Within mainstream environmentalist groups, diversity is lacking

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentifed the Natural Resources Defense Council as the National Resources Defense Council. This version has been updated.


Of at least 200 riverkeepers in the nation, Fred Tutman is the only one who’s black. “I do think we’re invisible,” he said. “The [environmental] movement is inauthentic if it remains all white.” (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Fred Tutman was a lonely man when he picked up the telephone that day.

He was the tough-talking protector of Maryland’s Patuxent River, a courtroom brawler who took on anyone who contaminated water, but he couldn’t shake a nagging hurt that he was nearly invisible within his own profession.

He called Marc Yaggi, director of the Waterkeeper Alliance in New York, last May. “Am I the only African American riverkeeper?”

The answer was yes. Of at least 200 riverkeepers in the world, Tutman is the only African American.

“We have a lot of work to do” in the area of diversity, Yaggi said in a recent interview. He said he has reached out to Tutman, who was certified by the alliance in 2004, “to try to figure out ways to increase our diversity.”

But Tutman is not unique in his feelings of isolation. Minorities in the nation’s largest environmental organizations said in interviews that they feel the same way.

In fact, they 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.

Some of the groups say they are working toward greater diversity. “I think that the concerns are absolutely well founded,” said Adrianna Quintero, a lawyer for the NRDC. “It’s taken too long for environmental groups to work closely enough with minority communities.”

Kim Coble, vice president of environmental protection and restoration for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the organization strives for inclusion, even though the percentage of minorities on its full-time staff is only 4.5 percent in a region where they represent nearly half the population.

“The environmental movement has a bit of a reputation as being a wealthy white community, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation works hard to counteract that,” Coble said.

The reputation is deserved, said Norris McDonald, president of the African American Environmentalist Association.

“This goes back a long way,” McDonald said. “It’s why I founded the [association] in 1985. . . . White groups weren’t hiring black professionals, and when they did, it was a hostile atmosphere. There were a handful of black professionals in the environmental groups then, and there are a handful now.”

Around the time that Tutman, now 54, was certified as a riverkeeper, the African American Environmentalist Association issued a report card for 26 environmental groups based on their diversity for 2003-2004. Eighteen declined to respond to the request for the makeup of their staffs, and most of the others received poor scores.

The association hasn’t issued a report card since because it was an exercise in frustration, McDonald said. “We moved on.”

They formed scores of smaller groups in low-income communities under the “environmental justice” banner and say they address issues that big groups do not: toxins leaking from power plants, urban food deserts where grocery stores don’t exist, efforts to pave over urban green spaces where children play.

They operate on shoestring budgets. A 2001 report on the origins of the environmental justice movement found that it gets only 5 percent of the conservation funding from foundations, while mainstream environmental groups receive the rest.

“We essentially have a racially segregated environmental movement,” said Van Jones, co-founder of the nonprofit Rebuild the Dream and a former adviser on green jobs to the Obama administration. “We’re too polite to say that. Instead, we say we have an environmental justice movement and a mainstream movement.”

Wilderness protection

The Sierra Club, billed as the nation’s oldest and largest grass-roots environmental organization with 1.3 million members, was founded in 1892. Like groups that followed, such as the Nature Conservancy in 1915 and the National Wildlife Federation in 1936, they were largely white, upper- and middle-class, and focused on the protection of wilderness areas.

Two decades later, Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, “Silent Spring,” alerted Americans to the impact of pesticides and toxic pollution on the environment.

Acting on Carson’s revelations, the mainstream environmental groups helped to push chemical warehouses, pesticide companies and coal-fired power plants from rural and exurban areas, and many polluters migrated to low-income urban areas where people of color live.

In the 1980s, the Government Accountability Office, the United Church of Christ and the Commission for Racial Justice each issued reports that established a direct link between race and the location of toxic-waste sites, according to a study on power plants and their proximity to minorities released in December by the NAACP.

