Green Diversity: Progress to be Seen, Progress to be Made

by Ebony Twilley Martin

June 6, 2022

Communities of color are disproportionately affected by fossil fuel pollution. We must center marginalized communities in our fight for climate justice.

Billboard Messages During Exxon’s Shareholder Meeting in Texas. Billboards addressing climate change are visible in Dallas, Texas, as part of a Greenpeace campaign to confront Exxon before its shareholder meeting in May 2017.

© Mike Stone / Greenpeace

This year has brought some good news, and not just for those of us in the environmental movement. In a recent report, half of the progress that environmental groups and foundations have made over the past five years in diversifying their staffs and boards came in 2021. And yet, still, only 28% of full-time staff in this sector’s largest organizations are people of color. 

This is important, because without representation and power sharing, the agenda that is only set by one race will leave out the perspectives and priorities of others. Racial bias is prevalent in the mainstream environmental movement because most of the large environmental organizations were and still are predominantly white. As environmental justice leaders challenged us decades ago, our staff, our supporters, our leaders and our boards have too long lacked the racial diversity of our country–and our thinking, our relevance and our power suffer for it.

That bias presents itself in how both problems and solutions are defined, and can be seen in how, over the past four decades, the movement around environmental justice has grown up alongside the environmental conservation movement.

They have focused the mainstream environmental movement on natural resources conservation and pollution, which are obviously important, but not as much on the communities of color who are all too often affected by pollution. For many years, that was the way my organization, Greenpeace USA, prioritized its work. In understanding this division, we can reflect on the value of diversity. More than that, this has pushed us to go beyond being a good ally and ensuring justice and diversity are centered in our campaigns – and into our very core. 

Striving to create space for people who have experiences navigating pollution and environmental damages, who bring creative solutions to climate change and other crises, but haven’t always been listened to–this has been my life’s work.

Over the last decade, we’ve made great progress in Greenpeace.

The number of staff who identify as people of color has tripled and those in management have quadrupled. Overall, 54% of staff and over 77% of our combined board are people of color, almost twice the percentage of the entire environmental movement.  

And yet Elizabeth Gilchrist, one of our two board chairs, states clearly in looking at the big picture, “This is progress to be seen, but there is still progress to be made.” 

Indeed, we are not done.  And pressing forward on this path is one of the best ways to honor the work of dedicated activists of color over the past several decades, including the work of Black leaders like Linda McKeever Bullard and her husband, Dr. Bob Bullard who helped kick-start the environmental justice movement. 

Leaders like Nalleli Cobo, whom we supported as she worked to remove industrial oil drilling from her home community. Women like Peggy Shepard and Quannah Chasinghorse, and others who fight for their communities and the greater good, showing how the environmental movement can respond with justice as a first priority. 

There’s much that we can learn from these leaders. And injustices that we can approach with diversity and communities at the center of our efforts. 

Consider Houston, Texas, where a highway expansion plan is eating away at communities of color. In a city that climate change has hammered, they’re spending $9 billion to add more lanes to the interstate where communities of color live. 

These communities are losing 1,000 homes and apartments, 344 businesses, 2 schools, and 5 churches.

And this when we know that increasing highway capacity increases GHG emissions since it increases the number of cars on the road, but it does not reduce traffic congestion.

What we also know is that the communities shoved aside for these big highway projects don’t just disappear. Instead, residents live their lives with a constant source of air pollution in their front yard. Asthma and other respiratory illnesses are far too common–and scientists have also found that, in communities beset by interstate highway traffic pollution, the mortality rates from COVID-19 increased as well.

This was my own on-ramp to environmental activism, as my son became asthmatic soon after we moved to a community next to a well-traveled highway in the Washington, DC metro region. 

And yet, despite all the hard work on air pollution from well-meaning environmental groups–from getting lead out of gasoline and tailpipe emissions to pushing for higher fuel efficiency standards and electric-powered vehicles–the environmental movement has never tackled the burden of highway emissions on people of color.

The Phillips 66 Los Angeles Refinery is visible from the West Basin during a tour of the fossil fuel infrastructure in the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles to show the health and environmental justice impacts on local communities.

This oversight led to the start of the environmental justice movement in the 1980s, with advocates pressing for more equitable siting of landfills and toxic waste dumps–more often than not, they were placed in communities of color, just like highways. And when you look at sources of fossil-fuel emissions, like coal-fired power plants, researchers found that Black communities faced 1.5 times more air pollution than the rest of the country.

So here we are, 40 years later, and the environmental movement still has a long way to become diverse enough to understand the importance of fighting the Houston highway expansion. In a city that tropical storms strengthened by climate change has increasingly targeted, the solution to fossil-fuel powered transportation problems is more of the same. 

The environmental movement will never be successful unless it fully diversifies–like race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and sexuality–and that will lead us to more holistic campaigns that tackle the pollution and help the communities bearing the burden of the pollution. 

This is the way we bring in more youth to the movement, people of all colors and cultures. They need to see the impact on the ground and they also need to see their ideas and solutions embraced.

Today, with climate change bearing down on us and communities of color on the front lines, this challenge has never been more urgent. But, as we can see with the progress in staffing diversity, true change could be closer than we think.

Ebony Twilley Martin

By Ebony Twilley Martin

Ebony Twilley Martin is the Executive Director of Greenpeace USA. To win the fight for our planet, this planet - the ONLY planet - the climate movement must be powered by racial justice. That is the reason why Ebony got involved in the environmental justice movement.

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