Environmental groups say they’re committing to racial equity. What does that mean?

  • By Hannah Chinn/WHYY

As widespread protests, spurred by George Floyd’s killing at the hands of police in Minneapolis, encourage a nationwide reckoning with systems of structural racism, they are prompting the same conversation among environmentalists and conservation organizations.

Land preservation and environmental advocacy nonprofits are largely white, despite the ties between racial injustice, economic inequity, environmental degradation. A 2018 study of 2,057 U.S. environmental nonprofits indicated that fewer than 4% of these organizations revealed their data on racial diversity; of those that did, an average 80% of board members and 85% of staff were white.

That’s true both nationally and locally, despite well-documented connectionsbetween racial injustice, economic inequity, and environmental degradation.

The imbalance is often further reinforced by the stereotype that people of color don’t spend time in the outdoors, as well as the history of racial discrimination at national parks and wild places. In cities such as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the imbalance affects urban green space and community gardens; in suburban or rural areas within the mid-Atlantic region, it affects nature reserves.

Some organizations have already taken a stance on the issue. This month, the Pennsylvania Land Trust compiled a list of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice resources. Natural Lands, a conservation organization based in Media, released a statement acknowledging racial violence and reiterating its mission of “nature for all”. The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources released a similar statement alongside the final draft of its statewide outdoors plan, “Recreation for All.”

In some cases, these statements were followed with a renewed commitment to racial equity or a list of steps the organizations were taking to increase diversity in their work.

Articulating the commitment

Some organizations have committed to incorporating issues of equity into preexisting planning processes. In Pennsylvania, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) is required to produce an updated outdoor recreation plan every five years to remain eligible for federal grants. Nearly a year before the murder of George Floyd shook the nation, the DCNR held focus groups of Black and Latino Pennsylvanians, and used mapping data to identify areas with the greatest need for recreational access.

Although Pennsylvanians of all races participate in outdoor recreation fairly equally, according to departmental surveys, most participants in DCNR programming are still majority white. The agency’s staffing is also majority white and male-dominated, the department’s deputy secretary, Lauren Imgrund, said, with “a very small minority workforce.”

The department recently committed to training each of its several thousand workers with a half-day program meant to help them examine their own prejudices. DCNR also is investing in a program to preserve landscapes of specific importance to Black Americans, including a church in Carlisle, where Imgrund lives; she said she wasn’t previously aware of its history.

Why have those stories gone untold?

“I guess the thing that pops into my head is white supremacy, but that maybe is — I think we work with what we know, and what is in the printed history, and we build off of that,” Imgrund said. “Different things are being brought to the light … things that certainly I was oblivious to, and I suspect many others were as well.”

Issues of racism and erased histories highlight a deeper system of disparity, reinforced by decades of segregation, discriminatory policies affecting land ownership and wealth accumulation, and more. In 2018, an estimated 98% of the United States’ private agricultural land — 856 million acres — was held by white owners, according to figures compiled by the federal government. The five largest white landowners owned more rural land than all Black Americans combined.

Some conservation organizations already make it a primary focus to address this disparity. One such organization is the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust in upstate New York and New England, an organization working to secure land for Black people, Indigenous people and people of color (BIPOC) for sustainable farming, sacred ceremony, ecosystem restoration, and cultural preservation. Led by a board of BIPOC council members, it’s an initiative that coordinator Stephanie Morningstar calls “100% for us, by us.”

Morningstar, a member of the Oneida Nation’s Turtle Clan, is an anthropologist and botanist as well as a conservationist. She has been working on issues of equitable land access for years; as an Indigenous herbalist, her work “isn’t just a job or career, but an entire life’s responsibility.”

“When we’re talking about conservation, we’re oftentimes imagining that we’re trying to return the land to this sort of imaginary, untouched state,” she said. “What that signals is an erasure of Indigenous knowledge, the erasure of Indigenous hands on the land, the erasure of Indigenous relationship and presence on the land prior to contact.”

She describes the change in environmental organization’s attitudes as “the flavor of the moment,” saying she wants to see a commitment to equity implemented at all levels. “We want to be seen — not just in your promotional materials, but in your programming.”

Heeding a new urgency

Other organizations are following up public statements with the creation of specialized councils to address issues of racial diversity, or the implementation and increase of other equity-related actions.

“The Pennsylvania Land Trust Association, like a lot of other organizations, has been absolutely horrified by the killings of innocent people of color,” said Sara Painter, the association’s director of outreach and development. She said leadership wanted to “take action,” citing the creation of a council for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice, the first group of its kind for the land trust. As yet, it’s not clear what council members will do. Painter said the first meeting, which will take place this week, will “facilitate a discussion about what the council wants to do [and] what the issues are.”

