A Lack of Diversity in Environmental Groups? Here's a Bigger Problem
The following was originally posted in the Washington Post's Opinion section, in response to an article by the Post.
The focus of the March 25 front-page article "Big environmental groups come up short on diversity" was too narrow. The problem is so much greater.
This marks my 35th year of work with grass-roots environmental groups since my evacuation from Love Canal in Niagara Falls. I know from experience that a diverse staff and board will not change much unless it is accompanied by a radical shift in mission, goals and resource allocations.
In a report last year, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) detailed how environmental funders mainly support large, professionalized environmental organizations instead of the grass-roots, community-based groups that are most heavily affected by environmental harm. Organizations with annual budgets greater than $5 million make up only 2 percent of all environmental groups, yet they receive more than 50 percent of all grants and donations. The report makes a profound argument that the current funding strategy is not working and that, without targeting philanthropy at the community level, the movement will continue to fail.
In movements throughout history, the core of leadership came from a nucleus of directly affected or oppressed communities even as the cause engaged a much broader range of justice-seeking supporters. In other words, successful movements for social change - anti-slavery, women's suffrage, labor rights and civil rights - have always been inspired, energized and led by those most directly affected. Yet these are the very groups within the environmental movement that are starved for resources. As Robert Garcia of the City Project in Los Angeles told The Post, "The values of the mainstream environmental movement don't focus on the needs of people. They focus on clean air, water and climate."
Rather than counting heads, the conversation about large environmental organizations and environmental justice needs to be about resources and assistance to the front lines. Someday, maybe all of the large environmental groups would be diverse. But that alone will not translate into playing an active role in bringing real aid and justice to communities in need.