The Benefit Of Having More Black Decisionmakers In Environmentalism
A clean environment is our birthright.
As you read this know that I am just embarking on my first professional environmentalism perspective, but I have been around it directly or indirectly enough to gather the following perspective. I am nearing the completion of a 2-month water policy fellowship and starting a full-time role with an environmental non-profit in September. However, one thing that is alarmingly clear in my short time in the environmental sector is that, like in almost every sector, there is a dearth of Black and minority representation. This dearth is within policy, volunteerism, staffing, leadership, board participation, and everything else in between. You name it, Black folks ain’t in it! This lack of representation is even more alarming as you learn about the disproportionate ways in which environmental issues and policies affect Black and minority communities. Altogether, these are the reason why I believe that it is crucial that Blacks and minorities realize that blackness is inherently green by birthright; and, that being green is the new Black.
In my environmental roles & experiences, my interactions have consisted of me being the only Black person or minority in the room, discussing matter about Blacks and minorities, roughly 99.999% of the time. Conversely, this does not mean that there aren’t other people of color in environmentalism; in fact, at least 3 of my friends and professional mentors are Black (2 of whom are women) in the environmental sector. But, like me, they experience the isolation of being the only one in the room faced with the discomfort of discussing environmental policies that affect their people without the agency to candid or seen as spokespeople for their race (and gender). Often times though, in those spaces we, “the first Blacks” are often viewed as the Jackie Robinsons of our industry but treated with the respect and recognition of Fritz Pollard & Bobby Marshall and the acknowledgment of our expertise of an Earl Lloyd. It can be isolating, but we have a sense of duty to help bring our work (and hopefully the institutions we work for) closer to the places and people we call home.
Blackness and environmentalism are inextricably linked, contrary to what modern society and urbanization may have you think. Our roots trace back to an agrarian culture that innovated in agriculture, horticulture, adaptive reuse of materials, and more. Many of the early African tribes were pastoralists (hunter-gatherers) who lived, ate, and used materials and resources we would call “green” or “eco-friendly” and charge at least $10 to use today. Our green lineage continued for centuries and through August 20, 1619, when the first African were brought to the Americas in bondage. In order to survive and create community, many of their native African practices in agriculture & horticulture were utilized and adapted to different soils, crops, and climate (with the help of Native Americans). These skills and expertise are what allowed this nation’s agricultural and industrial economies to grow and thrive over the next four centuries since and become the country we know today. Slavery transitioned over to sharecropping during Reconstruction and later the Jim Crow era.
However, since the 20th century, industrialization drew Black people to factory jobs in the North and away from the agrarian life in the South, while white flight and suburbanization brought whites (and racism and segregation) out to the rural areas now being developed as escape routes from Black urban cores. Our collective outbound movement towards cities have taken us away from the Earth; disconnected us from the needs of the soil, water, and the air. In fact, today, many Black Americans are still only about two generations removed from a rural or agrarian familial past; which means that many of us were raised by those that understood or were in communion with our historical ties to environmentalism through agriculture. Another challenge in the last 50 years is environmentalism being a movement populated and controlled by whites who may be on the leftist fringe or the “hippie” stereotype. This embodiment has left Blacks and minorities, of all stripes, feeling excluded, unwanted, and that the policies and ideas promoted are not for or aligned with them. Moreover, this notion is more distressing considering that many of the U.S.’s environmental policies are structured with thinly veiled racism and have disproportionate negative outcomes affecting black and minority communities. Lastly, and arguably, the most pertinent barrier to entry has been money. Environmentalism is expensive. Being vegan or vegetarian or at all conscious about our subsistence on Earth is expensive! Go to a Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods and see what I’m talking about. Even finding a good, long-lasting natural deodorant requires cashing out a savings bond. This fact clearly puts Blacks and minorities at a disadvantage or excluded entirely, which is not fair or equitable considering the number of food deserts, lack of access to clean drinking water and air is available to communities of color.
I want to be clear that agriculture or horticulture are not the only ways to be a Black environmentalist; however, it is our most connective link to environmentalism historically. Environmentalism encapsulates air, land and water; climate change; wildlife; forestry; recycling and waste; public lands; food; transportation; renewable energy; health & human services; and, natural resources. I have directly been involved with environmentalism through water policy. I have supported water organizations that advocate for and create policies for clean water; a healthy Great Lakes; improved economic & community development around water; improved water ecosystem; and, equal & equitable access to water and recreation for minority communities. I have lobbied at the state and federal levels for improvements to water infrastructure (many systems are aging with leaks and causing health issues due to contamination) and water affordability (which is caused by leaks in infrastructure and results in unfair cost-sharing burden on poor, older, and minority consumers). In addition, I’d like to do more on the political and policy side of environmentalism that better integrates Blacks and minorities in the decisionmaking of environmental policy and creates coalitions of Black and minority environmentalists that advocates and lobbies for environmental policy as a more of a talking point for black and minority politicians. Also, this coalition should seek to advance environmental policies and their racial and socioeconomic impacts at the forefront of politics at all levels nationwide. These coalitions can be built through social media, civic and social organizations like fraternities and sororities, and largely through faith-based outreach. Churches and the interfaith Black and minority communities should be at the forefront of the environmental fight due to the principles of stewardship and the fact that it can attract younger audiences for intergenerational alignment. To gain access and leverage within the political and policy side of environmentalism will help foster improved economic & community development outcomes for people of color (i.e., cannabis & hemp industry, solar panel manufacturing and installation, urban farming, etc.). We have done this in other facets of society but not in regards to environmentalism.
I would also like to help organizations and institutions become more cognizant and proactive in their cultivation of black and minority volunteers, staff, leadership, board members, candidates, and donors. These spaces should be diverse and take in Black and minority thoughts and opinions today as much or more than they’d accept their tokenization or money in the past. Furthermore, I encourage you to consider engaging in the burgeoning Black environmentalism movement in whichever way you see fit. Whether it’s small, random acts of stewardship (recycling plastic bags, beach cleanups, eating clean, etc.) or joining and volunteering with organizations or whatever works for you. They can be in any field – urban farming, the fitness movement, recreation, renewable energy, complete streets, public lands, etc. We all have a duty to help and lead the effort to renew and sustain the Earth and the environment because it has been our birthright from the beginning. Being green is inherent to blackness and Black is green (B.I.G.)!