In 1990, members of various civil rights groups wrote a letter to the eight largest American environmental organizations, accusing them of largely excluding people of color. For example, at the time of the letter, the National Audubon Society had only three Black staff members out of 315.
The letter writers said environmental organizations had not been hiring Black and brown employees. This failure reflected environmental racism, the idea that power imbalances and systemic racism intersect with the environment, leading to communities of color around the world facing disproportionate burdens from climate change and environmental hazards.
The Exclusionary History of Environmentalism
The environmental movement has historically been racist and exclusionary. This reality has stood in the way of wider acknowledgment and resolution of environmental racism and possibly contributed to it. This historic exclusion does not reflect disinterest on the part of affected groups. Although they were largely excluded from environmental organizations, Black, brown, and Indigenous communities have historically fought to protect the environment.
The whiteness of the environmental movement dates back to its beginning. America’s oldest and largest environmental organization, the Sierra Club, began in 1892 in the United States. Its founder, John Muir, is known as the “father of the national parks.” However, according to a 2020 article by the Sierra Club’s executive director, Muir “made derogatory comments about Black people and Indigenous peoples that drew on deeply harmful racist stereotypes.” Other early leaders of the organization were “vocal advocates for white supremacy and its pseudo-scientific arm, eugenics.” Eugenics is a practice based on the scientifically inaccurate and discredited theory that humans can be improved through selective breeding. It caused widespread harm to marginalized populations in the form of involuntary sterilization, segregation, and social exclusion.
The Sierra Club once required potential members to get sponsorship from existing members, largely screening out applicants of color. This contributed to the widespread perception that nature and the environment were accessible only to white men. The organization did not welcome a Black woman member until 1959.
Other environmental organizations have begun to reckon publicly with their similarly racist pasts. National Geographic admitted in a 2018 issue that “until the 1970s National Geographic all but ignored people of color who lived in the United States, rarely acknowledging them beyond laborers or domestic workers.” Similarly, in 2020 the Wildlife Conservation Society acknowledged its “bigoted actions and attitudes in the early 1900s toward non-whites—especially African Americans, Native Americans and immigrants.” Also in 2020, the National Audubon Society shared that its founder, John James Audubon, was an enslaver, a fact that people familiar with his life “tend to ignore and excuse.”
A Change Is Coming
While dedicated activists and staff have made strides in diversifying environmental groups, systemic racism continues to hurt the environmental movement. Green 2.0 is a group of diverse environmental professionals that analyzes the diversity of the environmental sector. They do this because “people of color are the most impacted by environmental problems and the least represented in positions of power.” Since launching in 2014, the group has commissioned yearly diversity reports of national environmental organizations and provided support and resources for hiring and retaining staff of color. Green 2.0’s 2021 Transparency Report Card shows significant increases in the diversity of senior staff and board members. The document cites the 2020 resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement as a possible reason for the increase in diversity. The average percentage of people of color across all staff levels at the 67 surveyed organizations was around 30 percent. Only 25.3 percent of heads of organizations are people of color.
In 2015, the Sierra Club elected its first Black president, Aaron Mair. He said in an interview that his goal is to “take my grassroots experience and my knowledge of the EJ [environmental justice] movement and bring the concept of environmental justice into the mainstream of the environmental movement through a big organization like the Sierra Club.”
Environmental Activists of Color
Joining existing organizations is one way activists of color can raise the profile of environmental justice issues. In addition, many activists of color have worked at local levels and sometimes created organizations of their own. Environmental organizations created by activists of color not only focus on issues of environmental racism. They can also serve as inclusive spaces that represent other activists of color.
The Intersectional Environmentalist, a platform founded by Leah Thomas, is a resource and media hub that advocates environmental justice and inclusivity within environmental education and movements. In 2022 Thomas released the book The Intersectional Environmentalist: How to Dismantle Systems of Oppression to Protect People + Planet. Similarly, Black Girl Environmentalist, founded by Wanjiku Gatheru, is an intergenerational community of Black girls, women, and nonbinary environmentalists. Meanwhile, Outdoor Afro, founded by Rue Mapp, is a nonprofit that celebrates and inspires Black connections and leadership in nature. Mapp wrote the 2021 book Nature Swagger: Stories and Visions of Black Joy in the Outdoors.
Archana Soreng is a climate activist from the Kharia tribe in Odisha, India, and one of the seven members of the UN Secretary-General’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change. She works to document, preserve, and promote the traditional knowledge and practices of Indigenous communities. Comprising five percent of the world’s population, Indigenous peoples oversee more than 20 percent of the planet’s land and 80 percent of its biodiversity. “For us young people, it’s very important to embrace identity, to know our traditional knowledge and practices, to preserve it, protect it, and advocate for the participation of Indigenous people and local communities in the climate decision-making processes,” Soreng said in an interview with the UN.
Vanessa Nakate is a climate activist from Uganda who founded the Rise up Climate Movement, an organization that aims to amplify the voices of African activists. “When it comes to the African continent, it is, of course, on the frontlines of the climate crisis. But it’s not on the front pages of the world’s newspapers,” Nakate said in a UN interview. She spearheaded a campaign to save the Congo Basin Rainforest, which is facing massive deforestation. Nakate was also one of 20 climate activists who penned a letter addressed to the participants of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, calling on them to stop subsidizing fossil fuels.
Ron Finley is a self-proclaimed “gangsta gardener” from the South Central neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, in the United States. Finley promotes gardening as a way to mitigate the challenge of living in a food desert. Food deserts, which often occur in Black and brown neighborhoods, are areas with limited access to affordable and nutritious food. In 2010, Finley dug up a strip of land between his house and the street and started growing fruits and vegetables. Local officials said it was illegal, but that didn’t deter Finley. He and his fellow activists petitioned for the right to garden and grow food in one’s own neighborhood. Their movement spurred legal changes, and in the years since, Finley has taught gardening to others living in food deserts, helped create dozens of community gardens throughout Los Angeles, and traveled across the world to talk about “gangsta” gardening.
Rodrigo Tot is an Indigenous Q’eqchi leader from Guatemala who works to protect his community’s land from environmentally destructive nickel mining. During the Guatemalan Civil War in the 1980s, corrupt government workers removed records of Indigenous land ownership from the official land registry in a deliberate attempt to take it from Tot’s people. As the elected president of the Agua Caliente tribe in 2002, he collected evidence and documents of Indigenous land ownership and led his community through a yearslong lawsuit. In 2011, he won a landmark court decision that ordered the government to issue land titles to the Q’eqchi people. The government has yet to enact the court’s ruling, and the mining company has continued to expand its operations. In response, Tot set up a community group to keep trespassers at bay. In 2014, security forces attempted to enter the village but withdrew after a peaceful standoff led by Tot. As of mid-2022, security forces had not returned.
Pua Lay Peng is an activist from Malaysia. Her country became the number one dumping site for plastic recycling after China banned plastic waste imports in 2018. Many of the waste facilities in Malaysia are illegal. The pileup of plastic waste emits toxic gases and pollutes rivers and waterways, causing breathing problems and illnesses in residents. To bring attention to the problem, Lay Peng organized community members to respond. They wrote complaint letters, provided evidence to the government, and started an investigation to capture video footage of the illegal recycling factories and plastic burning. As of mid-2022, they had succeeded in removing more than 300 of the illegal factories in the area. Unfortunately, some remain and the illegal importation of plastic is still a big problem in the country. Lay Peng continues to work against the illegal importation of waste to Malaysia and raise awareness about the global plastic waste industry.