Turn the green movement brown

A call to action from Green 2.0

(l-r) Gina McCarthy, Robert Raben and Rhea Suh
(l-r) Gina McCarthy, Robert Raben and Rhea Suh

Robert Raben, founder of an influential public relations and government affairs firm, The Raben Group, recalled the moment about a year ago that kicked his personal commitment to expand diversity within the environmental movement into high gear. Speaking to a standing-room-only briefing at the National Press Club recently, he told how he was a guest of a prominent environmental organization at its annual dinner.

“It was extremely well attended, well more than 1,200 people,” Raben recalled. “And I could not identify a single person of color other than the servers.”

After discussions with environmental stakeholders, Raben concluded that the lack of diversity within mainstream environmental organizations “is too much the norm.” His response was to launch Green 2.0 as a working group of professionals dedicated to turning the green movement brown.

The briefing, titled “Breaking the Green Ceiling” and cohosted by New America Media, was a coming-out party that now has racked up some solid successes. Among those joining Raben at the podium to endorse the effort were Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy and Rhea Suh, the incoming president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the most influential NGOs in the environmental field.

In a society obsessed with data and metrics, Raben explained, Green 2.0’s first action was to commission an in-depth survey of close to 300 environmental nonprofits, government agencies and foundations to create a diversity index for the movement. The findings, documented in The Taylor Report and released last August, were sobering. Fewer than 16 percent of leadership, staff and boards are made up of people of color. Most worrisome, Green 2.0 Director Danielle Deane told the room, while many of those interviewed for the report acknowledged the lack of diversity, few expressed any urgency to address it or seemed to have a game plan of how to move forward.

Now that is likely to change. In a move that promises to up the ante for those nonprofits that remain oblivious to the diversity imperative, GuideStar — the country’s primary collector of data about the nonprofit sector — has launched a “diversity index” to track data about the leadership, board and staffs of nonprofits, including those in the environmental field.

Partnering with GuideStar is D5, a coalition dedicated to expanding diversity in the philanthropic sphere. “We have been challenged for many years to get a diverse community in the environmental world,” McCarthy said in her keynote address. She lauded the Green 2.0/GuideStar/D5 collaboration because “We measure what we value… Let’s measure! Let’s give [diversity] the value we say it has.”

Diversity, McCarthy emphasized, is a critical dimension of staffing and resources in order to better inform EPA’s mission to protect the health and environmental of all Americans. Rhea Suh, who is leaving the Department of the Interior to become the first woman of color to head a major environmental organization when she arrives at NRDC, lamented the fact that the diversity needle hasn’t moved in decades within many government agencies, nonprofit organizations or foundations.

“Diversity issues are relegated to the EEOC offices or the HR offices and not actually incorporated into the very mission of the organization,” she said.

For Robert-Mark DeSouza, director of Population, Environmental Security and Resilience at the Woodrow Wilson Center, diversity “makes all the difference.” In conversations with young, aspiring American environmentalists, he said, “They get it… A more diverse environmental movement and workforce in the United States increases our impact overseas and allows us to bring lessons back home. That difference makes all the difference.”

Green 2.0’s action-oriented agenda clearly resonated with the audience. Leslie Fields, director of the Environmental Justice and Community Partnerships Program of the Sierra Club, was delighted the Taylor Report had inspired the GuideStar/D5 partnership. “I thought this was going to be another report that would merely sit on the shelf,” she confessed.

Though she is a fierce advocate of environmental justice (EJ), Fields thought it important that Raben had taken a moment to explain that Green 2.0 is not an EJ initiative, but one focused on expanding mainstream environmental organizations’ identification, recruitment and retention of individuals from diverse heritages and backgrounds.

Janell Mayo Duncan, president of Living Well Black, also commended Green 2.0. “The lack of inclusion [in the environmental field] is disturbing, particularly when minorities have been found to be as supportive — or more supportive — of dealing with climate change and promoting sound energy policies.” In addition, Duncan said, there is compelling evidence that minorities suffer disproportionately greater negative impacts from climate change and pollution.

Raben called on leaders in the environmental field to sign the pledge to share their diversity data, a call that has been quickly embraced by 11 leading groups, including the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, Earthjustice, the NRDC, and the Environmental Defense Fund. But he made it clear diversity is about more than checking off metrics.

“Diversity is a value. It is not a program. It is not an afterthought, it is not a February commemoration,” Raben said in closing remarks. “It is an organic value of an institution, like transparency, integrity, accountability… There’s no beginning and no end. You don’t reach a point where you say, ‘Okay, we’re diverse enough.’ It’s a constant.”

NRDC’s Suh, a new mother, put it another way, one reminiscent of the Raben dinner story that gave rise to Green 2.0. “I will be damned if I leave the world for my daughter in the same place that I found it,” Suh exclaimed. “I will be damned if I allow her, in 20 years, to walk into a ballroom and feel like she doesn’t belong.”

Thanks to New America Media and Khalil Abdullah for sharing this story with us.