Skip to content

Did Big Green Groups Fumble Their George Floyd Moment?

June 5, 2024

June 5, 2024

Green 2.0 Team

By Jason P. Dinh. Read at Atmos.

Four years ago on Saturday, George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. The aftermath took the country by storm. Protestors flooded the streets. They demanded racial justice not only in law enforcement but across every sector and industry. Environmental groups, which have struggled with histories of racism for decades, were no exception.

“That was definitely a huge catalyst moment,” said Chanté Coleman, senior vice president of equity and justice at the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). In response to Floyd’s murder, as well as others that year like Ahmaud Arbery, NWF and other environmental organizations published their first-ever commitments to become antiracist workplaces. “That conversation started to really deepen the way that we thought about the connection between oppression and our mission,” she said.

Racism is woven into the very fabric of environmental thought, both past and present. As a fledgling movement, white supremacists like Madison Grant and Teddy Roosevelt filled environmentalism’s upper ranks. In the name of conservation, Indigenous people have been removed from their ancestral lands in Yellowstone, Yosemite, and elsewhere—a practice still in place today. That legacy compelled a coalition of environmental justice leaders to castigate 10 of the nation’s largest, most well-endowed environmental organizations in a blistering letter in 1990, demanding they rectify their long history of “racist and exclusionary practices” which have “played an equal role in the disruption of our communities.”

Coleman said NWF, one of the groups invoked in the 1990 letter, never even mustered a response. “It’s not an accident that the environmental justice movement is a separate movement,” she said.

The summer of 2020 and the four years that followed provided an opportunity to make amends. In the past four years, NWF has ramped up its environmental justice and tribal programs. Last year, they adopted a new vision statement that names people and environmental justice as the core of their wildlife work. Their annual budget for DEI was nonexistent in 2019; today, it’s ballooned to nearly $1 million.

Still, Coleman is under no illusion that they’ve fully reckoned. She compared their progress to a rock climbing wall. “You’re so excited because you look down and you’re like, I have come so far from the bottom. But then you look up and you can’t even see the top.”

As Saturday marks four years since Floyd’s death, I wondered how Big Green Groups have fared as a whole. Have they reckoned? And is there still a demand and willingness to change?

The closest thing to that are the annual reports from Green 2.0, a watchdog group for inequity in environmentalism. Their latest entry paints a complicated picture. NGO staffs have diversified since 2020, but progress is stagnating, especially for board members and senior staff.

“This is very concerning to us,” said Adriane Alicea, managing director of Green 2.0. “The stagnation may be coming from a lack of willingness to go beyond the statement, beyond the committee, but to actually interrogate culture.”

At the same time, a nationwide backlash against DEI is unfurling in classrooms, courtrooms, and boardrooms. “It has created a way out for organizations who were never really committed to this work to begin,” said Alicea.

If the window of opportunity opened in 2020, it seems to be closing now. Will Big Green Groups reclaim the moment, or will they squander it?

Appointing a former NAACP chief to lead the Sierra Club might seem unexpected, but at the time, Ben Jealous seemed to be exactly who they needed. The civil rights leader and progressive organizer is the group’s first Black executive director—a choice that initially thrilled staff, said CJ Garcia-Linz, a Sierra Club employee and president of the Progressive Workers Union (PWU), which represents roughly 350 of the organization’s employees.

“We were super excited to see a person of color at the helm and someone who professes to be very labor-minded,” she said.

“Then we met him, and it just felt very performative.”

Jealous joined the organization in November 2022 after two years of turmoil. Shortly after George Floyd was murdered, Jealous’s predecessor Michael Brune wrote a blog post that laid bare the organization’s “substantial role in perpetuating white supremacy.” That started with its founder, John Muir, who described Indigenous people as “savages,” and continued as the organization seeded calls for population control in the 1960s—proposals that are often trojan horses for eugenics, which persist to this day.