A lot of conservation work is based in land ownership, which means it’s already skewed heavily toward the white and well-to-do.

“A lot of older, wealthier white people own the land, and those people are different from the people that the properties are preserved for,” Painter said. She thinks that that gap of unfamiliarity — “stranger danger,” in her words — could be what causes ignorance or hate.

“I think there needs to be a bridge in the middle there, and that’s one of my hopes for the council, that we can build that bridge,” she said.

Natural Lands’ recently released a statement listing things it has already done or plans to do in the near future: establish a staff team for training and accountability; partner with other organizations; host events; improve city park systems in Philadelphia, Coatesville, and Pottstown to provide equitable access to the outdoors, and more.

Bass said there’s a new urgency to that work now. “There’s been this interesting intersection of the pandemic, which has brought more people to our nature preserves, more people to the outdoors than ever before … and then the overlay [of] how that access is not equitable.”

Natural Lands’ current board, Bass added, is very typical of nonprofit conservation boards: There are 20 members, half of them women; only one identifies as a person of color.

Morningstar, of the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust, said that in the past month or so she’s fielded multiple requests to join diversity advisory boards and BIPOC working groups, but she’s doubtful about their material benefits.

“It’s folks’ way of saying, `We’re trying to do better and we’re trying to work with your communities, but we’ve put up such a wall that we don’t know where to start, so we actually need an advisory board to get off the ground.’”

Morningstar understands why conversations about race and equity may feel new or uncomfortable to predominantly white organizations. But she wants them to move further than just conversation. Nonprofits run by people of color win less grant money and are trusted less to make decisions about how that money is spent, according to a recent study; that, in turn, translates to smaller budgets, less staff, and more limited resources.

“My response is fairly simple: Step back and make space for organizations like ours to do the work,” Morningstar said. “You don’t need to create equity, diversity and inclusion boards — you need to make space for us, you need to partner with us, you need to collaborate with us, and you need to listen to us.”

Is it sustainable?

That prompts a key question: Will majority-white environmental organizations make their commitment to anti-racist behavior a lasting one?

The answer could be yes. Organizations and environmental leaders have expressed the sentiment that this moment feels different than any other.

“As conservationists, we know that there’s long been an inequity, and now it seems like the perfect time to really make the fundamental shift,” said Painter. “If we can take this momentum and actually achieve a lasting change, I just think now is the perfect time to do it.”

And the field itself, of course, is in the business of trying to ensure lasting change.

“We are in the business of perpetuity, we make permanent commitments to the lands we’ve protected,” Bass said. “That won’t be the case if we don’t take very serious and intentional steps to make sure that the conservation movement involves and reflects the interests of everyone more than it does now.”

The leadership team at Philadelphia’s Bartram’s Garden thinks that perpetuity lies in fostering relationships.

“These are hard things, and it takes a lot of work: intentionality, conversation, time. And you don’t always get it right,” said director of public programs Aseel Rasheed. “I think it’s all-encompassing. It’s not just about one program or two programs or all of your programs —  it’s also about your institution, who’s on your leadership, who’s on your board, who are you hiring.”

Added Bartram’s executive director, Maitreyi Roy: “The Sankofa Community Farmwas one of the first projects that the garden undertook to really establish presence at the garden that was a direct response to need in the community. Now, our trajectory has been … let’s really learn and listen from our neighbors and hire staff from the community.”

The farm employs interns from and provides food for the surrounding neighborhood, a largely Black community in Southwest Philadelphia.

Rasheed describes Bartram’s Garden, which was founded in 1728, as a “place of tension — a colonial site in this Black neighborhood.” With the longtime refinery complex right across the Schuylkill River, she added, questions of racial justice are ever present.

The staff at Bartram’s Garden is 30% people of color, with 25% of staffers and all student interns being from the surrounding neighborhoods. Still, it is working to build and maintain those relationships. Addressing a lack of diversity or representation of the local community isn’t a one-time repair to be made, but “a change, a shift in the way that we think about [what] we do and how we do it.”

Statements and policy changes from organizations such as the DCNR, the Land Trust, and Natural Lands are initial steps. Organizations like Morningstar’s are waiting to see what happens next.

“I have sort of this angel and devil sitting on my shoulder,” Morningstar said. “One is saying, `Oh, look at all the amazing people coming to support you, the awareness this is building’ … the other is saying, `Yeah, but just wait how long this lasts.’ That’s the cynical part of me. But it’s also the part that is carrying the trauma of generations of broken promises.”

WHYY is the leading public media station serving the Philadelphia region, including Delaware, South Jersey and Pennsylvania. This story originally appeared on WHYY.org.

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