In the Midst of Unprecedented Change: J.E.D.I. Progress in the Environmental Movement Since 2007

Diversity & the Future of the U.S. Environmental Movement (edited by Emily Enderle, 2007)

Diversity & the Future of the U.S. Environmental Movement (edited by Emily Enderle, 2007)

As always, thank you for reading my blog posts and for continually being so supportive. Because you all loved the logo description from last week’s blog post so much, I added it to the “About” page. For those of you who are still wondering what this blog is all about, please read Why J.E.D.I. Heart? Today, I will share my insights and observations, regarding J.E.D.I. progress in the environmental movement over the past 12 years.

In Spring 2007, the late Charles Jordan—the first African American to serve as board chair of a national conservation organization—and I submitted our chapter, “Diversifying the American Environmental Movement” in Diversity & the Future of the U.S. Environmental Movement. The book of over 14 invited authors reflected on various aspects of diversity in the environmental movement in the 2000s.

In our piece, Charles and I analyzed the diversity crisis, argued that a J.E.D.I. environmental movement was badly needed to successfully protect our planet, and recommended strategic next steps for J.E.D.I. growth on the individual, organizational, and movement levels. The written piece was a call to action. We wrote:

In ten years, if we find ourselves in a similar place, facing the same diversity issues as today, then we have failed miserably and the sustainability and relevance of our movement will be gravely at risk.

Those ten years (and then some) have passed, and I have been itching to provide an update. Have we failed or have we progressed? The short of it is the mainstream environmental movement has progressed on J.E.D.I., arguably more in the past 12 years than in the previous 150 years combined. This is really good! However, we have not journeyed far. A long, long trail is still ahead of us.

We are in the midst of an unprecedented change process. As we evolve from a racially exclusive movement to a racially equitable and inclusive movement, we are experiencing highs and lows, accomplishments and failures, and pain and healing. We must own both successes and mistakes and support each other with love, compassion, and empathy to successfully navigate towards transformation. Since we are at the beginning stages of growth, we are both advancing in some areas and also “facing [many of the] the same diversity issues as [2007].”   

While I will dive deeper into the complexities of J.E.D.I. in future blog posts, for now, I’ll provide insight into some areas where J.E.D.I. progress has occurred (and not occurred) in the environmental movement since Charles and I first put pen to paper 12 years ago. Although some facts are based on studies, most of the information is based on my experiences and observations.   

Holistic J.E.D.I.  In 2007, much of the J.E.D.I. discussion and effort was around increasing the racial diversity of staff and board (i.e., a diversity only approach). While this dialogue still tends to dominate early stages of J.E.D.I. efforts, more organizations focus on inclusive, equitable, and just approaches to their work.  This more comprehensive approach may be in part due to the rise of “equity” and “inclusion” in the J.E.D.I. lexicon over the past decade.

The Why, How, and What of J.E.D.I.  In 2007, when I was in spaces with staff and board of mainstream environmental groups, I mainly shared why J.E.D.I. was important to their work (to the point of sounding like a broken record). Today, understanding why J.E.D.I. is more commonplace, so I find myself often discussing how to effectively do the work. Still common in 2007 and today, groups just starting their J.E.D.I. journey want to jump into the what of the work without first preparing themselves, building capacity, and clarifying why J.E.D.I. is important to them. Beginning and leading with the why is a core skill and approach for successful J.E.D.I. work.

Effective J.E.D.I. Action Matters.  In 2007, a big challenge was convincing organizations to start doing something on J.E.D.I. Much of the inactivity stemmed from apathy, pushback from one or a few people in the organization, and not knowing what to do and how to do it. Although J.E.D.I. activities are much more prevalent, today’s main challenges regarding actions are three-fold: (1) inactivity stemming from leaders verbally supporting J.E.D.I., yet not taking action; (2) inactivity originating from the fear of making a mistake; and (3) for those ready for J.E.D.I. work, convincing organizations to first invest time and resources to build J.E.D.I. capacity, knowledge and skills on the individual level before they take actions that can result in negative or positive impact for people of color. Doing something with good intention does not guarantee progress and often means regression if unprepared.

More Grantmaking Programs for J.E.D.I. Capacity Building.  In 2007, I knew of zero. Today, I discovered seven while writing a report on J.E.D.I. capacity building in the environmental movement. This number will increase in upcoming years as more funders, especially foundation trustees, understand that J.E.D.I. is crucial to solving our planet’s most challenging environmental problems, such as climate change and mass biodiversity loss.

More J.E.D.I. Consultants & Staff Supporting Environmental Organizations.  With an increase in J.E.D.I. capacity building activity and funding, the number of J.E.D.I. providers and dedicated J.E.D.I. staff has grown. In the last couple of years, all of my consultant colleagues and I have been extremely busy—being booked out 6-9 months has been normal. Since funders are realizing this uptick in demand, they started a collaborative effort, called the Racial Equity to Accelerate (REACH) Fund, to support the growth and capacity for J.E.D.I. consultants. In addition, a growing number of environmental organizations have J.E.D.I. directors and managers. In 2007, I knew of one environmental institution with a J.E.D.I. director. Today, there are dozens if not hundreds of J.E.D.I. dedicated staff.

