Green, But Mostly White: The Lack Of Diversity In The Environmental Movement, Part 3 of 5—Future 500

Guest Blog by Shilpi Chhotray, Future 500

Future 500 is a global nonprofit specializing in stakeholder engagement and building bridges between parties at odds—often corporations and NGOs, the political right and left, and others—to advance systemic solutions to urgent sustainability challenges. Recently, members of the Future 500 staff held a roundtable discussion about diversity—rather, the lack of it—in their industry. Participants were Shilpi Chhotray, Danna Pfahl, Marvin Smith, Nick Sorrentino and Brendon Steele. Part 3 of a five-part series features comments by Shilpi Chhotray, Consultant, Marine and Supply Chain—the Editor.

Environmentalism is a movement that impacts all classes, colors, and demographics of society, yet is rarely represented by the individuals working on the issues themselves. For instance, minority groups are typically – and disproportionately – exposed to pollution, making fighting corporations leaking toxins from power plants, advocating for organic and local produce where food deserts persist, and pushing for urban park areas to make for safer and healthier communities all the more meaningful. Besides, people of color are strong supporters of environmental issues, more so than is commonly perceived. Alongside community activism, diversifying the workplace is a great, and arguably necessary place, for the environmental movement to focus when working to improve our world across the board.

Environmental justice groups, known to be the most effective in serving populations vulnerable to a changing climate and affected by pollution, are simultaneously neglected by society. Why? Because these groups represent people of color in low-income communities, communities that are often neglected. It is no surprise that they receive very little in funding in comparison to larger ENGOs. In recent years, organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council have collaborated with smaller environmental justice groups, but this is few and far between.

Larger ENGOs also receive the most funding with a capacity to dedicate resources towards minority recruitment; yet, these same organizations are across-the board, predominantly white.

That said, individuals of varying socio-economic backgrounds and color are increasingly interested in participating and working in the environmental sector and have the credentials required for the job, but are often overlooked in the application process. On the flip side, hiring managers, like my colleague Danna above, suggest there are less minority applications in the mix. So what came first, the chicken or the egg? What are the hurdles for minorities applying for jobs in the environmental arena?

A few years ago, a conversation I had with an intern of a prominent environmental policy organization shed some light. The young African American man was in his early 20’s working on a  “clean coal” campaign. The campaign focused on eliminating any new coal plants being built in low-income areas in the southwestern region of the United States, an area of the country he was originally from. When I asked what inspired him to become a part of the environmental movement, he responded “It’s not so much about the environment as it is about survival for many of the people back home.”

For myself as an Indian-American, going into the field, I expected more diversity in the work place, especially living in multi-cultural cities like Washington, DC and San Francisco, CA. Working on environmental issues for the last seven years, including positions at large environmental NGOs, I am consistently in the racial minority. At events, I am frequently asked if I represent a program for India, or partake in a contentious environmental justice cause. Of course I support proactive science and policy efforts to improve my “motherland” and believe all human beings deserve access to clean water and clean air regardless of economic standing, but my education and professional background is in marine science and policy, not social justice.

In general, I find it to be an exciting time to be a part of the environmental movement in the United States and around the globe, but we cannot ignore the lack of inclusivity and systemic displacement of people of color in environmental institutions. It’s a core issue. By committing resources - outreach, hiring, leadership development, collaborations - and making a serious dedication towards diversity in the environmental sector, ENGOs will inherently gain more influence over legislation and reach new heights within broader society and politics.

Shilpi Chhotray, Consultant, Marine and Supply Chain, Future 500

Read Part 1 Part 2 Part 4 Part 5