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Why Environmental Organizations Need Diverse Leadership?

December 13, 2022

December 13, 2022

Green 2.0 Team

By Marybeth Gasman. Read at Forbes.

People of color and the communities in which they reside are disproportionately affected by hurricanes, flooding, drought, and wildfires due to climate change. Why? Because the long-term impact of natural disasters and climate change tends to fall on people of color, who are often located in racially and economically segregated communities. According to Manish Bapna, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, “Communities of color are hit first and worst by climate change.” To counter this problem, it is essential to build highly diverse teams across environmental organizations focused on climate action.

Green 2.0, a campaign working to increase racial and ethnic diversity among environmental organizations, issued its annual NGO and Foundation Report Card (2022) today. The report card includes data on racial and ethnic diversity pertaining to full-time staff, senior staff, organization heads, and board members from over 80 environmental Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) and foundations. According to the report card, in 2022, 36.5% of full-time environmental NGO staffers identified as people of color, up 3.5% from 2021. While this increase indicates one area of progress, more needs to be done to address the lack of diversity across the green movement as people of color continue to be underrepresented.

Andres Jimenez, executive director of Green 2.0, shared, “To build a winning climate movement, we need people of color represented at all levels of environmental NGOs and foundations. Our report card shifts the center of gravity towards greater equity by holding organizations accountable.” He added, “I’m heartened to see the progress across the movement. But while more foundations have shared their data than ever before, we need to encourage more to be transparent and to participate so we can build a more effective movement.”

National leaders agree with Jimenez’s call for transparency. According to House Natural Resources Committee Chair Raúl M. Grijalva (AZ-3), “There’s no question that climate change impacts us all, but communities of color and Indigenous communities are being hit especially hard. If we want to be serious about fighting the climate crisis and saving this planet, we must make sure that the communities who are most affected are also represented at the top levels of environmental leadership and decision making. Holding environmental organizations and foundations to a high standard of diversity, equity, and inclusion is a critical step in making that happen.”

Some racial and ethnic groups including Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islanders and Middle Eastern or North Africans are missing entirely from executive leadership across NGOs and foundations. According to Jimenez, “These communities have long been excluded from decision-making processes that directly impact their land and livelihoods. We are missing critical voices from people of color who have unique needs and perspectives about how their communities are impacted by environmental degradation.”

Indigenous knowledge is rooted in an understanding of nature that centers traditions, history, and observations that sustain the care of land, people, and animals. A 2019 UN Sustainability Goals Report found that Indigenous communities take care of roughly 24% of the land in the world and have done so for centuries. If Indigenous communities are not leading the environmental movement with their knowledge and cultural practices, Jimenez believes that “we risk ignoring key solutions to the crisis we face and excluding groups from leading in the areas that will most directly shape their lives.” The same U.N. report found that lands managed by Indigenous communities are declining at a slower rate than other lands. From Jimenez’ perspective, “By excluding these groups, we lose sight of inclusive action, which limits the development of new ideas and dissenting viewpoints to build a winning climate movement. Increased diversity and transparency benefit everyone. We need people of color in the room to use their historical and traditional knowledge to inform policy while also stimulating ideas that will move the environmental movement forward.”

While a growing number of full-time foundation staff identify as people of color (42.3%), this representation decreases for senior staff (35.2%), board members (24.3%) and heads of organizations (20%). According to Jimenez, “Environmental organizations must prioritize creating a leadership bench with representation from all communities.” He suggests that organizations make senior roles accessible to people of color by being more transparent regarding salary and promotion policies. Jimenez added, “Leaders of color can provide solutions that will benefit us all. However, organizations need to invest in changing their cultures, which doesn’t happen overnight.”

In the words of Michael Roberts, president and CEO of First Nations Development Institute, “Indigenous leaders and the traditional ecological knowledge of their communities are critical to building a winning movement, yet we have long been denied a seat at the decision-making table.” He added, “The findings of this year’s report card indicate the absence of Indigenous leaders as CEOs or on senior staff of foundations — our voices and our knowledge are needed to transform how we serve all communities. Foundations can no longer deliberately exclude Native voices and must do better.”

Leaders of color, working with environmental NGOs and foundations, emphasize the need for opportunities to lead rather than be told how to solve environmental crises and climate impact by others. In the words of Mustafa Santiago Ali, executive vice president for the National Wildlife Foundation: “To address the urgency of the environmental crisis, communities most impacted need to lead and speak for themselves.”