The year that followed Brune’s post revealed how discrimination still taints the organization today. In the summer of 2020, an employee’s rape allegation initiated a months-long internal investigation of workplace culture. The resulting 24-page report documented discrimination and harassment with respect to gender, race, sexual orientation, and other facets of identity. Brune resigned just weeks after it was published. Two years later, the Sierra Club tapped Jealous to take the helm.

The change felt much-needed, but Garcia-Linz said that hope was quickly quashed.

Just months after joining the organization, the Sierra Club laid off its entire equity team and several members of the environmental justice division. Jonathon Berman, deputy chief of communications of the Sierra Club, told Atmos in an email that the previous structure “had fallen well short” of the intended goals, and clearing the slate “better positioned the organization to address past shortcomings.” Leadership has not notified staff of any plans to replace the equity team, Garcia-Linz said.

Garcia-Linz accused leadership of negotiating in bad faith with the union toward a new collective bargaining agreement—something they see as directly related to racial justice. For example, the organization has proposed rolling back the legally binding grievance processes for harassment and discrimination.

“[The grievance article] was explicitly drafted to protect Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) staff… Sierra Club is attempting to remove the very mechanism of protection for our members based on an individual’s protected category… By proposing to remove key language from the contract, Sierra Club is asking us to trust them to take care of problems when historically they have been unwilling to act,” PWU wrote in an email.

Berman insisted in an email that none of the club’s proposals would remove protections based on any protected class.

These labor disputes have defined Jealous’s inaugural year in office. The club faces eight active unfair labor practice (ULP) charges filed in the past year. In the latest one filed earlier this month, PWU alleged that the organization planned to terminate union leaders through retaliatory layoffs. Meanwhile Sierra Club leadership and Jealous, who declined a request for interview, accuse PWU of racist attacks against Black leadership (when asked for specific racist incidents, Berman sent a meme the union posted on X, formerly known as Twitter).

The result is a culture that is “toxic and terrifying” for those who want to fight for racial equity, said Garcia-Linz. “Anyone who’s really pushing for that work and for that culture to flow down is being pushed out… As a queer woman of color, I feel like I’m starting to be more harmed than less harmed, and that’s not what we were hoping for when we had the regime change.”

Tykee James, president of the Washington D.C.’s Audubon chapter, wasn’t shocked when the National Audubon Society’s board of directors voted against a name change. “I was certainly disappointed, but not surprised,” he said.

The organization’s namesake, John James Audubon, was an enslaver, anti-abolitionist, and white supremacist. Among other things, he stole skulls from the graves of Mexican soldiers and Native American chiefs, sending them to a peer to use as biological “evidence” supporting scientific racism and white supremacy.

For years, activists had been calling on the organization to change its name and disavow its bigoted founder. But in a closed-door vote in March 2023, after soliciting feedback from 2,300 people, the group’s board of directors voted against it. Three board members resigned shortly after.

“You would think that an organization with an operating budget and reserves up to the hundreds of millions of dollars would be able to at least put two cents together to find that there is a better name than Audubon for their purposes,” James said. “I think the board members resigning right after the decision to retain the name is indicative of the future of the organization. I don’t think that they’re going to be able to remain relevant.”

James emphasized that the name is not the work, but it’s a hindrance to achieving equity—something the National Audubon Society says they are committed to. In their announcement to retain their name last year, the organization introduced a $25 million fund to expand DEI work. Maxine Griffin Somerville, chief people and culture officer at the National Audubon Society, told Atmos in an email that this money is going towards building out an equity team but declined to share specific initiatives that funding would support.

James struggles to align these stated values with the organization’s actions. When he worked at the National Audubon Society from 2018 to 2022, a CEO who proclaimed “Black Lives Matter” simultaneously downplayed staff allegations of racism. He added that the new CEO claims to listen to workers, but allegedly refuses to negotiate in good faith with the union. A litany of broken labor law accusations are “receipts of that broken promise.”

Somerville noted in an email that these charges have yet to be reviewed by the National Labor Relations Board.

James said the national organization’s decisions reflect their leadership—which like other Big Green organizations, is “majority white, historically and presently, almost like a mountain: At the bottom, there’s a lot of color.”

