Study: Mainstream Environmental Groups Continue to Suffer from Lack of Diversity

Today’s mainstream environmental organizations continue to fall short on institutional diversity, a new study shows, still operating as “insiders’ clubs” that promote white, male leadership and impose a “green ceiling” on everyone else.

Headed by University of Michigan professor Dorceta Taylor, the report—titled (pdf)—examines 191 conservation and preservation groups, 74 government environmental agencies, and 28 green grant-making organizations and incorporates information from interviews with 21 “environmental professionals.”

The study finds that, while people of color comprise 38 percent of the U.S. population, they comprise less than 16 percent of the staff in all types of environmental institutions surveyed. Furthermore, once ethnic minorities make it in the door, they are relegated to lower-ranking positions, holding less than 12 percent of leadership roles. In conservation organizations that have budgets of over $1 million, there is not a single president who is an ethnic minority. The only position more likely to be filled by a person of color than a white employee is a diversity manager, but many organizations do not have such a slot.

Taylor told Common Dreams that, when it comes to diversity in hiring, some portions of corporate America out-pace environmental groups. “Over time we have seen some improvement, but I was surprised the numbers hadn’t creeped up more,” she said.

This is not because people of color don’t care about the environment. A new survey by Green for All shows communities of color strongly support action on climate change, and it is well-documented that people currently facing socioeconomic inequalities are harder hit by the destructive effects of human-made climate change.

“People of color care deeply about the environment and the impacts of climate change,” Green For All Executive Director Nikki Silvestri said in a recent press statement. “We understand the urgency of these threats because we experience the effects every single day.”

But Taylor explained that, throughout her research, she found that the “notion that people of color are not interested in the environment” remains a key barrier to their employment in this sector. “As long as the perception remains that people of color are not qualified, that they won’t stay, that they don’t have the skill set, there will always be reluctance to hire people of color,” she said.

The study identifies numerous other barriers, including “insider” recruiting, failure to reach out to minority-led organizations for hiring, reluctance to employ long-term interns of color, lack of commitment to diversity initiatives, lack of mentoring, and unconscious racism and discrimination. The report finds that the “internal culture” of environmental groups is “alienating” to communities of color, poor and working class people, LGBTQ communities, and others, with many perceiving environmental activism as a “white thing.” The study outlines the histories of African Americans and Native American communities pushing environmental movements to incorporate social justice into their frameworks.