under which protests against the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice have gathered on social media.
Brune was shocked by the reactions to his posts, "some of which were racist, vicious, and crude," he wrote on his Sierra Club blog. The reactions fell into three categories. "There were the ones that made me recoil," Brune wrote. "There were also expressions of gratitude--a category I'm glad to say got larger over time and soon represented the vast majority of posts. And lastly, there were comments from people who simply seemed baffled. Why was the Sierra Club speaking out on this issue? What did police shootings, or questions of abuse and racism, however tragic, have to do with protecting the environment?"
Brune answered that question thoughtfully and at length in his blog post. "I'll start by acknowledging that the environmental movement has a less-than-perfect record when it comes to race," he wrote. "After more than a century of conservation work, it's only relatively recently that we have recognized the gravity of environmental injustice--that communities of color are almost always the ones most affected by pollution. That's not an inconvenience. It's a matter of life and death, from the refineries of Texas to the tar sands of Canada."
He added: "At the same time, we have struggled to foster a truly inclusive movement. I think that's finally beginning to change, and I am proud of the hard work that the Sierra Club and others have done."
And he asked: "Is it too much to hope that the terrible events in Missouri, New York, and Ohio will force us as a nation to look at ourselves without flinching and to hold these injustices to the light? To the people who still don't understand what that might have to do with environmentalism, here's my answer: Fighting injustice--knowing the difference between what is right and what is wrong--must be at the heart of our work. Otherwise, what really distinguishes us from our opponents?"
Seeing the leader of a mainstream green group embracing #blacklivesmatter--and then vigorously and openly defending and explaining his stance--is one sign of important changes underway in the environmental movement. There are others.
Last week, the Sierra Club also joined five of the nation's other top environmental organizations in formally pledging to provide open data about diversity in their own ranks in their profiles on GuideStar, a site that provides financial and other accountability data on charitable organizations. The Natural Resources Defense Council, National Audubon Society, Environmental Defense Fund, Resource Media, Earthjustice, and the Sierra Club announced they would provide the data by February 2015 at a forum on "Breaking the Green Ceiling" organized by Green 2.0, an organization working to diversify the ranks of the environmental movement, and New America Media, a consortium of ethnic media nationwide.
The announcement follows the recent release of a report on "The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations: Mainstream NGOs, Foundations & Government Agencies" commissioned by Green 2.0, which found that although people of color now account for more than a third of the U.S. population, they have generally not broken above a 16 percent "green ceiling" among employees in mainstream environmental organizations, and a 5 percent ceiling on their boards. Green 2.0 noted that the report also found "lackluster interest, among many foundations and NGOs, to institute strategies that could make cultures more welcoming in order to attract and retain a more diverse range of people. This is despite the fact that people of color support environmental protections at higher rates than whites."
For decades, environmental justice advocates have criticized the biggest mainstream environmental groups for not representing the diversity of the United States and the communities in which they work. This has hampered their ability to do important work in some of the communities that most need and want environmental protections and improvements.
Transparency has been a long time coming. Until now, the data and criticism have come from the outside. But at least six of the biggest environmental organizations are now internalizing the need to measure their success in representing the communities they serve. It's a truism that you can't manage what you can't--or don't--measure. And people in organizations tend to perform to performance measurements. That is, they produce the things that will increase their success in performance reviews.
If they do, the environmental movement could look very different in coming years. And that could be very good for the movement, as well as for people and the environment.
Photo at Hollywood and Highland in Los Angeles courtesy of The Mitzikin Revolution.