Above: Marchers in New York City’s 2014 Peoples Climate March. Heightened activism at the local level has garnered a breakthrough for environmental justice in this city. By Joe Brusky, CC by NC 2.0.
If environmental organizations want to become racially diverse, says sociologist Dorceta Taylor, they need to change the way they perceive people of color. In an e360 interview, she talks about how the conservation movement must transform itself to become more inclusive and effective.
In 2014, Dorceta Taylor, a professor of Environmental Sociology at the University of Michigan, authored a groundbreaking report that documented a troubling lack of racial diversity in major U.S. environmental organizations and government agencies. Following up on those findings, Taylor published a study earlier this year that found fewer organizations are now voluntarily reporting their diversity statistics and, of those that are, the percentage of nonwhites on their staff and boards remains low.
In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Taylor offered this advice to green groups: “Stop being so afraid of people of color. Meet them, interact with them, cultivate them, identify students early, and start recruiting them. If all the people I talked to, and knew, and interacted with were black, no one would take me particularly seriously — I have to engage multi-culturally. That burden of proof should be on everybody.”
Taylor — whose latest book, The Rise of the American Conservation Movement: Power, Privilege, and Environmental Protection, examines how race, class, and gender influenced the U.S. conservation movement — says that as an African American woman she still experiences professional marginalization. She tells of gathering with attendees at a conference before she delivered the keynote address on diversity. “I tried to join the conversation, and I was literally shut down a couple of times. And I was watching how especially one of the white males was almost explaining to me what environment was. And when I got up and gave my keynote, this same guy that almost tripped over the table to come and say, ‘Oh I had no idea who you were. If I knew who you were I would have talked to you.’ And I was like, ‘Seriously?’”
Yale Environment 360: In 2014, Green 2.0 [a nonprofit diversity initiative] released your report, “Diversity in Environmental Institutions.” Your findings were pretty dismal. Of the NGOs that responded to your survey, 88 percent of staff and 95 percent of boards were white. What followed was an agreement that provided for reporting of diversity data. What was your hope for that voluntary system?
Taylor: We’ve seen in government and in corporations that when diversity data is released, it holds the organizations a bit more accountable for their actions. It provides a logic, for instance, to do better strategic planning to incorporate what the workforce looks like, what the labor force looks like, and how does an organization get the most effective workforce.
This is where diversity comes in, because if environmental organizations continue to ignore 35 percent to 40 percent of the population, they’re going to be in a world of hurt in terms of finding talent as we move toward a majority minority country. This is going to happen by 2042, so we’re not that far off. If organizations are currently ignoring what is about 35 percent of the American population, and if they continue to do that, by the time we get to a point where most of the people in the U.S. are going to be people of color, they just won’t have any expertise in recruiting, incorporating, collaborating, working with that particularly workforce. You can’t just turn a switch on overnight. This has to happen over time.
e360: In January, you released another major study. This one looked at more than 2,000 environmental organizations and how many were reporting their diversity data and diversity activities. What did you find?
Taylor: We found that the reporting was very low. We found that size matters. The larger organizations were more likely to report data than medium-sized organizations with budgets like, say, under $4 million. Once you get into really small budgets, the percentage of those organizations that are reporting diversity data is really, really low.
“Homogeneity, 150 years of it, has cost a lot of money. These organizations are not looking the way they look by total randomness.”
e360: Talk about the overall number, and what the trend has been since 2014 when your report made a big splash.
Taylor: For any type of diversity reporting at all, it was around 14 percent [of the organizations responding]. When you got to reporting about the staff, that fell off to about 6 percent. What we’re seeing, again, to put the most charitable spin on it, it could be a matter of organizations simply not yet collecting diversity data because many nonprofits actually don’t collect that data.
What was really surprising to me in the data was the fact that the reporting peaked in 2014. I expected the rate of reporting in 2014 to continue to increase in 2015 and 2016. But to my surprise, what we saw was a drop-off in that percentage, that the reporting percentage was much lower in 2016 than it was in ’15 and ’14.
e360: You mentioned some, as you put it, charitable reasons why organizations are not reporting. Are some of them not reporting because they’re just simply too embarrassed to report their statistics?
Taylor: There could just be resistance, like, “How dare anyone tell us? We’re a private organization. We don’t have to report anything to anyone, and we’re not going to.” It’s hard to tell how much of the non-reporting is resistance to the idea of reporting, how much it’s an embarrassment for lack of progress, and how much is, “Oh, we just kind of forgot. We have so much to do. We will get to it, and we just didn’t get to it.”
E360: Of the organizations that did report, the mean percent of white board members reported was 83 percent. The mean percent of white staff members was reported to be 85 percent. You’ve written that attracting diversity takes legwork. What are organizations not doing that they need to start doing to end up with staff and boards that look like the population of the U.S.?
Taylor: One of the things they should be doing is stop being so afraid of people of color, and meet them, interact with them, cultivate them, and start recruiting them. If all the people I talked to, and knew, and interacted with were black, no one would take me particularly seriously — I have to engage multi-culturally. That burden of proof should be on everybody. Number two, people try to do diversity on zero budget. That is a nonstarter. Usually I’ll say to an organization, “How much do you have in your budget for diversity?” And they say “Nothing.” And that usually tells me they’re not very serious.
“You cannot take the same organization doing the same old thing with no institutional change and expect diversity on the back end.”