Slightly More People of Color on Staff and Boards.  In the 2000s, studies (including a 2002 Natural Resources Council of America report, 2008 Training Resources for the Environmental Community report, and a 2008 article in The Oregonian) showed 4-12% of environmental groups were people of color. A Green 2.0 report authored by Dr. Dorceta Taylor in 2014 showed an increase to 12-16%.  From 2007 to 2019, people of color in the U.S. increased from 33% (about 100 million) to 39% (about 130 million) of the population. While people of color representation in the environmental movement has slightly increased since the 2000s, it is being outpaced by the rapid national growth and is still a far cry from the overall U.S. population.

Slightly More White Mainstream Environmental Groups Achieving Consistent Equity Outcomes.  This is increasing slowly but surely. In 2007, there were not many. In 2019, there are more but not a lot. Most white mainstream environmental organizations committed to J.E.D.I. are at the beginning stages and investing resources on inputs (i.e., training staff, creating strategies and plans). While there is more J.E.D.I. activity and raised awareness, effective equity outcomes result from people becoming knowledgeable, skilled, and well-practiced in J.E.D.I. (not merely more aware). Building this capacity takes time. Today, environmental justice groups and people of color led environmental organizations are achieving most of the equity outcomes in the environmental realm. (However, these organizations are not immune to the forces of white dominant culture influencing their operations and approaches, and many have work to do internally.)

Inaccurate Narratives.  While some narratives are shifting, others continue to prevail. In 2007, one of the most common misperceptions was “people of color don’t care about the environment.” This narrative is shifting, especially with dozens of polls and surveys that consistently demonstrate people of color care more than white people about the environment.  

In 2007, “J.E.D.I. has nothing to do with our mission” was a common perspective. While I still hear that perspective today, becoming more common is “J.E.D.I. has everything to do with our mission.”

Today, a very common inaccurate narrative from white environmentalists is, “because I am liberal and believe in J.E.D.I., I am effective at J.E.D.I.” This narrative is extremely destructive and causes roadblocks to progress, especially when a white, liberal person is a gatekeeper to opportunity, power, and resources for people of color. This narrative is not something that is said but more so believed. This belief causes well-meaning people to not take action, be satisfied in the little action or progress they are achieving, and not achieve self-transformation.

While it’s obvious that these lies (and many others) are oppressive and damaging to people of color, they are also destructive to white people because they continue to reinforce the lie of superiority and self capability that one race can save the planet, which has never occurred and will never happen. (This statement may sound silly to some; however, this often implicit belief or mental model guides who holds power and privilege and how and where resources are invested.) Moreover, these misperceptions continue to prevent us (all of us) from successfully protecting our land, air, water, and biodiversity. Outcomes will continue to be mediocre, at best, until transformation occurs. The only way forward is to strip off all that is holding us back, so we can achieve the very mission that many of us dedicated our lives to accomplish.

Racist (Individual, Institutional, and/or Systemic) Experiences Remain.  In 2007, I would say that almost all people of color working for white mainstream environmental organizations experience racism. Today, I would say something similar, “almost all, if not all”. As the co-founder of the Environmental Professionals of Color, people of color often share painful and confidential stories of racism with me. These stories are not shared broadly because: (1) of the personal and traumatic aspects and (2) the environmental movement has not yet created a safe, supportive and inclusive culture for people of color. The amount of stories has not decreased, and we must courageously work to increase the safeness of our space.

As long as institutional and systemic racism are prevalent in our movement, people of color will continue to fully bear the resulting brunt, negative impacts, and trauma. As many mainstream environmental groups are at the beginning stages and a few are in the middle stages of J.E.D.I. change, consistent positive impact will take time. We will not be able to undo our centuries-old racially exclusive culture overnight.  

More People of Color Led Environmental Organizations and Efforts.  Some of these groups include Latino Outdoors, Soul River, Outdoor Asian, The Climate Justice Initiative, Green 2.0, Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO), Diverse Environmental Leaders, Center for Diversity & the Environment, Green Leadership Trust, and Verde. These groups (in addition to the numerous people of color led environmental groups established prior to 2007) are filling an important gap and supporting and creating dedicated spaces across the variety of environmental issues for the strongest environmentalists in the U.S.—people of color.

More Organizations Working at the Intersection of J.E.D.I. and Environmental Protection (Broadly Defined).  In addition to the many new people of color led environmental organizations, mainstream environmental groups working on J.E.D.I. are increasing. There is also a growing amount of racial justice organizations involved in environmental activities, such as climate change policy, environmental education, and green job creation. I am talking about an increase of hundreds in 2007 to thousands in 2019.

Overall, an exponential rise in awareness and commitment to J.E.D.I. in the mainstream environmental movement (broadly defined) has opened up a new era for the movement—a time period that we have never experienced before. The mainstream environmental movement has experienced an upsurge of J.E.D.I. activity (especially in the last 4-5 years), and yet we still have a long way to go. These are very exciting times. We are experiencing an unprecedented evolution of the movement, and with this transformation comes growing pains. Some change will be easy and much will be challenging, just like all new endeavors. As we are stretched, we are learning and growing. In the end, the work will be rewarding because we will support a thriving planet and thriving people. Aren’t these communities interconnected after all?

What progress (or lack of progress) have you observed or experienced in the past 12 years?