The two groups are affected the most by environmental degradation and pollution, but they often feel left out of the movement
Bernadette Demientieff, a representative for the indigenous Gwichin nation, finds Washington DC anxiety-inducing, especially compared to the wide open spaces and tall mountains of Alaska.
She makes frequent trips to the US capital to fight oil drilling in what she considers sacred caribou calving grounds in the Arctic. But Demientieff is an outsider in the nations capital, where her concerns have fallen on deaf ears with the Trump administration. Shes also a bit of an outsider to the national environmental movement, too.
Im not an activist. Im not an environmentalist. I dont like to be branded because I care about our land and our animals, she said. She sees herself as a human rights advocate. And she doesnt look like or have the same life experiences as many activists.
I feel that all of our voices are important, but its just, its personal for us. This is not a job for us. Theres just a lot at stake and its hard to explain to somebody that lives in New York or somebody that lives in DC.
Indigenous people and communities of color have historically seen the worst environmental degradation and biggest health risks from pollution, yet campaigns to protect the environment and fight climate change have often sidelined them. The mainstream movement has a well-documented diversity problem that is not quickly improving.
As some Democrats propose a radical Green New Deal centered around justice and equity, backstage theyre facing a reckoning over the environmental movements homogeneity.
According to the 2014 Green 2.0 report, people of color were 36% of the US population, but they made up no more than about 12% of environment organizations studied. A 2019 update to the report found that diversity actually got worse over the past few years.
Some groups are taking steps to improve, but progress has not been even.
One philanthropy fund the Solutions Project announced last week that it will direct almost all of its grants to organizations run by leaders of color and women, such as Scope, or Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education, in South Los Angeles. The group aims to put low-income communities of color, where highways and oil wells converge, at the forefront of green jobs growth.
These women are working on the front lines of this issue because they are the ones who are going to be most greatly affected by it, actor and Solutions Project board member Don Cheadle said. They are actually making solutions for themselves when they are empowered to do so.
Research repeatedly shows communities of color are more likely to be subjected to pollution. The parts of the country with dangerous, cancer-related air pollution have lower percentages of white residents, according to an analysis by the Intercept.
At the same time, most environment and climate change funding goes to groups with white leaders. Research has shown 95% of the $60bn in annual foundation funding for all causes goes to organizations led by white people and 70 to 80% goes to those led by men, the Solutions Project notes.
Mustafa Santiago Ali, who coordinated environmental justice efforts under the Obama administrations Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), said theres no way to sugarcoat the scope of the problem.
I dont know how you go backwards, especially in the time that were living in when you definitely need folks coming together, Ali said.
Ali was recently named vice-president for environmental justice at the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), a decades-old conservation group.
If an organization like NWF can make the investment at the senior level, theres no reason why others cant be doing the same thing, he said.
Julian Brave NoiseCat, a policy analyst for 350.org and a member of the Canim Lake Band Tsqescen who writes for the Guardian, said the anti-fossil fuels group is undergoing a transformation to become a multiracial organization.
NoiseCat believes the environmental movement historically has been premised upon empire and colonization and racial exclusion. Founding fathers of environmentalism, like Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir, he said, had essentially racist views, with the creation of national parks depending on the removal of indigenous people.
More recently the sort of core constituencies of the environmental movement have primarily been white, liberal, middle-class suburbanites, he said.
The representation problem stretches beyond environmental advocacy and into green energy. A recent survey of 173 solar organizations and businesses in the Washington area found that just three were minority or woman-owned.
That disparity stems in part from banks legacy of withholding credit from people of color, said Jigar Shah, co-founder of Generate Capital and the former CEO of SunEdison.
There wasnt a lot of attention paid to whether or not we were including women or whether or not we were marketing to the right groups, he said.
Things are beginning to change. Now that the solar sectors more stable, youre seeing a tremendous amount of focus on how we serve the entire market, not just the folks who raise their hand initially. Youre seeing a lot of self-reflection, Shah said.
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