Study: Mainstream Environmental Groups Continue to Suffer from Lack of Diversity

Environmental institutions have a long way to go towards class, gender, and racial equity, study finds. (Image: Detail from report cover)

Study: Mainstream Environmental Groups Continue to Suffer from Lack of Diversity

New research finds that, while some gains have been made, white men continue to dominate the highest leadership positions of most green groups and hiring of people of color remains dismally low

Today's mainstream environmental organizations continue to fall short on institutional diversity, a new study shows, still operating as "insiders' clubs" that promote white, male leadership and impose a "green ceiling" on everyone else.

Headed by University of Michigan professor Dorceta Taylor, the report--titled The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations (pdf)--examines 191 conservation and preservation groups, 74 government environmental agencies, and 28 green grant-making organizations and incorporates information from interviews with 21 "environmental professionals."

The study finds that, while people of color comprise 38 percent of the U.S. population, they comprise less than 16 percent of the staff in all types of environmental institutions surveyed. Furthermore, once ethnic minorities make it in the door, they are relegated to lower-ranking positions, holding less than 12 percent of leadership roles. In conservation organizations that have budgets of over $1 million, there is not a single president who is an ethnic minority. The only position more likely to be filled by a person of color than a white employee is a diversity manager, but many organizations do not have such a slot.

Taylor told Common Dreams that, when it comes to diversity in hiring, some portions of corporate America out-pace environmental groups. "Over time we have seen some improvement, but I was surprised the numbers hadn't creeped up more," she said.

This is not because people of color don't care about the environment. A new survey by Green for All shows communities of color strongly support action on climate change, and it is well-documented that people currently facing socioeconomic inequalities are harder hit by the destructive effects of human-made climate change.

"People of color care deeply about the environment and the impacts of climate change," Green For All Executive Director Nikki Silvestri said in a recent press statement. "We understand the urgency of these threats because we experience the effects every single day."

But Taylor explained that, throughout her research, she found that the "notion that people of color are not interested in the environment" remains a key barrier to their employment in this sector. "As long as the perception remains that people of color are not qualified, that they won't stay, that they don't have the skill set, there will always be reluctance to hire people of color," she said.

The study identifies numerous other barriers, including "insider" recruiting, failure to reach out to minority-led organizations for hiring, reluctance to employ long-term interns of color, lack of commitment to diversity initiatives, lack of mentoring, and unconscious racism and discrimination. The report finds that the "internal culture" of environmental groups is "alienating" to communities of color, poor and working class people, LGBTQ communities, and others, with many perceiving environmental activism as a "white thing." The study outlines the histories of African Americans and Native American communities pushing environmental movements to incorporate social justice into their frameworks.

"Many people of color want to link social issues with environmental issues," said Taylor. "They link inequality and poor environment with discrimination, racism, and other equity issues and tie that to environmental issues. Some environmental organizations are not comfortable with that linkage."

These concerns are not new. In 1990, the Southwest Organizing Project penned an open letter to prominent environmental groups, criticizing their "lack of accountability" towards "Third World communities in the Southwest, in the United States as a whole, and internationally.

While green groups have made some progress in chipping away the "green ceiling," most of those gains have gone to white women--who comprise 60 percent of new interns and staffers at conservation and preservation groups, the study finds. The "most popular" diversity effort among environmental groups is the promotion of white women already on staff to positions of leadership. "Women of color are still on the outside looking in, along with their male counterparts," the study notes.

Yet even still, the gender gap remains, with men generally holding more powerful positions. Men comprise 70 percent of the presidents and board chairs at conservation and preservation groups, holding most of the executive director positions in government agencies, holding a majority of the highest-ranking positions at environmental grant-making groups, and dominating board membership across across the board.

Some environmental groups responded to the findings with concern. "Until these issues are addressed, the environmental movement will continue to be stuck in our silo while the planet and its people suffer," May Boeve, executive director for, told the Guardian in response to the study.

The study urges environmental groups to muster a real commitment to diversity, not just lip service, and directly support "existing leaders of color." Taylor explained that in the "environmental justice movement" there are "talented people of color organizations, pushing campaigns" worthy of backing.

"The message of this report is that we would like to see more improvement," said Taylor.

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