The Center for Diversity Education at UNC Asheville hosted the day-long conference “Everybody’s Environment” on Friday, Oct. 10. The event invited staff from local environmental and conversation groups, community organizers and the public to discuss strategies for creating a more inclusive environmental movement, with more diverse staff at environmental organizations and stronger ties to the communities they serve.
DeWayne Barton, co-founder of Green Opportunities, began the assembly at the Dr. Wesley Grant Sr., Southside Center, speaking to community organizers and staff members from environmental organizations — or as Barton said “the superheros, the Batmans and Supermans of their communities.”
“There are many of us here who have never met before, but today we’re meeting to discuss how we can improve the pipeline into these environmental organizations,” Barton said. “How we’re going to improve the existing organizations and how we’re going to work together to connect and make those organizations a success.”
The conference’s keynote address was delivered by Melanie Allen, conservation and diversity director of the Conservation Trust for North Carolina. Allen said her background was in health care reform, but she became involved with environmental conservation while working with neighborhood beautification projects in Kansas City. She said she quickly realized the work was about much more than planting trees and flowers.
“It was an act of resistance,” Allen said in her speech. “It was a way to say this community is not yet ready to cede this land and there are people here that care. So what I want us to realize, when we are doing environmental work … is we’re sending a very, very powerful message. The words that we use to describe these places aren’t empty. These places are more than just ‘beautiful.'”
Like the conference itself, Allen’s talk centered on helping environmental organizations to increase their diversity — but she said the first step in that process is figuring out exactly what “diversity” means.
“We use diversity as a catchall,” she said. “It’s usually a word that we use when we don’t want to say what we mean.”
When an organization wants to increase its diversity, it should first establish a clear understanding of what it wants to accomplish, she explained. “Does it mean you want attendance at your events to better reflect the demographics of the area you are in? Does it mean you want more people from different walks of life involved in your decision-making process? Or do you mean that you want your organization to be a place for all people to feel welcomed and at home? Or do you mean some combination of all those things? What do you mean when you say ‘diversity’? Because there is no way you will achieve it if you’re not clear about what it is that you’re talking about.”
Organizations sometimes feel presenting the “rainbow coalition” — meaning people of many different races, nationalities or ethnicities— on their informational or marketing materials is enough to make their group inclusive, Allen said. In reality, organizations need to know and understand and respect the exact demographics of the area they are working with, reflect on their own internal diversity (or lack thereof) and take the time to engage and understand the ways people interact with their environment or the barriers that keep them from doing so.
“The big three are: know what you’re talking about when you talk about diversity — know what it means for you and your organization — don’t ‘go it alone’ and take the time to listen,” Allen noted.
Allen discusses how to engage community members to create diversity in environmental organizations.
Allen said that improving representation of minorities in environmental organizations is more important than ever as Census Bureau reports indicate that by 2042 ethnic and racial minorities will compromise the majority of the U.S. population. Allen notes that studies commissioned by national groups like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Trust for Public Land are finding that people of color are supportive of conservation work, yet are not well-represented in the environmental workforce.
“People of color are more likely than any other group of people surveyed to not only consider conversation and the environment in their own community, but they are also more likely to vote to increase taxes for things like parks,” Allen said. “So for the last 15 years, no matter where in the country, no matter who commissioned the surveys, these have been the answers that they’ve found. So we know there are people who believe in the work that we do, who value the work we do, but who are not engaging with that work on the ground. And that means that we are missing some aspect that invites these communities to engage with us, and we need to figure out what that aspect is moving forward.”
Allen said in Southern states an aspect of this disengagement may be a history of “tragedy, removal or violence” that indicates to many minorities that they “are not welcome” in the spaces that have since become conservation projects.
“When those things were happening, they weren’t just happening to individuals, but were signs to entire communities that ‘You do not belong in this space,’” Allen said. “So when we invite people to come to these spaces, we have to acknowledge that there is still that whisper of ‘You don’t belong here.’ If we, as environmental organizers, don’t take the time to deal with that, to unravel and unpack those difficult histories, then you won’t be able to overcome that whisper of ‘you don’t want me here, you don’t want me here.'”
Going forward, Allen encouraged organizers to invest time in listening to communities so that interactions were “a conversation of what everyone can bring to the table” instead of organizations expecting communities to fall in line. “We have to move beyond events, projects and programs, and look at something that is more comprehensive, like building a community and — this is a little cliché — truly building an inclusive movement.”
The Everybody’s Environment conference also included workshops on mentoring youth and young adults, board development, increasing staff diversity, unconscious bias and a discussion of “The Green Ceiling,” the racial composition in environmental agencies and organizations which has not risen above 16 percent for several decades. Attendees were also able to tour Green Opportunities, the Burton Street Community Peace Garden and the Pisgah View Community Garden.
For more information on the Center for Diversity Education, visit diversityed.org.