Commentary: Homogenized for their protection

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A startling new survey confirms what many have observed: For all the bluster about championing diversity, environmental groups are about as segregated and exclusive as it gets.

Over the years, those who’ve skimmed my columns from time to time have undoubtedly noticed that a complaint I frequently reference is the intransigent nature of the animal rights, vegetarian and environmental advocacy movements, none of which seem to exhibit even the slightest tendency toward moderation or compromise.

Most of the partisans lined up against animal agriculture see their ideological lockstep as a strength, but in fact it is the single most difficult barrier to overcome in terms of advancing real reforms in animal handling, food safety and environmental protection.

Now, we have empirical data that at least partially explain why environmental activists seem to always be singing not only from the same hymnal but the very same note.

A recent study of 191 conservation and preservation organizations, 74 government environmental agencies and 28 grantmaking environmental foundations “focused primarily on gender, racial and class diversity as it pertains to the demographic characteristics of their [governing] boards and staff” uncovered numbers that belie the claims about their progressive policies that eco-activists love to trumpet.

The analysis was commissioned by Green 2.0, a working group formed to address diversity issues in the environmental movement, and the final report, titled, “The States of Diversity in Environmental Organizations,” offers some sobering data on the lack of diversity among environmental organizations, although the numbers are hardly a surprise to anybody who’s attended partisan events or been personally engaged with such groups.

Here are a few bullet point summaries provide by the researcher herself, Prof. Dorceta E. Taylor, Ph.D., of the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources & Environment:

  • Although environmental institutions have made gains in terms of adding diversity, it’s been mostly by hiring Caucasian women, who now account for more than half of 1,714 leadership positions, 60% of the new hires and the majority of executive directorships in grantmaking foundations
  • Men are still more likely than women to occupy the most powerful positions ; the presidents of the largest eco-groups (budgets > $1 million) are 90% male
  • The percentage of ethnic and racial minorities on staff or on boards of environmental organizations is less than 16%, with most concentrated in the lower ranks
  • The members of these organization—a total of 3.2 million people—are predominantly white, as are the vast majority of their volunteers

There’s more, but perhaps the most telling finding in Prof. Taylor’s research is that when they were queried about diversity, virtually all the organizations replied that it was a priority. But rather than aggressive hiring policies to promote diversity, the primary initiative most of groups fell back on was merely promoting women already working in an organization to a leadership position.

Here’s the bottom line: People of color comprise about 38% of the U.S. population but only 12% of the staffs of environmental nonprofits, foundations and government agencies, Taylor reported. What's more, none of the largest environmental organizations has a person of color as president, vice president or associate/assistant director.

Self-reflection required

Naturally, the environmental leaders responding to the survey attributed the lack of staff diversity to a shortage of open positions and qualified applicants, although a few at least acknowledged reality.

“We believe this report is critically needed and very timely,” said Trip Van Noppen, president of Earth Justice. “Our movement, and indeed our own organization, has a serious problem in that we don’t yet reflect the rich diversity of our nation, or even the diversity of the groups we represent in our work.”

You got that right, bro.

So why do these data matter? Because when an organization—or in this case, an entire movement—has a homogenous make-up, the tendency toward group think become almost irresistible. When your colleagues, your co-workers and your clientele all look like you, live like you and share similar socio-economic status, it’s pretty difficult for new ideas and outside-the-box thinking to take root.

That’s why even some of the more intelligent people working for groups that profess to be opposed to livestock production struggle to offer thoughtful alternatives to the perceived problems they’re so practiced at articulating.

How do we produce a global food supply that is nutritious, affordable and abundant enough to feed nine billion people without destroying our land, water and energy resources? That’s a burning question that requires creative input from a spectrum of people—not just those with higher education credentials, relative affluence and access to a wealth of technologies, but also from people with lifestyles and challenges familiar to the multi-millions of non-white, non-degreed, nontraditional members of society.

That process starts by bringing the voices of the underrepresented into the debate over food production and its environmental impact. Someone has to take the initiative to do that, and right now, that ball is in the activists’ court. □

› To review the entire report, log onto http://diversegreen.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2014/07/FullReport_Green2.0_FINAL.pdf.

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator


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