Green and White: Why we must dismantle racism in the environmental sector

Confronting implicit racism in Canada’s mainstream environmental movement is mission-critical to impact.

“[T]o white people who care about maintaining a habitable planet, I need you to become actively anti-racist. I need you to understand that our racial inequality crisis is intertwined with our climate crisis. If we don’t work on both, we will succeed at neither.”

Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, founder and CEO of Ocean Collectiv, and founder of Urban Ocean Lab, a think tank for coastal cities. From the Washington Post, June 3, 2020.

They called it a Park Crawl. It was the summer of 2014, and one of Canada’s biggest environmental non-profits had pulled out all the stops to create the perfect engagement and climate change constituency-building event: an afternoon exploring the green spaces deep in the heart of downtown Toronto. There were food trucks, frisbees, speeches, spontaneous drum circles, and White people. Lots of us. Most of us.

I’d been working in the environmental sector for about a decade, and it was the first time it really struck me. Why does everyone here look like me? We are in the middle of the most diverse city in North America, so how did this happen? Why is environmentalism so White1? Why did it take me so long to notice?

We can’t afford to fail this way

Fact: White people don’t care about the environment any more than people of colour. In fact, the opposite is true. Research from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication has found that, African Americans and Latin Americans are more alarmed and concerned about climate change, more likely to join a campaign, and more likely to vote with this issue in mind than White people.

Two fundamental insights flow from this information. One, if environmental organizations fail to attract and engage people of colour, that failure rests with the organizations, not the audiences. Two: by failing to attract and engage people of colour, these organizations are failing to mobilize groups who would substantially contribute to and drive climate action. To put it plainly, the inability to build an inclusive movement is implicit in the movement’s failure. Here’s what that looks like in action.

Frankly, we can’t afford to fail. As today’s anti-racist movement demands change at all levels, from all sectors of society, the environmental movement should be at the forefront. Racialized communities are vastly and disproportionately impacted by climate change and environmental degradation. As many others have pointed out, when we act against environmental racism and injustice, we act on the systemic roots of climate change, pollution, and other massive environmental harms.

Given all this, it’s critical that the environmental movement seizes the need for inclusion as fundamental to the environmental mission. The failure to become inclusive should be treated as seriously as any other major barrier to achieving impact. Right now, that isn’t the case.

What we don’t measure, we won’t change
An old axiom of the environmental movement is what doesn’t get measured, doesn’t get managed. The lack of racial and cultural diversity within Canada’s mainstream environmental sector is common knowledge. However, I’m unaware of, and couldn’t find, any attempt to actually measure it. US-based research by Green 2.0 reveals the overwhelming Whiteness of the sector’s workforce and volunteer leadership. It is fair to assume a Canadian profile wouldn’t look much different.

A decade ago, the Sustainability Network launched a four-year Environment and Diversity Project to tackle the sector-identified lack of inclusion of “ethno-cultural and Aboriginal” communities in the movement. It was, or so it seems from publicly available information, designed to address the unquantified problem that “most ENGOs today have very little diversity and don’t reflect or authentically engage the communities they serve.” While the intention was admirable, and the tools and resources were potentially useful, there is no way to know whether the project had any real impact.

We don’t have a diversity problem, we have a racism problem.
Do we know anything more about this problem and how to address it than we did 10 years ago? While some organizations have done good work on this issue, my gut tells me we do not.

Why? Likely because, while we are honest in admitting that we have a “diversity” problem in our sector (something we should “work on”), we are not honest in admitting that we have a “racism” problem (something that we should radically change).

It is as uncomfortable to write that as it is to read it. As someone who has worked in and served this sector for most of my career, I am calling out my own implicit racism here, as part and parcel of the mainstream movement’s.

But this is where we start. It is by recognizing…

  • the colonial roots of conservation and how they have shaped approaches to current conservation practices as well as our efforts to “engage and partner with” black, Indigenous, and people of colour—often on our terms, not theirs. (Read this and also this).
  • the role that funding, often from traditional philanthropic organizations led by the White and the wealthy, has shaped our focus and priorities; what we measure and report on and what we don’t. (Read this).
  • the inaccessibility of the language we use, the cultural references we make, the baked-in assumptions that what matters most to White mainstream environmentalists should resonate the same way with everyone else.
  • how we insulate ourselves from other knowledge systems and worldviews, under the auspices of Western science; and finally,
  • our own unquestioned, uncritical certainty that we are on the side of the angels and, therefore, could never be complicit in perpetuating racism. (Read this).

So much of this I have failed to recognize, internalize, and act upon in my own career. This does not mean I am a bad person. It means I have, unknowingly and unwittingly, perpetuated racism instead of fighting it. “Racist ideas have defined our society since its beginning and can feel so natural and obvious as to be banal,” writes Ibram X. Kendi. “To be antiracist is a radical choice in the face of this history, requiring a radical reorientation of consciousness.”

How to start
Confronting the implicit racism in the mainstream environmental movement is not a communications exercise and should not be treated like one. The solution is not better or different messaging and framing, although that may be a result, but reflection must come first. Otherwise, we risk repeating our past mistakes; using hot new buzzwords as a thin veil to cover our unquestioned and deeply held racist ideas and assumptions.

That said, audience-centered, empathy-driven strategic communication offers an extremely useful toolkit to deepen and operationalize organizational self-reflection so that it can be acted upon. This approach demands that we explicitly focus on and build our communications from an authentic understanding of the fundamental psychological needs of our audiences: autonomy (the need to feel in control of your life and destiny), competence (the need to feel that you have what you need to thrive in the world), and relatedness (the need to feel cared for and valued).

In a nutshell: this means rooting communication, engagement, and campaign strategies in where diverse communities are—in their different and distinct needs, priorities, and concerns. This is not complex, but it is also not easy, particularly if staffs and boards have few, if any, representatives of those communities involved in strategic organizational thinking and planning. This is where actually setting measurable goals around inclusivity matters; that is one important action organizations can independently, and collectively, take now. Another is to revisit program and communication strategies, and begin them with an equity lens. That includes asking the questions: how can greater inclusivity strengthen the results of this initiative? What barriers must we address, and what space must we create, in order to actually assess and act on that opportunity?

Communicating with, engaging, and joining forces with racialized communities and anti-racist movements working on the frontlines of climate change is the one of the single greatest imperatives of the mainstream environmental movement in this era. It will take work. But that work will result in a more impactful movement for climate action and a more impactful movement for equity and justice. As we must finally understand – we cannot choose one over the other; we can only and ever choose both.

Join Jessie Sitnick with Catherine Abreu and Larissa Crawford on July 23 for a webinar panel discussion on remaking the #climatenarrative landscape and how centering #ClimateEquity from the inside out is key to winning new ground. 

1I use the term White here to mean the constructed racial identity of Whiteness, which encompasses the experiences and privileges of living as a White person in a racist society. In reviewing this blog, we had a number of internal discussions about whether or not to capitalize the word White. There is a much larger live debate on this question with valid views on both sides. After research and discussion, I chose to use the capital because, as the Center for Study and Social Policy explains, “to not name ‘White’ as a race is, in fact, an anti-Black act which frames Whiteness as both neutral and the standard.” The Atlantic and The Columbia Journalism Review offer useful primers on the contours of this debate.

About the Author

Jessie Sitnick

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