“You walked out your door and wondered, why does everyone have asthma?” said Al Huang, who coordinates NRDC’s environmental justice wing.

Robert Bullard of Texas Southern University said that in 1980 all five of Houston’s landfills were in minority communities, as were six of the city’s eight incinerators. He said mainstream environmental groups he approached for help did not seem concerned.

The environmental justice movement started with a battle in Warren County, N.C., in 1982. The state selected a largely black township as a site for a landfill to dump more than 30,000 cubic yards of soil contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyl.

The residents lost, and minority environmentalists said they never forgot that mainstream conservation groups did not help.

In 1990, the director of the Southwest Organizing Project, Richard Moore, issued a letter signed by some 100 community and cultural leaders saying that the big green groups lacked diversity, failed to protect minorities from pollution impacts and had histories full of “racist and exclusionary practices.”

The following year, 600 leaders of mostly minority grass-roots organizations met in Washington and laid the groundwork for the environmental justice movement.

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.

Focusing on people

“The values of the mainstream environmental movement don’t focus on the needs of people. They focus on clean air, water and climate,” said Robert Garcia, founding director and counsel for the City Project in Los Angeles.

Thirteen years ago, the City Project was formed in an effort to block then-Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan from paving over 32 acres of green space near downtown for a collection of warehouses. “Mainstream environmental groups wouldn’t get involved,” Garcia recalled. “Some of the groups . . . said, ‘What do parks have to do with the environment?’ ”

Garcia said he had to lay out the plan’s potential impacts for them: If Latino children in those urban neighborhoods didn’t have a park, they wouldn’t see green space. Many of their parents don’t own cars. They don’t drive to the woods or beach.

Garcia and others argue that mainstream environmental groups are failing to get popular grass-roots supports for climate change and other initiatives.

Climate activists have to get outside Washington, build organizational networks across the country, stretching “far beyond friendly congressional offices, comfy board rooms, and posh retreats,” said a report by Harvard professor of government and sociology Theda Skocpol.

Phaedra Ellis, chief executive of Green for All, a San Francisco-based multicultural environment group, wondered whether the funders of mainstream groups are driving the divide.

“We’re applying for this grant, and they say don’t put in there the part about people of color and low-income. And we said, if you don’t want this in the proposal, we’re not a group you want to deal with.”

Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, based in Minnesota, said they need “to put a human face on the issue.”

Goldtooth said his network works with groups such as the National Wildlife Federation, attempting to stop the Keystone oil pipeline from extending across native lands from Canada to Texas. But big groups generally approach them only when they need something.

They “will not step up to fully support native rights,” Goldtooth said. “They’re allies of ours . . . [but]it’s not just asking us for help when they need it.”

Quintero said the NRDC agrees, and is striving to build a more diverse workplace. “Last year, we did a big analysis of what our diversity needs are, and we found that in order to attract the talent, [applicants] need to be allowed to do work where they feel like they are giving back to their communities,” she said.

The Sierra Club, whose director, Allison Chin, is Asian American, did not respond to requests for interviews. Spokeswoman Maggie Kao said the group has had an environmental justice arm for at least a decade. Still, several minorities who work for Sierra Club said it lacks diversity.

“Any movement or cause that’s racially exclusive will have less power and less influence,” said Jones, one of the few African Americans who sit on the board of the NRDC.

“You’re leaving out too many good ideas,” Jones said. “I think the cause of having a liveable, survivable environment is weakened by the fact that we have these divisions.”

Tutman said that he is committed to monitoring water contamination and going after polluters, that his family goes back for many generations in Prince George’s County, and that the Patuxent River runs through too many black communities he cares about.

But, he said, “I do think we’re invisible. The movement is inauthentic if it remains all white . . . if we can’t get a seat at the table unless we emulate their values.

Darryl Fears has worked at The Washington Post for more than a decade, mostly as a reporter on the National staff. He currently covers the environment, focusing on the Chesapeake Bay and issues affecting wildlife.
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