Homogeneity, 150 years of it, has cost a lot of money. These organizations are not looking the way they look by total randomness. There’s an investment in the board, the staff, the volunteers, the members, to look the way they look. Therefore, to change that is going to require money to hire staff, to hire recruiters, to pay to place your [job] ad. When you’re advertising for new staff, you need to put it in a place where people of different backgrounds can see it. You cannot take the same organization doing the same old thing with no institutional change and expect diversity on the back end. It doesn’t work like that.
Boards have to go out and recruit, look for folks, and they have to give up the idea that we’re bringing people into an organization to just do what the organization wants them to do. This is the tricky piece: that people of color actually have ideas. And they have thoughts about the environment, they’re knowledgeable about it, they understand what’s going on, and they also have their own agenda, and they’re not going to simply come and give hundreds of hours to your board, to your volunteer crew, to your staff, without having their thoughts and ideas be incorporated into the work you’re doing.
e360: Last year you published a study in which you surveyed both non-white and white college students involved in STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math] activities on factors regarding their interest and preparation for careers in environmental work. What were your findings regarding minority students’ academic preparation for the environmental work force, and their interest in those jobs, compared to white students?
Taylor: When you look at something like biology, as a matter of fact, students of color had a higher rate of taking bio than white students. So when you look at the list of courses, the suite of courses, from which we know environmental organizations commonly pull when they’re looking for staff, one cannot make an argument that the coursework of students of color is so substantially different from white students that it merits this difference in hiring, we can’t. Their GPA’s were virtually identical as well.
So, let’s get over the myth that students of color are not qualified, they’re not educated enough, and they’re not taking the appropriate course work. And we can get over it two ways. We can look at all the white males that occupy the leadership positions of the various environmental organizations, and some don’t even have environmental degrees, yet they occupy these positions and they’re very well paid.
“Students of color do not want to come and sit at the front desk, answer the phone, get the coffee, and stay there all their lives.”
We can see this especially in organizations where some of the leadership got into top leadership position in the late 1970s, early 1980s, and they have just been grandfathered into these positions. And some of them have been in their present position for like 20, 30, 40 years. Many of those folks don’t have advanced degrees in the environmental field. They certainly don’t run around with two PhD’s, three master’s degrees and two undergraduate degrees like I do in the field. Yet, for someone like myself, I’m automatically suspect, because people are looking at skin color and gender, and I’m automatically suspect as not being qualified to work in the field.
e360: That’s stunning.
Taylor: I’m not kidding you. It still happens. I was asked to come in and keynote a conference last year, so it wasn’t a small deal, which is why I went all the way across the country for it. I sat at a table with folks who were waiting for a session to end so we could go in the room, and they were talking, so I tried to join the conversation and was literally shut down a couple of times. And I was watching how especially one of the white males was almost explaining to me what environment was. And when I got up and gave my keynote, this same guy that almost tripped over the table to come and say to me, “Oh I had no idea who you were. If I knew who you were, I would have talked to you.” And I was like “Seriously?”
e360: When deciding on whether to work for an environmental organization, minority students did place a higher importance on some factors that, you write, are not the ones that “institutional leaders typically think of when asked to identify barriers that prevent minorities from working in environmental organizations.” Talk a bit about those factors.
Taylor: For millennials in general, including white students, they’re looking for diversity on the staff, and students of color especially are looking for opportunities to be promoted and opportunities to take on leadership roles.
So when folks talk about students of color and hiring, they often don’t talk about leadership, leadership opportunities, developing talent, taking on those roles. But these are the things that are on the top of the list for students of color: staff diversity, the ability to grow and take on leadership opportunities in the organization, the desire to be mentored, and the desire to be promoted. They do not want to come and sit at the front desk, answer the phone, get the coffee, and stay there for all their lives. Not interested. Certainly not the kind of students that are in my sample.
Organizations “have to be open and honest and say, ‘We’re at the beginning of a journey. Can you come be a part of this journey with us?’”
e360: So then this becomes a chicken and egg conundrum. Because we’ve got a talented student of color looking at a possible employment in an organization, and that student may perceive an environment that is not particularly welcoming if the diversity level of that organization isn’t where it should be at. So how do we solve this?
Taylor: One of the things that we do is to work with students and train them and say there might be interesting opportunities in an organization, but if you look at it right now, and if you’re only just looking at the bodies that are there, it might not look diverse. But here is your opportunity to go and be a part of that progress of change. And so students understand that it’s a journey. And the ones that want to be a part of that journey are jumping out of the woodwork. They really are excited, they know it’s a challenge, but they want to be a part of that challenge. They’re not so naïve as to be thinking “I’m only going to go to a place that has everything I’m looking for.” The same thing with the organizations — they just have to be honest and open and say. “We’re at the beginning of a journey. Can you come and be a part of this journey with us?” We’re finding there are success stories where that’s occurring.
With the internship programs that I do run, a big part of that is training to help prepare the students for what they might encounter on the job and to help them navigate that. [To let them know that] if you are isolated in the workplace, you do you have an alternative support structure of other people who understand exactly what’s going on so that you don’t have to be the alien creature. Basically. I don’t want them to have to live my experience.
Diane Toomey is an award-winning public radio journalist who has worked at Marketplace, the World Vision Report and Living on Earth, where she was the science editor. Her reporting has won numerous awards, including the American Institute of Biological Sciences’ Media Award. She is a regular contributor to Yale e360 and currently is an associate researcher at the PBS science show NOVA.