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Nature For Whom? Environmental Groups Struggle To Catch Up On Diversity

Kim Smith-Woodford/Outdoor Afro
Outdoor Afro took a group of girls to Doan Brook Gorge near Cleveland.

The Great Lakes region is home to millions of people of different races and ethnicities. But diverse backgrounds – and issues – aren’t always represented in environmental groups.

I meet Kim Smith-Woodford on a rainy day at Euclid Creek Reservation east of Cleveland. It’s a big wooded area, with a trail lining the creek and shelters for birthday parties.

The park is an urban oasis, where folks from all backgrounds go for exercise or a picnic. And it means a lot to Smith-Woodford. Euclid Creek Reservation is where she became more interested in the outdoors.

“One day I noticed that I saw a couple of people walking in the woods, and those people didn’t look like me,” Smith-Woodford recalls. “I didn’t know – I thought, 'Well, why are they walking over there?'”

The people were walking on the dirt trail – and one day, Smith-Woodford decided she could, too.

“It was just a beautiful thing to walk, and hear the chipmunks running and scampering around,” she says. “I’ve had sightings of deer, and I think I even saw a turkey!”

Last year, Smith-Woodford started Cleveland’s Outdoor Afro group, part of a nationwide program that has one overarching goal: get people of color – mainly African Americans – outside. The group hikes, swims and kayaks on Lake Erie.

Older environmental groups like the Alliance for the Great Lakes have come to realize they might not reflect the region as a whole. Their leaders and staff are predominantly white, and they generally haven’t focused on non-traditional issues like safe drinking water.

“We've got to move beyond and look beyond the folks that are at the front of the line with their hands up saying, 'Yes, the Great Lakes are great,'” says Alliance president Joel Brammeier.

Credit Alliance for the Great Lakes
Alliance for the Great Lakes holds an "All Hands on Deck" event in Racine, Mich., on Lake Michigan.

For him, the big question now is who else can be brought into the movement, and how do you engage them?

Cleveland-based policy director Crystal Davis hopes to help the Alliance answer that question.

Since coming to the organization last year, she’s hosted conversations with area residents, including senior citizens, African-Americans and Latinos. She says it’s the first time some of these people really have been listened to.

During the evening meetings, Davis asks for their perspective on Lake Erie and other water issues and uses their answers to guide her work.

“For folks that are in close proximity to water, they feel like the lake is theirs,” Davis says. “For folks who haven’t been to Cleveland beaches or the lake in a long time, they have a view of the lake that it’s polluted and it’s dirty and it’s dangerous.”

Davis also stresses that complex issues like harmful algae blooms need to be deconstructed, so people can understand how a toxin like microcystin could impact them.

The Alliance and other organizations are also widening their scope, focusing on non-traditional issues like water affordability, water shutoffs and drinking water safety. 

But there are still gaps – especially when it comes to incorporating diversity into environmental organizations, according to research by Dr. Dorceta Taylor of the University of Michigan.

On her surveys, some people said a focus on non-traditional issues is “unnecessary.” Or that focusing on diversity leads to “unintentional discrimination.”

But other organizations are actively embracing diversity through a University of Michigan program. The Environmental Fellows program was started by Taylor, as a result of her research.

It’s focused on placing graduate students from underrepresented communities in fellowships with environmental groups such as the National Wildlife Federation or Earthjustice.

Credit Ryan Sheets/University of Michigan
Environmental Fellows at the University of Michigan.

Only in its second year, the program has had hundreds of applicants. M’Lis Bartlett, who worked for the program last year, says it is helpful not only for students, but also as a way for organizations to recruit a more diverse staff.

“I think the big, helpful thing about this program is helping students build networks,” says Bartlett, now a research fellow for Taylor. “Trying to shake up what that traditional network is on both sides.”

The University of Michigan also runs the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program, which is focused on diversifying the conservation world.

Aaron Mair, the Sierra Club’s first black president, says he faced pushback even while leading the organization. His two-year tenure recently ended.

He says the environmental mission must be broadened, especially as minorities make up more of the country’s population.

“If you don’t bring in all perspectives and if you don’t include all of America in this movement, this environmental movement, you doom the cause and you doom the outcome,” Mair says.

Mair will continue to try to shift the core culture of environmental groups, but he says time is running out. The world is becoming more diverse - and the movement needs to catch up.

This is the last of a three-part series on the environmental justice movement. Part One told the history of the movement. Part Two discussed how Flint's water crisis marked a turning point.