The planet is in peril—the effects of climate change, pollution, improper waste disposal, deforestation, and lack of access to clean water are just a few of the key environmental issues affecting the U.S. as well as other nations. Luckily, there are groups of enthusiastic young people who are eager to find solutions and ensure they, and their children and grandchildren, can enjoy Earth’s resources for years to come. Aru Shiney-Ajay, a 20-year-old Swarthmore College student, joined a sit-in to stop Representative Patrick Meehan from signing a bill that provided tax cuts to fossil fuel businessowners. At just 12 years old, Timoci Naulusala gave the opening speech at Germany’s COP23 conference—a speech that won the Fiji National Climate Change Speech Competition. And there’s Winnie Asiti, a Kenyan-born activist who serves on the Greengrants board, an organization that gives small loans to environmental activists and movements around the world. Their activism is truly inspiring. It would seem that a passion for the environment is the only requirement to get involved in the green movement, but there’s an unexpected barrier—the green ceiling.
Understanding the Green Ceiling
Like the worlds of tech and big business, environmental science has a diversity problem. In the U.S., people of color make up 38% of the total population but only account for 12-15.5% of staff members at environmental foundations, nonprofits, and governmental agencies. There are also no people color in the upper ranks of these organizations. This is especially troubling when considering how minority communities are disproportionately affected by various environmental crises.
Communities of color have a much higher risk of air pollution—African-Americans are 20% more likely to develop asthma than their white counterparts; Hispanics 30% more likely. This is due to increased exposure to air pollutants, as many minority communities sit in close proximity to waste sites and industrial facilities.
Also, a study from the CDC found that children of color were more likely to suffer from lead poisoning. And even in environmental disasters—the intensity of which is heightened by climate change—low-income communities largely populated by people of color are often devastated and slow to rebuild. The government response to Hurricane Katrina serves as one of the most glaring examples of this in recent years.
A 2014 Los Angeles Times report showed that minority and low-income communities were more likely to support increased spending on environmental causes. And their involvement doesn’t stop there—the tragedies in these communities are inspiring a new generation of environmental leaders to take action. But sadly, the right messaging isn’t reaching these communities, which means they’re left out of the discussion about the right strategy to address these issues. This lack of awareness and representation leads environmental organizations to feel complacent, with no pressure to bring in diverse voices to help.
The green ceiling also extends to millennial activists. Young people make up more than 30% of the world’s population, and they will be the ones who encounter the worst climate change effects. The sooner they get involved, the better. But without a certain level of experience or education, they’re rarely taken seriously.
The only way to break the green ceiling is for these organizations to understand the value that fresh perspectives can bring.
The Benefits of Diversity in the Green Movement
20 years ago, scientist Esteban González Burchard discovered that a mutation of the interleukin-4 gene was linked to asthma severity, and this mutation was common in African-Americans. During a conference, he took notice of a poster that outlined increased asthma risk in Latino communities. From his work, he knew that Puerto Ricans had deeper African ancestry than most people realized. Thus, he was able to connect the dots between the gene mutation and the asthma risk in Puerto Rican communities. But this was a problem that wasn’t being explored, and had González, a Mexican American, not had personal experience to draw from, the research wouldn’t have moved in the right direction. This is the true value of diversity in the environmental movement.
Bringing in new voices isn’t just about checking a box or satisfying a quota. There are major scientific discoveries that may never be uncovered without offering everyone a seat at the table.
Compared to other fields, environmental science and geoscience are two of the least diverse industries in all of science. But given the urgency of climate change issues and the rapid growth of STEM jobs, recruiting millennials and people of color seems like an easy solution that could lead to innovation and quickly fill open slots. Still, the movement has been slow to embrace young, non-white activists and professionals. But this could change.
The Way Forward
To improve representation of POC and millennials in the green movement, the change has to start within the organizations. The myths need to be dispelled: minorities and young people care just as much about environmental advancement and preservation as everyone else. But going even further, those leading the movement must understand that green jobs are not just about the environment but also about combatting environmental racism. And the people most affected by these problems should be involved in solving them. They shouldn’t have to earn degrees from top-tier universities to be considered.
Organizations must set clear objectives for diversity and communicate those objectives to current employees as well as future hires. However, they must do more than talk the talk. These objectives must be built into job performance assessments so that there’s accountability. And they must dedicate more resources and cast a wider net to find talent. If these groups stick to recruiting candidates from Ivy League schools, their hiring practices will favor wealthier candidates who’ve never experienced any of the environmental issues that plague low-income and minority communities.
At MobilizeGreen, we understand the work that must be done, and we also understand that time is of the essence. Thus, we’ve decided to affect change rather than wait for environmental groups to understand why diversity is important. Through MobilizeGreen, we remove the barriers between diverse candidates and the environmental or sustainability jobs they desire. We do this work by recruiting, training, and placing students in paid internships with government agencies, nonprofits, and corporations around the country. Tomorrow’s environmental leaders will come from all walks of life and systemic barriers shouldn’t stop them from getting involved.
It's time for the environmental movement to make measurable strides toward a diverse work population. The future of the planet depends on it.