Green Grows Grassroots
If working outside the Beltway is crucial to making environmental progress, environmental groups have to learn to talk in a way people outside the Beltway can understand. "What ordinary person knows what carbon sequestration means?" asks Peggy Shepherd, the founder of West Harlem Environmental Action. Sitting in her modestly furnished office above the fast-food and discount stores of 125th Street, Shepherd points out the window and continues, "We spend a lot of our time translating this stuff into language that makes sense to people living in that housing project over there. We've got to let people know that the environment is their home, it's their kids' school, so they can understand their connection to these global problems that seem so big."
Reaching out more will also require environmentalists to face issues of race and class--issues they have long skirted, despite the well-known fact that poor and nonwhite communities are disproportionately victimized by environmental degradation. Fifteen years after the National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit put environmental justice on the green agenda, the top ranks of mainstream organizations remain dominated by white men. Of the thirty leaders in the Green Group, all but two are white; all but three are men. "Whenever I go to middle- or high-level environmental meetings, I'm always the only person of color in the room and, what's even more shocking, one of only two or three women," says Shepherd. "It's very surprising, because I know those women and people of color are out there."
"It is a bit tragic that people who are presumably progressive are so far behind on this," says Carl Anthony, deputy director of the Ford Foundation's community and resource development unit. "Take your average corporation, say Pepsi Cola; they're way ahead of the environmental movement in terms of doing at least lip service on this. Even George Bush's Administration has an African-American Secretary of State." Diversifying the movement is not a matter of political correctness, Anthony emphasizes, but of effectiveness. "Look at what the environmental justice movement has taught everybody about toxics. In the 1970s environmentalists were saying if we don't cut back on toxics, such and such bad things would happen. But environmental justice folks were saying, 'It's already happening in our communities.' Unless we build this edge to our movements, we can't win."
More and more mainstream environmentalists agree, if only because they realize that middle-class white people are increasingly unrepresentative of twenty-first-century America. "The changing demographics of the United States mean that environmental groups, to succeed, have got to speak to Latinos, African-Americans and other new constituencies," says Bill Davis, director of the State Environmental Leadership Program.
Jerome Ringo knows from his years of organizing in Louisiana that bridging the divide won't be easy. "You can't just tell people in Cancer Alley that they should join conservation groups because they'll ask, What have you done for me lately?" he says. "And conservation groups don't have much of an answer for that. They have to step up to the plate and address the issues that impact minority communities."
Mainstream environmental leaders concede the problem and are working on it, says Bill Meadows, president of the Wilderness Society and coordinator of the Green Group's efforts on diversity. "I remember sitting at a table at one of the conferences we've begun holding to support this kind of work," he says. "Seated to my right was a woman from Florida who was very involved in environmental justice issues; she was opposing a coal-fired power plant. To my left was a CEO of an organization that worked on climate change. He was bemoaning that he didn't have the constituency at a local level that could push the McCain-Lieberman climate bill in Congress. She was complaining she didn't have the national visibility needed to stop that plant. Investing in building that kind of infrastructure, to make sure those linkages occur, is the most important work we can do in the next five years."
Robert Gottlieb, the author of Forcing the Spring, a history of the US environmental movement, says outreach by mainstream green groups to environmental justice activists is "sufficiently widespread that you can't say it's just window dressing." But, he warns, "without a rootedness in local organizing, the full potential of this movement will not be realized."