But now, local Audubon chapters are trying to do things differently.

For the past year, James has led his local chapter in a name change. On April 26, 2024, John James Audubon’s 239th birthday, D.C. Audubon Society officially rebranded as D.C. Bird Alliance. They joined some of the nation’s largest local chapters in doing so: NYC Bird Alliance, Chicago Bird Alliance, Birds Connect Seattle, and Bird Alliance of Oregon.

“We’re proud to be changing our name to something that better reflects our ambitions and values,” James said.

Disappointment creeps into James’s voice as he speaks of the national organization, but he hasn’t lost all hope: “I think that there will be a better day for the National Audubon Society as it’s currently named, and I look forward to celebrating their continued success when they get out of their own way.”

Today, DEI is under assault. The Supreme Court’s decision last year to end race-based affirmative action has emboldened right-wing activists as they levy legal challenges to diversity initiatives across the country. That’s taken a toll on environmentalism, said Coleman of NWF. “I feel amongst some of our peers the momentum starting to decrease again after 2020, and we really need to keep our foot on the gas pedal,” she said.

Climate activist Wawa Gatheru, founder and executive director of Black Girl Environmentalist, said that equity-focused initiatives and philanthropy are being slashed and diluted with race-neutral language. “I think we’re moving backward,” she said.

Stagnation on racial justice is an existential threat to the movement, said Alicea of Green 2.0. Environmentalism must become “a place where all communities are able to provide their leadership—their brilliance—to our movement,” she said. “If we don’t do that, we’re not going to have a successful climate movement, and we’re not going to win on climate.”

Indeed, actions in which Big Green Groups center Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities, have yielded some of environmentalism’s biggest wins in the past decade.

Take the Keystone XL Pipeline, which was halted thanks to well over a decade of Indigenous-led resistance. Years after Indigenous groups began organizing, Big Green Groups, like the Sierra Club, joined the cause, breaking a century-long prohibition against civil disobedience. Former executive director Brune was even arrested during a protest.

That theme resurfaced in this year’s premiere environmental win: the permitting pause for new liquid natural gas (LNG) exports. Roishetta Ozane, a community organizer and founder of The Vessel Project of Louisiana, first raised alarms over LNG in 2021, with little early support from Big Green Groups.

“I was talking about it to these national organizations and funders. They were not interested. They were like, Oh, we’re not fighting that,” she said.

After years of persistence, larger organizations finally joined her cause, elevating the fight to national status. This January, they won. And in President Biden’s announcement of the pause, he explicitly credited frontline activists like Ozane.

Ozane appreciates the national organizations that joined her coalition, but she’s not starry-eyed about it. Once Big Green Groups swooped in, she said frontline groups were marginalized. “We were just pushed out, and some of the groups who had never been by our side—some groups who had never even been to our community—wanted to take credit,” she said. “I didn’t think it was fair.”

Even Jealous of the Sierra Club, one of the first major groups to back Ozane, has never stepped foot in southwest Louisiana to her knowledge, she noted.

Ozane said that Big Green Groups are in a better place than they were in 2020, thanks to frontline leaders they’ve invited into their spaces, but they still have a lot of work to do.

Coleman echoed the sentiment: “We’ve made some progress for sure… And at the same time, we know that there are specific areas we need to continue to work on.”

Like many, Gatheru of Black Girl Environmentalist feels progress waning, but at the same time, she wonders whether that momentum was real to begin with. Many initiatives started in 2020 were set up for failure, she said: “If things weren’t actualized, was it ever a real change to begin with?”

In June 2020, shortly after George Floyd was murdered, Gatheru penned a scathing op-ed calling on environmentalism to “own up to erasing Black people.”

“It’s time for the environmental community to learn from us, not exploit us. It’s time to open up your purse, listen, and change. It’s time to reimagine what it means to affirm Black life, reimagine what this movement could look like, made in the image of all of us,” she wrote.

When I asked if her assessment of the movement is different today, she said rather soberingly: “Everything I said there still stands. I don’t have any revisions.”