The movement for a cleaner, greener world has grown increasingly popular as the climate crisis has worsened, and organizations such as Greenpeace and World Wildlife Fund, now household names, have raised millions to save species, cut down on pollution and slow the effects of climate change.
But many environmental organizations are still predominantly staffed and led by White employees, a new report finds. And with few people of color on staff, racial disparities in who’s impacted most by harmful environmental policies will continue, a leading environmental justice expert says.
A report from Green 2.0, a group that advocates for improved diversity among environmental groups, found that 40 of the top environmental justice organizations in the United States and worldwide are mostly White. Though many of the organizations evaluated have made an effort in the past four years to increase the number of staffers and board members who are Black and people of color, the report shows the green movement has a long way to go in terms of racial parity in leadership.
NBC News first reported on the findings.
Green 2.0 evaluated employment data submitted by 40 environmental non-profits, non-governmental organizations and advocacy groups and compared that to data submitted since 2017. Between 2017 and 2020, most of the organizations added on average six people of color to their staffs, Green 2.0 reported.
According to the report, the international environmental group Greenpeace has made notable strides since 2017, when 31.4% of its full-time staff were people of color. In 2020, more than 40% of its staffers were people of color, though just over a quarter of them were senior staff, with most of those positions still held by White staffers.
World Wildlife Fund, an international organization with a focus on animal conservation, made little progress in racial equity. People of color have made up between 25% to just over 26% of its full-time staff from 2017 to 2020, the report found, and most of its board members are White, too.
The National Audubon Society, a non-profit that focuses on bird conservation, added 6% more people of color to its full-time staff for a total of 24% – still less than a quarter. Senior staff at the Rainforest Action Network, a San Francisco-based non-profit for rainforest conservation, are more than 77% White.
Andrés Jimenez, executive director of Green 2.0, said it’s not enough to hire more people of color. Structural change within an organization requires buy-in from leaders.
“If you don’t create a workplace environment where your employees of color feel welcomed and valued, they are not going to stay long,” Jimenez said in a statement to CNN. “As we say in the report, diversity is only the first step.”
A few jobs won’t address environmental racism, expert says
The disparity is especially notable given that many environmental problems and harmful environmental policies disproportionately impact Black Americans and people of color – known as “environmental racism,” a term coined by Robert Bullard, a leader in the environmental justice movement. Examples include the yearslong dearth of potable water in Flint, Michigan, a predominantly Black, low-income community, and deadly air pollution in “Cancer Alley,” predominantly Black parishes of Louisiana where chemical plants and oil refineries poison the air.
Bullard, also a professor at Texas Southern University and co-chair of the National Black Environmental Justice Network, told CNN the staff additions the organizations have made are “baby steps” – not enough to create lasting impact within communities that suffer most from detrimental policies.
“Nearly every aspect of American society is segregated,” he said. “Environmental and conservation organizations are no exception. … America is segregated, and so is pollution.”
While putting people of color in leadership positions can make a difference, Bullard said, he recommends that people of color create and lead their own organizations that have a foundation in racial justice, which can inform their environmental work, rather than focusing on environmental issues alone.
His group, the National Black Environmental Justice Network, relaunched over the summer because of the confluence of issues facing Black Americans, including the Covid-19 pandemic and recent rollback of environmental regulations. Bullard helped create a grass-roots initiative with Black volunteers from Texas and the Gulf Coast up to Pennsylvania who work within their communities to address racial inequities in pollution and environmental degradation.
Existing organizations should collaborate with groups like his that are led by people of color so both can thrive and address their goals, Bullard said.
“We need more advocacy on the part of the leading environmental conservation groups aligned with people-of-color groups who are fighting for a fair share of green dollars,” Bullard said. “This collaborative advocacy needs to start now.”
Top environmental groups say they must do more
CNN reached out to Greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund, the National Audubon Society and the Rainforest Action Network for comment. Two of the organizations that responded, Greenpeace and the Rainforest Action Network, acknowledged that while both had made progress in hiring more people of color, the environmental movement still has a ways to go toward racial equity.
“The level of progress the report shows for Greenpeace itself is a testament to our staff and leadership’s commitment to embedding justice within our organization and through our work in the world, but we know we still have a long way to go to get to where we need to be,” said Greenpeace USA’s Ebony Martin, the group’s chief operating officer, who leads its equity and inclusion work.
Greenpeace has acknowledged it needs to renew its focus on environmental justice, and staffers wrote blog posts urging supporters to speak out against legislation that would further environmental racism.
Pallavi Phartiyal, Rainforest Action Network deputy executive director, agreed with Bullard that racial disparities lie at the foundation of environmental injustice and disproportionate climate impacts. She said the organization is working on centering the experiences of Black and indigenous staffers and people of color who work there and in the rainforests they work to protect.
A World Wildlife Fund spokesperson told CNN that though the group’s overall staff diversity has remained largely unchanged, people of color now make up a quarter of all senior staff, up from 13% in 2017. The organization’s senior director for diversity, equity, and inclusion, Renee Johnson, said in a recent video that the organization had launched an internship program aimed at students of color and offers a diversity education series for US employees.