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Do Environmentalists Have A Diversity Problem?

A new report finds that the groups fighting climate change and pollution tend to be staffed by wealthy white people—and focus on the issues that most affect them.

Does the environmental movement have a diversity problem? Inarguably, according to a well-reported article by Darryl Fears, in the Washington Post. Mainstream organizations like the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council have few minorities on staff. And, more seriously, they’ve developed a reputation for caring more about macro-issues, like climate change, than the concerns of poorer groups who "bear a disproportionate burden of the nation’s toxic pollution."

In their demographic make-up, the white-shoe nonprofits are like a political party many members would never vote for:

In fact, [the minorities] say, the level of diversity, both in leadership and staff, of groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Sierra Club and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation is more like that of the Republican Party they so often criticize for its positions on the environment than that of the multiethnic Democratic Party they have thrown their support behind.

The diversity deficit has a long history, says Fears. Traditionally, groups like Nature Conservancy, which was founded in 1915, were run by "white, upper- and middle-class, [who] focused on the protection of wilderness areas." Then, as the environmental justice movement emerged in the 1980s, they resisted fighting battles over local parks, and toxic dumps, many of which inevitably got built in poorer areas.

Today, minority communities—black, Latino and Native American—along with low-income white neighborhoods still bear a disproportionate burden of the nation’s toxic pollution. They are in the shadows of petrochemical plants and coal-fired power plants, the nation’s greatest source of stationary pollution, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The upshot is a movement that is less effective than it might be, according to Van Jones, co-founder of Rebuild the Dream, a nonprofit. "Any movement or cause that’s racially exclusive will have less power and less influence," he says. "I think the cause of having a liveable, survivable environment is weakened by the fact that we have these divisions."