Study: Environmental Movement Lacks Diversity

  • Researcher Dorceta Taylor says the Student Conservation Association is a good example of an environmental organization that encourages diversity from the top leadership to kids like these. Photo: Courtesy Student Conservation Association.

August 29, 2014

How diverse is the green movement? Not very. That's according to a study published this summer by the University of Michigan’s Natural Resources and Environmental School’s Dorceta Taylor.

The study entitled "The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations" and prepared for Green 2.0, an advocacy group pushing for diversity among environmental NGOs, government, and foundations, found that while 40 percent of Americans are minorities, they make up less than 16 percent of employees at environmental institutions. Paid staffers at the nation’s largest environmental green groups are 88 percent white, while the boards that govern these groups, including the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, are 95 percent white. The report describes an “unconscious bias” existing within the liberal, progressive culture of these organizations.

“Unconscious bias comes in for instances, in terms of how one identifies new workers or staff, how one might go about recruiting them,” Taylor says. “It could also be long-term practices, for instance, of hiring only people from particular organizations, or from within certain networks.”

Taylor, who grew up in Jamaica, is the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

“I grew up basically not realizing that black people weren’t supposed to be interested in environment,” Taylor says. “Coming out of the British education system where I was specializing in botany and zoology, I loved flowers and just ran around always being engaged in environmental things and just being super turned on by it.”

But Taylor describes a different story when she arrived in the U.S. for her undergraduate degree. She walked into an environmental science class of about 60 students, only to find that she was the only non-white participant. 

“I asked the professor, ‘Why aren’t there other black students in the course?’ He bluntly said, ‘Blacks are not interested in the environment. That’s why you’re the only one in the class.’ And I thought, ‘Idiot.’”

Taylor’s undergraduate thesis focused on the measurement tools used to find out whether someone was, in fact, interested in the environment. While asking whether someone belonged to or paid dues to environmental organizations might work middle-class, white America, it might not necessarily be the best measure for low-income groups.

“If you ask them for instance, ‘Do you take care of the local park in the neighborhood? Do you go to those parks? Do you have a garden at home?’ If you ask those things that they’re likely to do, you get very different responses,” Taylor says.

Taylor is now working with Green 2.0, pushing for large organizations to develop inclusion and diversity statements and use them as a guide for hiring.

“This group is really interested in basically not letting the study gather dust but in pushing for action,” Taylor says. “Folks are also looking at the top leadership structure, and really pushing the idea that they want to seek more diversity in top leadership ‘cause that’s going to translate to wider diversity overall.”

Photo of Dorceta Taylor: Courtesy Western Michigan University