Diversity is the Lifeline for the Future of the Climate Movement

Being a climate advocate is not for the weak of heart. The U.S. is a safe haven for climate deniers. Instead of taking bold steps to reduce our carbon emissions, our elected officials focus on stunts like bringing in snowballs to Congress to claim there is no climate change. In the face of such obstinacy, climate advocates must stand together and take to the streets. And as the People’s Climate marched showed, there is no shortage of people willing to stand up and join the fight against climate change.

The Environmental Movement and Diversity 

People's Climate March marchers holding up large yellow banner.

Mijin Cha writes, "There is arguably no greater challenge facing us now than climate change and, as such, innovative and creative thinking is needed now more than ever in the environmental movement." Credit: Creative Commons/South Bend Voice.

I woke up early on the Sunday morning of the People’s Climate March not sure what to expect. I had been hearing that over 100,000, possibly 200,000 people were expected to march. I hoped that the numbers would be there. But more than that, I hoped that the crowd that showed would be a reflection of those impacted most by climate change. While climate change will negatively impact all of us, people of color and low-income communities will be hit the hardest and have the fewest resources to adapt to the challenges, such as extreme weather and poor air quality, climate change will bring. Yet, these communities are often underrepresented, if not left out completely. It’s no secret that the environmental movement in the U.S. suffers from a lack of diversity and if we are going to win the fight against climate change, we cannot continue with business as usual—not at the governmental level, not at the business level, not at the individual level, and definitely not at the advocacy level.

The Emergence of Environmental Justice

I’ve been an environmental advocate since I was in elementary school, and over the years, I’ve lost count of the number of times I was the only person of color in a room full of environmentalists. To be sure, there are very diverse segments of the environmental movement. Environmental justice advocacy arose to battle the disproportionate environmental burden that communities of color face. The pivotal study, Toxics, Waste and Race released in 1987, found that race, not class, was the leading factor in siting polluting industries. While socio-economic status played an important role, race was even more significant.

Members if National Black Environmental Justice Network holding up banner.

Although the mainstream environmental movement continues to be a largely white, middle-class movement, for years environmental justice organizations across the country have been advocating on behalf of communities of color. Credit: Creative Commons/South Bend Voice.

Since that time, environmental justice organizations across the country have been advocating on behalf of communities of color in their struggles against environmental hazards. In Harlem, West Harlem Environmental Action (WE ACT) works to ensure low-income communities and communities of color can meaningfully participation in creating, “sound and fair environmental health and protection policies and practices.” The Asian Pacific Environmental Network fights for environmental justice on behalf of Asian and Pacific Islander communities. The Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment uses a combination of legal tools and organizing to advocate on behalf of low-income communities and communities of color facing environmental hazards with a particular focus on the Central Valley in California, one of the poorest regions in the nation and home to some of the most toxic waste sites nationwide. People of color are the majority of the Central Valley’s population.

Changing Demographics

However the mainstream environmental movement has been, and continues to be, a largely white, middle-class movement. A recent study found that the percentage of people of color on the boards or general staff does not exceed 16 percent in environmental advocacy organizations, government environmental agencies, and environmental grant-making organizations. And racial minorities occupy less than 12 percent of the leadership positions in these three types of organizations.

This exclusion of people of color cannot continue. For one, in less than 30 years, people of color will comprise the majority of the population in the U.S. The changing demographics of the country must be represented in leadership across all levels. In addition, diversity will make these organizations better at problem solving and more innovative. A recent study in Scientific American presented decades of research showing that socially diverse groups are more innovative. The study showed that social diversity makes groups better at solving complex, non-routine problems. There is arguably no greater challenge facing us now than climate change and, as such, innovative and creative thinking is needed now more than ever in the environmental movement.

Challenges to Inclusion

Diversity is often seen as a worthy, but elusive, goal. Diversity for diversity’s sake can easily slide into tokenism, where people of color or other underrepresented groups are asked to be present and visible but are not given true power or decision making authority. The way forward is to look within organizations and within ourselves to acknowledge and address internal racism and oppression. Organizations must look deep inside themselves to see if their priorities are shared by communities of color, rather than creating a set of priorities and asking communities of color to sign on.

While walking through the crowds, at the climate march, I overheard two white men in front of me having a discussion about the steps needed to fight climate change. They eventually settled upon population control and proceeded to discuss whether forced sterilization was an option. For them, I’m sure it was just a thought experiment and an intellectual discussion. For people of color, forced sterilization is not a thought experiment—it is a tragic and heartbreaking reality. To this date, women in the criminal justice system are being forced to undergo sterilizations, and women of color are particularly targeted for forced sterilizations.   This kind of misunderstanding is what creates a climate in which people of color do not feel comfortable and it is up to those with power to recognize their own privileges and assumptions that can create an environment where people of color do not feel welcome, let alone empowered and included. When we recognize it, we have taken the first step to dismantling it.

Signs of Hope

People at People's Climate March holding up signs.

Mijin Cha writes, "In my many years of being a climate advocate, the scale of the march and the scale of diversity at the march were unprecedented." Credit: Creative Commons/South Bend Voice.

So what else did I find when I arrived at the People’s Climate March? Pockets of interests, particularly renewable energy groups and traditional environmental organizations, that clearly need to prioritize diversifying their membership and leadership. But I also saw a sea of new faces: young people, people of color, and food justice advocates emphasizing the need for worker’s justice. I had never seen such a diverse crowd and it was also the first time I saw such a strong presence of the intersectionality of climate justice, economic justice, and racial justice. In my many years of being a climate advocate, the scale of the march and the scale of diversity at the march were unprecedented. There is a lot of work that still needs to be done but if the People’s Climate March is an indication of where the movement is heading, I feel more optimistic than ever that together, we can build a new world.

(This web-only article is part of a special series associated with Tikkun’s Spring 2015 print issue: The Place of Hope in an Age of Climate Disaster. Subscribe now to read these subscriber-only articles online, and sign up for our free email newsletter to receive links to future web-only articles on this topic, as well! Visit tikkun.org/climate to read the other web-only articles associated with this issue.)

J. Mijin Cha, J.D., PhD, is an independent researcher and analyst. She is also a Fellow at Cornell University’s Worker Institute and an Adjunct Professor at Fordham University.
tags: Climate Change, Environment, Environmental Activism   
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